Looking for inspiration for your own Antwerp city break? Then you'll find it in our personalised guide to Belgium's second largest city. Our advice on things to do in Antwerp, plus where to stay, how to get around, and some hidden spots to discover on your bicycle.
Antwerp is not the place to come and do the waffles and mussels thing.
Instead though, this compact cosmopolitan city of just under half a million on the River Scheldt, is perfect for a cultural city break interspersed with walks down cobblestones, cycle rides, clean-lined design, and clinking glasses in the evening sun. .
It is, thankfully, a city for those who live in it, rather than somewhere which has transformed itself into a place for tourists. Visitors for a weekend break will enjoy its engaging museums and galleries, the emerging international food scene, hunting down street art and sculptures, alongside sipping some of Belgium’s finest beers in trendy bars and old-school cafés.
Whilst some of its nearby neighbours offer packaged clichés, Antwerp simply offers itself; cool, simplistic, with a ongoing conversation between its past port-side riches and new urban perspectives.
We really liked it.
Our Favourite Things to Do in Antwerp
Explore Antwerp Centraal Train Station
Antwerp Centraal Station is, quite simply, breathtaking. In walking its black diamond tiles, you feel transported into a magical scene from a 1920s romance movie.
The fact that it still functions as a busy international transport hub, rather than being turned into a relic of the age, is part of its enduring magic.
Gilded and marbled, it’s the reason that we didn’t even look at flight prices to Antwerp from London; we knew we simply had to arrive here first, rather than in another airport which looks like all other airports. After the train dropped us off in more modern railway platforms below, we marvelled at the grandeur as we climbed the floors, returning a couple of days later to explore its majestic trappings fully.
It’s no wonder that this is viewed as one of the most beautiful train stations in the world; this isn’t simply a place to arrive and leave Antwerp, it’s a place to linger.
Tip | Don’t forget to look up when you’re standing in the main hallway, as the roof is exceptional. Ironically, our least favourite area in Antwerp was the one we immediately stepped into from, arguably, its most captivating building - there are are much nicer streets and atmospheres than you'll find in the surrounding Diamond district, so don't be too alarmed.
Did you know | If you take the Eurostar from Kings Cross St Pancras to Antwerp, via Brussels, then you are taking a journey from the world's most beautiful train station to the world's fourth most beautiful (according to Newsweek).
Where | Koningin Astridplein 27
Go to FoMu and M HKA
We know the types of museums and galleries we like to visit, and we know that many of us don’t like to feel that we have to go to a ‘pottery museum’ or ‘doilies from the 1920s exhibit’ simply because it’s recommended in a guide book.
But, as will become abundantly clear as we share our favourite spots in Antwerp, this is a city which is exceptionally well-curated with a fantastic mix of the contemporary and the classic on offer. The galleries we visited over the course of three days can each be enjoyed in a couple of hours, rather than an entire afternoon, so complement your overall experience of your city rather than eat up too much time each day.
Housed about five minutes walk from each other in the Zuid neighbourhood, both FoMu (the Museum of Photography) and M HKA (Museum of Contemporary Art) show off the city’s penchant for abbreviation and its on-going cultural renaissance; Antwerp is defined by many for its 16th century baroque period (understandably), but it is certainly not trapped within that period. Indeed, a couple of the exhibits during our visit specifically focused on contemporary interpretations of the 'baroque' style.
Housed within stylish modern minimalist buildings, the permanent and temporary exhibitions at these two museums challenge, entertain, and invoke curiosity. Due to their proximity, we recommend seeing them on the same day, and pairing it with a wander around the chic and pretty Zuid area more generally.
Where | FoMu (Waalsekaai 47), M HKA (Leuvenstraat 32)
Cost | €10 for each, with €1 entry for under 26s on Thursday nights. Both are free to Antwerp City Card holders.
