With its Flemish Renaissance architecture, abundance of baroque art-filled galleries and storied diamond district, Antwerp is a goldmine of historic sights. Amble down cobbled lanes, hop on a train or clamber into a tram to discover the vast collection of cultural gems peppered across the city. To help you narrow it down, we’ve picked some of our favourite Antwerp attractions…
Before you set off, please note the current COVID regulations, only travel if it is safe to do so and make sure to book ahead if necessary.
The Grote Markt (big marketplace) of Antwerp isn’t as big as you might think. It’s certainly nowhere near as impressive as that of Brussels and significantly smaller than its counterpart in Bruges. You’ll see the statue of the previously mentioned giant throwing the hand of the non-tax payer right in the middle of the square, or rather the triangle. Behind the statue, a row of guildhalls and a gothic city hall built in 1565 create a very continental backdrop. But the best thing about the Grote Markt is the maze of tiny streets that spring out of it, taking you throughout the oldest part of the city or up to the Scheldt river. You won’t get lost, just wander and stop off at a friendly café every now and again.
Cathedral of Our Lady
It’s impossible to admire this cathedral in its true glory due to the many buildings that sit at its feet, one of them being the Elfde Gebod café and restaurant. A place of Christian worship has stood on this site for more than a thousand years, with the current cathedral built over Romanesque chapel between 1362 and 1521. The chapel was demolished in the late 15th century. This important cathedral’s interior is decorated by works of art by Pieter Paul Rubens, Marten de Vos, Frans Francken and Adam van Noort but in terms of Catholic decor is quite understated. Our Lady’s cathedral has withstood fires, wars and very angry Protestants. It remains unfinished with just one 123 metre spire instead of two.
Like chocolate? Even if you don’t, a visit to the world’s biggest chocolate museum might be enough to tempt savoury teeth, too. The fact that you get to try before you buy is certainly worth the 90-minute tour that follows the cocoa bean on its long, long journey from plantation almost all the way to the loo. Chocolate Nation is located opposite the central train station, next to the gate that indicates Chinatown (but is merely there for show). Your tour will transport you through 14 different rooms that use digital media and lots of samples to douse your brain and taste buds in the world’s best chocolate – Belgian chocolate.
Vlaeykensgang (Vly-kans-gang) is the Diagon Alley of Antwerp, connecting the Hoogstraat with the Oude Koornmarkt in much its original 16th century state. A vlaeyken is old Flemish for a tart; a bakery and waffle house gave this tiny street its name. Gang still means a corridor or alley. This relatively unknown address used to be home to poorer citizens. Now the richest come to eat at the Sir Anthony Van Dyck restaurant, watching through the windows as tourists spin to take stunning shots or buy antiques at tourist prices. That’s if the tourists can find the entrance (Oude Koornmarkt number 16). Vlaeykensgang still stands thanks to the Belgian designer Axel Vervoordt who saved it from demolition in 1969. It would have become a car park. As this area is now a pedestrian zone, this gorgeous step back into the past would have been destroyed for nothing.
If you walk along the banks of the Scheldt, you’ll see the castle known as Het Steen (the Stone Fortress). This is Antwerp’s oldest building, built as an attempt to protect the river banks from Viking invasion. Its gates are decorated by the statue of a rather crafty and irritatingly moralistic giant known as Lange Wapper (Tall Oaf). Antwerp obviously has a giant fixation. There is also a partially destroyed plaque of a phallic saint at the entrance of Het Steen that features Semini, a Scandinavian fertility god. Antwerp women visited him when they wanted to get pregnant and the city’s inhabitants often called themselves ‘Children of Semini’ because of this. The Jesuits removed Semini’s very popular appendage in the late 16th century; this may or may not have had something to do with Antwerp’s decline around the same period. Het Steen is now being renovated to become a cruise-ship drop off point, tourist centre and the site of an interactive introduction to Antwerp’s history. But it still serves as an incredible backdrop for any picture and reminds you of the city’s past in a largely industrial part of town.