Antwerp is a perfect combination of absolute grit and shock-value creative. It is also work-a-day while being cultural. It is a city reborn from post-World War II depths of destruction. It’s a city we would absolutely recommend – no insist – that you spend a couple of days exploring.
Arrival in Antwerp is fun. The central train station — often referred to as one of the most remarkable train stations in the world — is 4 stories of arrival tracks (four freaking stories!). Situated equi-distant between Brussels and Amsterdam, the arrival and departure by train is remarkable and part of the tour.
Amazingly, Antwerp boasts some of our favorite places in all of Europe.
- Antwerp has one of our favorite museums – the Red Star Lines Museum
- Antwerp has one of our favorite cathedrals – Cathedral of Our Lady
- Antwerp has one of our favorite breweries – de Koninck Brewery
While most sites in Antwerp are far afield from each other, the city becomes much smaller by using Antwerp’s docked bicycle system. It is super easy to use and there are docks in all of the central tourist areas. Sign up is easy and the cost is minimal at 4 Euros for a day pass and free rides under 30 minutes. Given the separation between many of the locations noted below, we highly recommend the city bikes to be able to see Antwerp’s top sites.
The Red Star Line Museum
Two million passengers travelled from Antwerp, the Red Star Line’s main European port, to North America on board Red Star Line ships. The museum focuses on their stories, of the Red Star Line that transported them, and of Antwerp, the city and port from which they embarked on their journeys.
It is a compelling museum that takes you on a journey from the emigrants’ home towns in Eastern Europe and travels in their literal footsteps through the Red Star Line terminal before their departure to North America. The history of the Red Star Line is equally interesting as it served as an export source for the Pennsylvania Railroad for goods leaving North America and those ships would return to North America with people.
Finally, this may be the oldest evidence of Customs pre-clearance we are aware of; the U.S. and Canada had authorities in the Red Star Line terminal to pre-clear passengers for the travel across the Atlantic. This made sense from a commercial consideration since it was on the shipping company to bring back any people who were denied entry.
The revitalized dock lands and the MAS
The dock lands area is a bit sprawling in size but one of the more hip neighborhoods of Antwerp. Here, its easy to quickly observe Antwerp’s quirky culture through the architectural gems of the MAS (pictured above) and the Customs house (below).
The neighborhood restaurants and pubs look inviting and fun. The revitalization of this area all began with the MAS, which offers a great panorama view of the city from its rooftop.
Weirdly, the Grote Markt square is not actually square, it’s triangular in shape. But the reason for being here is not that, its to see the famous guild houses built in the Flemish style during the Renaissance and Antwerp’s city hall (an impressive structured, apparently, but one that is under construction through 2020).
The centerpiece of the square, however, is the Brabo Fountain. It depicts the protagonist of Antwerp’s most famous legend of the mythical hero Brabo. According to the Legend, the giant Antigoon demanded a high toll for each ship that wanted to enter the city. If the ship’s crew did not want to pay the toll, their hands were cut off. The hero Brabo fought the giant, cut its hand and head and threw the hand in the river Scheldt. The gore is palpable in the fountain’s statue. Antigoon lays at the base with water spouting from his wounds and pouring out of his severed arm and head. The top of the fountain’s statue depicts Brabo throwing the giant’s hand in the river.
Cathedral of Our Lady
Just steps off of the Grote Markt is the Cathedral of Our Lady, a masterful cathedral that likely goes uncounted as one of Europe’s great cathedrals. It is the largest cathedral in the Dutch-speaking world and home to four Peter Paul Rubens masterpieces: The Assumption of the Virgin, The Raising of the Cross, The Descent from the Cross, and The Resurrection of Christ. These works are largely presented en situ alongside other works commissioned for the altarpiece of the church.
Combining a church with an art museum makes for a very dramatic backdrop. It is also remarkable to see these masterpieces in the setting for which they were intended by the artist. The colors are much more meaningful when set against the dark and gothic/neo-gothic interior of a church.
St. Anna’s Tunnel
While it appears to be nothing more than a novelty with its 1930s original wooden escalators and the monotonous 1,876 feet of ceramic tiles lining the walls of this tunnel, the St. Anna’s Tunnel is used regularly by Antwerp’s commuters to cross the River Scheldt (mostly by bicycle). The ride down and back up is all we would recommend unless a shoreside view of the old city is what you want. If so, grab a city bike to make the trek across faster.
de Koninck Brewery
Located in the southern part of the city, just a ten minute ride by city bicycle from Grote Markt, is the de Koninck brewery. A brewery has been located on this spot from 1833, just three years after Belgium was created. Having changed hands through the family several times, the beer is nonetheless still brewed on location under the Duvel Brewery’s ownership.
The brewery tour is amazing with interactive exhibits for enjoyment at your own pace and the makes beer-making fun. The best part are the two beers you have along the tour. And if that isn’t enough, the pub co-located on the grounds is a spectacular way to try a few more with their beer sampler.
Antwerp is a very fun, cool, and hip city. We thoroughly enjoyed the day-trip from Brussels and look forward to returning again soon.