Times | 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. Tues-Sun, 11 a.m. - 6 p.m. Tues - Sun (until 9 p.m. on Thurs)
Sample Weekend Markets
The weekends are when Antwerp really comes alive, with a number of diverse and pleasant markets setting up their stalls across the city. Take the time to blend into the local crowd, try and grab a bargain, or simply browse at your own pace with an excellent cup of takeaway coffee in hand.
The Friday Market has roots dating back to the 16th century, and is unlike any other city market we’ve seen in Europe. In the picturesque cobbled square in front of the Plantin-Moretus Museum, crowds gather around the stacks of old books, furniture, odds and ends, with an auctioneer selling lots off to the highest bidder.
It’s fun to watch, full of curios, clutter and curious characters, and can become quite lively. We however hated to see some of the very cool unsold pieces simply discarded into the rubbish once the sale was done (we could have decked out at least two of our dream hostels with all that stuff!).
Where | Vrijdagmarkt on (unsurprisingly) Fridays, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
The Exotic Market each Saturday showcases everything you’d expect of a city with such global and multicultural roots, with stalls selling local and international foods and flavours. The market can be found from 8 a.m. - 4 p.m. on Oudevaartplaats, Theaterplein and the surrounding streets.
The Sint-Jansvliet Antique Market, just off one of our favourite areas and attractions in the city (see below), is something that’s nice to pair with general browsing and brunching in the area. It runs on Sundays, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (also on public holidays)
There are also a few monthly markets, such as the Brocantwerpen (vintage flea market) and the Market of Tomorrow, so make sure to check if your visit coincides. We were fortunate enough to have the monthly Lambermontmartre outside our hotel on a Sunday morning, where various amateur artists showcase and sell their work in a colorful and friendly "à la Montmartre" atmosphere.
Go underground at Sint-Annatunnel
Visiting a tunnel is, probably, not most people’s idea of fun. However, anyone who finds themselves in Antwerp and who doesn't check out the Sint-Annatunnel will be missing out on a real gem in this city of diamonds.
From a relatively non-descript entrance, we both became quite giddy at the sight of the old-school wooden escalators, in place since the tunnel’s opening in 1933, bringing us further and further into the bowels of the city.
The reason for the tunnel's existence? To link the left and right banks of Antwerp, shuttling pedestrians under the river Scheldt.
Note that the Sint-Annatunnel is very much an active thoroughfare for thousands of traversing cyclists and pedestrians, so be careful down there and make sure not to get in the way of somebody speedily commuting as you take a photo!
Tip | If you have the time, walk the 572m to the other side for a lovely view of Antwerp.
Where | Sint-Annatunnel
Cost | Free
Times | Open 24 hours every day
Find Comic Book Street Art
We love to check out street art when we're in a new city, and Antwerp does have a lot to offer (although we weren't huge fans of a few of the pieces we saw).
However, one unique thing the city's walls have are nine or so large-scale comic book murals!
You can find the 'Comic Wall' route here, whilst those wanting to find some of the best pieces should make a beeline towards Berchem, the street art district (we didn't have time to visit it, which is probably why we didn't see the city's finest work).
Did you know | Antwerp is called 'Anvers' in French and 'Antwerpen' in Dutch.
The Best View in Antwerp
Like many European cities, Antwerp has made a conscious effort to regenerate its port area into something offering an attractive public space for culture, restaurants, pedestrians, and business. The Eilandje and Het Eilandje neighbourhoods, a short stroll from the old town, have all the hallmarks of gentrification and are now firmly established on most visitor's itineraries.
We really enjoyed our time exploring both.
The biggest draw, literally standing out from the rest, is yet another abbreviated museum - MAS (The Museum aan de Stroom). With red brick and glass, its escalators (have you noticed a theme with Antwerp and escalators yet?) take you up nine floors, with different exhibitions and galleries on the first seven. It's an interesting take on how to lay out a museum, and meant we simply stopped off at each floor, wandered around for as long or as little as we wished, then hopped back on to be taken to the next floor and exhibit.
