Free things to do in Antwerp - The World's Diamond capital


According to legend, a giant was demanding taxes to sail on the river Scheldt, so the local hero Brabo cuts off the giant's hand and throws it away. Throwing away a hand translates to "hand weapon" in Dutch. So there you go, the port city of Belgium gets its name - "Antwerpen", a.k.a., Antwerp. Let me take you through the best of Antwerp, that we managed to explore in half a day. I'll also mention some bonus places which we missed but is 100% doable in a day!

Free Things to do in Antwerp | Brabo's Fountain


The city was initially not on our list when we drafted our itinerary, so unlike Paris or Amsterdam, we were pretty clueless about where to go in Antwerp. We took the Flix bus from Amsterdam at 10:30 am and reached the Antwerp central station within 12:45 pm. We were to spend just one night at Antwerp before we headed to our next stop planned at Brugges. It was not the perfect weather - the sky was overcast when we reached the station and remained that way for most of the day The Antwerp Centraal, also called "Midden Statie" meaning "middle station" is a must-visit place at Antwerp even if you don't land here by train or bus like we did. Often ranked among the world's 10 most beautiful train stations (even at no.1 by some surveys), this grand monument is a masterpiece and could easily be mistaken for a museum. The large dome with beautifully decorated exteriors is just a teaser of what's inside.  
Free Things to do in Antwerp | Central Station
We took a few pictures from outside the station, made a mental note to come here later and walked towards our shelter - the Antwerp Central Youth Hostel. The hostel is about 2.5 km from the station and on our way, we passed through some of the under-construction monuments, tramlines, and the oh-so-gorgeous fashion district. Read a review of the hostel here
Free Things to do in Antwerp | Fashion District

Our hostel was in a surprisingly peaceful complex near the throbbing fashion district. We loved the hostel, but what we cherished the most was the free pocket maps from the UseIt series that were made available on the rack for tourists. These were not just maps but also had a host of local tips and some history lesson of the city which not only guided us through our walking tour of the city but also helped me recollect the tidbits while writing the blog (yes, this is the only souvenir I could bring from Antwerp, keep reading to know why). So after taking some time to freshen up, we set off for exploring the city on foot. Here are a few things that are hard to not notice when you walk on the streets of Antwerp-

- Lots of under-construction stuff going on. The skyline full of building cranes, with the roads connecting one construction site to another. According to the map the construction work included renovation of old monuments, raising skyscrapers, constructing tram lines and some big plan of building a whole new green district on top of the ringway around the city ("Ringland").

- The formal, classy dressing style. When it comes to fashion, we mostly think of Paris, but just a walk down the fashion district and looking at the well-dressed men and women you'd know Antwerp is not behind. Honestly, I don't understand fashion, but even for a fashion agnostic person, it was not difficult to appreciate their stylish outfits.
- It is a well-planned city with one dedicated block for each purpose. On our way from hostel to the Stadspark, we walked through the fashion district with the designer boutiques, big brand outlets and then the shopping malls. Then we came to the Cathedral around which there are the souvenir shop and those mouth-watering Belgian Chocolate shops. Then you would walk into the world's largest  Diamond District, with diamond shops, the Diamond trade center, and few offices and banks within or adjacent to the diamond district. Then you enter the foodies street with lots of pop-ups bars, restaurants, pizzeria and cafes. You will see pop-up bars and cafes everywhere in the city, but there is this one block where you can just reach and have all the options for food within a small radius.

Things to do in Antwerp Diamond Capital in 1 day


Things to do in Antwerp | Del Popolo Pizza
Had one of the best Pizza of my life at Del Popollo {izzeria near the Central station

The Stadspark -  City Park of Antwerp

We had a delicious bacon and prawn pizza at a local pizzeria and then we went to the city park, called Stadspark. The remains of a 16th-century Spanish fortress was re-engineered into this beautiful open park in the 19th century, in a classical English landscape style. "On summer days it's full of skaters, girls in bikinis next to women in veils.." said our pocket local guide. But on a relatively cold, somber day it just looked like a page out of Tom Sawyer or Great Expectations. There was a lovely children's park where parents were watching the kids play after school-time.
Free Things to do in Antwerp | City Park
Picturesque play-area for children
Free Things to do in Antwerp | City Park

