Five Places to Visit in Antwerp in One Day
If you like art, architecture, history or chocolate, and you’re entering or leaving Belgium via the border with the Netherlands, you can see the following highlights in Antwerp in one day. The city deserves more time than that, of course, but I had to make do with the 12 hours I had.
Antwerp Central Station
Arriving in Antwerp by train? This should be easy to check out. Opened in 1905, it’s one of the world’s most beautiful train stations. The same cannot be said of some of the buildings around it, unfortunately, like the Radisson hotel on the other side of Astridplein.
It draws on so many different styles but they somehow work together. For instance, there’s art deco in the dome, while the arches scream Renaissance. The liberal use of glass allows plenty of light into the entrance hall. Look down and you’ll also find plenty of dropped jaws on the floor.
Turn left and head west as you leave the station and walk past the restaurants and jewellers. Cross the tram tracks to reach the Meir shopping district. There are plenty of restored Rococo houses along the pedestrianised streets, so take a leisurely stroll and enjoy the view from the outside. You may not be inclined to step inside, however; most of them are occupied by retail chains.
There are a few exceptions, though. There’s an excellent chocolate shop in the Paleis op de Meir (No. 50). While there are no samples, it’s free to explore the kitchen that once served Napoleon Bonaparte.
The house of Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens stands on the Wapper, just off the Meir. It was closed when I was there. As for his works, several of them can be viewed elsewhere in Antwerp.
Cathedral of Our Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal)
At the end of the Meir, you’ll find the Groenplaats, marked by a statue of Rubens. Behind it stands the tallest church in the Lowlands. It has a chequered past: the second tower was never completed, while the interior has been thrashed by iconoclasts and French revolutionaries.
Some treasures remain, though, like the Trompe-l’oeil dome by Cornelius Schut. It features the Blessed Virgin Mary, whom the cathedral is dedicated to, ascending into heaven.
The cathedral also houses three of Rubens’ altarpieces. This one, The Descent from the Cross, is popular with readers of the children’s novel A Dog of Flanders. Without giving away too much of the story, this is one of the paintings that the protagonist desires to see, but he is too poor to do so.
Antwerp’s main square and city hall are right next to the Cathedral. Along with the usual mix of bars and restaurants, there are also sculptures and fountains, such as that of Brabo and the Giant’s hand.
On the bank of the River Scheldt stands Het Steen (The Stone), a replica of part of the city’s old fortress.
The Left Bank (Linkeroever)
The best place to appreciate the skyline of old Antwerp is on the other side of the Scheldt. From Het Steen, follow the street and head south-west. Take either the wooden escalator or the lift down to the Art Deco Sint Annatunnel (St Anna’s Tunnel). It gets pretty draughty along the 500-metre stretch but the view of the Cathedral and the Boerentoren (Europe’s oldest modern skyscraper) is a rewarding one.