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The Emerald Experience > River and city guides > City Guide: The Best Things to See and Do in Antwerp

City Guide: The Best Things to See and Do in Antwerp

Belgium’s major economic player, Antwerp’s affluence is immediately recognisable as soon as you step foot in the ornate, beautiful, historic centre. The old centre of the city is rich with imposing buildings representing numerous historic architectural styles, complete with decadent flourishes. World-leading fashion houses, cutting-edge jewellers and some of the continent’s finest chocolatiers are present in abundance in the beautiful old centre, where a slow pace of life and attention to detail are thoroughly respected.

Charming, cultural and cool; Antwerp boasts an eclectic mix of fine arts, fine food and exhilarating entertainment. Few places on the continent so effectively revere its past whilst staying at the cutting edge of modern culture. Whether you’re interested in the Antwerp of the past or the present; this charming city is absolutely ripe for exploration.

A small half-moon of boulevards plays host to most of the city’s main sights and experiences, making Antwerp perfect for exploration on foot. Or, if you fancy taking a tour at a slightly different pace, horse trams (paardentram) take in a 1.5-mile route through the city’s historic centre – direct from the engrossing Grote Markt.

Or if you want to edge away from the beaten path, Antwerp is home to a criss-crossing selection of old, cobbled avenues and alleyways which open up hidden gems and local secrets. With a charming and understated café culture bubbling under the service of the city, these cobbled lanes are full of endearing little spots to enjoy a hot drink and watch the locals go about their daily business. And with some of the finest chocolatiers and patisseries on the continent, there’s always time to indulge in a little sweet treat after a day’s exploration.

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A trip to Antwerp is not complete without paying homage to the city’s favourite son, Pieter Paul Rubens, the Baroque painter who worked out of a large studio in the city. A large number of his religious, historical and mythological pieces, as well as his many portraits, can be enjoyed in Antwerp, and 400 years after his death, his influence on the city can still be felt today.

Must-See Sights

Rubenhuis – The former home of Peter Paul Rubens, and now a museum dedicated to showcasing the master painter’s works; Rubenhuis is one of the most popular spots in Antwerp among visitors. Unlike many of Europe’s great artists, Rubens did not live unappreciated in the depths of squalor, and was able to construct a rather decadent Italian-style villa in his beloved Antwerp.

Dozens of paintings from Rubens are now exhibited in this lovingly-maintained museum, as well as works from his contemporaries. Rubens’ works exhibited in the museum range from early pieces such as Adam and Eve, to self-portraits completed later in life. The museum is even home to the Rubenianum, a centre dedicated to the study of the great artist.

Cathedral of Our Lady – Even more of Rubens’ works are on show in the Roman Catholic church, Cathedral of Our Lady, in the centre of Antwerp. However, these are not the only highlights of the beautiful 16th-century gothic cathedral. Complete with an extravagant spire peeking out above the rest of the Antwerp skyline, the cathedral is recognised by UNESCO as a site of unique heritage and intrigue.

The site of the cathedral has held significance for more than 1,000 years, with a small chapel residing here from the 9th to the 12th century. Over the centuries, the cathedral has maintained a position of importance not just in local culture and religion, but also the arts. Developing an active musical life in the 15th century, some of Belgium’s most important composers, such as Ockeghem and Obrecht, served in the church.

Grote Markt – If you are heading to Antwerp’s Grote Markt (Great Market Square) for the horse tram tour, be sure to spare an hour or so to enjoy the architectural highlights of this beautiful part of the old city quarter. Home to the City Hall, majestic Guildhalls and the Brabo fountain, depicting the legend of the Antwerp’s formation.  

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If you’re lucky when visiting Grote Markt, you may be able to take in a show or presentation at the Antwerp Jazz Club, one of Belgium’s best-loved and most-respected music venues. Some of the continent’s most revered jazz musicians have graced the stage at this charming old club.

Museum aan de Stroom – Significantly more modern than other must-see sights listed here, the Museum aan de Stroom is barely five years old, but the riverside exhibition space has won fans and plaudits the world over. The striking building may divide passers-by, but visitors are universally won over by the wonderful exhibitions delving into Antwerp’s rich history held within.

If you decide to pay a visit to Museum aan de Stroom, be sure to make your way to the large rooftop terrace. Offering panoramic views over Antwerp, the museum provides one of the best vantage points to drink in the beauty of this old city.

Central Station – With an imposing façade, vast dome and highly-detailed flourishes throughout, Antwerp’s main railway station is also one of the city’s greatest architectural triumphs. Routinely voted amongst the world’s most beautiful railway stations, this 111-year-old terminal is a must-visit, even if you haven’t a locomotive to catch

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Fast Facts

This historical Belgian city is full of intrigue, and here are a few of our favourite facts which make Antwerp the vibrant city it is today.

  • The name Antwerp is derived from the Dutch words for ‘to throw a hand’, following the legend of the city’s formation when a young hero defeated a toll-seeking giant by cutting off one of the giant’s hands and throwing it into the Scheldt river.
  • Antwerp was home to the first Olympic games following WWI, in 1920. The boxing and wrestling events were held at Antwerp Zoo.
  • Up to 90% of the world’s rough diamonds are traded through Antwerp every year, along with around 50% of cut diamond. This has earned the city the nickname, The World’s Capital of Diamonds.
  • This is helped by the skilled gem cutters of the city, and Antwerp’s massive port – the second largest in Europe.
  • Gin has roots in Antwerp, with the Juniper-based spirit said to be a direct descendent of jenever, which British soldiers drank in the city in 1585, before fighting the Spanish.
  • Antwerp is home to Europe’s oldest skyscraper, the Boerentoren, which was built in 1932.
  • And the first ever printed newspaper, printed almost 400 years ago.

The intriguing city of Antwerp can be explored as part of our 8-day Highlights of the Netherlands & the Beauty of Belgium river cruise. For more details about this wonderful river cruise, click here or call our friendly sales team on 0808 301 4705.   

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