Its heyday may have been centuries ago, but when you fly to Antwerp you’ll see that behind its Flemish facades, a renaissance is underway.
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With half a day to fill, head to the historic city centre and dive into 16th-century Antwerp. A fitting start is the awe-inspiring 16th-century Cathedral of Our Lady. Don’t miss the paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, Antwerp’s most famous painter.
Continue your Rubens education with a visit to the spectacular Rubenshuis museum. Set in the artist’s former home and studio, the museum is a special place to admire 14 of his works. Behind the house is a beautiful late-Renaissance garden lined with benches – maybe a good spot for a snack.
From Rubenshuis, head to Grote Markt. Take a step back in time with a walk down Vlaeykensgang. The atmospheric cobbled lane was built in 1591 and looks much the same as it has for centuries. Poke your head into the antique shops as you wander.
Grote Markt is a picturesque square dominated by the imposing city hall, but the typical Flemish facades are even more charming. Grab a seat at a café on the square and order a bolleke, local slang for a glass of De Koninck beer, and some Belgian fries. Enjoy the atmosphere as you lunch.
To cap off your time in Antwerp, head to the fascinating Museum Plantin-Moretus, the world’s first museum to be awarded UNESCO World Heritage status. The museum houses to the oldest printing press in the world, as well as a library that dates back to 1640.
If you’ve followed most of the half-day itinerary, you should now be more or less an expert on 16th-century Antwerp. So it’s time to explore the modern side to the city. A good place to start is with a morning of shopping. Antwerp is a major international fashion destination, thanks to top designers like Dries van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester, part of a group of designers called the Antwerp Six. The acclaimed designers graduated from Antwerp's Royal Academy of Fine Arts in the early 1980s and have made waves in the fashion industry ever since.
Walk down Meir, a famous shopping street lined with beautiful outlets of designer shops. Step inside the Stadsfeestzaal, a glamorous shopping mall in a former exhibition hall from 1908. A fire destroyed much of the structure in 2000, but a renovation brought the space back to its former glory.
Make time to explore the newly revitalised Het Eilandje neighbourhood, the site of the city’s oldest port. Antwerp is still a major port city, and understanding its maritime history is essential to understanding the Antwerp of today. Enjoy an afternoon exploring the city’s maritime history at the excellent MAS museum’s galleries and visiting special exhibitions. At the end, take the escalator up to the top floor for the spectacular view over Antwerp.
Hop on a tram to De Koninck, the oldest brewery in Antwerp, and learn more about Belgian beers and brewing on an interactive, multimedia tour. If you’d like, use your newfound knowledge to taste a few brews, and order some cheese from the in-house cheesemonger. For dinner, head to one of Antwerp’s charming cafés for authentic moules frites.
In the evenings, do like the locals and duck into a brown café for a drink. Head for the streets that surround the Cathedral of Our Lady and pop into whichever café catches your eye. There’s no faster way to mingle with the locals.
Antwerp may be small, but its winding alleys and grand boulevards are packed with wonders to discover. With an entire week to explore the city, you’ll be able to catch the full roster of weekly events to experience true Antwerp local life.
Days 1 and 2
Spend the first couple of exploring the best of Antwerp city centre, from its 16-century architecture to its world-famous brewing. Potter down picturesque side streets, enjoy a beer or two and take the in the city’s culture, history and nightlife.
Time to get adventurous. Get a day pass and hop on a Velo Antwerpen bike and peddle out to Rivierenhof Park, possibly the city’s most beautiful park. En route, stop at a market to pick up some picnic supplies and treat yourself to an idyllic alfresco lunch with a view of the park’s castle.
Alternatively, cycle to Middelheim to see the fascinating open-air sculpture museum. The Scheldt River is another pleasant setting for a bike ride, with plenty of museums and coffee shops along the way.
With the Antwerpen-Centraal Station in the heart of the city, taking the train to Antwerp’s surrounding towns and cities is simple. For something close by, take the train to Lier, just 10 miles (16km) southeast of Antwerp. It’s a compact and charming riverside town with enough sites to fill a half day. Take a camera down photogenic Lier Begijnhof street and snap some shots of the 14th-century Zimmer Tower with its incredible Jubilee Clock, which shows the sun and moon, the tides and the zodiac.
After Lier, get back on the train and continue southeast to Tongeren, Belgium’s oldest town. Tongeren, with its Roman city walls and the Gallo-Romeins Museum, houses a rich collection of Roman artefacts. While you’re in town, pop into the Gothic cathedral, and, if you’re travelling on a Sunday, visit the bustling antique market 0600–1300.
A city that warrants a full day’s visit is Ghent. Just under an hour by train from Antwerp, Ghent has some of Belgium’s most important sites. Art lovers should head straight to the Museum of Fine Arts, which is filled with Belgian masterpieces. The imposing 12th-century castle Gravensteen is fascinating to explore, especially with children in tow. Ghent is also renowned for its Flemish cuisine, so make a point of staying for dinner before heading back to Antwerp.
On Fridays from 0900 to 1300 a lively local market sells knick-knacks, furniture and antiques next to the Museum Plantin-Moretus. The next day, visit the Exotic Market bundles foods from around the world – Moroccan, Indian, and Turkish – in to Antwerp Theaterplein square, 0800–1600. You can easily spend a few hours filling your bag with cheese, spices and specialities from across the planet.
On Sundays, meanwhile, the quirky Vogelenmarkt sells jewellery, clothes, flowers, antiques and, yes, birds. The ‘bird market’ takes over Oudevaartplaats, Theaterplein and the surrounding streets from 0800 to 1300. Also on Sundays, an organic food market sells its healthy wares on Falconplein 0800–1600.