Time speeds by when you’re in Antwerp. There is so much to experience here, from Baroque master Peter Paul Rubens’s artistic legacy, the Railway Cathedral, the port that is this city’s lifeblood, ground-breaking fashion, sparkling diamonds and much, much more. Prepare yourself for 48 hours in Antwerp.
A Railway Cathedral, animals and diamonds
Start your visit where it all begins, at Antwerp’s railway station. Antwerp Central Station is not just a gateway to the city, it is a special attraction in its own right. This architectural masterpiece is also known as the Railway Cathedral. It’s easy to see why once you encounter its vaulted ceilings, monumental clocks and majestic entrance hall. Millions of travellers have gaped in awe at the sight since 1905.
On leaving this imposing edifice, several more highlights lie within easy reach. Only a few steps away is Antwerp Zoo, one of the oldest zoos in existence worldwide. If that isn’t your thing, simply keep on walking until you arrive at the Diamond Square Mile. This district has been one of the most important diamond trading centres in the world for centuries. A staggering 84% of the world’s rough diamonds pass through the careful hands of Antwerp’s diamond dealers. While these pricey gems may not be to everyone’s taste, gazing at the sparkling window displays as you walk along is a treat in itself.
Rubens, part 1
After a leisurely stroll, we head on over to the Meir. This street is ideal for walking and shopping and is lined with resplendent Rococo architecture. It was one of the city’s main thoroughfares as far back as five centuries ago. Peter Paul Rubens, one of Baroque’s leading lights and an iconic Antwerp resident, already came here in search of inspiration and relaxation at the time. This was no great undertaking, as he lived right around the corner. His sumptuous city palace, which he designed with his own hands, remains present in all its glory to this day. It is now known as the Rubens House and has been turned into an ode to the great man’s life and work. Step inside the master’s former studio to admire various masterpieces of his such as The Annunciation. These works are displayed side by side with others by renowned peers such as Anthony Van Dyck and Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Take care, though. The Rubens House will be closing its doors for a thorough renovation in January 2023. A grand reopening is scheduled for 2027.Don’t wait too long!
After another brief walk through downtown Antwerp, a second encounter with the grand master awaits you. The Plantin-Moretus Museum will take you back to the 16th century, to the time of Rubens himself. This magnificent building was once a beating heart of European book printing. Some of the most significant works of the time were printed here, such as Sir Thomas More’s iconic Utopia. The presses have been preserved in near-perfect condition and the walls are finished in gilded leather. Balthasar I Moretus, a childhood friend of Rubens, was a manager at this pioneering printing company. He engaged the latter to paint several portraits. These works can still be admired here today. Good reason for UNESCO to designate this museum a world heritage site; the only museum on the list.
You have experienced the grandeur of Antwerp’s days gone by. Now it is time for a more updated version. The city has played a key role in fashion for decades, courtesy of an excellent fashion academy and its graduates. One famous group of alumni is the Antwerp Six. These revolutionary designers turned the fashion world on its head in the mid-1980s.Their work – along with that of countless innovative successors – is and remains at home in Antwerp. The area around Nationalestraat is still an epicentre of fashion.
This fashion quarter confirms that Antwerp stands for new, cutting-edge designs. The same applies to the arts. For proof, see the Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp (M HKA, housed in a former grain silo. Enter a dark labyrinth on the museum’s ground floor to discover thought-inspiring artwork by contemporary greats such as Luc Tuymans, Guillaume Bijl and artist and visionary Panamarenko. On the other floors, temporary exhibitions offer further challenges.
Panorama, food and drinks
After a day well-filled with art and grandeur, other senses may also be in need of sustenance. We will proceed to the area known as Het Eilandje (Little Island).This is achieved by means of a pleasant meander along the Scheldt quayside. Some fresh air, a grand view across the river and a route that takes you by medieval castle Het Steen, currently a tourist information centre, will be sure to get you in the mood. A focal point of the neighbourhood is the stately Museum aan de Stroom, or MAS. This city museum is well worth a visit in itself, and its breathtaking rooftop panorama doubly so. Visit the roof at sunset for an ultimate other-worldly view of the city.