MAS's glass-sided rooftop also offers the best panoramic views of the city, and it's free to enter for everyone (if you want to take shots, its got handy little holes in the glass on each of the four sides). There is also an impressive workspace open to the public - again with excellent views - within the building.
Where | MAS can be found on Hanzestedenplaats 1
Cost + Times | Varies according to season and whether there are temporary exhibitions, visit the website for full information.
A Drink in Kattendijkdok
Looking out on to boats and yachts bobbing gently in the waters of Willemdok, the area immediately surrounding MAS has a number of pleasant restaurants and bars in which to grab a bite to eat.
This section of the port was however, not our favourite.
Before or after your visit to MAS, we recommend you take a bike or walk across the bridge towards nearby Kattendijkdok. There you'll see a the quirky and shabby-chic Bar Paniek by the waterside, plus a couple of other options in the old warehouses. If the sun is out, a drink on Paniek's colourful tables within the greenery is great, but make sure you pop your head in to see the jumble and bric-a-brac of inside (we asked the barmaid, and she didn't even know what it's all there for!).
After you're done at Paniek, either go to check out the modern architectural centrepiece of the city - the diamond-tipped Port Authority building - or head to nearby Park Spoor Noord.
Don't miss the Parkbrug
As is hopefully becoming clear, Antwerp has lots of old and new attractions for those who enjoy architecture and design. One of the latest installments is Parkbrug (Park Bridge), which is exclusively for cyclists and pedestrians.
A new project by Ney & Partners, the striking metal structure provides a different (but always impressive) experience, dependent on the time of day that you visit. The strategic location, at the north of the city, provides a beautiful gateway to Antwerp.
Where | Italiëlei 9, near Park Spoor Nord
Walk down Cogels Osylei
An Instagram follower messaged us to say that we shouldn’t miss the houses at Cogels Osylei, and he was absolutely right. Excellent examples of art noveau architecture, these buildings are now protected and a big reason to cycle out to the quaint Zurenborg neighbourhood.
Afterwards, you can head to nearby Dageraadplaats for lunch or a coffee in the square. This part of Antwerp has some really great independent restaurants, including some of the city's best for foodies.
Tip | We had an amazing vegan Poké bowl at Aan het strand van Oostende, and can highly recommend a visit.
Pavement Belgian Beers
Whatever one’s travel style, you simply cannot visit a Belgian city and miss out on sampling the country’s finest beers. For us, we liked to twin tasting a different beer with a stop in the sunshine on a bar of cafe’s terrace or pavement tables (all the exploring is thirsty work after all).
It's not difficult to find somewhere with a good selection, so simply pull up somewhere that takes your fancy, and watch the world go about its business.
We really liked the atmosphere in the evening around Leopold de Waelplaats in Zuid, with Chatleroi being our favourite place for an evening beer with the local crowd (and Patine next to it is pretty nice too). We were staying the stylish Hotel Pilar, just across the road.
If you're interested in finding out more about Belgian beer whilst you're in the city, you can take the De Koninck Brewery Tour with the Antwerp City Card.
Visit the Plantin-Moretus Museum
Within dark cavernous rooms, some wallpapered by leather book bindings, one can step into a wonderfully preserved world of antique printing presses, ink stains, creaking floorboards, and shelves upon shelves of wonderfully preserved books and manuscripts.
Many a guidebook will tell you that this place is unique due to its position as the only museum listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. For us though, there are several more special reasons why everyone, not just us typography geeks, should spend an hour or so exploring the former home and workshop of the Plantin and Moretus publishing dynasty. Antwerp was at the forefront of the arts and progress centuries ago, and it was within this building that Christophe Plantin was the first to begin printing on large industrial scale.
If you like typography and books, you’ll love this museum. If you like wonderful old buildings and stately homes, you'll love it too.
It is a fascinating reminder of how, in the digital 21st century, we have forgotten the importance, value and impact the printing press has had over the centuries. One of its finest and most important works, the Plantin Polyglot Bible, took “5 years, up to 4 presses and 40 workmen to print the Bible” and was recently sold for £488,000.
