Not long ago I spent a little over 3 weeks wandering around Europe. In an effort to see all the friends I know who live there, I stopped off in Antwerp, Belgium to see a friend and thought, since this is such a significant historical city, I’ll explore it as much as possible and see what it has to offer. I can tell you that to know Antwerp is to spend some time there. It is not a city you can get the “feel” for by being there for just a couple of days. In my opinion, Barcelona, Zurich and Milan are very similar in that you really need to be there awhile to get the overall vibe, learn where things are and get into the local community. Antwerp is not like Amsterdam or New Orleans where the places to go and things to see are more obvious. Antwerp is the diamond capital of the world and with that comes a subtlety and a quality about its culture that takes time to know. But, if you only have a day or two to spend in Antwerp, here are my thoughts on what you can do!
Stay in the Centre or Antwerp South
I recommend this from experience. I stayed in a hotel outside of the Centre, or historic district, and wish I hadn’t. Luckily that caused me to meet a great guy and travel buddy from Belgium but that’s another story. The Centre and Antwerp South (Zuid) are the heart of Antwerp and it’s where all the energy, fun and interesting things are going on. This is where the arts, parks, the zoo and the shopping happen. The Centre is lively all day long and has plenty of really quaint little places to hang out safely at night. Antwerp South is more “yuppyish” and seems to be an artsy, eclectic center of activity making it have a really unique and fun vibe. From my limited experience, there really isn’t much sense in staying anywhere else in Antwerp than in the Centre or Antwerp South because everything that is historic, fashionable and locally significant seems to be based here.
Interesting sites in Antwerp Centre:
- Cathedral of our Lady – standing 400 ft. tall and built in 1351, this Gothic cathedral is an easy-to-spot landmark on the Antwerp skyline.
- Old Market Square/City Hall – beautiful architecture, this is the historic center of Antwerp, Belgium
- Antwerp Zoo – I personally do not attend zoos, but this is one of the oldest in the world with over 4,000 animals and great architecture.
- Rubershuis – the home of famous artist Peter Paul Rubens, it is now a museum.
- Vlaeykensgang – “the hidden street” is accessible through medieval doors you’ll barely notice. It is an actual street with nice shops, pretty cool!
- St. Paul’s Church – a really cool old church with a rich history you may be interested to learn.
- Middelheim sculpture museum – south of the Centre, this place is full of interesting artwork and it’s a beautiful green space.
Interesting sites in Antwerp South (Zuid):
- Het Muntplein – a designated space where graffiti artists can paint. It’s really cool actually and I saw some great art.
- Kloosterstrat – this is the main street that connects Antwerp Centre with Antwerp South. It’s a great shopping area.
- Zurenborg neighbourhood – an eclectic area filled with really unique 19th century architecture.
- De Singel – this is the cultural hub of Antwerp South with plenty of large concert venues and a lot of great bars and shops too.
Absolutely Rent a Bike
Hands down, this is the best way to explore Antwerp, Belgium. You can get around really quickly and the narrow streets and alleys are perfect for this type of exploration. People ride bikes all over the place, so look up a local bike rental and get one. They’ll also offer really affordable city tours that will help you get a great feel for the city during the day so you can take advantage of the fun Antwerp has to offer at night. I highly recommend a bike rental as a first step in your plans to visit Antwerp, you’ll be glad you did.
Cross the River
It’s a simple pedestrian tunnel, called St. Anna Tunnel, that gets you to the other side, opposite Antwerp Centre. Once you’re across the Schelde River, you have some of the absolute best photography opportunities to capture the old Antwerp city skyline. It’s just a couple of minutes to walk across and absolutely worth it.
Stop at a Fritkoten or Chocol
Belgians take a lot of pride in their Belgian fries (like French fries) and there are tons of little places called fritkoten scattered all around the city that have a good variety of fried food options. Of course the most popular tourist item to try would be the Belgian fries. I tried a couple of rounds of Belgian fries and honestly thought they were pretty boring, but you gotta try it while in Belgium right? Belgium fries pale in comparison to McDonald’s fries (this coming from a fitness guy), I’m just sayin’! There are also a lot of little sandwich shops called Pitta and Shoarma shops where you can grab some quick tasty food and they tend to stay open very late. The chocolate shops (chocol) however are another level of interesting entirely. Belgian chocolate is out of this world! I’m sure there are various grades of quality, but all I know is I loved it and loved the textures, the presentation and everything about it!
Note: McDonald’s was the only place in the Centre I could find an early breakfast. Most restaurants don’t open until around 11:30AM with most opening at noon. McDonald’s also has free Wi-Fi, so it was a nice find and very central to the entire Centre of Antwerp.
What You’ll Spend
I found that each day in Belgium, not including my very cheaply priced hotel (I always look for hotels undergoing renovation in Europe – they’re much cheaper) was about $90-$110 American. I spent all day, each day exploring the city, eating whatever I wanted and drinking beer as I pleased and felt like this was a very reasonably priced city for a traveler who is coming just to hang out, eat, drink and have fun. Of course you’ll spend much more if you are going to buy souvenirs and shop at the nice retail spaces, but my backpack and I don’t have room for any of that so your budget could far exceed mine if you do that kind of thing. I’d recommend that you expect to spend $100 American per day at minimum unless you are purposefully being thrifty. Aside from lodging costs, I would estimate that a very thrifty person could hang out in Antwerp for about $30-$40 a day.
The Pubs Don’t Close
Antwerp has more pubs per capita than any city on Earth. There are simply too many to list, but I recommend using TripAdvisor or Yelp to help you find which pubs suit your interests most. Remember, some of these are hundreds of years old and the variety of beers can be pretty overwhelming. At first I didn’t know where to start – so I just started, and I can assure you that a good time was had my friends! Try the pubs if you enjoy drinking beer, you’ll definitely find your vibe in Antwerp, Belgium.
These are my thoughts on a 24-48 hour stay in Antwerp, Belgium. The city is very old, very dynamic and really interesting. As you may tell, Antwerp (and Belgium in general) is not one of my favorite places in Europe. This is not to say that Antwerp and the country of Belgium do not have tremendous opportunities for the traveler, because they do. You just have to know where to look to find the quality experiences and that can take some time – which I plan on doing soon. In the end, I really enjoyed the privilege of being able to spend time in Antwerp and hope to visit for a longer period of time in the near future.
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