A wonderful weekend in Antwerp
The buzzing city of Antwerp is one of the most populous cities in the country. It is home to the most beautiful train station in the world, is the second largest port in Europe, holds the burial site of the painter Rubens and is the place to be if you are looking for a diamond. Time to spend a weekend in Antwerp!
This guide will take you through the best of Antwerp: local markets, unbelievable sunset spots, mouth-watering veggie restaurants, a tunnel underneath the river and even medieval hidden passages.
Antwerp is located in the North of Belgium, a convenient 40 minute train ride from Brussels and very well connected. If you have a bit of additional time, try and use Antwerp as a hub to explore the city of Mechelen or a few other lesser known beautiful places in Belgium!
The legend of Antwerp
The legend of Antwerp all starts with Silvius Brabo, a Roman soldier. This Roman is known because he killed the ill-tempered giant Druon Antigoon. The giant was known to terrorise the city dwellers by exerting excessive tolls on any seafarers wanting to cross the river Schelde. Refusal of payment would mean the giant cut off your hands and throw them in the river.
Silvius Brabo refused to pay the toll to Druan Antigoon. This resulted in an epic fight where Silvius bravely killed the giant, cut off his hand and threw it in de river Schelde, effectively giving the city her name. Hand Werpen means throwing of hands in Dutch, it was abbreviated to Antwerpen over the years.
There are little remnants of the legend all over the city ready for you to explore during your weekend in Antwerp. Silvius Brabo proudly stands in a fountain on the main square, throwing the hand of the giant. On the Meir (the central shopping street) has a statue of a huge hand, the largest museum of Antwerp (MAS) has little silver hands all over the outside of the building.
And finally, you can also taste the legend of Antwerp through their traditional biscuits: Antwerpse Handjes (Hand of Antwerp). A delicious flaky biscuit in the shape of a hand! If biscuits are not your jam, why not try some Belgian chocolate shaped in a hand instead!
Things to do in Antwerp
Museums in Antwerp
Spending 2 days in Antwerp is so much fun when the weather holds out! But fear not, even when it rains there are plenty of activities to partake in. Why not look into visiting one of the many museums the city has on offer. Here are a few of my favourite museums in Antwerp:
This iconic red brick – slightly odd shaped – building is the largest museum in Antwerp. It recounts the story of the city and the harbour in the permanent exhibition and has a rotating temporary exhibition. Aside from a great wealth of knowledge, the museum also has some of the best views over the city. Make your way up to the 10th floor (the panoramic deck) and take in the view! The view can be accessed without paying the entrance fee to the museum.
Red Star Line Museum
The Red Star Line Museum tells the story of the immigration between Antwerp and North America on the Red Star Line ships. The museums allows you some good insights into life of the ‘average joe’ as well as the city of Antwerp in the late 19th century.
Antwerp has an undeniable creative vibe. It would be a pity to spend a weekend in Antwerp and not get a feel for this creativity. What better way than to spend a few hours in the Photo Museum. Exhibitions change on a regular basis so be sure to check out what’s on before going.
Grote Markt Antwerp
As is the case with any European city, the Grote Markt in Antwerp (or central market square) is located in the centre of the historic town and adorned with the most majestic buildings. These well preserved buildings adorning the Grote Markt are remnants of the prestige Antwerp once held as most prestigious city of the Low Countries.
You will want to check out the very beautiful 16th century town hall and the guild houses all around the square during your weekend in Antwerp. Aside from impressive architecture, the square also has a fountain which contains a statue of the Roman soldier Brabo throwing the hand of the giant Druan.
On your first day of your weekend in Antwerp stroll around the historic centre of town. If medieval alleys are your thing than be sure to check out the famous Vlaeykensgang, one of the best examples of medieval mews in Antwerp. Back in the 16th century, this part of the city was the home of the less wealthy. Ironically these days the alley is home to upscale art galleries and a high-end restaurant!