Tip | There is a lovely garden courtyard in the museum, and the gift shop is actually worth a visit if you're into fonts.
Where | Vrijdagmarkt 22-23
Cost | €8, but free to Antwerp City Card holders.
Times | 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Tues-Sun, visit their website.
Browse & Buy on Kloostestraat
Antiques and boutiques on a very pretty street - what else do you need? This New York Times article about the Antwerp institution of Sunday strolls on Kloosterstraat says it better than we ever could.
Kloosterstraat links the Zuid neighbourhood with the area where you'll find the Plantin-Moretus Museum and the Sint-Annatunnel, so we'd recommend you go from one to the other at your leisure. There are some lovely little coffee shops and restaurants at the western end of Kloosterstraat, or you could keep on walking to the very popular brunch spot called Charlie's (Volkstraat 46).
Visit the Sculpture Garden at Middelheimmuseum
A cycle ride away from the city centre is Europe’s first permanent sculpture garden, and a very different sort of museum. Out in the open-air of Middelheim park, it’s an excellent concept and an interesting new spin on how to display art and remove some of the boundaries that traditionally exist between it, and the public.
One can stroll through the park’s leafy lanes and find metal sculptures and large-scale installations scattered around its confines (including some very rude ones).. Best visited on a sunny day, we simply wandered around enjoying the serenity and stopping at the various works that caught our eye. Should you enjoy a little more structure, there are set routes and maps available to follow.
If cycling out here from the city (something we strongly recommend - more on that later), the route follows cycle paths right up to the park entrance where you'll find a VeloAntwerpen station to dock.
Where | Middelheimlaan 61 (various buses and tram 7 stop nearby)
Cost | Free
Times | Open daily, but check the website for season specific opening and closing times.
Hang out at PAKT
Located next to the neighbourhood of Groen Kwartier is another successful Antwerp enterprise; PAKT. Here, in what were formerly disused warehouses (and the site of many an obscure underground party) right next to an old military hospital, is a new creative hub and the location of several excellent and sustainable bars, eateries and coffee shops - as well as, oddly enough, a Cross Fit gym.
Very cool, very hipster and very much worth checking out.
We however timed our visit a little poorly. Assuming that late Saturday morning would be nice and lively, we actually discovered that PAKT is very much a weekday affair, with the majority of the start-ups being closed throughout the weekend.
Where | 1, Regine Beerplein, 2018
Time | If you want to appreciate PAKT at its most vibrant, then pop in Monday - Friday during working hours.
Tip | If you’re a beer aficionado, then you’ll certainly want to visit Speciale Belge within PAKT. It has a mind-blowing range of Belgian beers, mostly from smaller breweries. Additionally, the pizza place, 'Standard' comes very highly recommended.
Baroque n' Roll
As a 16th century trade powerhouse, Antwerp was well-heeled and thriving. And, wherever the patrons were, art would surely follow. Home to artists such as Reubens, the city is viewed as one of the most distinctive examples of the ornate 'Baroque' movement and style which flourished in Europe centuries ago and impacted art, architecture and, music.
For many, seeking out Antwerp's baroque treasures and influences is a key reason for their visit; however, we know that won't be for everyone. However, you can dip your toes in by taking in some of the exhibits, tours, and events on offer for 'Antwerp Baroque 2018'.
Backstreets of the Old Town
The Grote Markt (Great Market Square, since you asked...), and the medieval streets surrounding it, are undeniably the most touristic parts of Antwerp. For us, they aren’t what come to mind when we think of the excellent three and a bit days in the city, but we know that people will naturally gravitate here at some point.
Our advice is to take an afternoon stroll amongst it when the weather is in your favour, but don’t limit your Antwerp experience to this part. The Brabo Fountain, which depicts the tale of how the city got its name, the imposing town hall and the golden-statue topped guild buildings are the foremost attractions, however a wonderful little area can be found a couple of minutes away.
