Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Antwerp
The 16th century guildhouses at the Grote Markt (Market Square) lean wonderfully into each other for support, vying for attention with City Hall. The Gothic Cathedral of our Lady still has the highest spire in the Low Countries (400 ft/123m), plus several radiantly beautiful triptychs by Baroque painter, Peter Paul Rubens.
You can visit the wonderfully restored house and studio of Rubens and he is buried in the ornate Gothic St James’ Church. If you like art, the Royal Museum Antwerp has a great collection, including famous 17th century locals, Rubens and van Dyck, and the Italian, Titian. And then it’s on to the 20th century.
The recently opened Museum Aan de Stroom (MAS) is a 200-foot (60 m) high pile of Indian red sandstone and glass. As you’d expect the displays inside use the latest technology and its exhibits celebrate Antwerp’s life as a port: Metropolis, Power, Life and Death.
The law courts are similarly eye-catchingly modern with a roof line replicating sails. The Mode Museum (MoMu) celebrates the local fashion industry that Antwerp is increasingly known for along with its excellent beers and chocolates. Antwerpse Handjes (Antwerp Hands), almond or chocolate biscuits, are a particular city pride. Even tastier are the diamonds: watch them being cut at Diamondland, learn their history at the Diamantmusuem, or just dream about buying them along the well-guarded streets Pelikaanstraat, Vestingstraat or Hoveniersstraat.
Antwerp’s main railway station, nicknamedSpoorwegkathedraal (Railway Cathedral) by locals, features glass-and-iron vaulted ceilings, an ornate central dome, and hundreds of gilded flourishes. An extensive restoration of the station was completed in 2009, when a shopping mall and two further platforms were added to the complex.
The historical and cultural heart of Antwerp, Grand Market Place (Grote Markt van Antwerpen) is surrounded by lavish 16th-century guild houses and the Cathedral of Our Lady (Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal). Although many of the buildings burned down in the 16th century, they were rebuilt in the same style and showcase Flemish architecture.
Spearheading the rejuvenation of the once derelict Willemdok harbor area,Museum aan de Stroom (MAS) (which translates as ‘Museum on the River’) opened in 2011 to great acclaim – as much for its stellar architecture as its thoughtful, well-curated exhibitions paying homage to the city of Antwerp, its history and culture. Sitting just north of the city center on a dock commissioned by Napoleon in 1811, the museum was designed by Dutch architects Neutelings Riedijk and towers 60 m (197 ft) above the harbor. It is comprised of layers of bright-red sandstone bricks held together with glass and steel; the five themed floors of interactive and entertaining displays make use of nearly half a million artifacts – including anything from Old Master paintings to model boats, newsreel, penny farthings, model ships and personal accounts on video – to showcase Antwerp’s development into one of Europe’s largest ports, a diamond capital and a multiracial center of learning and culture. On the ninth and top floor an outdoor terrace gives views stretching over the city to the River Scheldt, where the Antwerp story began. Unusually for a museum, MAS also has the double-Michelin-starred restaurant ‘t Zilte, presided over by chef Viki Geunes. Outside is the MAS Boulevard, with a couple of small temporary exhibition galleries and pretty views over the bobbing boats in the harbor.
Radically transformed by the opening of the Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp in 1987, the former industrial zone of Het Zuid is now fashionable, replete with independent boutiques, cozy cafés, and craft-beer breweries. Its location a short walk along the river from Grand Market Place makes it easily accessible from central Antwerp.
Forming the backbone of Antwerp’s artistic heritage, Rubens House (Rubenshuis) is a top draw for travelers. The former home of Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens, who lived in Antwerp for most of his life, is decorated with marble Roman busts and antique furniture that reflect the sumptuous lifestyle enjoyed by Antwerp’s most illustrious son.
A candy-striped confection of white sandstone and red brick, the 14th-century Gothic Butcher's Hall (Vleeshuis) originally served as a meat market but now fulfills the more refined role of music museum. Today, you can admire exquisite antique musical instruments such as Delftware mandolins at Museum Vleeshuis.
Occupying a 26-acre (10.5-hectare) site behind the city’s grandiose railway station, Antwerp Zoo was built in 1843 – when it was outside the city walls – in colorful Art Nouveau style; as well as being one of the oldest zoos in the world, it must be the only one where the elephants are housed in an Egyptian temple swathed in hieroglyphics.
