Ultimate guide for a weekend in Antwerp

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Ultimate guide for a weekend in Antwerp

Less than one hour from Brussels, Antwerp is an excellent destination for a day or weekend trip. As a multi-faceted historical city, it caters to the needs and interests of every visitor. Whether you’re into museums, beautiful architecture, the latest fashion, trendy food places or cozy beer bars, you’ll find plenty of activities that match your interests. We visited Antwerp during a weekend in November and tried to combine as much of the above as possible. Below you’ll find our suggestions for a perfect weekend in Antwerp.

Day One: explore the historic city center

If you’ve never been in Antwerp before, this itinerary will offer you a great first introduction. Walking through the city center is a budget-friendly and interesting way to visit Antwerp, as you explore the main outdoor highlights at your own pace. If you have enough time, you can also throw in a few museums, some of which we’ve listed further below.

Chances are you will arrive in Antwerp by train, where you can immediately marvel at an amazing architectural gem. The Antwerp train station was built at the end of the 19th century and is one of the finest examples of railway station architecture in the world.

Antwerp train station

When you walk towards the city center through Belgium’s finest shopping street (the ‘Meir’), make a stop at the Saint James’ Church, which is the starting point for pilgrims journeying to the burial place of St James the Greater in Santiago de Compostela, 2250km further south). The church is also known for the resting place of famous painter Peter Paul Rubens. Prepare to pay 3 EUR for a ticket or present your Antwerp City Card to enter.

Saint James’ Church, Antwerp Saint James’ Church, Antwerp

A bit further lies Caféteater De Peerdestal Van Napoleon. Although you cannot walk in like that, you can explore the inner courtyard at the back which is open to the public. It’s a small and quiet square surrounded by beautiful medieval buildings that’s worth a few minutes of your time.

Square behind Caféteater De Peerdestal Van Napoleon, Antwerp

The Hendrik Conscience square is surrounded by the Hendrik Conscience Library and the Saint Charles Borromeo church. The former features a beautiful reading room, which unfortunately is only accessible during expositions. When we visited, this wasn’t the case, so we simply observed its majestic facade from the outside. The St. Charles Borromeo Church is a beautiful baroque church and free to visit. Climb the stairs for an impressive bird’s eye view over the church’s lay-out.

St. Charles Borromeo Church, Antwerp St. Charles Borromeo Church, Antwerp Hendrik Conscience square, Antwerp

In the same area, you’ll find charming cobblestone-clad alleys like the Moriaanstraat and the Hoofdkerkstraat. Although the inviting bars and restaurants were winking at us, we strolled on and enjoyed the beautiful Autumn colors of the fallen leaves.

Charming cobblestone-clad alleys, Antwerp

One of the main attractions of Antwerp, the Cathedral of our lady is one of the highest Gothic buildings in the low countries. An unexpected find inside was the little bar ‘De Plek’, where we tried Kathedraalbier (Cathedral beer), which is available in a blond and brown variant.

Cathedral of our Lady, Antwerp Cathedral of our Lady, Antwerp Cathedral of our Lady, Antwerp

The typical postcard view of Antwerp is to be found on the Grote Markt, which is surrounded by impressive buildings like the extravagant City Hall, numerous elaborate 16th century guildhalls, many restaurants and cafés. The Brabo fountain standing in the middle refers to Antwerp’s most famous legend: Whenever a ship captain moored in the area without paying the toll, the giant Druon Antigoon cut off his hand and threw it in the river. A mythical Roman soldier named Brabo took revenge by killing this giant. According to the legend, the name ‘Antwerpen’ originates from this moment when Brabo cut off his hand (Dutch: hand) and threw (Dutch: werpen) it in the river, hence Ant-werpen.

Grote Markt, Antwerp

While strolling through the Antwerp city center, you shouldn’t miss the slightly hidden Vlaaikensgang, which dates back to 1591. This smallest street of Antwerp is a very romantic spot which offers some peace in the shadow of the cathedral. Two restaurants are situated in the Vlaaikensgang and the easiest entrance is via the Oude Koornmarkt 16.

Vlaaikensgang, Antwerp

The St. Anna’s Pedestrian tunnel goes underneath the Scheldt river to the other river bank where you can take in an alternative view of Antwerp. Another major reason to visit the tunnel are the vintage wooden escalators from the 1930s. A great photo opp!

