As the second-largest city in Belgium, Antwerp has a lot of fun activities to offer visitors of all ages. Antwerp is best known for having the second biggest port in Europe and one of the largest in the world. Some describe Antwerp as cosmopolitan like a city but charming like a village.
Many people are surprised that Antwerp also has a very robust diamond industry so jewelry enthusiasts love visiting this city. Antwerp is also home to Europe’s oldest zoo and is the world’s largest coffee storing site. In fact, at any given time there are over 300,000 tons of coffee being stored in the city.
Like many European cities, the cost of tickets to various attractions, hotel stays, and transportation can really add up. Whether you are looking to save some money here and there or spend as little as possible during your trip to Antwerp, there are lots of free activities you can take advantage of. This guide will give you lots of ideas to fill your travel itinerary with.
Table of Contents
- 1. Take a Walk Through Central Station
- 2. Book a free Walk Tour
- 3. Admire Diamonds in the Diamond District
- 4. Stroll Through the MAS Museum
- 5. Window Shop on Meier Street
- 6. People Watch in Groenplaats
- 7. Take a Walk Through Rubens House
- 8. Admire the Cathedral of Our Lady
- 9. Wander through the Grote Markt
- 10. Take a Photo of Het Steen Castle
- 11. Stroll through Middelheim Park
1. Take a Walk Through Central Station
Antwerp Central Station was originally constructed in the late 1800s, It has since become known as the most beautiful railway station in Belgium. If you are arriving by train you will be arriving at the Central Station. Take some time before finding your hotel to look around and admire the architecture.
In World War II, most of the Central Station was actually damaged by V-2 rockets. Thankfully, the building was still structurally sound. Though it took some renovations years later to help it to be safer, the station looks very similar to what it did when it was originally built.
2. Book a free Walk Tour
There are several companies that offer free walking tours around Antwerp. Many of them offer tours daily but make sure to do your research in advance. Also, take a look at the different types of tours offered. Some will take you to all of the regular tourist sights. While there will be others that offer more niche tours.
An interesting one offered by freetour.com takes you on an evening walking tour. The purpose is to show you the vibrant nightlife to see how the locals spend their evening. You will also be shown some unbelievable views!
3. Admire Diamonds in the Diamond District
One of the most popular areas for tourists in Antwerp is the Diamond District. True to its name, the district is home to diamond merchants, jewelers, and workers. You may be surprised when walking through the district though, the buildings look rather plain for such elaborate items held within them.
You will know once you’ve entered the area because it is protected by a police station and there are armed guards dotted throughout. If you are looking to buy some jewelry this is definitely the place to do it. In the district, you will also find the world diamond center. This area also holds 84% of the world’s rough cut diamonds and 50% of all cut diamonds.
Another interesting fact about the diamond district is that the world’s first stock exchange was started here. Back then instead of just trading money, items like copper, silver, diamonds, gold and other valuable items.
4. Stroll Through the MAS Museum
The Museum Aan de Stroom (MAS) for short was the first museum built in Antwerp in over a century and was completed in 2011. The name of the museum literally means ‘museum by the river’ which should give you some indication that it’s located along the river Scheldt. The main focus of the museum is Antwerps connection to the world. Many of the collections focus on the steep history of Antwerps port and its involvement in international shipping and trade.
The building itself is quite interesting from the outside. It is shaped almost like lego blocks stacked on top of one another. On the last Wednesday of every month, the MAS Museum opens its doors for free entry. You can also gain free access to the MAS Museum at any time if you have already purchased the Antwerp City Card. Just remember that the museum is closed to the public on Mondays and holidays.
5. Window Shop on Meier Street
Meier Street is the main shopping area in Antwerp. It is also considered the most important shopping district in all of Belgium. The best part about this area is that it is open only for pedestrians so you can walk through the streets admiring the windows without the worry of traffic.
It’s best to visit Meier street on your journey from Central Station because the street starts there. As you walk along Meier street you will also pass by the Royal Residence which was built in 1745. At one time it was used as the residence for the Kings of Belgium. You will also pass by Osterrieth House which is a great representation of the Rococo-style.
Even if you aren’t a shopper, there is plenty to see and do on Meier street. As you enter the street, there are beautiful 19th-century buildings lined up on either side. The Palace on the Meir is also a point of interest for tourists. Other places to see along Meier street include Saint James Church, Cathedral of our Lady, City Hall and Rubens House.
6. People Watch in Groenplaats
Also known as the “Green Place”, Groenplaats is one of the most popular squares in Antwerp. Contrary to what you might believe, there is actually very little greenery in Groenplaats. Instead, the square is surrounded by restaurants and cafes where you can enjoy some of Belgium’s best beers. The square also offers some of the best views of the cathedral.
It’s convenient location at the center of the city in the historical district make Groenplaats an easy place to add to your itinerary. In this square you will also find a statue of the famous artist Peter Paul Rubens. What many people don’t realize is that at one point the square was actually a cemetery. When the Austrians occupied Antwerp they abolished any cemeteries within the city and so the space was converted into the popular square you can experience today.