Currently the zoo has more than 5,000 animals of around 950 species; family favorites such as lions, tigers, polar bears, zebras and gorillas, are housed among the spacious and colonnaded enclosures, themed habitats, Arctic pools, aquariums, reptile house, aviaries, winter gardens and petting zoo for toddlers. There are daily talks plus penguin and sea lion shows; elephant, seal and hippo feeding sessions; 3-D movies in the Planetarium; and plenty of eating options for families, from waffle stands to brasserie dining.
Despite its early foundation, this is one of the more forward-thinking of European zoos, running successful conservation and breeding programs and looking to run sustainably on its own resources. Recent breeding successes have included rare Malayan tapirs, endangered okapi and Eurasian black vultures, while fresh additions at the zoo are the spectacular Reef Aquarium and the restored Flemish Garden, where two cute koala bears have taken up residence as part of an international breeding initiative. A new Savannah habitat is also being planned.
Famous for one of the world’s largest collections of work by Flemish baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp(KMSKA) showcases art by Flemish masters such as van Dyck and Jordaens. The acclaimed gallery, which opened in 1890, exhibits 15th-century masterpieces beside more-modern works by Titian, Modigliani, and Rodin.
Please note: The Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp is currently closed for renovation. The reopening is scheduled for 2020.However, most of the art can still be viewed at different venues throughout the city.
Opened in 1987 in the now-fashionable Zuid neighborhood, the Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp (M HKA)contributed to the rejuvenation of the formerly dilapidated district. Transformed into a cutting-edge gallery by architect Michel Grandsard, the museum exhibits more than 4,750 multimedia works by some of Flanders’ foremost contemporary artists.
In pole position at the heart of Antwerp’s lovely, medieval Grote Markt, the Brabo Fountainstands in front of the ornate, pennant‐encrusted Stadhuis (Town Hall) and was created in 1887by the renowned Flemish sculptor Jef Lambeaux. The flamboyant Baroque statue represents alegend concerning the origins of the city: more than 2,000 years ago Antwerp was a smallsettlement in the Roman Empire when a Russian ‘giant’ called Druon Antigoon settled on thebanks of the River Scheldt and charged ships to sail up the river; if sailors refused to pay the toll, Druon Antigoon cut their hands off in revenge. A Roman soldier named Silvius Brabo –rumored to be a relative of Julius Caesar – refused to pay and subsequently killed the giant in aduel, cutting off his hand and throwing it into the Scheldt. The hand became a symbol ofAntwerp’s freedom and still features on the city’s coat of arms; the bronze Brabo Fountainfeatures Silvius Brabo atop a pedestal awash with mythical sea monster, his body twisted in theact of throwing the hand into the river.
More Things to Do in Antwerp
Found in a former waterside warehouse in the on‐trend area of Zuid south of Antwerp city center, FoMu first opened in 1986 but moved to its current home in 2004. Its clean, white lines are perfect for presenting a series of temporary photographic exhibitions sourced from its own collections, which are among the most important in Europe. Treasures in the collection include images by Henri Cartier‐Bresson and Man Ray, while recent shows have included the hard‐hitting pictures of photographic journalists Broomberg & Chanarin, who examine racial tensions and colonialism in their work. Daily movie screenings curated by Cinema Zuid are held on the premises as well as workshops and lectures.
Ever since the now-iconic ‘Antwerp Six’ (Walter Van Beirendonck, Dries van Noten, Dirk van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs, Marina Yee, Ann Demeulemeester and Martin Margiela) took the international catwalks by storm back in the 1980s, the city of Antwerp has firmly cemented its place on the global fashion radar. Since then, Antwerp's Royal Academy of Fine Arts (Hogeschool) has become one of the world’s leading design schools and the city has become synonymous with cutting-edge fashion.
It’s fitting then, that Antwerp’s hugely popular Mode Museum (MoMu) should put the spotlight on the fashion industry, showcasing a vast permanent collection of over 25,000 fashion-related items. The clothing, fabrics and textiles include pieces from as far back as the 16th century, intricate lacework and embroidery, tools for artisan textile processing and ethnic costumes, alongside a library of over 15,000 fashion books, catalogue and magazines. Even the museum’s location is on-trend, housed in the same building as the Flanders Fashion Institute, the Brasserie National and the Hogeschool’s fashion department.
Please note: The ModeMuseum (MoMu) is currently closed for renovation. The reopening is scheduled for fall 2020.