The Railway Cathedral - Antwerp Central Station

We went to the Central Station to buy a ticket to Brugge and took a stroll inside the magnificent building. It actually has two parts- a steel platform covering and a stone station building near the Antwerp Zoo. It was originally constructed in the 19th century but completely renovated ten years ago, completed with a tunnel underneath the station, reverting the station’s status as a terminus. Look up at the glass dome above and the details on the arches with tainted glasses when you go up the escalators. It indeed looks like a cathedral inside but I appreciate the fact that the locals don't shy away from telling the truth - according to our pocket guide the original building was built under the command of Leopard II, with blood money from inhumane rubber harvest and genocide in the then colonies of Belgium.

The Diamond Quarter of Antwerp, Jewish neighborhood and the Indians

Antwerp is the heart of diamond trading for over five centuries, with around 84% of the world's rough diamond passing through the city. With 220 million dollars worth of diamonds traded daily in the diamond district of Antwerp, you'd know why there are so many men in uniform around in the city. The highly secured Diamon quarter is home to the diamond trading center, a large number of jewelry shops, diamond traders, wholesalers, cutters and guess what, a branch of The Bank of India! Orthodox Jews have dominated the closed world of diamond trading in Antwerp for centuries, but Indians are taking over steadily. The rising prominence of the (mostly Jain) Indian community is seen in the cuisine as well, with special mention of vegetarian Indian restaurants on our map. You'd see a large number of formally-clad Jain Indians and orthodox Jews identified by the headwears (kippah) and long beard walking on the street with the complete no-nonsense look. There are around 20,000 Jews in Antwerp, most of whom are orthodox and these families have inherited the diamond business from their ancestors from as early as the fifteenth century. The Jewish neighborhood near the diamond district has beautiful old buildings and synagogues. You'd find most of my pictures of the city roads are sort of photo-bombed by an unusually large number of wires - I first thought these were only for the tram-lines, some of them are, but mostly it is the Eruv - a holy wire that symbolically encloses a certain area (a larger home). Read up a little about this on the internet and found out that Eruv runs almost throughout the central city enclosing the station and diamond district, to allow the orthodox Jews to move around as usual during a  religious observation called Shabbat, in which they are forbidden to leave their home.

Free Things to do in Antwerp - Diamond Capital


The Grote Market (The Great Market)

This is the central square of Antwerp is famous not only for a large number of shopping options and cafes but also for the architectural wonders around. Each building- be it a shopping mall or a bank has a medieval design lending the place its old-world charm. The Brabo's fountain stands at the center, (recall the story I began with?) depicting the hero  This is where we also saw the chocolate shops I mentioned and the stunning OLV Cathedral. With a 123 meter tall tower, which could be seen from various parts of the city on our walking tour, this Gothic masterpiece was completed in an early 16th century and has been robbed several times since then. From here we followed the direction of Brabo's hand towards the river Scheldt.. just kidding, we followed the map and walked towards the river
Free Things to do in Antwerp in 1 day | Cathedral

The Steen - My favorite place at Antwerp

Now despite the archaic buildings that we saw in the Grote market, Antwerp in itself looks and feels like a modern trade-hub, so when we got a glance of an old castle while waiting to cross the road, I was just delighted. Strategically located at the banks of the river stands Antwerp's oldest building - The Steen. It was built in the ninth century and was subsequently expanded with a stone wall and gatehouses turning it into a fortress that has held its ground for centuries now. It was renovated and further expanded with a neo-gothic wing in 1889-90. The Steen was probably erected as a castle, given its appearance, used as a fortress for centuries, then as a prison till 1823, after which it was consecutively used as a residence, a sawmill and a fish warehouse until it was reopened to the public as a museum in 1863. All this information comes directly from the gate of Steen, where stands a striking  Semini statue, which was a symbol of fertility. The statue was maimed by Roman Catholic priests in the sixteenth century.
Things to do in Antwerp  in 1 day| Steen Castle

Free Things to do in Antwerp in 1 day

Things to do in Antwerp | Steen Castle

After spending a great time at the banks of the river taking watching the ships and the windmills, we headed to the Grote market to buy some chocolates and souvenirs, but alas, all the markets were closed already! Not just the small shops but even the shopping malls! Coming from a developing country where shops remain open easily till 10 pm at least,  this thing stunned us. Also with extended daylight hours, this looked all the more surprising, but that's how the city works. Once the shops are shut down, the night bars and parties pop-up and the city gears up for some party time. We ended the day with our comfort food fried rice and pepper- chicken at a WOK outlet while enjoying the party vibe around. Yeah, had to end the day early in the evening because my partner had to watch a Champion's league match in the hostel while I would cuddle under the blanket trying not to fall sick.

