The largest city in Belgium, Antwerp, is without a doubt a must-visit in this tiny country. The city is known for its stunning architecture, its diamond industry, and its role as a fashion capital, with many world-renowned designers hailing from the city.
I recently explored Antwerp, but instead of hitting up all the main tourist attractions, I decided to look at Antwerp from another perspective and go off the beaten path. Of course, certain places are a must-visit, but you won’t find a tip “go shopping on the Meir” in this blog post. I’ve been looking for more unique places than this!
People in Antwerp consider their city the center of the country. Why? Discover it yourself during a weekend trip to Antwerp! Not like a tourist, but like a local. Find out what to do in Antwerp below!
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Best things to do in Antwerp in 48 hours
Whenever I visit a place, I always start at the tourist office. Why? They simply have the most complete and unique information about their city. Plus, the personnel knows everything. Looking for a place to eat? Not knowing where to start? Just ask them! The tourist office in Antwerp is at Het Steen, a historic castle at the river Schelde, in the middle of the city center. This makes it also an excellent place to start your visit!
Here’s how I started my weekend in Antwerp and recommend you do too!
Explore Antwerp underground in De Ruien
Instead of taking a regular guided tour through the city, try something different. De Ruien is a unique underground network of canals and tunnels that run underneath the historic city center of Antwerp. These canals were originally created in the 14th century as a way to provide water to the city’s inhabitants and to transport goods. Over time, they were expanded and used for various purposes, including as a sewage system.
Today you can visit these underground tunnels through a guided tour. Covered in dirt-proof clothes, weaponed with boots, and ready with an iPad, you can learn more about the history of this mysterious network. Admire the pieces of art formed by fungus on the excretement of rats that roam around. And discover the secret exit of the priests from the Jezuitenchurch. I must warn you that you should not be afraid of nasty smells and dirt if you plan to visit De Ruien.
Tip: don’t bring too much stuff because you’ll have to carry everything (including your shoes) for the entire tour.
Book an interactive walk for €19 p.p. In 90 minutes you’ll discover important places in Antwerp from below, starting and ending at a different place. Super interesting!
Wander around the Vlaeykensgang
Also called the most beautiful street of Antwerp, Vlaeykensgang is a hidden alley in the heart of the historic city center. It dates back to the 16th century and was once home to the city’s shoemakers, who lived and worked in the small houses along the street. The alley is quite narrow and is only accessible through two small entrances, one from the Oude Koornmarkt and the other from the Pelgrimstraat.
This hidden gem offers a glimpse into Antwerp’s past, taking visitors on a journey back in time. Walking through the Vlaeykensgang, you’ll find yourself surrounded by beautiful historic buildings with charming facades, some of which date back to the 16th and 17th centuries.
Today it is one of the most instagrammable spots in Antwerp, a true must-visit if you want to go home with beautiful pictures!
Watch the sunset from the MAS
Museum aan de Stroom, Antwerp’s most well-known museum, is not only a great place to visit if you want to learn more about the city’s history and its harbor but also if you want to watch a stunning sunset. The museum showcases exhibitions on Antwerp’s history, maritime heritage, global connections, and cultural diversity. But even if you don’t feel like visiting a museum you can still go all the way up to their rooftop and enjoy a panoramic 360° view of the city. Access to the rooftop is completely free!
Tip: make sure to come here for sunset and calculate some extra time to go up to the 10th floor as you have to climb escalators and stairs.
Walk through the Sint-Annatunnel
You might have seen this place pass by on Pinterest. The Sint-Annatunnel is a popular spot for photographers but also a daily necessity for the countless commuters that cross the river Schelde every day as it connects the left and the right side of the river. Then why is this so special? The wooden escalators and tiled tunnel walls make it a retro dream spot. You can clearly see the wonderful 20th-century architecture, virtually unchanged since the tunnel opened in 1933. Today it is a protected monument of the city.
