View imposing buildings. Stroll down quaint alleyways. Visit museums. Walk under the river. Drink in the city’s oldest pub. Where? In Antwerp’s historic centre!
There’s so much to see in Antwerp’s historic centre that you need far more than a day. However, if you have only a day, here’s a short tour of the beautiful historic centre, with 10 stop-off points. The walk is around 5 km in length (it’s here on RouteYou) so you can do it in a couple of hours. However, if you spend time in the places I mention, you will need to set aside a full day.
1. Grote Markt and Stadhuis
This is our starting point. If you arrive in Antwerp by train, you can walk to the Grote Markt in about 20 minutes, or take a bus which involves a 12-minute ride.
The Grote Markt dates back to the 13th century. But its prime was in the 15th and 16th centuries, when Antwerp was the most important city in the Low Countries. You can imagine it as a bustling centre of commerce with Flemish merchants doing business with traders from all over Europe. It’s surrounded by richly decorated Guild houses and the Stadhuis (town hall), which was completed in 1564. The Grote Markt is particularly attractive in December each year, with its winter market and ice-rink.
2. Brabo’s Fountain, Antwerp
In the middle of the square is the 1887 statue of Brabo, the captain of the Roman army who slayed the giant Druon Antigoon who used to cut off a hand of any ship’s captain who refused to pay the toll to cross the River Schelde. In defiance, Brabo cut off the giant’s hand and threw it into the river; a moment perfectly captured by the statue.
This legend is how Antwerp got its name; it’s a composition of the Dutch words “(h)ant” (hand) and “werpen” (to throw).
Now it’s time to discover something that is easily missed by most tourists. Walk down Oude Koornmarkt and at number 16 you will see a small sign to the Vlaeykensgang.
Here you enter a maze of small alleys, which in the past was a very poor area but is now the location of small antiques shops, art galleries and the rather up-market restaurant Sir Anthony Van Dyck.
4. Cathedral of Our Lady
It took 169 years (1352-1521) of hard work to complete the 123-metre high Cathedral of Our Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal). It’s the highest Gothic building in the Low Countries.
You can view a collection of major artworks, including four works by local artist Peter Paul Rubens. It also houses a 14th century marble statue of the Madonna, wall paintings from the 15th century, and a tabernacle in the form of the Ark of the Covenant.
If you prefer something a bit more intimate, then you might like to spend a while in the 16th century Poorterswoning with its authentic décor, furniture and utensils.
You will discover the life and customs of a rich Antwerp trader from 500 years ago. You can also get a bite to eat or a drink in the cosy cellars.
6. Plantin-Moretus Museum
This is a real gem and the only museum in the world to be recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s the house and printing business of Christophe Plantin and Jan Moretus from the 16th and 17th centuries.
It contains the two oldest printing presses in the world with over 20,000 lead letters, an old bookshop with the original scales for checking the weight of coins, 30,000 ancient books and manuscripts, and an attractive herbal garden in the courtyard. Here’s a video teaser:
7. St. Anna’s Tunnel
And now for something completely different.
Between 1931 and 1933, a tunnel was built under the river to connect both banks. State-of-the-art wooden escalators were installed, and amazingly are still in perfect working order.
So you can take a ride on them, walk under the river, and come out on the other side.
And from there you get some lovely views across the Schelde to the city.
8. Steenplein & Het Steen
After you’ve seen the sights, take the escalator back down and walk back to the city side of the Schelde. Here you can walk along the Steenplein where you can often see interesting vessels moored.
At the end of the Steenplein is Het Steen. This small fairy-tale-like castle is the oldest building in Antwerp, dating back to the 11th century. For 500 years, up to 1823, it was used as a prison. Since then it’s been a home for disabled soldiers, a saw mill, a fish warehouse and a maritime museum.
Its latest reincarnation starts this year (2018) so you can’t go inside until 2020 when it will be re-opened as a welcome centre to Antwerp and a cruise terminal.
9. Museum Vleeshuis
Don’t let the name of this building put you off. Vleeshuis might be translated as Meat House, or Butchers’ Hall, but this refers to when it was built in 1250 as a meat market.
Now, the Vleeshuis is a museum of music. Themes covered include 600 years of music and dance in the city; musical instrument building workshops; methods of printing music; the first opera and concert halls; and the place of music in society.
From the Museum Vleeshuis it’s just a short walk back to your starting point at the Grote Markt
Where to have a drink in Antwerp’s historic centre?
I haven’t mentioned anywhere to eat or drink, as there are so many restaurants and cafés all over this route. However, if you are hungry or thirsty, and fancy going somewhere unique. And if you still have a bit of energy left for a short walk, then I’ve got just the place for you …
10. The oldest pub in Antwerp
The Quinten Matsijs pub dates from 1565. In those days it consisted of two rooms: one for the guests, the other for their horses. No horses today, but lots of character and atmosphere, a list of beers as long as your arm, and some authentic Belgian food on the menu.
The perfect place to round off what hopefully has been a perfect day in Antwerp’s historic centre. Check out my blog post on street art in Antwerp if this is what rocks your boat!