When I first came to Belgium, I spent all my weekends exploring the cities – Brussels, Antwerp, Bruges, Ghent, Leuven… These are all amazing destinations and people travel from the other side of the world to see them. We now live close to Antwerp and we are lucky to be able to visit this beautiful city whenever we feel like it. I could write a whole epistle about all there is to see and do in Antwerp, from most famous landmarks to secret alleys, a great variety of museums, some of the best boutique shopping in Belgium, beer pubs and trendy restaurants… But today I want to tell you about Antwerp’s must-see places for the first-time visitors.
Best things to see and do in Antwerp in one day
If you only have limited time in Antwerp, you will probably want to see the most famous places that the city is known for. I made a list of the city’s most famous landmarks and with some help from Google Maps created a sample city walk itinerary to help you get the best out of your time in Antwerp.
Please note that if you want to actually visit all of these places (and not just see the exterior), one day will not be sufficient to cover it all. But you can easily make this walk including a visit to one museum in just one day. Keep reading for more details and my recommendations on the very best things to see and do in Antwerp.
Best of Antwerp in 1 or 2 days and a sample city walk map
1. Antwerp 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 should start your city walk here.
Right next to the station is the famous diamond area. 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 something, make sure to bargain. Negotiating the price is normally not done in Belgium, but Antwerp’s diamond stores are an exception to the rule.
2. Antwerp Zoo
Antwerp Zoo is 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.
The 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! But if you only have a day in Antwerp, you probably won’t have much time for a visit to the zoo.
3. 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.
4. The Rubens House – Rubenshuis
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.
5-6. Best boutique shopping in Belgium
After leaving the Rubenshuis continue in the direction of the Graanmarkt (no.5 on the map above). 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 (no.6) where you can find some of the world’s most luxury boutique stores like Hermès, Chanel, or Louis Vuitton to name just a few.
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 Starbucks, you can find one here (the other one is at the central station).
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.
8. Antwerp Cathedral of Our Lady – Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal
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.
On certain days during the summer months you can climb the tower of the Cathedral. The guided tour and the climb takes 2.5 hours. You can reserve a spot online on the official tourism site of Visit Antwerp. We have never done this, but will definitely give it a try now that the kids are older.
9. Grote Markt
Grote Markt is the main square of Antwerp and is one of the most beautiful town squares in Europe. The magnificent sixteenth-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 the whole place for yourself.
10. St. Paul’s Church – Sint-Pauluskerk
St. Paul’s Church is impressive both from outside as well as from the inside. Definitely worth a short visit!
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.
12-13. Steen Castle – Het Steen and the Scheldt river
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.
Make sure to take a short walk next to the river Schelde (no.13 on the map). 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.
14. 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.
Best things to see in Antwerp – what you absolutely shouldn’t miss
My idea behind this list of things to see and do in Antwerp was to provide you with a best 1-day itinerary for Antwerp, but I realise that you cannot see all of this properly in one day. So what are the places you absolutely have to see?
Make sure you don’t miss the Grote Markt (no.9), Cathedral (no.8), Groenplaats (no.7), take a walk along the river (no.13) and visit the Rubens House (no.4). If you have more time, do some window shopping (no.3 or no.6) and take a look inside the central station (no.1).
Since we live close to Antwerp, I also share some more insider tips for the other great areas to see in Antwerp if you have more time (see below). But if you only have limited time in the city, this list is pretty much all you need in order to experience the very best of Antwerp.
Some additional insider tips for best places to see and do in Antwerp
- Insider’s guide to a different Antwerp with kids
- Off the beaten path in Antwerp by bike
- Port of Antwerp boat tours with Jan Plezier
- Comics Station – new indoor theme park in the centre of Antwerp
Where to stay in Antwerp
Looking for a nice 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, the aquarium, and close to many shops and restaurants. Here you can find the best deals for Antwerp accommodation.
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