Most of us traveling to Europe have visited, or at least at one point have wanted to visit Brussels, but have you ever considered the other fabulous Belgium city of Antwerp?
By far my favorite city in Europe, Antwerp is full of things to do, see and eat. You’re gonna need more than just a few days to explore this European delight.
Beautiful historical buildings with lots of stories to tell are a dime a dozen in Antwerp and churches make up for a large percentage of those. Take the time to visit some of the churches and of course the Cathedral of Our Lady and prepare to have your mind blown by stepping inside these humongous houses of God. It is really no wonder that the churches of Antwerp are considered some of the most beautiful in the world.
Amongst my personal favorite churches to explore are:
St. Pauluskerk or Saint Paul’s Church
This Roman Catholic church was consecrated in 1571 as a replacement church. The Baroque interior of this church is breathtaking, with a lot of sunlight streaming in through the large windows. Saint Paul’s hosts paintings by Antwerp’s renowned artists like Rubens.
My personal favorite part of this church is the little garden you’ll find on your right, just before the entrance into the church itself. It features beautiful life-sized statues and used to be a cemetery for those hanged on the nearby Veemarkt.
Sint Jacobskerk or Saint James’ Church
This church is built on the site of a hostel for pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela. The interior is absolutely breathtaking and whether you are religious or not, you will find yourself dwelling around the many historical pieces inside this church, including many private burial chapels. Antwerp’s famous painter Rubens got married in this church and was buried here as well. His private grave took 4 years to complete.
Onze Lieve Vrouwe Kathedraal or The Cathedral of Our Lady
This cathedral took 169 years to complete and at 123 meters high it towers over Antwerp’s skyline. It came in very handy as a focal point while I was trying to find my way around the city. Inside it has an impressive collection of some serious art from none other than Rubens of course.
Other Must-Sees in Antwerp
Nello & Patrsche
Just in front of the cathedral lies the sculpture by artist Batist Vermeulen of “Nello & Patrasche”. This statue is a must-see for everyone, especially those who love dogs. The story of Nello and his dog Patrasche is famous all over the world, especially in Japan. The animation movie based on the book about the duo, the Dog of Flanders is watched there every year around Christmas as part of Christmas tradition.
The story is about orphan boy Nello and Patrasche, an abandoned cart dog. The cathedral and the paintings by Rubens play an integral role in the story. Nello, having aspirations of one day becoming a painter himself walks with Patrasche to town everyday to visit the cathedral, where they can admire the paintings by Rubens. Due to a series of setbacks they die together in the cathedral due to hardship.
Antwerpen Centraal or Antwerp’s Central Station
A visit to Antwerp is not complete unless you spend at least a few hours admiring what is in my opinion the jewel of the city, the Central Station. The building is awe-inspiring, breathtaking and every other word in the book with the meaning Gorgeous.
Antwerp’s Central Station is considered one of the most beautiful in the world and was named the fourth most beautiful train station in the world in 2009 by Newsweek. The original building was built between 1895 and 1905, not that old when compared to other historical landmarks in Antwerp.
De Houten Gevel or Oldest Home of Antwerp
Named the oldest house of Antwerp, de Houten Gevel (translated: the wooden facade) was built around 1480, in a time when every other house was built with this distinct pointy top wooden facade. In 1546 it was decided to no longer built wooden homes and to only build with stone to avoid fires from spreading.
The house can be found on Stoelstraat number 11 and remains the only one in its original wooden structure. It has survived 6 wars and today it has been renovated to equip all comforts of a modern day home. It is currently owned by a family and rumor has it that it is apparently rented to visitors from time to time.
The Plantin-Moretus Museum
There is no shortage of museums in Antwerp. Next to the Rubens House, the MAS museum and countless others there is the Plantin-Moretus Museum. It’s the unique home of the Plantin-Moritus families of printers and publishers.
The Plantin Moretus museum is to date the only museum in the world recognized as UNSECO world heritage. It started as a printer and publishing house in 1555 by Frenchman Plantin and was ran by his successor, the Moretus family and finally in 1876 it was sold to the city of Antwerp with strict instructions to turn it into a museum. Do yourself a favor and visit at least the gardens of this museum.
St. Anna’s Tunnel
Not too far from the Plantin-Moretus museum is the underpass, St. Anna’s Tunnel. This is one of my favorite places to visit. It is a functioning tunnel that runs under the river Scheldt. The tunnel is only accessible on foot or on bicycle and connects the right bank of the city to the left.
Those on a bike can take the large elevator and those on foot can use the antique escalators all the way down to the tunnel. The tunnel is 572 meters long.
The Vlaeykensgang or Vlaaikens Alley
This secret alley from the 1500’s is quite hidden and difficult to find. It is so narrow that one can easily overlook its entrance, even with the sign saying “Vlaekensgang” hanging right above its entrance.
The Vlaeykensgang was were the shoemakers lived and they were also in charge of ringing the cathedral’s bells.
De Grote Markt
Just steps away from the Vlaaikens Alley you have the most well known spot in the whole of Antwerp and that is the Grote Markt or the main square. Here is where you find the Brabo Fountain, right in front of the city’s Town Hall. The fountain depicts the history of the city and how it got its name.
Legend has it that there once was a giant that would cut off the hands of captains who refused to pay the toll to enter the city. Brabo was the captain of the Roman army who fought with the giant and cut off his hand and threw it in the river Scheldt. Antwerpen comes from the Dutch term “Hand Werpen” which means to throw the hand.