7. Take a Walk Through Rubens House
If you find yourself in Antwerp on the last Wednesday of the month you can get free access into Rubens House. As you may have guessed by the name, Rubens House (or Rubenshuis) is the former residence of the famous artist Peter Paul Rubens. He has become Antwerp’s most famous resident.
Rubens purchased the house in the early 1600s and spent quite a bit of time renovating it to his desire. One of the most interesting things about Rubens, besides his incredible talent, is that he was a great businessman. At the time he had the largest art collection in all of Europe. Many artifacts from his art collection remain in the home today.
Take a look at the Rubens House website before you visit because they have many different things happening throughout the year. Regularly you will find temporary exhibits that are related to Ruben’s life and art. There is also a wonderful garden and courtyard located on the premises that visitors can sit and enjoy. The garden is a tranquil place to relax, it’s hard to believe it’s located in the center of Antwerp.
8. Admire the Cathedral of Our Lady
The Cathedral of Our Lady is the most famous cathedral in Antwerp. Built by the Roman Catholics, the cathedral has offered a place to worship for churchgoers since the early 1500s. In fact, construction on the cathedral originally began in 1352. The first stage of the cathedral was then completed in the early 1500s but it has never truly been finished. The most recent round of renovations only finished a couple of years ago.
Art lovers enjoy visiting the Cathedral of Our Lady because it contains some amazing works of art. You will find a rather large collection of paintings created by Rubens. Some of these works include ‘Elevation of the Cross’ and the ‘Descent from the Cross.’
An interesting place to visit after wandering through the Cathedral of Our Lady is De Plek. This bistro has won an award for its interior design. If you are interested in trying Belgium beer don’t forget to order the cathedral beer. They have both a blond and a dark version.
9. Wander through the Grote Markt
Another popular square in Antwerp is the Grote Markt. Grote Markt is situated in the center of the city and the old quarter. Surrounding the square you will find the city hall. The building is quite extravagant and something worth adding to your list as you make your way around Antwerp.
Grote Markt is also a great place to take a break from a day of touring because there are some of the city’s best restaurants and cafes found in the area. In the wintertime the Antwerp Christmas market takes place here, really making the square come to life.
10. Take a Photo of Het Steen Castle
One of the best free things to do when visiting Antwerp is to take a wander through Het Steen Castle. It’s hard not to notice this medieval building located along the Scheldt river. It is the oldest fortress in Antwerp having been built between 1100-1200.
Eventually the fortress became a prison, and remained as one for almost 500 years. In the early 1800s, Het Steen castle was then used to house injured soldiers. From there it became a residence, a sawmill and a fish warehouse. Around 1862, Het Steen finally became a museum. The theme of the museum was focused on ancient times and it had quite a collection.
Outside of Het Steen Castle is a statue not well known to many tourists or foreign visitors. The statue is of Lange Wrapper, a Flemish folklore character. It is said that this character was a bit devilish and a trickster. The stories of Lange Wrapper are local to Antwerp and its surrounding towns.
Inside Het Steen Castle you will find the oldest hourglass in the world. Its intricate design with iron animals and large glass bulbs at either end make it quite beautiful to look at. As you make your way through Het Steen castle you will also find a salon, cafe, workshop, exhibition room and a war memorial. The war memorial is dedicated to all of the Canadian soldiers who fought in World War II.
The best part about Het Steen Castle is of course the views from the top. While the fortress doesn’t tower over the city, the views are still quite lovely. The best time to visit the top of Het Steen is first thing in the morning or later into the evening to catch the sunrise and sunset. As an added bonus the crowds are generally a lot smaller at those times.
11. Stroll through Middelheim Park
This 30-acre park is one of the most impressive in Europe. In fact, Middelheim Park is actually a museum. The park is split into two sections Middelheim-Laag to the north and Middelheim-Hoog to the south. Originally the southern part of the park contained all new pieces of work but in 1993 the city made the decision to have the works of art spread across both sections.
The park contains so many sculptures and works of art you could easily spend an afternoon walking around viewing them all. In fact, there are over 400 works of art dotted around the park. Some of the most famous artists with placements here include Auguste Rodin, Rik Wouters, Carl Andre and Franz West to name a few.
Every year the park will invite artists to showcase their works. Because of this, new art is constantly being added. The best thing about the park is that they also invite young promising artists to be featured alongside world famous artists.
With so much history and art to enjoy in Antwerp, you will not run out of things to do. Whether you plan on saving a little bit of money during your trip or add some free activities to keep costs down, you are sure to enjoy your visit. Make sure to set aside time to enjoy some local Belgium dishes Carbonnade stew or Preisoep soup. Of course, you can’t forget to pick up some world famous Belgium chocolate while you’re in the area either. Whatever you plan on filling your itinerary with, this list is sure to help give you ideas!