Churches in Antwerp
There are plenty of churches in Antwerp worthy of a visit, but only 5 of them have been classified as treasuries containing art and historical heritages. These churches are not built according the traditional Gothic style which was prevalent in the 16th century. These churches in Antwerp were built in an opulent Baroque style, yet another example of the status Antwerp held in the Low Countries (Southern Netherlands) in the 16th century.
The five churches in Antwerp you will want to visit are:
- Saint Paul’s church
- Saint Carolus Boromeus’s church
- Saint James’s Church
- Saint Andrew’s Church
- Cathedral of Our Lady
Visit an authentic market: De Vogeltjesmarkt
There is nothing better than brunch right? Well, what if I tell you that one of the coolest places to see in Antwerp actually serves brunch (of sorts that is). Kick your butt out of bed and head over to one of the oldest markets in the city De Volgeltjesmarkt. The market dates back to the 16th century when people would buy and sell birds (Vogeltjes) on this market.
These days the market is more focused on the sales of food: fresh fruit, waffles, Moroccan pancakes, noodles, and Vietnamese spring rolls. Good coffee can be had at the coffee cart at the far end of the market, and they also serve Matcha (be aware it is strong!).
Practical details for visiting De Volgeltjesmarkt
Address:Oudevaartplaats, 2000 Antwerpen
Entrance fee: Free
Opening hours: Sunday 08.00 – 13.00
Lounge around in the Botanical Gardens in Antwerp
Tucked away, out of sight and far away from the main tourist hotspots, you will find a rare Antwerp hidden gem: The botanical gardens of the city of Antwerp. This seemingly unassuming park houses over 2000 types of plants and trees. The gardens were built 200 years ago and originally served as a garden for medicinal plants, providing herbs to the nearby hospitals.
These days the gardens are a little oasis in the middle of the city. The green houses can be visited free of charge. Be weary they can get very hot in the summer!
Practical details for visiting the botanical gardens in Antwerp
Address: Leopoldstraat 24, 2000 Antwerp
Opening hours: Summer 08:00 – 20:00; Winter 08:00 – 17:30
Go shopping in Antwerp
Spending a weekend in Antwerp without a little bit of shopping would almost be a crime! Antwerp is known as one of the fashion capitals of the world. This is largely thanks to “the Antwerp Six ” who graduated from the fashion academy. This same fashion academy attracts students from all over the world to this day. It is no wonder that the city offers many independent boutiques and local design stores – a shopaholic’s paradise. Don’t miss the following streets: Nationalestraat, Kammestraat, Lombardenvest, Lombardenstraat, Korte Gasthuisstraat, Schuttershofstraat (high-end shopping).
If you happen to be on the Meir (the main shopping street), you might be lucky enough to spot an iconic sight – a young man playing his piano in the middle of the street. The pianist goes by the artist name of Toby Jacobs and is good fun to sit and listen to.
Sint Anna’s tunnel – An underpass under the river
Antwerp is built on the two banks of the river Schelde. A lesser known part of the city is located on the left bank (Linkeroever) and to get there you need to cross de river Schelde. Not to worry, this crossing of the river does not require a bathing suite!
The Sint Anna tunnel, or the underpass, was build in 1933 to allow the safe crossing over the river…by means of a tunnel under the river! The tunnel was dug out 33 meters under the ground and is 553 meters long and takes you safely from one side to the other. Original elements of the building have been kept in tact: Old wooden escalators, the original entrance hall and a few warning signs inside the tunnel.
Make your way down the escalator, under the river and to Linkeroever. This part of the river offers the best views of the Antwerp skyline. If you are spending 2 days in Antwerp and looking for a great spot to chill out and watch the sunset than Linkeroever is your best bet! Bring a nice cold beer (try the local beer “een bolleke”) and watch the sun set behind the Antwerp skyline.
