In the Netherlands we lived 5 miles from the Belgium border. And crossing the border really meant crossing a frontier, despite that small distance.
As soon as you are in the neighborhood of the border you can see that the street is different (ask any professional cyclist – Belgian cobblestone roads are famous), the houses are built with materials we don’t use in the Netherlands and on a back road it even shows that nature looks different. In the Netherlands everything is clean cut, Belgium is cozier.
For Tom and me Antwerp was closer by than Amsterdam, so if we wanted to sniff some culture we usually went there. What to see in Antwerp? There is a lot of variety and the terraces are great!
Folkloric origin of the name
A giant called Antigoon lived near the Scheldt river. He demanded a toll from passing boatmen, severed the hand of anyone who refused to pay, and threw it in the river. Eventually the giant was killed by a young hero named Silvius Brabo, who cut off the giant’s own hand and flung it into the river.
Throwing hands is hand werpen in Flemish. Altered to Antwerpen or Antwerp in English. The story of Brabo is depicted in the fountain across the Town Hall.
What to see in Antwerp?
Usually when you are in an unknown city, you will visit the center with the occasional church and museum, won’t you? Well, that’s what we do anyway. Nowadays we either Goggle for information or visit the tourist office for a sightseeing map.
In Antwerp most highlights can be visited on foot. The center is cozy and car-free for the bigger part. So you can stroll around at your leisure, marvel at the shops and grab a terrace chair for a Belgium beer.
The Gothic Cathedral is surrounded by authentic old houses. And yes, I know that real estate agents use that term if they in fact mean worn out and almost a ruin, but we are not visiting to search for a house to live there. We are sightseeing. 🙂 And I rather like the atmosphere over there.
Beautiful guild houses
The Grote Markt, the central square, has magnificent 16th century guild houses and the Baroque town hall. Antwerp is a harbor city, making trade an important source of income. And in those days a lot of craftsmen from Spain and Portugal fled here because in those days the low-lands were quite tolerant.
Close to the Grote Markt there is a guild house called the Vleeshuis. I don’t expect it to be in the top-10 of the tourist guides, but it is a museum well worth a visit. Especially if you like music. In addition to an overview of the old butchers’ guild (vlees means meat), there are many old instruments on display.
You should definitely visit my all-time favorite museum Plantin-Moretus. Plantin and Moretus were 16th century printers. The museum is housed in the original building where they lived and worked. The overview of the old craft of making books is magnificent.
When I was an art teacher at the start of my working life I always visited the museum with my students. So I can’t count the number of times I have been there and it never ever bored me. Did I already tell you to really go and see it?
The less familiar places
Open air museum Middelheim
The second spot I would go to on the field trips with my students either included the Vleeshuis or statue park Middelheim, depending on the weather. It’s a free accessible city park with 19th, 20th and 21st century statues and installations. Many of the works belong to the permanent collection, but there are also regularly temporary exhibitions.
When the sun is shining it’s great to sit on the grass. You’re not allowed to, but the Belgians are not that strict with rules. There are several cafes so you don’t have to be short on beverages or food. A lot of the Sinjoren – the nickname of the people of Antwerp – go there to spend a lazy Sunday.
The harbor area
One sunny summer morning Tom and I walked around through the Dokskes. This is a part of the harbor that is situated in Merksem, one of the suburbs. I really love industrial areas because they are so photogenic.
There are warehouses, bridges, rusty and shiny factories. A photographer’s paradise. And on weekends it’s quiet, so I could point and shoot without much hassle.
Zurenborg, an almost forgotten area
One day we were invited by a Belgian friend to join her on a tour in Zurenborg. I had never heard of the area, so I was intrigued. The place turned out to be a real pearl.
The district was meant to be an industrial place, but by lack of interest it was turned into a residential area in the late 19th and early 20th century. It’s one of the few areas that is developed according to an urban plan with beautiful houses in Jugendstil, Art Nouveau and Neo Classicism style.
The maintenance of these kinds of houses is really expensive, but a lot of inhabitants are making an effort to restore them. As you can see in the picture below two of the three houses (the middle and the right one) are refurbished, while the left part is waiting for better times.
The best part of Belgium
Food, drinks and happy gatherings
We call it a Burgundy lifestyle. The Belgians know how to enjoy life much more than the Dutch, or so it seems to me. Being in the company of Belgians always involves a visit to a cafe or restaurant.
The Dutch and Belgians have a relationship that is comparable to the English and the Scots. They are very similar, but with enough differences to have the occasional animosity. The Dutch are notorious for being very direct. Belgians are less outspoken and either keep their opinion to themselves or are more careful when they express it.
