Antwerp is sometimes overlooked and bypassed for the more popular Belgian cities like Brussels and Bruges. Antwerp holds all the charm and culture that the other cities have, but with significantly less tourists. Whether you have a couple days or a couple hours, you won’t be disappointed with a stop to explore Antwerp. It’s an easily walkable city and you can hit all the main sights in just a few hours. If you only have 7 hours in Antwerp (or less), here are a few spots that you really must visit if this is your first time exploring the city.
1. Antwerp Central Station
Antwerp’s Central Station is one of the most impressive railway stations in the world and is one of the main sights in the city. If you’re arriving in Antwerp by train then luckily you’ll arrive right in the heart of one of the most awe-inspiring buildings in the city. The architecture inside the station is truly jaw dropping and is lavishly decorated with gorgeous marble and stone. Central Station is a must-see spot in the city and can easily be seen even if you only have a short amount of time.
2. Cathedral of Our Lady
The Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp is one of the most magnificent pieces of Gothic architecture in Europe and is the largest church in Benelux. The construction on the cathedral began in 1352 and was completed in 1521. Of the planned towers, only the northern tower was finished and it’s truly a sight to behold. The interior of the cathedral is extremely impressive with beautiful Gothic lines and stunning vaulted ceilings, all in sparkling white. The Cathedral of Our Lady dominates the Antwerp skyline and is a must-see sight for anyone visiting the city. For information on open hours and entrance fees, click here.
3. Grote Markt
The Grote Markt, or Market Square, is situated in the heart of Antwerp’s old city quarter. The square is lined by Antwerp’s Stadhuis (City Hall – pictured above), Guild Houses, and many restaurants and cafés all surrounding the Brabo fountain. The Brabo fountain is the centerpiece of the square and was created to depict Antwerp’s most famous legend, the mythical hero Brabo. As the legend is told, the giant Antigoon demanded a high toll for ships that wanted to enter the city and if the ship’s crew refused to pay the toll, he cut off their hands. Brabo fought the giant, cut off its hand and head and threw the hand in the river. The statue portrays Brabo throwing the giant’s hand in the Scheldt river which symbolizes free passage through the river. The Grote Markt is one of the most iconic spots in the city and definitely shouldn’t be missed while exploring Antwerp. In the winter time, it houses a Christmas market and an ice rink.
4. The Steen
The Steen is Antwerp’s oldest building and sits along the River Scheldt near the former Werf peninsula. In the ninth century, a fortress was built on the Werf and around the turn of the century (1100-1200) a stone wall and the Steen, one of the fortress’s three gatehouses were added. Today, the Steen is the only remaining part of the fortress that once stood along the river. It was used as a prison until 1823 and was reopened as a museum in 1862. The Steen housed the National Maritime Museum from 1952 until 2008 when it was relocated. Take a stroll to the river and feast your eyes on this magnificent gatehouse, admiring its ancient architecture. Sitting along the Scheldt river, it’s truly a sight to behold.
5. Antwerp Zoo
The Antwerp Zoo is one of the oldest zoos in the world having been established in 1843. The zoo is conveniently and centrally located right next to Antwerp Central Station. The zoo is compact and features a huge variety of animal species and is continually expanding to bring new exhibits to the world-famous zoo. From koalas and kangaroos to Komodo dragons (pictured above) and sloths, the Antwerp Zoo will always keep you entertained with some of the most unique and interesting animal species in the world. The zoo has a crazy variety of fascinating exhibits including nighttime animals, reptiles, monkeys, butterflies, an aquarium, and much more. For the most up to date information on opening times and admission prices, visit the Antwerp Zoo website.
Top Tips for Exploring Antwerp
1. Grab a city map at the tourist office
If you arrive in Antwerp by train, there is a tourist office in the train station (Central Station, level 0) so you can stop by and pick up a free city map. The city’s main tourist office is located on the Grote Markt (address: Grote Markt 15 2000 Antwerp) and is open Monday through Saturday from 9 to 17:45 and Sundays from 9 to 16:45. Stop by one of these offices and pick up a free city map, learn about local events, get tickets for exhibitions, tours, the Antwerp City Card and much more.
2. Walk, Walk, Walk
Antwerp isn’t a huge city so the best way to explore is by walking. It doesn’t take long to traverse from one side of the city to the other and walking allows you to stop and explore anything that peaks your interest along the way. If you’re short on time and are looking for a quicker way to get around, rent a bicycle and explore the city on two wheels.
3. Get lost!
Arguably one of the best ways to get to know a city is to just get lost wandering through the streets. I love exploring a city without a map, taking whichever turn looks most appealing and seeing what treasures I happen to stumble upon. It seems like you tend to find some of the most unique and off-the-beaten path spots when you ditch the map and just wander. Now, Antwerp isn’t a huge city so you can’t really be lost for long, just look for the Cathedral of Our Lady towering over the city and make your way toward it and you’ll know right where you are.