Take a stroll through the tunnel to the other side, but don’t get run over by a cyclist! They go really fast and won’t wait until you snapped your photo. 😉
Act like Harry Potter in the Nottebohmzaal
This place in Antwerp surprised me the most. The Nottebohm Hall is a magnificent and historically significant reading room located in the Hendrik Conscience Heritage Library (Erfgoedbibliotheek Hendrik Conscience). The library is named after the renowned Flemish writer Hendrik Conscience and is an important repository of heritage and cultural treasures. It was designed by architect Henri Blomme and completed in 1936. The hall’s interior features beautiful wood-paneled walls, decorative carvings, and a vaulted ceiling, giving it a grand and refined ambiance. It’s easy to see Harry Potter walk in here!
Because the collection is so precious it is still used as a reading room. Therefore, the room is usually not accessible to the public, except on special occasions. In 2023, it is exceptionally open for individual visitors thanks to an exhibition. But only until September 10th! A visit costs €8 and you can book your ticket online.
Tip: when it’s not possible to visit the library room individually, you can always visit it virtually online!
Admire the Handelsbeurs
The Handelsbeurs, also known as the Antwerp Stock Exchange, is an impressive historic building located in the heart of the city. It was built in 1872 as a trading center, but today it functions as a concert hall and events venue. During the opening times of the building, you can freely enter and have a look around. However, this counts only if there’s no event going on. Also take a look at the expositions on the first floor (for which you do have to pay) or have a drink inside.
The entrance to the event hall is kind of difficult to find. You’ll also find Restaurant Fiera and Hotel Sapphire House here, but these don’t give access to the visitor hall. To enter, you’ll have to be in the Borzestraat.
Tip: if you visit one of those exhibitions, you can enjoy a stunning view of the building from its inside balcony.
Visit the most beautiful church in the city
People unanimously agree that the most beautiful church in Antwerp is the Sint-Carolus Borromeus church. This baroque church was constructed between 1615 and 1621 by the Jesuits and dedicated to Saint Charles Borromeo. The interior is adorned with exquisite artwork, sculptures, and decorative elements. Among which is an artwork of the famous Flemish painter Pieter-Paul Rubens.
You can enter the church for free from Monday till Saturday or attend the mass on Sunday, at 11:30 they foresee an artist mass with live performances of local artists!
Admire the comic art
Just like Brussels, the city of Antwerp is full of comic art murals that you can discover behind every unexpected corner. These colorful and larger-than-life murals showcase scenes from famous Belgian comic strips and are scattered throughout the city, adding charm and character to its streets. The initiative is called Muurvast and their aim is to transform ugly old walls into interesting murals.
In total, Antwerp counts 14 of these murals. So let these surprise you when you walk through the city or follow the entire comic murals route!
Stroll around the beguinage
A bit hidden from the main tourist attractions of the city lies the beguinage of Antwerp. Also known as the Antwerp Begijnhof, it has a rich and fascinating history that dates back to the 13th century. Beguinages were unique communities of religious women, known as beguines, who lived together in a semi-monastic setting but without taking formal religious vows.
While the beguines no longer inhabit the Beguinage, the site continues to draw visitors seeking to explore the peaceful gardens and charming architecture, and to learn about the unique religious and social history of the beguines in Antwerp’s past. However, the inhabitants of the beguinage now still have some strict rules to follow!
This is a great place to get away from the hectic tourist spots of Antwerp and take some stunning pictures!
Visit Den Botaniek
Den Botaniek, or the botanic garden of Antwerp is by no means as impressive as the ones of Leuven or Brussels, but nevertheless worth a quick stop! In spring and summer, this place is a nice oasis of peace within the concrete city. It is even one of the oldest botanical gardens in Belgium, dating back to 1825. It was initially established as a medicinal garden by the Antwerp Society of Natural Sciences to cultivate and study various plant species for their therapeutic properties.