Visit the fin de siècle mansions: Cogels-Osylei
No weekend in Antwerp is complete without a visit to the hip neighbourhood of Zurenborg and the beautiful architecture tucked away in this neighbourhood.
Make your way over to the Draakplaats, a 19th century square surrounded by townhouses in Art Nouveau and fin-de-siècle architectural style. Grab a coffee to go and stroll around the various little streets. Be sure to check out the following streets: Cogels-Osylei, Transvaalstraat, Velodroomstraat, Generaal van Merlenstraat.
The houses are are an eclectic mixture of different building styles, now and then though they tie in nicely together. Walk over to the Waterloosstraat and keep your eye out for the houses marked Ochtend (Morning), Dag (Day), Avond (Evening) and Nacht (Night). These houses represent the passage of time.
My personal favourite houses are located at the the corner of Waterloostraat and Generaal Merlenstraat. Each of these corner houses represents one of the four seasons.
Practical details for getting to Zurenborg
It’s an easy 30-minute walk from Antwerp central station or you can take the tram no. 8 to Antwerpen Berchem from Antwerp Central Station. Be sure to pop into the Central Station before you head over to Zurenborg!
Street Art Antwerpen
Right around the corner from the famous Cogels-Osylei in Antwerp, you will find some of the city’s best graffiti. Walk over to the Krugerstraat and the Minkelerstraat and check out the wall art, it will make you feel like you are walking through a veritable open air museum.
Vintage Stores Antwerp
One of the most interesting and bustling places to see in Antwerp on Sunday is de Kloosterstraat. A 10 minute walk away from the touristy Grote Markt (main square) takes you to the coolest vintage stores in Antwerp. Think vintage clothing, vintage design pieces, antique stores and art galleries sprinkled with a few design stores in between. This is place where the cool kids in town go and do their shopping.
De Kloosterstraat is one of the few places in Antwerp where the stores are open on Sunday, though most of them open only after lunchtime (around 13.00)
Best restaurants in Antwerp
The city of Antwerp has a great culinary scene. Aside from very good veggie restaurants the city also has some very cute bars and a plethora of awesome cocktails bars to choose from!
- Take 5 Minutes in Paris
The perfect resting spot after a day of shopping in the Kloosterstraat. Walk through to the back and find yourself in a tranquil garden, right in the middle of the city!
Address: Kloosterstraat 50, 2000 Antwerpen.
Opening hours: Wednesday to Sunday 11.30-20.00.
- Bar Burbure
Fantastic cocktails in one of the cities hippest neighbourhoods. Added bonus, limitless refills of chips and you get one warm tapas every hour.
Things to know before visiting Antwerp
Antwerp is located in the Flemish speaking part of the country. You will also hear a English and Spanish spoken in the streets, this is thanks to the large expat community that lives in the city.
Antwerp City Card
When spending a weekend in Antwerp you are bound to visit a few museums. By purchasing the Antwerp City Card you could be making some significant savings on the ticket prices of all those museums. The card can be purchased online or at the visitors centre of the city for a period of 24-48-72h. The price for 24 hours starts at €27.
Where to stay in Antwerp
Spending a weekend in Antwerp is a wonderful experience. Now you have all the recommendations for delicious and vegetarian food, perhaps you are looking for some cool and sustainable hotels in Antwerpen. Here are a couple that might interest you.
- Bontanic Sanctuary Antwerpen: An original 12th century monastery that has been rebuilt to house luxury accommodations and a spa. The hotel has a gym and pool on site and the restaurant offers delicious Belgian meals.
- Hotel de Witte Lelie: A small luxury boutique hotel built in the 17th century and located in a beautiful gabled house on the main shopping street. Contains 10 beautifully curated rooms and 2 sitting rooms for guests to relax in.
- Astoria Hotel Antwerpen: This small 3 star hotels is centrally located and has a solid sustainability policy in place. It was awarded a green-key label to recognise the efforts in minimising their ecological impact.
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