Antwerp, Belgium is a beautiful city, both modern and historic, about an hour away from Amsterdam by train and makes a great day trip. I’ve traveled to Antwerp several times and always recommend it to travelers heading to that area of Europe. In addition to being a great day trip destination, it’s also a good alternative to stay should you want to escape the tourist crowds of Amsterdam, or find yourself visiting during one of the many congresses, or conventions, that fill up that city’s hotels.
Antwerp is a modern city, with a lot of art, culture and history, yet not a big tourist draw. You get to see a more realistic view of the local people and will meet more of them than you would in a tourist city like Amsterdam. Antwerp was a world trading center in the 16th century and many parts retain that old world feel you find in other European cities like Amsterdam or Brussels. Some of my best experiences were simply wandering through the medieval lanes and discovering new shops and historic sites by accident.
The city has a unique mix of architecture, heavy bombing in World War II destroyed much of the city, and it was rebuilt in a very modern style. This is in marked contrast with the ornate older sections of the city, intact from the 15th and 16th centuries.
How To Get There
Thalys is the high speed train system running in Northern Europe, similar to the Eurostar between Paris and London. The system runs between Paris, Brussels, Cologne and Amsterdam, stopping in many smaller cities in between, like Antwerp. Departures leave for Antwerp (called Antwerpen) from Amsterdam Centraal Station about every ten minutes during the day and the trip takes about 90 minutes.
Fares range from $50 to $100 each way depending on the class of service you choose and the whether you purchase the ticket in advance. Tickets can easily be purchased on the Thalys website (thalys.com). The first train leaves Amsterdam at 6:16 am and the last train leaves Antwerp for return at 9:31 pm, allowing for a full day of sightseeing.
The Rubenshuis is the former home and studio of Peter Paul Rubens, one of the old masters of painting. He was a contemporary of Rembrandt and even in his day, was considered one of the world’s greatest artists, often commissioned by kings and queens. A visit really does give you the a taste of what it would have been like to live as a successful artist in 16th century Europe, along with a large collection of his work to view and admire. The museum is closed Mondays and open from 10 am to 5 pm, admission is $8.75 (6 euro) for adults. Kids under 19 are free, as are seniors over 65.
MoMu (Fashion Museum)
The Royal Museum of Fine Arts is closed for renovations but the cool Fashion Museum, the MoMu is open and has an amazing collection of clothing and fashion from history to modern times. It’s quite fascinating, whether you are into fashion or history. It’s interesting to see how regular people dressed in Antwerp in the 1500’s and to be able to see the clothing up close. The museum is closed Mondays and open from 10 am to 6 pm, admission is $10.18 (7 euro) for adults. Kids under 12 are free, as are seniors over 65.
Fashion Museum Province of Antwerp
M HKA (Modern Art Museum)
If your taste is to modern art and avant-garde installations, also visit Antwerp’s modern art museum, the Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen, known as the M HKA, which always features unique and cutting edge art installations. The museum is closed Mondays and open from 11 am to 6 pm (Thursday nights until 9 pm), admission is $5.85 (4 euro) for adults. Kids under 13 are free.
The heart of the historic city, the Grote Markt is the town’s main square. In the past, this was also the site of the great market, thus the name. The buildings you see are 19th century recreations of 16th century style buildings. These were the guild halls, the powerful trade organizations that virtually controlled commerce in that time. Just spend some time here relaxing and enjoying the public space.
The invention of the printing press and the ability to mass-produce books can be compared to the Internet in terms of the spread of accessible information to the masses. The museum was originally a print shop started in 1549 and offers an excellent view of the printing process and business through the years. This was my favorite place in Antwerp, the historic prints of the city, and of Amsterdam, were amazing to look at. They are so detailed and accurate, almost like snapshots of the neighborhoods in the 1600’s. The museum is closed on Mondays and is $8.75 (6 euro) for adults.
Our Lady’s Cathedral of Antwerp
Gothic cathedrals were the epitome of design, architecture and technology of their day, dedicated to constructing a place so incredible, it was a link to Heaven. Building of Antwerp’s cathedral started in 1352 and the church opened in 1521. It’s a truly staggering masterpiece, especially when you consider the comparatively primitive tools and technology available to the builders.
The church building also houses some painted masterpieces from Rubens, which ties in nicely with an earlier visit to the Rubenshuis. There is a special exhibition here during the renovation of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, temporarily returning art masterpieces to the Cathedral that were originally created for it or displayed here, now housed in the museum. Even the website is cool, it’s dekathedraal.be, which means simply “the cathedral”. We recommend one of the guided tours, daily at 11 am and 2:15 pm. English tours are only available from mid-July through August.
Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal
Antwerp is one of many European cities with an emerging food scene. Young chefs are starting to break away from traditional Dutch and Flemish cooking to add more international flavors and unique combinations.
Appelmans Brasserie and Absinthbar
Our favorite is Appelmans Brasserie and Absinthbar. It’s a modern, stylish place with a lot of classic dishes, done in a fresh, new way. The crowd of locals will confirm the quality of the food and service here. The restaurant is located in central Antwerp, about a block from the Cathedral.
Brasserie Appelmans and Absinthbar
Papenstraatje 1in central Antwerp
Tel – 03 226 20 22
If you like fish, you have to go here. Period. There’s no extensive menu, because everything is served fresh, whatever is fresh caught or from the market that day. The chef had a fancy Michelin-starred seafood restaurant and closed it to open this more personal establishment. They offer two entree choices, both will be awesome, along with a main dish and a dessert. The restaurant serves dinner during three servings, at 6 pm, 8:30 pm and 10 pm. Reservations are necessary and it’s in the central city near all the tourist sites. You can dine here at the 6 pm seating after a day trip exploring the city, then catch the 9:31 pm train back to Amsterdam.
Haarstraat 9 Old City Center
Tel – 03 231 32 07
The Dancing Chocolate
A great lunch place during your day trip to Antwerp is The Dancing Chocolate Cafe, filled with a lot of traditional Flemish dishes, especially a great breakfast selection. It’s a busy place, on a busy corner and great for people watching. This is a perfect spot for lunch or for a snack during your adventures.
The Dancing Chocolate
Come Back For a Longer Stay
Antwerp is truly a great day trip destination and after visiting for a day, you will probably want to return for an extended stay. It’s becoming a very hip, artistic city and there are always new music, art and other happenings to see and do, along with the museums and tourist sites. The fact that it’s slightly off the main tourist track is a great bonus as you are free of the big crowds, even during the summer season. The city really does offer great opportunities to meet and interact with locals, which I think is an essential part of the travel experience.