St. Anna’s Pedestrian tunnel, Antwerp

On your walk back, pass by the Vrijdagmarkt, a pleasant square hosting a local market every Friday morning. It also features the Plantin Moretus museum, which we’re discussing further below.

After this eventful day of sightseeing, you must be craving for a beer and/or a meal. There are countless pubs and restaurants in the Antwerp city center. Read on to the restaurant section to discover our suggestions.

Day two: explore the modern and industrial district of ‘t Eilandje

The Port House is a metaphoric encounter of past and present. The bottom part once functioned as a fire station on the port’s outside edge. After its renovation, a contemporary structure in the shape of a diamond has been built on top. This monumental design from Zaha Hadid represents the immense growth of the port of Antwerp, while still remembering its rich history. Today, this modern building is the new headquarters of the Antwerp Port Authority that accommodates over 500 employees.

Port House, Antwerp

A short walk from the Port House leads to the Red Star Line Museum, which recounts the stories from the two million passengers that sailed from Antwerp on the Red Star Line ships. More information in our museum section below.

Another famous museum is MAS, which is the largest museum in Antwerp and mainly focuses on Antwerp and its connection to the world. Although I’m giving more information about MAS in our museum section, I’d already like to point out that even if you’re not into museums, you should include it in your itinerary, even if it’s only for the (free) panoramic view from its top floor.

Opposite to MAS you’ll find a large selection of nice bars and restaurants. We didn’t have the opportunity to try them this time, but we’ve been told Roest and Mon are definitely worth trying. I also spotted a Bavet restaurant, which I’ve tried earlier in Brussels and I can definitely vouch for their delicious spaghettis.

It’s a short walk to Parkbrug, a bridge to Park Spoor Noord and a very Instagrammable hotspot. A new project by Ney & Partners, the striking metal structure provides a different (but always impressive) experience, dependent on the time of day that you visit.

Parkbrug, Antwerp

End the day at the Seef Brewery and taproom, a brewery complex with massive brewing vats prominently on display. They’ve installed a two-floored bar inside and laid out a cozy garden which should be great on sunny days. It’s one of the best places to try the Seef beer that was once very popular in Antwerp, then fell out of favor. In the 20th century the beer has been revived though and is widely available through the pubs and bars of Antwerp. More information on the website.

Seef Brewery and taproom, Antwerp Seef Brewery and taproom, Antwerp

Throw in a few museums

Antwerp boasts a series of interesting museums that are reflective of its vibrant past. If you plan on visiting several of them, you might want to buy the Antwerp City card, which grants you free access to 4 historic churches, 15 of Antwerp’s top museums, the city brewery De Koninck and includes free public transportation. You can buy a card for 24, 48 or 72 hours which respectively cost 27 EUR, 35 EUR or 40 EUR.

We’ve ranked our favorites below:

1. Plantin Moretus

The former premises and printing office of the Plantin and Moretus family, this museum is dedicated to the advancement of learning in the golden age of Antwerp (1500-1585). The name derives from the two families who produced over 55 percent of the scientific and religious literature of the time by manually-operated wooden printing presses. The museum itself is the family estate. Also check out the gorgeous interior garden on a sunny afternoon.

Normal price: 8 EUR – free on the last Wednesday of the month. Estimate time needed: 3 hours.

Plantin Moretus, Antwerp Plantin Moretus, Antwerp Plantin Moretus, Antwerp Plantin Moretus, Antwerp Plantin Moretus, Antwerp Plantin Moretus, Antwerp

2. MAS

This impressive modern building houses an eclectic collection of objects arranged thematically. Diversity is probably the right word to describe the content of this museum as it discusses a broad range of topics like Antwerp’s food supply, the topic of death in different societies, pre-Columbian artefacts, Japanese popular culture… The panoramic views from the roof terrace are 360 degree across the cityscape.

Normal price: 10 EUR – free on the last Wednesday of the month. Estimate time needed: 3 hours.

MAS, Antwerp MAS, Antwerp MAS, Antwerp

3. Red Star Line Museum.

Very interesting museum about history and human migration. The exhibition feels like you’re experiencing the journey of a person who wants to migrate to the US or Canada. From 1874 to 1930, over 4 million migrants passed through the museum building. You’ll discover impressive stories of real people who migrated, featuring lots of photos and stories.

