Have you ever been to Antwerp? I’ve been twice. The first time was with uni. Four days on the art and architecture in Antwerp. Many many moons ago. Second time was a work trip. Flying into Antwerp in the evening, quick stroll around, work and back home next day. But Mr T had never been. So, when we decided to spend a week in Zeeland, I knew that I also wanted to do a day trip to Antwerp. As it was quite close.
Background information on Antwerp
With approx. 500.000 inhabitants (and almost 1.2million in the greater region), Antwerp is the second largest city in Belgium, after Brussels. It is the capital of the Flanders region, the Flamish speaking part of Belgium.
Antwerp is very close to the Dutch border (hence us doing a day trip to Antwerp from Zeeland).
Antwerp’s most important trades are its port (the second biggest in Europe after Rotterdam) and diamonds.
How to get to Antwerp
As we started our day trip to Antwerp in nearby Zeeland, we opted to drive.
We did briefly check train connections, but whilst Antwerp has a good connection to the surrounding major cities (Brussels, Rotterdam, Amsterdam), getting to Antwerp from Middelburg or Goes was a little trickier. We would have needed to go all the way up to Rotterdam, then back down to Antwerp. So, taking the car seemed the better option.
When driving past Antwerp on our way from Germany to Zeeland earlier in the week, we noticed signs about a low emission zone (LEZ) in Antwerp. Therefore, we decided it was better to check before we travelled. And turned out, we wouldn’t be allowed to actually drive into Antwerp with our car (a six-year old Diesel car). If you are considering a day trip to Antwerp, I would advise you check their website to see if your car is allowed in or not.
But even if your car is entitled to enter the Antwerp LEZ, you will still need to register your car. There are two options: If you are entitled to free entry, you can register your car before or latest within 24 hours of entering Antwerp LEZ.
Or you have to pay to enter. In which case you’ll have to register your car at least 24 hours before driving into Antwerp. The registration itself is free of charge. But it can take up to 10 days for them to actually process your application and if it is refused, you might have to pay a fine for entering Antwerp LEZ by car. Seems you have to be very well organised if you’d like to go to Antwerp by car and get your registration done well ahead of your trip.
Sounds confusing? I’m with you here. Therefore, may I suggest you just don’t drive into Antwerp by car? We didn’t. Yes, I know, we weren’t allowed anyway. But even if. Using the Park & Ride facilities seemed much more convenient. Especially as parking in Antwerp is free if you use the P&R. Perfect for a day trip to Antwerp, as you won’t end up with a massive parking ticket at the end of the day. Plus, by parking just outside the city centre, you can avoid hitting all the traffic during morning and evening rush hour. Or at least some of the traffic. You might still get stuck for a short while whilst on the ring road. At least we did.
There are loads of Park & Ride car parks around Antwerp, just check which one is easiest for you to get to. We parked in a covered car park and took the tram straight to Antwerp Centraal (which took just 15 minutes).
How to get around Antwerp
After we’d been rather silly two days earlier during our trip to Rotterdam, where we ended up paying far too much for our travel card, we decided to be a bit smarter this time and check beforehand how much a day travel card for Antwerp would cost. And where we could buy it. Let me enlighten you.
A day pass for public transport in Antwerp (metro, local trains and busses) is 9 EUR / adult (well, actually just 7 EUR if you are organised and book them in advance – which we obviously weren’t). If you stay in Antwerp for longer, you can also pre-buy a 3-day or 5-day pass for 14 / 20 EUR.
You can buy your day ticket online before you travel, or you can buy it at all stations. Quick and easy. We bought our ticket directly at the Park & Ride station. Just one thing to bear in mind. Seems if you buy two tickets at once, it will actually print just one ticket for the two of you (well it did for us). When using busses and metros, that isn’t a big deal, as you validate your card once, then you don’t need to take it out anymore. But it obviously means you can’t split up during your day trip to Antwerp.
Good news, if you visit Antwerp for the first time and struggle working out, how best to get around Antwerp. You can switch Citymapper to Antwerp, making it rather easy to work out the different options of transport and the quickest routes from A to B. Perfect if you are rushed for time during your day trip to Antwerp.
Our Day Trip to Antwerp
OK, enough of the preliminaries. Let me finally tell you all about our one day in Antwerp.
Rather than planning a full itinerary for our day trip to Antwerp, we decided to play it by ear and see where the day would take us. Especially as it was wet and rainy all day, we adjusted our plans throughout the day.