Great eats and drinks
My brother has been calling Antwerp home for about 20 years. So, whenever I visit I rely on him to take me to the best places to eat and drink. He has introduced me to quite some gastronomical delights on my last trip to “L’Anvers” as the city is called in French.
Gajo Ethiopian Resto Bar
My husband and I started a travel tradition that whenever we visit a city, we must eat at an Ethiopian restaurant. It’s a tradition that I happily continued on my solo travels, much to my husband’s annoyance I might add.
Gajo Ethiopian Resto Bar was a hit. The food was great, the ambience chill and the drinks on point. We had a great time there one very chilly evening. The place was lit up with candles which was very welcoming considering the low temperatures outside. Whether you’re a fan of Ethiopian cuisine or not, Gajo is worth the try. Go early because their kitchen closes early and nobody likes being rushed when trying to order.
My bother and I took the bikes one evening and peddled our way to Shnitzel, a tiny restaurant near the city center with a small ever-changing menu and one of the best Gin cocktails I’ve ever had. That says a lot coming from a non-gin drinker.
The menu was small and comprised of mainly small dishes. The idea is to get an appetizer and multiple “main dishes” and that was exactly what we did. Everything was delicious, from start to finish. In between we sipped on their gin cocktail. Each dish was another delight. The ingredients used by the chef and the way he combined all of those ingredients together was amazing. Definitely two thumbs up.
Prepare to send your tastebuds on an Indian adventure. Mission Masala is not your average Indian restaurant. A Desi Indian Soul Food restaurant, Mission Masala’s food was simply amazing. I’m a huge fan of Indian cuisine and this place did not disappoint. I loved how the owners blended their ethnicities together. Have you ever heard of a Chicken Masala Burger? Me neither, but they have that on the menu and it was divine. In fact, every single dish we had was finger-licking great.
While the food and the cocktails were fantastic blends of spices and herbs, so is the story of the owners of this establishment. The restaurant is owned by Pavan and husband Tim. She is originally from London from North-Indian parents and he is an Antwerp native. Together they own the restaurant and two food trucks. Next to that she works full time in the fashion industry and his profession is a DJ. For some reason they still find the time to run this successful restaurant together. Talk about #goals. Major kudos to these guys.
Mission Masala should definitely be on your Must-Eat place whenever you find yourself in Antwerp. I will be visiting again for sure on my next Antwerp adventure.
Brunch has a a new name and it resembles the name of one of the world’s biggest drug cartel owners. I love the word play here. Such an innovative name for a place with a great ambience and really great breakfast and brunch. Reserve or go early, it tends to get really crowded on weekends.
I call this place the center for creative minds. Het Bos or the Forest in English, is located in an old building, its walls covered in graffiti, posters and art pieces. Artists brush shoulders with fashion designers, writers and painters but “common folk like myself are made to feel very welcome as well.
Het Bos has a kitchen that has a killer brunch on Sundays. The chef is my darling friend Charlotte and she is a true culinary artist herself. The bar serves cocktails made with ginger and hibiscus and home made ice cream with flavors like peach and avocado. If you want to try something different when in Antwerp, visit Het Bos, particularly on Sundays. I promise it will not disappoint. Go for a drink or drop by for an art exposition or concert. It’s truly an awesome hangout.
Viggo’s Specialty Coffee Bar
My base whenever I’m in Antwerp is Viggo’s, a Scandinavian inspired coffee bar on a funky square close to the library in Antwerp. Here is where I would sit down with a great cup of decaf latte with honey and oats milk and plan the day ahead. The atmosphere is super chill and the coffee great.
Located right next to the Cathedral in the city center is Elfde Gebod or Eleventh Commandment. You will never dine or drink alone here as the entire place is filled with patrons of a different kind. Statues of different saints are found upstairs, downstairs and everywhere. The bar is stocked with almost all of the best Belgian beers, including my favorite the Westmaller Triple. Let me tell you, having a beer with the saints is a holy experience you do not want to miss when in Antwerp.
Next to all of the above and the easy public transport system, friendly people, different ethnicities and just an awesome vibe, Antwerp is also known for its fashion. Home of the Antwerp Six, a group of highly regarded fashion designers who graduated from Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts and are now viewed as royalty of the city’s fashion industry, Antwerp is full of great fashion houses like Dries van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester. This is one topic I do not know much about but my little brother does. In fact, he is knee-deep in the fashion industry as the partner of Jan Jan of the up and coming fashion label Jan Jan van Esche.
You didn’t think I would write a whole piece on the city of Antwerp and not include my brother’s fabulous store and Jan Jan’s amazing fashion label, did you?
Located in an area where you would not expect to find a designer store is Atelier Solarshop. What started as a pop up-shop for small designers to showcase their work and a location for avant-garde events has now grown into one of the best design shopping secrets in Antwerp. The shop is owned by Piëtro Celestina, my brother. You can literally almost hear big sister’s immense pride in these words.
Next to unique collectibles that are carefully selected by Piëtro himself, Atelier Solarshop is mostly known as a platform for artists and designers, including Jan Jan van Esche. The store thrives as an alternative for treasure hunters looking for “beautiful stuff” and has been in operation since 2008. It is located in an old solar panel shop, hence the name. Piëtro and Jan Jan decided to keep the name and add the word “Atelier” in the front.
Atelier Solarshop is located at Dambruggestraat 48, walking distance from Antwerp’s Central Station.
Have you been to Antwerp? If so, what would you add to this list.
*The above is based on my personal experience and opinion