Lonely Planet just announced their selection of the top-10 cities to visit in 2018 and I am really excited to see Antwerp on that list. We live here and to me Antwerp is the most beautiful city in Belgium. So I thought it was time to update my older article about Antwerp in order to highlight the best things to see and do in Antwerp in 2018. It’s an insider’s guide to the best places that you must not miss if visiting the city for the first time. It now includes the best new landmarks of the city as well.
I hope that this will not only inspire you to come visit Antwerp, spend a bit more time here and explore deeper, but will also help you to get the most of your trip. Find out!
Best things to see and do in Antwerp
If you only have limited time in Antwerp, you will probably want to see the most famous landmarks that the city is known for. Below are the main highlights of Antwerp. I listed them in the same order as you would visit if you start walking or biking from the Central Station. I also created a map with a a sample city walk itinerary to help you get the best out of your time in Antwerp – see further down.
Even if you are visiting Antwerp for just one day, you can see most of the best places in town. Please note that if you want to actually visit (and not just see the exterior) every place on this list, you will need more than a day. Renting a bike or joining a guided bike tour is a great way to visit Antwerp, especially if you are short on time and want to see a lot. Check this post for some inspiration: Off the beaten path in Antwerp by bike.
Central Station – Antwerpen Centraal
Recently restored, the central station of Antwerp is one of the world’s most beautiful train stations. The building exterior is very impressive, but to truly appreciate it, you have to see it from the inside. Don’t miss it! If you arrive in Antwerp by train, you will start your city visit here.
Antwerp Zoo is the oldest animal park in Belgium and one of the oldest in the world, established in 1843. This historic zoo is located in the centre of Antwerp, right next to the Antwerpen Centraal railway station. A visit to the zoo is the perfect way to escape the hustle and the bustle of the city without leaving it.
Antwerp zoo can be visited the whole year as there are indoor and outdoor attractions. There are all kinds of activities and shows and you can easily spend a good couple of hours here. Don’t miss it if you are visiting Antwerp with kids! However, if you only have one day in Antwerp, you can skip it.
In winter they have a beautiful light festival China Light – not to be missed, especially in the evening.
Right next to the station is the famous diamond district of Antwerp. Most shops are open every day except Saturday. I bet you have never seen so many diamonds and jewellery in one place! If you want to buy diamonds, make sure to bargain. Negotiating the price is normally not done in Belgium, but Antwerp’s diamond stores are an exception to the rule. In fact, it might be worth it to make a trip to Antwerp if you are considering buying diamonds – on a bigger purchase you can save so much that your trip will easily pay itself back.
Antwerp City Park is a nice place to escape the hustle and bustle of the busy city life. It’s nice to visit with kids or if you have some time to spare, but to be completely honest it’s not an absolute must.
Meir Shopping Street
The Meir shopping area encompasses the streets surrounding the area from the Cathedral all the way to the Central Station. Meir is a prime shopping destination in Belgium, but there is more to it than the shops. Thanks to its historic architecture and prestigious character, the Meir makes shopping feel special. Not only do the buildings make it worth a visit, the offerings are first-rate. You’ll find all the major, international chains here. Don’t miss Antwerp’s Stadsfeestzaal, an exclusive shopping centre in the beautifully restored city festival hall.
The Rubens House
If you visit just one museum in Antwerp make it the Rubens House. Rubens lived in this palazzo with his family. He created many of his paintings in this house, in the centre of Antwerp. The museum has an interesting collection of his works, but also shows how the master lived and worked.
Belgium’s Best Boutique Shopping
After leaving the Rubenshuis continue in the direction of the Graanmarkt. It’s a nice little square and it’s usually amazingly quiet comparing to the surrounding streets. If you are interested in (window)shopping, then you will love the Schuttershofstraat and the Huidevettersstraat where you can find some of the world’s most luxury boutique stores like Hermès, Chanel, or Louis Vuitton to name just a few.
Plantin – Moretus Museum
If you like history and museums, you will enjoy a visit to Plantin – Moretus Museum. It’s the only museum on the Unesco World Heritage list and is the only remaining printing workshop and publishing house in the world dating back to the 16th century.
Antwerp’s Green Square is the perfect place for those who want to laze around on a warm summer’s day under the sun and enjoy watching the city from the comfort of a cozy café. If you are looking for McDonalds or Starbucks, you can find them here, together with many local cafes and restaurants. A little tourist train departs from Groenplaats in summer and may be fun for the children.