In the 16th century Antwerp – along with Paris – was one of the leading lights of the Northern Renaissance; among the brightest stars on the city’s stage at that time was Christophe Plantin, who established a printing workshop in his imposing townhouse in 1555. As well as contributing one of the most popular fonts still in use today, Plantin developed one of the busiest and most advanced publishing houses in northern Europe, now a UNESCO World Heritage-listed museum of print and early book publishing.
After Plantin’s death in 1589, his son-in-law Jan Moretus took over the printing empire and it remained active until 1867. Today the museum is laid out as if the compositors had just downed tools; the period workshops and rooms showcase printing presses dating back to the 16th century, graphic anatomical drawings featuring dissections, a vast collection of prints by Antwerp masters dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, and a library of 30,000 rare volumes. The artist Peter Paul Rubens, another local boy made good, illustrated many of the books published by the Plantin workshop and painted some of the family portraits displayed in the museum but the masterpiece of the collection is undoubtedly the priceless 36-line Gutenberg Bible dating from 1455.
Between the late 19th century and World War II, the historic Red Star Line carried more than two million passengers across the Atlantic Ocean to start new lives in the United States, and this compelling museum was opened in September 2013 to tell the story of the migrants and showcase the backstory of the shipping company. Housed in the red-brick former company sheds, washrooms and waiting rooms in Eilandje, north of the city center, the museum buildings themselves are protected monuments. Here medical examinations took place, luggage was disinfected and would-be emigrants were assessed for suitability to enter the US. The museum’s permanent collections include a touching number of letters, faded photos and multimedia presentations of personal interviews, all displayed cleverly against a colorful, well-curated selection of posters, model ships and Red Star Line souvenirs; individuals seeking out family histories can do so in the Warehouse, where the shipping line’s records are computerized and available to all. The newly built lookout tower replaced an earlier chimney that was pulled down in 1936; it haspanoramic views across the waters of the River Scheldt and surrounding quays.
Right across the road from Antwerp’s other great family attraction, the zoo, Aquatopia is housed in a biscuit-colored Art Deco building and aims to educate and entertain kids on life in our oceans. With seven, maze-like themed marine habitats from rainforest to mangrove swamp, it provides a stimulating way to teach children about the amazing natural world beneath the sea. More than 10,000 fish and reptiles from over 250 species – from sea horses to sharks to iguanas – are housed in 40 aquariums with interactive presentations providing information on each tank; glass tunnels lead underwater so youngsters can get up close to the rays, eels and striking angel fish, enjoy the colors of the coral and watch turtles lumbering through the water.
About 84 percent of the world’s uncut diamonds pass through Antwerp’s Diamond Quarter, an enclave of side streets just west of Central Station. Every year more than £32 billion in polished, cut diamonds pass through the four trading exchanges, regulated by the Antwerp World Diamond Centre and bringing massive wealth into the city. Although today the Diamond Quarter is also home to Indian, Lebanese, Russian and Chinese gem dealers, creating a vividly multicultural atmosphere, most of the city’s diamond trading is still run by the Hassidic Jewish community; more than 8,000 people are involved in the industry and there are even kosher banks exclusively dedicated to financing diamond deals. The nondescript shop fronts on the little tangle of streets centered on Hoveniersstraat hide diamond dealers, cutters – world-renowned for their skill – and polishers as well as kosher butchers, bakeries and synagogues. Some of the biggest, glossiest salesrooms offer tours of their workshops and expert advice on buying; the free ‘Antwerp Loves Diamonds’ map is available from the tourist information offices in Grote Markt and in Central Station, while the Antwerp Diamond Bus runs hop-on, hop-off services around all the areas of the city associated with the trade.
Just a short drive outside of Brussels, this village offers some of the area’s best luxury shopping with access to 95 designer shops. The area’s traditional Limburg style of architecture is reflected in the form of the buildings, and the location in the quiet countryside carries over into the village. Conceived as a historical mining village, it is now filled with high-end boutiques containing both local Belgian brands such as Essentiel, Olivier Strelli, and Sarah Pacini, and internationally known labels such as Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana. Prices are often significantly lower than similar nearby shops.
Of course it is important to refuel after a long day of shopping, and the village has both traditional Belgian treats such as waffles and moules frites in addition to Italian cuisine at the center’s outdoor Gastronomia Cellini. Just be sure to bring enough strength to carry multiple shopping bags.
In the midst of Antwerp’s Diamond District is Diamondland, one of the city’s largest showrooms and home to an exclusive collection of diamond jewelry. Here visitors can learn more about the process involved in creating diamonds, and travelers planning on proposing can browse hundreds of diamond engagement rings.