After enjoying the view, descend through the MAS again to explore the area’s many culinary hotspots. Do you prefer a quick bite or an elaborate gastronomic experience? It’s all here. A nice meal is the best way to prepare for that other great Belgian heritage item: beer. The many pubs and cafés in this area are perfect places to familiarise yourself with our brewers’ formidable body of work. Follow the lead of Antwerp residents. Order a glass of De Koninck, the local brew. One (or several) of these bollekes will assure you of a good night’s sleep. You’ll need it, as another full day of Antwerp delights awaits you tomorrow.
Rubens, part 2
You can’t say Rubens without saying Antwerp. We already encountered this brilliant artist yesterday. Today, we will get to know him even better. Your journey of discovery begins at the Cathedral of Our Lady, a monumental building that has graced the Antwerp skyline since the beginning of the 14th century. The cathedral’s architecture is Gothic, while its interior is Baroque. And that is definitely due to Rubens. Four of his masterpieces may be found here: the triptychs Elevation of the Cross, Descent from the Cross and Resurrection of Christ and the altarpiece Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The cathedral both displays and challenges the master’s works. Another magnificent painting can be found on display here as well, created by contemporary master Sam Dillemans and titled Hommage aan Rubens: de kruisafneming (Homage to Rubens: Descent from the Cross).This artistic dialogue between two Antwerp masters bridges the centuries.
After the stately cathedral, you will next visit St. Charles Borromeo Church, which is sometimes considered the essential Rubens church. The master provided it with both paintings and sculptural works. An architect, painter and decorator, he contributed to the church’s tower, the facade, high altar, ceiling decorations and two chapels. His altarpiece The Return of the Holy Family was painted specifically for this location, wandered for a time, but has now come back home.
All good things come in threes, or so the saying goes. So, we will add a third Rubens encounter. And what an encounter it is: the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp (KMSKA).This splendid museum finally reopened its doors at the end of 2022, after a comprehensive and detailed renovation that lasted an impressive 11 years. This palace of the arts is home to a staggering collection of over 13,000 pieces. Among them are works by many great historic European painters. Antwerp’s leading artistic icon takes pride of place, of course. KMSKA’s breathtaking Rubens Hall contains sixteen of his paintings, including such masterpieces as his Adoration of the Magi and Venus Frigida. The museum also holds the world’s largest collection of works by modern master James Ensor in addition to masterpieces by Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, Jean Fouquet, Amedeo Modigliani, Pierre Alechinsky and many, oh so many more.
Architecture: centuries old and brand new
After such an exhilarating artistic experience, you may need a moment to recover. Fresh air is likely welcome, so we will take another stroll through the city. Fashionable shopping hotspot Kloosterstraat – a lively place even on a Sunday – leads you to Antwerp’s iconic Grote Markt. Here you will find the Town Hall, a Renaissance building with various Baroque touches and another UNESCO World Heritage site.In front of it is the impressive Brabo Fountain. This depicts the legend that gave Antwerp its name. According to the story, the heroic Brabo took on the evil giant Antigoon who was terrorising the city. Brabo won the fight, cut off the defeated giant’s hand and threw it into the Scheldt. “Hand” and “werp” (throw) eventually became “Antwerp”.
After this little lesson in history and etymology, we will walk back along the Scheldt. There is one more highlight to the north we haven’t seen yet. We will need to visit the port for this one.It is a special place, as Antwerp’s port is one of the largest and most important in Europe. There is also something splendid to be seen here even for non-maritime visitors: the Port House. The structure houses the headquarters of Antwerp’s Port Authority, which manages one of the largest ports in Europe. This modern icon was created by architect Zaha Hadid. Balanced on top of an old fire station, preserved in its original condition, a shiny, sparkling diamond- is perched. The stunning structure soon became a city landmark, an instantly recognisable part of the skyline.
Particularly at dusk, it is a fantastic way to conclude your 48 hours in Antwerp.
See you soon!