On the first floor is a bar that serves Bootjesbier, which is brewed by the Antwerp Brewing Company who, inspired by the Red Star Line museum, mixed Belgian and American hop species to create this Belgian Pale Ale.

Normal price: 8 EUR – free on the last Wednesday of the month. Estimate time needed: 2 hours.

Red Star Line Museum, Antwerp Red Star Line Museum, Antwerp Red Star Line Museum, Antwerp Red Star Line Museum, Antwerp

4. The Rubens House

This important town house, now a major tourist attraction, was the home of Peter Paul Rubens and is full of artefacts and displays telling the story of this famous painter and his life. He in fact designed the right-hand side of the building which has a very distinctive facade.

Normal price: 8 EUR – free on the last Wednesday of the month. Estimate time needed: 2 hours.

Rubens House, Antwerp Rubens House, Antwerp Rubens House, Antwerp Rubens House, Antwerp

5. Mayer van den Bergh museum

The art collection in this old mansion started out as a private collection from two art dealers with a particular liking for early modern European art. The paintings are definitely worth the visit alone, and they range, roughly, from the later medieval to the baroque period. The most famous work on display here is ‘Mad Meg’ (Dulle Griet) from the famous painter Peter Bruegel the Elder.

Normal price: 8 EUR – free on the last Wednesday of the month. Estimate time needed: 2 hours.

Mayer Van Den Bergh museum, Antwerp Mayer Van Den Bergh museum, Antwerp

6. DIVA

As the weather turned cold and rainy, we found shelter in the nearby DIVA museum. Considering Antwerp is really famous for its diamonds, it seemed like the right move. They’ve put extra effort in making the museum interactive, with lots of elaborate stories through the audio guide (sometimes a bit too elaborate). Especially the mock-up vault room was originally laid out, with deposit boxes you have to open to discover intriguing facts about diamonds.

Normal price: 10 EUR. Estimate time needed: 1 hour.

DIVA museum, Antwerp DIVA museum, Antwerp DIVA museum, Antwerp DIVA museum, Antwerp

Cool bars in Antwerp

Billie’s Bier Kafétaria

Great place to stop and enjoy some great craft beer in a cool and cozy environment close to Groenplaats. It’s quite small with an upstairs overhanging area. We ordered some ‘bitterballen’ to complement our beer as a snack, but they serve proper beer-paired meals too. More information on ther Facebook page.

Billie’s Bier Kafétaria, bar in Antwerp

‘t Paters Vaetje

Cozy bar close to the cathedral of our Lady with a similar lay-out to Billie’s bar mentioned above. More information on their website.

't Paters Vaetje, bar in Antwerp 't Paters Vaetje, bar in Antwerp

Captain Zeppos

Nice bar on the Mechelseplein with an original selection of beer. We tried Zeezuiper and Juste, and I would especially recommend the first one. We heard Captain Zeppos serves nice food to, so we had nachos as a starter. Tasty, but most of our chips arrived crumbled, which didn’t help eating them :-) More information on their website.

Captain Zeppos, bar in Antwerp Captain Zeppos, bar in Antwerp Captain Zeppos, bar in Antwerp

Telefoneke

We were longing for a break and some warmth, so when we stumbled upon this atypical bar, we crawled on the couch next to the central heating. Apparently, it was the house cat’s favorite spot too. The walls were adorned with old plaques and an old phone stood on every table. The owner was a bit weird, but somehow that added to the charm of the bar. We ordered two beers and a spaghetti which wasn’t mind-blowing. Nevertheless, we definitely enjoyed our break there. More information on their Facebook page.

Telefoneke, bar in Antwerp Telefoneke, bar in Antwerp Telefoneke, bar in Antwerp Telefoneke, bar in Antwerp Telefoneke, bar in Antwerp

Nice restaurants in Antwerp

Elfde Gebod

This restaurant stands out especially because of its atypical décor. The shelves against the walls are stacked with religious items and statutes. A wink to the cathedral in front of the restaurant, I guess. The menu suggests a series of typical Belgian dishes which go well with Belgian beers, like the Elfde Gebod beer which is brewed especially for this restaurant. We started which shrimp croquettes and ‘bitterballen’ (a Dutch-Flemish kind of deep-fried meatballs), which both were very good. As main course, we opted for the fish stew and the rabbit with plums. For dessert, I had the apple strudel that was strongly recommended by the waiter and which turned out to be a great decision. From the people sitting around us, I could tell tourists easily find their way into this unique restaurant. It’s too bad that the Elfde Gebod doesn’t open as a bar too, or I’m sure it would be flocked with locals too.

