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DISCLAIMER: This article has been published in Travellive Magazine, issue of March 2018 as “10 best things to do in Antwerp” (translated by the Editorial Team).
Lonely Planet recently announced a list of the 10 most visit-worthy cities in 2018. Ranked sixth on the list is Antwerp (Belgium), a city among five others I had intended to explore during my seven-day trip to the Netherlands and Belgium.
Prior to arriving in Antwerp (Antwerpen in Dutch, Anvers in French), I had learned that the city got its unique name from a legend about a giant called Druon Antigoon.
The giant exacted a toll from passing boatmen on the Scheldt River. Those who refused to pay had their hand cut off and thrown into the river by Druon Antigoon.
The story of Druon Antigoon’s monstrous deeds reached Silvius Brabo, a young Roman soldier. Silvius went on to defeat Antigoon, chop off the giant’s own hand and toss it into the river to avenge his victims. Hence the name Antwerp, which means “throw the hand” in Dutch and Old English.
At the city’s Grote Market, you will find a statue of a young Silvius Brabo mid-throw, disposing of the hand of the evil Druon Antigoon.
Some might think I spent rather “too much time” in such a little known city of Belgium instead of visiting the popular Bruges, referred to as “Venice of the North”. My two-day stay in Antwerp did not do it justice, and I regretted not staying longer.
If you are planning to explore the second largest city in Belgium in 2018, do not miss these 10 best things to do in Antwerp, especially for first-timers!
10 best things to do in Antwerp
1. Admire the architecture of Antwerp Central Station (Antwerpen Centraal Station)
Antwerp Central Station is an architectural blend of various artistic styles ranging from Belle Époque, Neo-Renaissance to Art Nouveau style of the late 1800s. The station was voted as the world’s most beautiful train station by Mashable Magazine in 2014.
From Antwerp Central Station, you can take the metro to Meir Station to visit Rubensshuis, then walk to other attraction spots in the city.
2. Take a stroll around Grote Markt
“Grote Markt” is a common name for big town squares in the cities of Belgium including Antwerp. And at the centre of this one stands the statue of Silvius disposing the hand of the giant Antigoon.
Behind the statue is the Antwerp City Hall built in the 16th century, and to the side of the hall are the typical gildenhuis townhouses of the Netherlands and Belgium.
The Gildenhuis are buildings overlooking the Grote Markt which were once used as headquarters and meeting places for the old trade guilds. Today however, they are used as the city’s tourism offices and as small museums.
3. Enjoy Antwerp with a view
From Grote Markt, a few steps away is the Cathedral of Our Lady. The cathedral was built in the 16th century with a 123m tall bell tower which is considered the tallest church bell tower in the Low Countries (including the Netherlands and Belgium).
With such an impressise height, the bell tower took 169 years to complete. Looking out upon the city from the top of the tower, Antwerp and its orange roofs look like miniature toy models.
Address: Handschoenmarkt 13
4. Wander in the secret alley of Vlaeykensgang
The Vlaeykensgang alley dates back to the late 16th century, and connects Hoogstraat, and Oude Koornmarkt with one another. I decided to get there early in the morning when the city was still asleep. It took me a while to find this picturesque passage, but it was worth it.
I was taken with joy and surprise the moment I stepped inside the alley. Vlaeykensgang looked like a beautiful old postcard that someone suddenly discovered in an old jewellery box hidden up in an attic.
In the morning, when the it was still cold, you could easily smell the fragrance of laundry detergent and the aromatic smell of freshly brewed coffee in the air. So relaxed!
Address: Oude Koornmarkt 16
5. Discover the history of the Plantin-Moretus Museum
The Plantin-Moretus Museum is located in the former residence and printing establishment of the 16th century French printer Christophe Plantin. He arrived in Antwerp in 1550, and in 1555, established the Officina Plantiniana printing house, the first book-printing and publishing house in the world.
In 1876, Erward Moretus, a descendant of the Moretus, sold the entire house and printing company to the city of Antwerp, provided that it was turned into a museum to preserve his family’s legacy.
Since 2005, and to this day, the Plantin-Moretus Museum is the first museum in the world to be recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Admission fee: 8€
Address: Vrijdagmarkt 22
6. Visit the Rubens House (Rubenhuis)
Peter Paul Rubens was a famous 16th and 17th century Baroque painter from the Netherlands, and was a fan of Rafael’s, the Italian painter.
