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One day in Antwerp Itinerary – Free things to do

Have a short layover in Antwerp and don’t know what to do? Well, we had no idea either. But based on our amazing experience of walking around the city with a map in our hand, we came up with this unique Antwerp itinerary for one day. We didn’t spend a penny except on food. So this itinerary has many free things to do in Antwerp while soaking yourself in its culture. So join us in this free tour of one day in Antwerp, as we try to soak in the essence of the world’s diamond capital. 
 
Long long ago, 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. Hand throwing translates to “hand werpen” in Dutch. So there you go, the port city of Belgium gets its name – “Antwerpen”, a.k.a., Antwerp!
 
We took the Flix bus from Amsterdam at 10:30 am and reached the Antwerp central station within 1 pm. We were going 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 as we did. 
 
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One Day in Antwerp - Click to get a perfect Antwerp Itinerary with loads of free things to do in the world's Diamond Capital. Did you know70% of the world's diamonds pass through this city in Belgium? Amazing architecture, Belgian chocolates, castle and a station that looks like a cathedral.

 Where we stayed in Antwerp?

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. There are many hotels, hostels and Airbnb options to choose from but I’d recommend staying near the central station. 

One day in Antwerp – The World’s Diamond Capital

Our hostel was in a surprisingly peaceful complex near the throbbing fashion district. We loved the hostel. What we cherished the most was the free pocket maps from the UseIt series that were made available on the rack for tourists. These maps had a host of local tips and some history lesson of the city. Not only did it guide us through our walking tour of the city but it also helped me recollect the tidbits while writing the blog. This is in fact, 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 a 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. After that, we walked 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 we entered 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.

Visiting Europe soon? Do check out the best packing list for Europe.

One day in Antwerp- Free things to do in the Diamond Capital
 
 
One day in Antwerp | Del Popolo Pizza
Had one of the best Pizza I’ve tasted at Del Popollo Pizzeria near the Central station

Our Antwerp Itinerary

Our first stop was at the Central Station from where we walked 2km to our hostel. So by the time we started on our self-guided walking tour, we had already got an orientation of the neighborhood.

Antwerp itinerary | Stadspark – The City Park 

Antwerp Itinerary - City Park

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.

Antwerp Central Station

Antwerp in one day - Central StationWe went to Central Station to buy a ticket to Bruges 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.

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.  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 like many historic monuments it has a dark history. According to our pocket guide, the original building was built under the command of Leopard II with blood money from inhumane rubber harvest in the then colonies of Belgium.

Antwerp in a Day - Central Station

Diamond District of Antwerp – The Jews and the Indians

Did you know? 84% of the world’s rough diamond passes through Antwerp!

Antwerp is the heart of diamond trading for over five centuries. 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 Diamond quarter is home to the diamond trading center, a large number of jewelry shops, diamond traders, wholesalers, cutters and guess what, a branch of “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. 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 15th century. The Jewish neighborhood near the diamond district has beautiful old buildings and synagogues.

One day in Antwerp- Free things to do in the Diamond Capital

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.

Antwerp in one day | Meir Market

Meir Market , Antwerp ItineraryI spotted the Scheldt river on our map and decided to go there no matter what. So we just kept walking from the Diamond District towards the river. On our way, we crossed the Meir shopping center of Antwerp. We had walked through this place earlier on our way to the hostel. Yes, the place that made me aware of the great sense of fashion in the Antwerpeans.

Meir is the main shopping destination in the city. I also noticed that there was a sale starting in a few days, but we were out of luck. You would love looking at those gorgeous buildings and window-shopping like we did.

While we headed straight to the Grote Market from here, a slight left turn could have taken us to Ruben’s house. As the name suggests, this is the house of the great artist Ruben and it has been transformed into a museum. The museum has a great collection of his paintings. I didn’t know about it then, so we missed it. But you know now, so don’t miss it on your walking tour. 

The Grote Markt – The Great Market of Antwerp

One day in Antwerp - free things to do in the diamond capital

Brabo’s Fountain – The hero throwing the giant’s hand.

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 city’s hero.  This is where we also saw the chocolate shops I mentioned and the stunning OLV Cathedral.

One day in Antwerp | Cathedral

It has a 123-meter tall tower, which we could see 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. 

