If you like history, art and architecture, Antwerp is the place to be. Here are some of the many attractions we saw in Antwerp.
Our visit to Antwerp, Belgium, was part of a half-day tour we booked on Viator. This proved to be a great way to get out of Brussels and see more of Belgium. We also took tours to Dinant and Luxembourg and Bruges and Ghent.
Grote Markt is a traditional European plaza close to the Cathedral of Our Lady, which is probably the most famous church in Antwerp. There is plenty going on in the square with beautiful old buildings all around you.
There also are quite a few restaurants with outdoor seating, so you can enjoy a meal and watch people.
Cathedral of Our Lady
The Cathedral of Our Lady is also known as the Cathedral of Antwerp. Some also call it Notre Dame because of the French influence in Belgium.
It dominates the Grote Markt area. We got to it after walking the Vlaeykensgang, which is one of the only medieval streets left in Antwerp.
It surely is an impressive Gothic cathedral with the statues that adorn the entrance. Construction began in 1352, and the first stage ended in 1521. There is a modest admission fee of six Euros that supports the church and its huge maintenance budget. Most people pay the fee to see the four Rubens paintings, which are considered masterpieces. These include:
The Assumption of the Virgin (1626)
This hangs in the choir above the main altar.
The Raising of the Cross (1609-1610)
This is a triptych (in three panels) and took more than two years to complete.
The Descent from the Cross (1611-1614)
This is another triptych that took more than four years to finish.
The Resurrection of Christ (1611-1612)
This is a much smaller triptych and was completed over a two-year period.
What’s amazing is how large and vibrant these paintings still are today.
Much more art captures your attention including statues and circular paintings. The small donation is worth the price if you are interested in art, history or religion.
We were amazed at all the art. The Cathedral of Our Lady surprised us with its mixture of styles inside. We saw Gothic influence in many areas. But we could see unique styles that represented each era of construction or adornment. There were even some modern touches.
Stained glass is all over the cathedral. So beautiful!
The choir stalls are hand carved and date to the 19th century. And a magnificent cross hangs inside that itself is a splendid work of art.
The oak pulpit has stood in the cathedral since the beginning of the 19th century.
We only stayed about an hour, but you could definitely spend more time here.
Vlaeykensgang remains as one of the only medieval streets left in Antwerp. It’s sometimes called Vlaeykensgang Alley and is only a two-minute walk from Grote Markt, the main tourist destination for Antwerp. I’m sure this cobbled walkway must be in films somewhere. It’s like walking back through time. I expected to see some knights on horseback clearing the way. Vlaeykensgang is also the main way to get to the Cathedral of Our Lady, which is a highlight of many Antwerp tourists.
Rubens House is the former home of Peter Paul Rubens, who was a Baroque painter. It now serves as a museum and is quite large. He spent 25 years of his life in this home.
One of his pupils was Anthony Van Dyck. A self-portrait of Van Dyck hangs in the museum along with many other masters of the period. His statue can be found on The Meir, the main shopping street in Antwerp.
If you are a fan of Peter Paul Rubens, a large statue of him stands near the Cathedral of Our Lady in the Groenplaets. And it’s quite impressive.
Handelsneurs Antwerpen first commodity exchange built 1531 redone 1872 as Stock Exchange now event space
Handelsbeurs Antwerpen boasts the distinction as the world’s first commodity exchange. It was built in 1531 but fell into disuse in the 17th century. In 1872, it became Belgium’s stock exchange until 1997, when the exchange moved to Brussels. It’s been renovated and offers a great photo opportunity.
We passed by the Museum Vleeshuis, or Butcher’s Hall, and it deserved a photo. This indoor market was built in the Middle Ages circa 1250. It served as the central meat market and allowed the city to regulate the number of butchers allowed to sell meat.
The building we saw was rebuilt in 1504. It resembles a church more than a butcher shop!
Antwerp City Hall
It’s hard to miss the city hall of Antwerp. Constructed in 1565, it displays both Flemish and Italian design techniques. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a beautiful photo opportunity.
Nello and Patrasche Statue
We stumbled across this statue as we walked the cobblestone streets near Cathedral of Our Lady. It is an homage to the novel A Dog of Flanders by Marie Louise del la Ramee under her pseudonym, Ouida. She wrote her book in 1872. It’s the story of a boy, Nello, and his dog, Patrasche. The statue shows them peacefully sleeping. Oddly, the story probably is more famous in Japan than it is in Belgium due to Japanese films and anime based on the story.
The Het Steen offers a great photo opportunity. It is a medieval fortress built between 1220 and 1225. In English it’s known as Antwerp Castle. If you are a fan of opera, you’ll know that Richard Wagner’s opera Lohengrin is set in Antwerp Castle.
Middenstatie serves as the central railway station in Antwerp. The building’s architecture is impressive and was constructed between 1895 and 1905. Middenstatie is recognized as the finest example of railway architecture in Belgium.
A Ferris wheel stands nearby and might be the first thing travelers see when they arrive in Antwerp.
The station’s interior covers an area of 129,000 square feet or approximately three acres. By any definition, it’s big! And it’s gorgeous!
You can’t miss the wonderfully ornate clock that welcomes you to the beautiful city of Antwerp.
Vrijdagmarkt means Friday market. It served during the Middle Ages as a place to sell secondhand goods. Even today, the market opens every Friday morning. In the center of the market, is a statue of St. Catherine, who is the patroness of old cloth buyers. Our tour was not on a Friday, so we did not get to see Vrijdagmarkt in action.
Vrijdagmarkt is also home to a UNESCO world heritage museum called the Plantin Moretus Museum.
Plantin-Moretus Museum started life as a 16th century building for a printing business. The name of the museum comes from Christophe Plantin, who started the business in the middle of the 16th century. He died in 1589, and then his son in law, Jan Moretus, took over and expanded the business.
The museum boasts more than 30 rooms; you can spend hours here! Even if you are not fascinated with 400 years of the printing business, the museum shows you how people lived and worked during that time. The Plantin-Moretus even holds preserved artwork by Van Dyck and Rubens, famous painters from Antwerp.
If you visit the Plantin-Moretus, you can knock off another UNESCO World Heritage site of your bucket list.
Locals call Brobo’s Monument the Brabo Fountain. We could saw it operating as a fountain when we passed. It is a tribute to the mythical Roman soldier, Silvius Brabo.
According to the story we heard, there was a giant named Druon Antigoon, who built his castle along the Scheldt River. The giant forced all boats to pay a toll. He enforced this tax on anyone crossing the bridge. If a traveler refused, Druon cut off one of their hands.
Silvius Brabo refused to pay the toll and challenged Druon to a duel. Brabo defeated the giant and chopped off the giant’s head as well as his hand. The giant’s hand was thrown into the river. It is a legendary story with a dramatic statue and fountain to remember it.
Our tour of Antwerp was only a half-day. We could have stayed for several days just soaking up the history and architecture. Antwerp is a great place to visit and worth the time if you are in Belgium.