Maybe because we were from ‘below the rivers’ (The Dutch are divided in the Netherlandsers, from above the rivers and the soft G tongues from below the rivers), but we could always get along with our Belgian friends quite well. Making our visits across the border really enjoyable. 🙂
Have you ever visited Belgium? Tell me in the comment box.
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8 thoughts on “What to See in Antwerp, Belgium. Including Unknown Hot Spots”
I’ve been to Belgium once, but I didn’t visit Antwerp. I remembered I visit Amsterdam and Brugge (a very beautiful city!). Your article makes me wanna visit Belgium again, especially Antwerp. Since you mentioned the Belgium lifestyle is to eat and meet at a cafe or restaurant, did you recommend any of them from this visit too? I will be happy to hear more recommendations from your travels.
LOL, I do hope, Matt, that you realise that Amsterdam is in the Netherlands and not in Belgium, ROFLOL. We are both small countries, but obviously have our pride. 😉
And you’re absolutely right, Brugge is one of the most beautiful cities of Belgium. The main reason I like Antwerp more myself, is that Brugge is way too touristic. Everything there is for the sake of the tourists , not because it is part of a normal life anymore.
Antwerp is a lively world city where a lot of people also just live and work. For me, that makes it more authentic.
I knew a tremendous fish restaurant in Antwerp, with the simple name Viskeuken (Fish Kitchen). One of the best restaurants as far as food was concerned. The atmosphere was crap – TL lights and Formica tables, which was one of the reasons I loved it. As you can imagine I was very disappointed to find out one visit that it no longer exists.
That makes it hard to recommend any place. Cafes and restaurants come and go, and I am not living closeby enough anymore to go and see for myself. 🙂
I’ve never visited Belgium but definitely hoping to start travelling again as soon as the pandemic is over. Zurenborg looks like a nice area to visit for someone who appreciates the local heritage. Thanks for sharing some travel ideas here.
As a Belgian, I can absolutely agree with the relationship you described between Dutch and Belgians. It is friendly, with the occasional snipes and jokes, haha. My family in Belgium often jokes about the Dutch accent, and I remember once dating someone from the Netherlands who laughed at some ways of pronouncing certain words here.
I like my Dutch neighbors, though 🙂 😉 Well, we’re not neighbors anymore since I live in Mexico, but I used to love visiting the Netherlands.
Antwerp is my favorite place in Belgium. I lived there once and I absolutely loved it. If there is one place in Belgium I would return to it is definitely Antwerp. I know all the places you described in this article, except for Zurenborg. I have not been there yet. I loved reading this article, it was like a little return trip to Antwerp for me.
It makes you feel homesick, doesn’t it, Christine. On the one hand that was for me the biggest reason to write about my travels, because it is reviving my dear memories of them. On the other hand it makes me homesick for the places and for the mere travelling itself. Kind of a mixed feeling.
Zurenborg has been one of those forgotten areas a lot of cities have. ‘Lost glory’. It’s only thanks to a very active neighbor community that is living there at the moment, that they started to recognize its beauty in time to restore it. After all, demolishing is an easy job – taking care of beautiful buildings isn’t.
If you have lived there you must have visited Middelheim quite a few times as well? I really love that place. Spain is quite different of course, so I shouldn’t compare, but I miss art over here. Especially modern art. There is enough baroque and 19th century in Spain, but modern and experimental art is a bit of a neglected child.
Oh Antwerp, Belgium looks like a beautiful place to visit and I loved the ability to vote on how I like to go around the city. For me walk for my husband car or tour bus. He has bad knees so he can’t walk very far. I loved your post and you described Antwerp so well it makes me want to go there now. Alas! COVID 19. All the best.
Wow. Thanks to you Hannie my list of places to visit after this pandemic is over is certainly growing. I really appreciate the fact that you are giving us the lowdown on the places to visit in each city based on our interests. When we finally get over to that part of the world I will be sure to reference your site which I have already bookmarked by the way. I am wondering if they speak English in Belgium? I am considering learning French, Dutch, and Spanish while we can’t travel.
The national languages in Belgium are Dutch (Flemish), French and German, but most people speak English as well. Like the Netherlands, Belgium is a small country. Usually that means they give a lot of attention ot foreign languages. 🙂
Aren’t you clever, learning those languages! How good of you, and I can talk to you in all 3 if you want 😉
How do you learn them? Do you use Duolingo? There is such a lot to find on the internet, making our life as language students easier!
Like you, I yearn for traveling again. But I have a long list of places to describe as second best option, so there is more to come.