The Steen Castle –  My favorite place of one day in Antwerp

One day in Antwerp - Free things to do | Steen Castle

Now despite the archaic buildings that we saw in the Grote Markt, Antwerp in itself looks and feels like a modern trade-hub. So when we got a glance at an old castle while waiting to cross the road, I was 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. This beautiful castle has held its ground for centuries now.
It was renovated and further expanded with a neo-gothic wing in 1889-90. The Steen was created as a castle and used as a fortress for centuries. Then it was turned into prison till 1823, after which it was consecutively used as a residence, a sawmill, and a fish warehouse. It was reopened to the public as a museum in 1863. At the gate of Steen stands a striking  Semini statue, which was a symbol of fertility. The statue was maimed by Roman Catholic priests in the 16th century.

The Antwerp Harbour

One day in Antwerp-Free Things to do | Steen

Since the castle was closed for restoration activities we spent a great time at the banks of the river taking watching the ships and the windmills. A walk along the Antwerp Harbour is almost a mandatory free thing to do in Antwerp. But we missed something. The underpass connecting to the left bank of the Scheldt river leads you to the best Panoramic viewpoint of the city. We missed that unknowingly.

Another place you should definitely not skip nearby is the St. Paul’s Church. This beautiful shrine is just 600 m from the Steen Castle. This 16th century Roman Catholic church has a great blend of Gothic and Baroque architecture. 
Antwerp Itinerary

CC. Wikimedia

Nightlife at Antwerp

We headed back towards the Grote market for buying 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. Antwerp is a great place if you love to party all evening.
We had to end the day early in the evening because my husband had to watch a Champion’s league match in the hostel.

Other places to visit in Antwerp in one day

This was our itinerary which comprised only the free things to do in Antwerp. 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 can add to your list even if you have only one day in Antwerp. 

  • Plantin – Moretus Museum. This is a museum and a UNESCO world heritage site. It is also a 16th-century printing workshop, the only remaining one in the world.
  • Antwerp Zoo. If you are visiting with family don’t forget to peek into the AntwerpZoo, which is right behind the Antwerp Central station.

  • New Port House of Antwerp. This is another free attraction in Antwerp’s skyline but we missed it.

However it is 7.2 km away from the Steen castle, so it’s better to take a bus or bike to it. We could not include it on our walking tour.

Roadmap for our one-day Antwerp Itinerary

Check out our walking tour plan and click on the map to go to the interactive Google maps.
Check out our Antwerp Photo Album on Facebook. Subscribe for more such stories delivered to your inbox. How did you like our story? Would you like to visit Antwerp? Tell me in the comments and share the post if you liked it.

Here’s another photo you can pin!

One Day in Antwerp, (Belgium) - Click to get a perfect Antwerp Itinerary with loads of free things to do in the world's Diamond Capital. Did you know70% of the world's diamonds pass through this city in Belgium? Amazing architecture, Belgian chocolates, castle and a station that looks like a cathedral. #Belgium #Antwerp
Just 1.5 hours from Antwerp (by train) lies the fairytale medieval city of Bruges. I missed it and went to DeHaan instead. You can also check out what to see in Brussels which is less than 1-hour drive from Antwerp. 

Read how we planned our first Europe trip here.

 

Below are the best experiential guided tours which I could find for you.

 
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13 Comments

  1. Julie July 14, 2018

    Antwerp looks amazing. Now on my bucket list.

    Reply
  2. Sue and Reggie July 16, 2018

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

    Reply
  3. Anita July 16, 2018

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

    Reply
  4. Tasha Oyster October 28, 2018

    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!

    Reply
  5. Kavey November 4, 2018

    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!

    Reply
  6. Daniel Kiteski November 5, 2018

    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!

    Reply
  7. amar singh November 5, 2018

    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 .

    Reply
  8. Lisa November 5, 2018

    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!

    Reply
  9. Unknown November 5, 2018

    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?

    Reply
  10. Yukti November 6, 2018

    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.

    Reply
  11. LaVale November 7, 2018

    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!

    Reply
  12. Tim November 9, 2018

    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

    Reply
  13. The Jetset Boyz August 3, 2019

    We visited Antwerp a few years ago and whilst walking around the city popped into Centraal Station. We didn’t know anything about the station so was totally amazed by what we found when we wandered in! In 2009 Newsweek judged the station the world’s fourth greatest train station. Then in 2014 Mashable awarded it the first place for the most beautiful railway station in the world. It’s seriously impressive & grand – you really must visit if you’re ever in Antwerp!

    Reply

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