Antwerp has an old tradition of open markets and you can find the daily flower market on the Groenplaats. Antwerp Christmas market is also (partially) located on this square.
Antwerp Cathedral of Our Lady
The Cathedral, the highest Gothic building in the Low Countries, is an iconic treasury with an impressive collection of major art works, including several paintings by Rubens. You can join the guided tour of the Cathedral or explore it at your own pace.
Grote Markt is the main square of Antwerp and is one of the most beautiful town squares in Europe. The magnificent 16th century City Hall (Stadhuis) dominates the square surrounded by the beautiful Guild Houses.
You cannot overlook the Brabo Fountain, right in the centre of the square. According to the legend, Brabo killed a giant who demanded a high toll for each ship that wanted to enter the city. If the ship’s crew wouldn’t pay the toll, their hands were cut off. The little Brabo fought the giant, cut his hand and threw it in the river. The fountain’s statue depicts this story that is used to explain the origins of the name of the city – Antwerpen – hand werpen meaning ‘to throw a hand’.
Grote Markt is a peculiar place – empty on cold winter mornings and buzzing with tourists and locals in summer. Filled with cafes and restaurants, Grote Markt is the place that wakes up around noon, so don’t go there first thing in the morning unless you want to have the whole place to yourself.
Het Elfde Gebod
The café Het Elfde Gebod (the 11th commandment) can be found on the Northern side in the shadow of the Cathedral and is worth a short stop for a drink. It has a spectacular interior filled with saints, angels, saints, pulpits, etc and has kept its authenticity for over 40 years. You will find many traditional Belgian beers here, including the local Antwerp De Koninck beer (‘t Bolleke), the famous Trappist beers, and more.
Saint Carolus Borromeus Church
You have to walk through some narrow cobble stoned streets to see the magnificent facade of this 17th century Jesuit church. Saint Carolus Borromeus church is one of the most beautiful churches of Antwerp, slightly hidden and out of sight, located on a charming little town square.
Antwerp is the most distinctive Baroque city of the Low Countries and it will be lavishly celebrated in 2018. On the website of Visit Antwerp you can find more information about Antwerp Baroque 2018.
Vleeshuis is now a museum featuring all kinds of music instruments. The 500 year old building looks very nice from the outside and is worth seeing if you are in the area.
Het Steen is Antwerp’s oldest building. It lies on the Scheldt river and is just a short walk from the Grote Markt. Het Steen, once home to the Maritime Museum, is now a child-friendly meeting space with all kind of workshops for kids from 6 years and older.
Scheldt River and Antwerp Harbour
Make sure to take a short walk next to the river Scheldt. Antwerp is Europe’s second-largest seaport and ranks among the world’s top ten. You can usually see some large container ships in the distance. The cruise ships visiting Antwerp are also docked along the new cruise terminal next to the Steen fortress, right in the centre of the city. If you have a couple of hours to spare consider a boat tour in Antwerp harbour.
St. Paul’s Church
St. Paul’s Church is impressive both from outside as well as from the inside. Definitely worth a short visit! Note that it’s only open in the afternoon, and only in high season. We first discovered this hidden gem when exploring some off the beaten path places in Antwerp with kids. I think it’s a must to see in Antwerp.
The modern red building of MAS museum has quickly become one of the landmarks of Antwerp. It has many interesting expositions, but even if you don’t have much time you should see the interior of the building. Make sure to also go all the way to the top. The rooftop terrace of MAS has some of the best views in town. The entrance to the building and the rooftop terrace is free of charge.
The New Port House
The New Port House of Antwerp is yet another recent addition to Antwerp’s skyline. It is one of the most impressive buildings I have ever seen and it’s fascinating to watch this ‘diamond ship’ change in different light.
Red Star Line Museum
Red Star Line Museum is a trip back in time with the stories of people who sailed from here to find a new life in North America. You can also climb to the top of the tower for nice views of ‘t Eilandje district and the harbour.
Best of Antwerp – suggested city walk map
Where to stay in Antwerp
Looking for a well-located hotel for sightseeing in Antwerp? For the very best location in town try the Hilton on the Groenplaats. If you don’t mind walking a bit more and are looking for a better price/quality hotel in Antwerp city centre, you may like Radisson BLU Astrid Hotel or Park Inn by Radisson which are both located near the central station, the zoo, and close to many shops and restaurants. Alternatively, you can find the best deals for Antwerp accommodation here.
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