To make the most of the day, we left our Airbnb early that morning (and without breakfast). Which meant by the time we got to Antwerp, parked up and arrived in Antwerp Centraal, we were starving. So, before we started any exploring, we headed straight for breakfast.
Just a few minutes’ walk from Antwerp Centraal, we found a cute little café, Esco*Bar (address: Quellinstraat 32, 2018 Antwerpen). We might not have gone the healthiest breakfast choice, but we sure enjoyed our latte, croissants and spreads. And Esco*Bar has a very pretty interior and was far enough from the main street, that it wasn’t overcrowded. But please be warned, they doesn’t accept credit cards, so you will need to ensure that you carry cash (or like us, head to the nearest cash point, which is just a few steps down the road).
Fuelled on caffeine and carbs, it was finally time to start exploring Antwerp.
We headed down Meir (Antwerp’s shopping street), then through the smaller roads of Antwerp’s city centre towards the Cathedral of our Lady and the Groete Markt. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get into the cathedral (due to a funeral service, it was closed for the public), so we would have to come back to that later.
After a full circle of the Groete Markt, we continued towards the waterfront.
The weather wasn’t exactly inviting for a stroll along the waterfront. But as we were eager to see as much as possible during our day in Antwerp, we did so regardless.
Our next stop was the MAS (Museum aan de Stroom). Which is a striking building, both from the outside and the inside. We didn’t actually buy tickets to go and see the main exhibitions. Instead we just explored the free areas and the roof terrace for a 360 view of Antwerp.
When we left the MAS, it was time for lunch (well a very early lunch, but hey, we were on holidays), so we headed to nearby ‘Ellis Gourmet Burger’. Maybe not classic Belgian cuisine, but it looked very inviting. And with the weather being rather nasty, we actually craved some comfort food. So, burgers and fries it was.
So far, we’d done all our exploring on foot, which felt quite silly given the weather and the fact that we actually bought day tickets for the Antwerp public transport. But somehow this always seems to be the way with us. And we weren’t done walking just yet.
Our next stop was the Havenhuis (Port Authority Building). And somehow there didn’t seem to be suitable option for public transport from the MAS to the Port Authority Building. Which meant yet more walking. I have to admit, in hindsight Mr T probably wouldn’t join me on that walk again. As it was only me, that really wanted to see the Zaha Hadid building up close. And when he found out, that we would only look at it from the outside and weren’t even able to go in, he got a little annoyed. Fair enough. I had just dragged him to the middle of nowhere (well, the Port Authority Building sits in the middle of the port / industrial area, not within the picturesque old part of Antwerp). For no apparent reason, other than staring at a building. That didn’t even photograph terribly well that day, due to the weather and sky. If I had more time in Antwerp, the Port Authority Building sure would have been one to take photos of either first thing in morning or last thing in the evening. And ideally on a bright and sunny day. Rather than in the middle of the day in grey and wet weather. But hey, that is the risk you take with a day trip to Antwerp. You have to make the most of what you are given.
We then headed to the nearest tram station to head back towards the city centre. Well, actually not the city centre, but the other side of town. Yes, this is where pre-planning our trip to Antwerp would have been handy. Because then I would have worked out BEFOREHAND that Zurenborg was just a few stops away from Antwerp Centraal and therefore should have maybe been our first stop of the day. Rather than one in the middle of the day. But too late for that (well that being said, if you are planning to spend a day in Antwerp, may I suggest you adopt a slightly smarter approach to route planning?)
Whilst I did a round through Zurenborg to look at all the pretty Art Nouveau buildings, Mr T went on his own tour. A nearby cycle shop followed by the next-door café. To stay in the dry whilst waiting for me.
Zurenborg was the last thing on my list of sights in Antwerp I absolutely wanted to visit. And with that ticked off, we decided to head back towards the city centre. For some shopping and another attempt of getting into the Cathedral of our Lady (nope, just wasn’t happening that day).
As we headed back to Antwerp Centraal, we realised that we completely forgot to have a Belgian waffle. I mean, how could we leave Antwerp and not eat waffles? Exactly, not an option. Luckily, we found a waffle stand inside the station that actually baked waffles fresh whilst we waited.
With waffles eaten, our day trip to Antwerp was over. We headed back to the Park & Ride, collected our car and headed back to Zeeland.
What to see during a Day Trip to Antwerp
Antwerp’s main train station was built around 1900 and is considered one of the finest examples of railway architecture. Don’t forget to look up when you arrive at Antwerp Centraal to experience the grande entrance hall and its clock.