Today the garden features different sections, including a rockery, a rose garden, a herb garden, and a pond with water plants. It serves as a living laboratory for studying and conserving plant biodiversity. Entrance is free so feel free to stop by whenever!
Go for a drink in Het Elfde Gebod
Het Elfde Gebod is one of the most peculiar bars of Antwerp. Why? That’s something you’ll immediately see upon entering because you’ll be surrounded by all possible images of Saints. They call themselves the oldest restaurant of Antwerp. Whether that’s true is up for debate, but they are certainly one of the most unique restaurants!
So go here to have a drink in a unique atmosphere or make a reservation for dinner and taste some local Belgian delicacies!
Visit Plantin-Moretus museum
If you like to see how a wealthy family used to live in Antwerp in the Renaissance period, then this is the place you should visit! The Plantin-Moretus Museum is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most significant printing museums in the world. It is dedicated to the history of printing, publishing, and bookbinding, particularly during the Renaissance period. The museum is housed in the former residence and printing workshop of the Plantin-Moretus family, who were influential printers and publishers during the 16th and 17th centuries.
In the museum, you can follow an audio tour to learn more about this interesting family and see the impressive printing house with its ancient bookshelves for yourself. Tickets come at a small cost and can be bought on the spot.
Where to sleep
NH Collection Antwerp
During my weekend in Antwerp, I slept in the wonderful NH Collection Antwerp. Conveniently located close to the train station, it was the perfect base camp for my explorations. I also was positively surprised by the breakfast buffet. I’ve never seen such an extensive one! My favorite part of the stay was starting my morning with freshly baked waffles. But also the rooms were absolutely great! In sum, a fantastic place that is easily accessible.
If you fancy a bit of luxury then this is your perfect stay! The Botanic Sanctuary is located next to the botanic gardens of Antwerp hence a perfect setting for a romantic stay. You can also not miss its Michelin-star restaurants and newly-built holistic spa. Especially the spa is worth a visit alone. So if you’re not tight on budget, consider this magnificent hotel!
This boutique hotel is without a doubt the most romantic place to spend a weekend in Antwerp. Each room has its own unique character and the owners spoil you with freshly-baked breakfast and delicacies. My parents stayed in this hotel a few months ago and couldn’t be happier with their stay! It’s the perfect place if you’re looking for something smaller and unique while exploring Antwerp.
Where to eat
Korean street food, that’s what you can expect from this small but interesting place. More specifically, tteokbokki, a type of street food that was made famous by the series Squid Game. It claims to be the first place selling bokki in Europe and is certainly unique in Belgium.
If you don’t know what tteokbokki is, it is a kind of rice cakes in a very hot sauce. So don’t make the mistake I did, please take the least hot option! Bokki is a great place for a quick snack. You can take it away or if you’re lucky, eat it inside.
It’s hard to find a more unique location for a restaurant than Fiera. Located in the impressive Handelsbeurs, this restaurant is a monument on its own. With the food being delicious as well, this is the perfect place for a date night out! Unfortunately, you also pay the price to dine here and in my honest opinion, I think there are better price-quality restaurants to be found. But if the price is not an issue and you’d love to eat in a unique place, then you should book a table here!
Restaurant Grandeux is located next to the theater of Antwerp, which makes it a popular place to go dining for people who booked a ticket to one of the theater plays. But even if you aren’t planning to see anything afterwards this is a wonderful spot to eat. The food was beyond amazing, an absolute delight! (Even better than Fiera in my opinion.) At first, the entrance might confuse you, because it looks like you’re entering a flower shop. But nothing could be further from the truth, you’ll enter a paradise for your senses!
Is Antwerp worth visiting?
Yes! Antwerp is definitely worth visiting! It is home to so many extraordinary places, great hotels, and delicious restaurants that you could stay in the city for more than a weekend. When following this guide, I’m sure you’ll have an amazing time exploring Antwerp!