The things we missed? Well, there are some, as always when you have such a short stall in the city. Here are a few which you should definitely add to your list (I wish someone told me about them before I embarked on this memorable walking trip)

- the underpass connecting to the left bank of the Scheldt river, which, according to our map is the spot from where you get the best panoramic view of the city,

-Ruben's museum which is a tourist classic and

-the peaceful hideout of the Beguines, being the top three in my miss-list.
If you are going with kids and have a little more time, the Antwerp zoo will be a great idea. The locals spoke highly about it and it's right next to Central Station.

Just 1.5 hours from Antwerp (by train) lies the fairytale city of Bruges (also called Brugge)- the most famous tourist destination of Belgium. I missed Bruges and went to DeHaan instead, click the link to know how. Another interesting place that I really wanted to visit but couldn't cover on my first trip was Ghent, a hippie city in about 1 hour from Antwerp. Check out my favorite city guides on the links above. If you are planning a trip to Belgium I recommend checking out all the blogs I linked here after reading several other blogs.


This was a part of our first Euro-trip where we explored multiple countries in 15 days and we planned it all on our own. Read more to know about it: Planning our first Euro-Trip

Also, check our travel story of Amsterdam and Paris (more to come on Paris)

Check our Antwerp Album on Facebook

Recommended tours for optimal Antwerp experience:

Comments

  1. Antwerp looks amazing. Now on my bucket list.

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  2. Antwerp looks great. The railway station, Jewish Quarter, Diamond district. Will have to get there. Thanks for the post.

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  3. Antwerp is awesome place to visit. Your detailed and informative post brought me back my memories of my visit. Thanks for sharing!

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  4. I've never actually heard of Antwerp so I enjoyed reading about it. How interesting that they have a different purpose for each street, great idea!

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  5. You squeezed in a lot into your time in Antwerp, looks like I could happily spend a couple of nights there I think. We want to see more of Belgium, as we recently spend a wonderful few days in Ghent and loved it. Looks like Antwerp shares the beautiful historical architecture, old town squares and cool tram network of Ghent too! And wow to that central station building!

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  6. I remember visiting Antwerp many years ago, and it's a great city to do a lot of walking. I also remember the Steen, and it's very cool inside too. I think I went to the Great Market, and probably had a beer there too! Not sure about the bacon and prawn pizza, but then again, I live half the year in Italy and we never eat that here!

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  7. I've heard about Antwerp before but never thought I will find so many cool things to do here. I loved your pictures of the historical architecture and the old town squares. I definitely have to visit it after reading your article!

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  8. What a beautiful post about an equally beautiful city Antwerp and it only makes it better with your tips to visit free places. I must say there is a lot to see in the city with the splendid architecture itself which is free. Would love a visit to the city park, called Stadspark which will be great in the summer. The other one which appeals to me is The Steen. Thinks for sharing this post .

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  9. Antwerp looks amazing as it has lots of beautiful things that can be done for free. I love your hostel location in fashion district, as it must be great to see something new trendy stuff there. Also detailed free maps by Useit series sounds useful as they have many local details. Thanks for sharing.

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  10. I absolutely loved this walking tour seeped in history. I never knew the origin of the name Antwerp, that is so interesting! And the prawn pizza you had sounds so good - I've never had shrimp on pizza before. What was the name of the restaurant you visited?

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  11. Antwerp looks really pretty! The central station is stunning and I bet that the Stadspark is a great place to enjoy the sunshine in the warmer months!

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  12. You should check out the huge street art scene in Antwerp, with the free Street Art Cities app you can wander in the open air gallery

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