Antwerp Centraal used to be a terminus but was changed to a through-station in the early 2000s and now has two lower levels with tunnels running through for high-speed trains.
Grote Markt (Great Market Square)
As you walk the old city of Antwerp, you will sooner or later arrive at Grote Markt. The market square is surrounded by rows of guild houses, the Stadhuis (City Hall) and the Cathedral of Our Lady. In the middle of the square is the Brabo fountain. Basically, a perfect 360 photo opp in the centre of Antwerp. No surprise that we weren’t the only ones trying to get a decent shot of the guild houses.
We didn’t really seem to have much luck during our day trip to Antwerp. Constant rain aside, the Stadhuis was undergoing façade restorations, therefore it was covered in scaffolding.
And we completely failed to get into the Cathedral of Our Lady. As we came past it in the morning, it was closed for a funeral. Next attempt in the late afternoon, it had already closed for the day. Note to self, check those opening hours more carefully, if you want to gain entry to the cathedral.
Zurenborg is a neighbourhood in south-east Antwerp, just a few stops past the Central Station. The area is unique in Antwerp, as it was an entire area built in accordance with an urban plan in the 19th century. Zurenborg has a large selection of Art Nouveau townhouses, interspersed with neoclassical mansions and other eclectic styles.
For a quick tour of Zurenborg, you can walk the triangle between Waterloostraat, Transvaalstraat and Cogels-Osylei.
I took the bus from Antwerp Centraal to Berchem Station, then wandered the roads. No worries, people here are accustomed to visitors looking at the houses. But please be respectful. As beautiful as the facades are, these are private properties. And people might tolerate you taking photos of their houses, but they would appreciate some privacy in their daily life. So, I’m afraid that is a no to photos in cute dresses standing in gardens and entrance porches (well obviously, unless you’ve asked the owner’s permission).
If you are in a hurry on your day trip to Antwerp, you can easily walk the triangle in half an hour. But I would urge you to take your time, take in the finer details of the facades and see, which tiny quirks you can spot. Believe me, it is worth it. If your other half (like mine) isn’t much of an architecture buff, there are several coffee shops in the vicinity. So just park them for the time being and go exploring.
If (like us) you decide to explore most of Antwerp on foot, you will come along Meir on your way from Antwerp Centraal towards Grote Markt. Meir is the main shopping street in Antwerp, mostly pedestrianised (which means you won’t get run over by car, the same can’t be said for bikes and electric scooters though, so be careful). You will find most major chain stores here, along with a selection of Belgian chocolate shops and several restaurants and bakeries.
Port Authority Building (Havenhuis)
When it comes to architecture, Antwerp isn’t limited to Art Nouveau. There are also some rather nice examples of contemporary architecture in Antwerp. One of them is the rather striking looking Port Authority Building by Zaha Hadid, opened in 2016.
Sitting on top of the existing fire station, the glass and steel structure overlooks the Port of Antwerp. The shape of the building resembles a sailing ship.
As the Port Building is a government building (actually the only government building Zaha Hadid ever designed), access is restricted. Meaning we were limited to external views only. Due to this being only a day trip to Antwerp, I had to make do with the light we had on the day. But I would really love to come back and photograph the Port Authority Building first thing in the morning, as the sun rises. As I expect this to be stunning with rays of sun reflecting on the building.
Museum aan de Stroom (MAS – Museum by the River)
Another new kid on the block (it only opened in 2011), the MAS is the largest museum in Antwerp. It houses more than 400.000 art objects, many of them in the ‘visible store’ on the first floor.
The MAS is a 60m high, built of red brick and curved glass building with a viewing platform on the roof, giving stunning views all over Antwerp. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t too great the day we visited, but I would love to come back on a sunny day, ideally just as the sun sets over Antwerp.
Entry to the building itself (including the visible store and the viewing platform) is free of charge, but you will need a ticket, if you want to visit the main exhibition areas. As we only had a day in Antwerp, we only explored the free of charge areas of the MAS.
Is one day enough to see all of Antwerp? Probably not. If you have more time, I would recommend you stay a night or two. Which would obviously enable you to take your time exploring. Rumour has it, that the Antwerp nightlife is also quite good (I wouldn’t know really). But to get a first impression, a day trip to Antwerp is sufficient. And for us, it worked perfectly as part of our week in Zeeland.
Have you ever been to Antwerp? What was your favourite bit?