The narrow passages and nooks of Vlaeykensgang Alley, now home to some little restaurants, are very pretty and, if you time it right, will feel like they’re still a secret for you and the city to share.
Tip | We really liked Wolstraat and the streets connecting to it, which had trams shuttling around, cute little bars and cafes, and a nice ambience overall.
Absolutely Don’t Miss...
We like to include one thing that, regardless of your budget, travel style, or length of stay, we think you absolutely must do in a place.
In Antwerp, it’s cycling.
We had some gorgeous summer weather on our city break, and our fondest memories come from navigating and experiencing the city on two wheels. Around the port area, down cobblestone streets around Zuid and the old town, out to the green spaces of Middleheim, and by the water and shipping containers Eilandje, we cycled all over the city together and it was excellent.
So yeah, rent a bicycle whilst you’re in Antwerp and feel the freedom - we’ve got more information below on how to get around the city whether that's on two wheels, two feet or in a tram.
How To Get Around Antwerp
Antwerp’s public transport network is incredibly well set-up and accessible for city-breakers. No location is more than 45 minutes or so away, and the connections / routes are all quite straightforward.
Trams + Buses
For the less-mobile or less-inclined to cycle or walk, the white and yellow trams criss-cross through most of the areas you’re likely to have on your itinerary. You can purchase a single 60-minute ticket (€3) which allows you to change between buses and trams within the time period, a day ticket (€6-8), or a 3 or 5 day pass (€12 and €17 respectively). It’s possible to buy the single and day pass directly from the driver, but it’s recommended to "buy your tram or bus ticket in a point of pre-sale (newsagent’s, supermarket, the vending machines at the various stops or in the visitor centres of Visit Antwerp), where tickets are cheaper.”*
Renting a Bicycle
Discovering a new place on foot is always our favourite way to understand its layout, its contrasts, and its history, and with Antwerp being quite compact (from Zuid to Eilandje, it’s less than 2.5 miles), you can happily wander from one neighbourhood to the next. However, a real advantage in Antwerp is how perfect it is for people to come to the city and explore on a rented bicycle.
With 700kms of cycling lanes, an affordable and easy-to-use bicycle rental scheme, and a rhythym of life where cyclists are equals to cars in and around the city, we highly recommend you spend at least one day on two wheels.
VeloAntwerpen is the main city-wide cycle rental scheme, and it operates in the same ways as the Boris Bikes in London and Velib in Paris. To use these small red and white bicycles, you need to purchases either a day pass (€4) or a week pass (€10) online, and this will provide you with a code and instructions on how to access from each ‘velo station’. Once you take the bike out, you can use it free throughout for 30 minute periods, with small charges being added for usage over the time (i.e. €0.50 for an extra 30 minutes).
Our advice is to avoid using the bike for longer than the free half hour, and just dock it into the nearest station once your time is almost up; it’s then just a matter of waiting 5 minutes until you can take out another bike from that station for another free 30 minutes period. So that you always have an idea of where the nearest station is, we recommend downloading the VeloAntwerpen app.
From the Airport
If you’re travelling to / from the city via Antwerp International Airport, then take the bus 51, 52 or 53 to Antwerp-Berchem railway station (travel time of 10 minutes), which is on the outskirts of the city. From there, you can take a quick train to Antwerp Centraal Station, or pick one of severals trams and buses into your final destination in the city. Find more information here.
Is Antwerp Expensive?
Once you've found accommodation and transport to suit your budget, it's perfectly possible to enjoy Antwerp on a range of travel budgets.
Due to its compact size, you can save money on public transport and put it towards entry costs for the museums. However, if you're here and plan doing a lot of sightseeing, then we do think that the best value option is getting the Antwerp City Card as it provides free public transport plus entry to most of the museums you'll want to visit.
As with a city break to any European city, eating out is likely to be the main expense. Antwerp has a really great range of independent international restaurants where you can grab a good lunch or dinner for under €15 per person, and even less if you're happy to look around a little longer.