The fact that Antwerp is only situated about 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Brussels and that both areas have around 1.2 million and 2.5 million inhabitants respectively tells you everything about the population density in Belgium.
The city is located on the River Scheldt and is connected to the North Sea by the estuary known as the “Westerschelde.” This has made it one of the most important cities in the so-called “Low Countries,” especially since Bruges lost its port status starting in the 15th century.
Today, the port is the second-largest in Europe after Rotterdam and the 13th-largest in the world by container volume.
The city is also full of historic buildings and fascinating museums, and in this article, you’ll discover a list of the 15 best things to do in Antwerp so you can easily create a bucket list for your stay in this fascinating city.
1. Admire the architecture of the Cathedral of Our Lady
The Cathedral of Our Lady, locally known as the “Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal,” is a Gothic Cathedral and the most prominent landmark in the city of Antwerp. The tower of this Roman Catholic Church sticks out of the urban landscape as it reaches a height of 123 meters (404 feet).
The construction of this magnificent structure started way back in 1352 and was halted in 1521. This means that the church was never completed because the original plan intended it to have two identical towers, but only one of them was completed.
Apart from the remarkable Gothic architecture of both the exterior and interior, the church is also famous for housing an impressive collection of paintings, including by renowned artist Peter Paul Rubens. That’s reason enough to enter the church during your stay in the city.
Official website: De Kathedraal
2. Visit the former residence of artist Peter Paul Rubens
Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) can easily be considered as one of the most famous artists Belgium has ever produced. His paintings in the Baroque style are synonyms to voluptuous women and dramatic scenes.
He was also a renowned diplomat and traveled quite a bit during his lifetime. Shortly after arriving back from an extended trip in Italy in the year 1609, he married his first wife, Isabella Brant, the daughter of a city official in Antwerp.
Here he had discovered the remarkable Renaissance architecture and he designed his own residence in the city, which was also to become his workshop, in a similar style. This Flemish house that resembles an Italian palace is now a museum dedicated to the works of the artist and his colleagues.
Official website: Rubenshuis
3. Stroll around the magnificent Grote Markt of Antwerp
Belgium is home to some of the most amazing squares you’ll ever come across, something exemplified by the iconic Grand Place in Brussels. The main square of Antwerp is definitely equally iconic. The square is lined with marvelous 16th-century guildhalls, similar to the ones lining the square in Brussels, and one of the most astounding city halls in the world.
The center of the square is decorated with the Brabo Fountain. This fountain was inaugurated in 1887 and depicts the story of the foundation of the city in which a Roman army officer named Brabo cut off the hand of a giant named Druon Antigoon.
This was exactly what he had been doing to captains of the ships who didn’t pay a toll, followed by throwing their hands into the River Scheldt. This is how “Antwerpen” got its name as it refers to “Hand Werpen” which means “Throw Hand.”
4. Take a tour inside Antwerp City Hall
The majestic build on the western part of the Great Market Square is the Antwerp City Hall. This amazing building was constructed between 1561 and 1565 and was built in a combination of Flemish and Italian Renaissance architectural styles.
This building was erected during a period in which Antwerp was one of the most important cities in Europe, mainly because of its booming port. This sense of grandeur is clearly reflected in the elaborately decorated City hall.
If you want to learn more about the history of the city and how the city has been managed over the centuries, then taking a tour inside this building is one of the best things to do in Antwerp.
Official website: Antwerpen
5. Shop at Antwerp’s main shopping street called the Meir
Every city has one shopping street that stands out from the rest, and in Antwerp, this street is called “The Meir.” It’s not only the busiest shopping street in the city but in all of Belgium as well.
One of the best features of this shopping street is that it’s for the most part completely pedestrianized. Turning it into a pedestrian-only area in the city is a process that started as early as 1993, greatly increasing the popularity of the street.
The location of the street is also a reason why it’s so popular among both locals and tourists. It connects the central railway station in the city with the Grote Markt and Antwerp City Hall, cutting right through the historical heart of the city.
6. Breath the city’s history at the medieval Het Steen
The Gravensteen in the city of Ghent isn’t the only medieval fortress that is located right in the heart of a city in Belgium because a similar structure can be found in the center of Antwerp as well.
Het Steen is one of the most remarkable buildings in the city because it was the first stone fortress ever built in Antwerp. It was built to defend the city from Viking invasions in the early Middle Ages and served as the central point of the city for multiple centuries.
That’s the main reason that the building was constructed in the vicinity of the Scheldt River as it allows to control the entrance to the city. It was used as a prison between 1323 and 1827, followed by a museum in 1890, a purpose it still serves today.
Official website: Steen Castle
7. Be amazed by the Antwerpen-Centraal train station
If you arrive in Antwerp by train, you’ll enter a terminus station known as “Antwerpen-Centraal.” This is arguably one of the most amazing railway stations in the world due to its amazingly designed terminal station.
This building was erected between 1895 and 1905 and replaced an even older building that served as the terminus of Belgium’s oldest railway route which connected Brussels, Mechelen, and Antwerp.
Even though the station has been expanded quite a bit the last couple of decades, especially with the arrival of high-speed trains that connect Antwerp with just about any city in Europe, the original main train hall of the station is still the most imposing element.
Official website: Antwerpen-Centraal
8. Meet a wide range of animals at the historic Antwerp Zoo
If you exit the Antwerpen-Central train station, you pretty much arrive at the entrance of the Antwerp Zoo. This means that this zoo is situated right in the heart of the city, quite an amazing location.
The main reason why it is situated here is that it was established on July 21, 1843, making it the oldest zoo in Belgium and one of the oldest in the world as well. This also means that many of the buildings date back to the 19th century which gives something extra to the animal park.
The Antwerp Zoo is home to over 7,000 animals divided among approximately 950 animal species. In combination with the Animal Park of Planckendael (which isn’t situated in Antwerp), it welcomes over 1.6 million visitors every year, making it one of the most popular attractions in the city.
Official website: Zoo Antwerpen
9. Discover maritime artifacts and amazing views at the MAS
The MAS is the abbreviation of a museum called the “Museum aan de Stroom.” This literally translates to the “Museum on the Stream” which is a reference to its location along the Scheldt River.
The location to build this fascinating museum wasn’t chosen accidentally as well because its main exhibits are objects related to the maritime history of the city. It also houses objects related to the city of Antwerp itself and how the city’s port developed over the centuries.
The building itself is a distinctive landmark as well. It was built between 2006 and 2010, stands 60 meters (200 feet) tall, and is clad with red Indian sandstone. The upper level of the building features an observation platform that provides some of the most amazing views of the city and the port.
Official website: MAS
10. Unwind and relax at the Stadspark
Like just about any other major city, Antwerp is home to several urban parks. Just southwest of the Antwerp Zoo and Antwerpen-Central train station, you can find one of the most amazing parks in the city called the “Stadspark” or “City Park.”
This park has a triangle shape (with the tip pointing north) and borders the famous Diamond Quarter in the city. It covers an area of about 14 hectares (35 acres) and is without a doubt one of the best places in the city to relax, away from the busy streets.
It’s one of the oldest public parks in Belgium as well, having been established in 1869. Back then, it was situated at the edge of the city center, something that emphasizes how much the city has changed in the previous century.
Official website: Stadspark Antwerpen