Het Elfde Gebod, restaurant in Antwerp Het Elfde Gebod, restaurant in Antwerp Het Elfde Gebod, restaurant in Antwerp Het Elfde Gebod, restaurant in Antwerp Het Elfde Gebod, restaurant in Antwerp

Pelgrom

Once a cozy, dimly-lit cellar bar and totally our kind of place, Pelgrom has undergone a modern make-over and turned into a restaurant. Slightly disappointed by this news, we decided to still give it a try. Despite being a bit too bright, the underground seating area remained relatively cozy. We ordered vol-au-vent and spare-ribs, each paired with a local beer. Although the spare-ribs were exceptionally flavorful, we were a bit disappointed because we had to wait more than an hour and when the food finally came, it wasn’t very hot. All in all, we got the feeling it might be a better idea to eat elsewhere and come here for a beer afterwards.

Pelgrom, restaurant in Antwerp Pelgrom, restaurant in Antwerp

Where to sleep in Antwerp

NH Collection Antwerp Centre

Situated at the back of the Antwerp train station in the famous Diamond Quarter, this four-star hotel is an excellent base to explore the city. Our room sat on the seventh floor with a balcony that overlooked the back of the Antwerp train station. We loved the welcome present: a little platter with two diamond-shaped pralines and red fruit. It struck us how much care was put in the nice presentation and preparation of food at NH Collection Antwerp Centre. In the morning we were also pleasantly surprised by the abundant breakfast options. A selection of sweet and savory dishes were laid out over a 30-meter breakfast buffet. They even offered bubbles for a breakfast in style. I could’ve spend my day here trying all the different buffet options....

Check availability at NH Collection Antwerp Centre .

NH Collection Antwerp Center NH Collection Antwerp Center NH Collection Antwerp Center NH Collection Antwerp Center NH Collection Antwerp Center NH Collection Antwerp Center NH Collection Antwerp Center

Hotel Indigo

Equally situated in the near vicinity of the Antwerp train station, the Indigo hotel is a super trendy and highly Instagrammable hotel. As soon as we got there, we couldn’t help but screen the place on design ideas to copy at home. Our room was situated on the eighth floor and came with a large balcony that offered a nice view over the train station. It featured a very soft bed, pastel-colored walls and modern Scandinavian furniture. Even the bathroom deserves a mention as the combination of pastel-green paint and old tiles creates an amazing vintage look.

Check availability at Hotel Indigo.

Hotel Indigo, Antwerp Hotel Indigo, Antwerp Hotel Indigo, Antwerp Hotel Indigo, Antwerp Hotel Indigo, Antwerp Hotel Indigo, Antwerp Hotel Indigo, Antwerp Hotel Indigo, Antwerp

Antwerp, we’ll be back

Even though we’ve had a lot of interesting impressions during our weekend in Antwerp, there’s still a lot left to explore. Because we visited in Winter, we mainly focused on the indoor activities and took refuge in bars and restaurants by 5PM, when the night fell. It would be nice though to come back in Summer and discover another face of Antwerp. In the meantime, I’m listing a few things here that remain on my to-do list for next time. Let me know if you have more suggestions!

  • The beguinage of Antwerp: a residential area that used to be inhabited by a community of religious women. Today, the small houses centered around the St. Catherine’s church and the inner courtyard offer a haven of silence in an otherwise bustling city.
  • The Botanical Garden: A garden with exceptional trees, cactuses, lots of herbs and foreign plants.
  • Zurenborg: an area in south-east Antwerp that features a high concentration of townhouses in Art Nouveau and other fin-de-siècle styles.
  • PAKT: an modern district booming with start-ups and creative enterprises. Apart from hipster bars and restaurants, it also features a series rooftop gardens which can be visited during a guided tour on Fridays.
  • Brewery De Koninck: a brewery turned interactive beer museum where you can taste De Koninck beer.
  • The Christmas Market: in 2019, it takes place from December 12 to Januari 5. More information about the Antwerp Christmas market - in Dutch or about Winter activities in Antwerp

Grafiti wall in Antwerp

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