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. Here is the map of the route:
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.
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.
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 decor, 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.
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:
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.
Steenplein and 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 is as a welcome centre to Antwerp and a cruise terminal.
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
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 …
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 interests you.
Wooden escalators very impressive. We hope to visit a wee bit of Belgium in September!
Super. Keep me informed of your travel plans, and if you need any advice …
Thanks Denzil I shall!
Thanks for this, Denzil. I thought I knew Antwerp quite well but there are lots of things still to discover.
So did I Vivienne but was surprised at what I discovered. And this was just in a very small area. Thanks for commenting.
What a great introduction to the city, Denzil, and an interesting story behind the name too. Those escalators are something else! That surely is a unique way of ‘crossing’ a river. Wonderful buildings and nooks and crannies. Right up my alley. 🙂 🙂
I already have 🙂 🙂
I think you’re right – perhaps a week would be good. The roof line of those buildings is so pretty. I took so many photos just like yours. Interesting that Brabo wasn’t wearing any clothes when he slew the giant. 🙂
Ha these Romans Carol! Can’t cut a giant’s hand off without cavorting around naked!
Perhaps it was a nudist army.
Such a beautiful old city. Thanks for the tour!
Thanks Eliza it’s one of those cities where the more you look, the more you find.
What a wonderful walk, and a fabulous plan for a day in Antwerp. Hoping to return to your beautiful Belgium this year as we so enjoyed our trip last July, so must remember this!
Let’s hope it’s as sunny as it was when I was there. Bring some of that Algarvian sunshine with you Becky!
Beautiful pictures! Antwerp looks like a great city to walk about!
Yes, one of the great advantages of Belgian cities is that they are not particularly big, so you can easily walk around and see the highlights without feeling you’ve walked a couple of marathons.
That was very interesting. Loved the video and I’m impressed by that wooden escalator.
Thanks Jennifer, yes the escalator had a wonderful warm smell of wood and oil!
That makes it even better!
Antwerp looks so lovely and I’ll remember this post and all its tips for when I do eventually visit.
It will be waiting for you Hayley.
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Gorgeous Pics, Denzil! I’ve got so many places to travel to on my bucket list because of all of you wonderful bloggers sharing your countries. I’ve added Belgium to my list! It looks like a beautiful place. Thanks for sharing your country with us. 🙂
It sounds like you need a bathtub list Lisa
I do, Denzil!
I’ve been to Belgium a few times, but never to Antwerp – that will need to change soon! I loved learning about the legend of how the city got its name and the hallway with the wooden escalators that takes you to the other side of the river. And of course the beer in Belgium is the best in the world 🙂
Thanks Erin, you have an interesting website. You certainly have a lot of experience of traveling in Europe.
Thanks! I wish I could travel more often, but it’s hard with a young kiddo at home. One day I hope to move there 🙂
I know that feeling well!
Never done Belgium but I keep hearing good things – you’re not helping lol! Great post
These are amazing photos and sights, Denzil. A lot looks familiair from visits with my cousin, and from when I was much younger. Havenâ€™t been to that pub, though! Antwerp is a fascinating underdog of a Belgian city!
Yes I am always surprised at how much there is to see there. I have not even mentioned the Rubens Walk!
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Thank you for such a lovely tour Denzil. I like the idea of going on that escalator.
Yes that seemed to have captured the interest of quite a few readers. It was a lovely creaky, rumbling, well-oiled experience!
This is wondrous, Denzil! You’ve found all the types of sights I like to see on my wanders. It seems that I only go to Antwerp when I have specific errands to run, so I think Billy and I need to take a jaunt up there in the coming months to spend a day. Thanks especially for noting the little antique streets… they’re right up my alley! 😉
Yes Wendy I can envisage one of your wondrous wanders in and around Antwerp centre! http://www.wondrouswanders.com/
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Thank you for describing my city, or part thereof, so wonderfully well. The tunnel escalators bring many memories of daily travels from St.Anneke to school on the other side of the river Schelde. Lovely photos.
Ah so you are an Antwerpenaar! That’s interesting. But you live now in Ireland, is that correct?
Yes that’s correct, and after so many years I still miss Antwerp (nostalgy) and Lier 🙂
Lier is one place I must visit! 31 years in Belgium and never been there!
You will love it I think. Zimmer toren etc…. and the beautiful river and buildings along it.
What an amazing treasure trove of architecture! I love the wooden escalators–so unusual and interesting. Saving my Euros for a visit!
Yes Henry, and the escalators are still in good working order too.