In his day, this was the house where Rubens created his masterpieces, watched his children playing in the garden, and received his high, noble, and even royal guests.
His home, now the Ruibenshuis Museum, accurately reflects Rubens’ quirky personality: a talkative, social, and multilingual speaker, but at the same time a simple middle-aged man who seeked nothing more than the peace of his own home.
Admission fee: 8€. Show your train ticket to Antwerp within the day to get a discount to only 6€.
Address: Wapper 9-11
7. Spend 30 minutes at the Steen Castle
On the Scheldt riverbank is the Steen Castle (Het Steen in Dutch). This is the oldest building in Antwerp, built back in the 11th century. Perhaps you are wondering why I spent only 30 minutes at Het Steen. Here stands the oldest sand clock in the world with the sand flowing for exactly 30 minutes each turn!
At the entrance to Het Steen is a bas-relief of Semini, the Scandinavian God of youth and fertility. It is said that the women of the town all appealed to Semini when they desired children, thus inhabitants of Antwerp previously referred to themselves as “children of Semini”.
Address: Steenplein 1
8. Try Antwerp style waffles AND appelbeignets
Belgium is famous for its waffle cakes, whipped cream cakes, and fruit with chocolate sauce. However, different regions of Belgium have their own unique version of waffles. My personal favourite was the Antwerp style waffles, which I ate at a specialty shop I was referred to by a hotel staff member.
Désiré de Lille is a small café and cake shop in Antwerp dating to 1903. The shop specializes in Belgian and Dutch pastries, tea, coffee, and snacks which are served throughout the day. I went to the shop twice in the afternoon, and it was crowded every time I went.
When you are in a strange city, and you visit a shop where you find yourself the only foreigner, you know you gotta come back a few more times!
Antwerp style waffles are light and soft, and not as doughy and “heavy” as the Brussels style waffles. The waffle that I had was served with whipped cream, a vanilla ice cream scoop and drizzles of chocolate on top. The taste was exquisitely sweet and tantalising.
Address: Schrijnwerkersstraat 16
9. Enjoy Michelin-starred french fries
Although named “french fries” in American English, Belgium is actually the home of the fried-potato dish that has become popular all over the world. French fries in Belgium are a cheap and popular street snacks.
At 6€, you can enjoy a huge portion of french fries with all kinds of self-served delicious sauces. What should be the reason to spend nearly 13€ for a serving of the french fries at the Frites Atelier Amsterdam, you might ask?
Let me reveal to you that the owner of this french fries restaurant is Sergio Herman, a three Michelin-starred chef who had worked for over 20 years at a high-end restaurant in Zeeland, Netherlands.
After years of cooking, Sergio decided to leave his kitchen to sell french fries. So, here I was in Antwerp having the opportunity to enjoy the most delicious fried potato in the world: French fries served with Flanders-style beef and mayonnaise.
Address: Korte Gasthuisstraat 32
10. Shop Belgian chocolate cake and the hands cake
It is impossible not to mention chocolate in Belgium, and Antwerp is no exception.
In contrast to the large number of chocolate shops in Brussels or Bruges, each chocolate shop in Antwerp is like an enchanting mini gallery where the glass shelves are decorated in golden strings of light with each chocolate piece looking sleek and shiny like an expensive piece of jewellery.
If you are looking for a true Belgian chocolate box with perfectly made chocolate pieces in it, look no further than the Günther Watté.
Besides chocolate, Belgian biscuits are also beyond delicious. Biscuits here are usually shaped like a hand (handje) with a layer of thinly grated almonds on top. Some adorn a fake diamond ring on the hand to tell the story of the giant Druon Antigoon and the city’s history in diamond making.
Günther Watté: Steenhowversvest 30
Philip’s Biscuit: Korte Gasthuisstraat 39
How to get there & where to stay
From Brussels, you can take the train to Antwerp (around 45 minutes). It’s the most convenient way to travel there.
Train ticket can be bought at the Gare du Midi (Gare Zuid) Station in Brussels.
I stayed at Hotel Scheldezicht next to harbour with the price of 52€/night/pax + 5€ for breakfast. It’s also located in the very city centre. You can basically walk to all of the attractions mentioned above, except for Antwerp Centraal Station.
I personally like the atmosphere of the room, just like a guest room in some palace. The only minus is that you have to get out to use WC (placed outside all rooms).
If you prefer a budget stay, use this link when book at booking.com to get 15€ refund after your stay (and I’ll also get 15€ for referring, too. Yay!)