When Brian found out he needed to travel around Europe for two weeks to meet with colleagues and customers, I immediately asked if I could tag along. It quickly became clear that wasn’t feasible – he was going to be in a new place nearly every day and out late at meetings.
As his plans came together, things started to change and it looked like he would be in Brussels for a few days and over the weekend. I never like to miss an opportunity to travel so I jumped on the opportunity to join him for that brief window of time. I spent the days he was at work on solo day trips and planned joint activities and outings for our weekend together.
I was in Brussels for one day nearly 20 years ago (how is that possible!?) with my brother as we backpacked around Europe. The memories were becoming fuzzy so I was excited to make new ones with Brian and explore more of Belgium.
My first day trip was to Antwerp – a 40-minute train ride north from Brussels. I thought I’d explore this one on my own because it was described as more of an industrial port city, which I didn’t think would top Brian’s list of interests.
I was pleasantly surprised to find out there was much more to Antwerp than I thought! From its beautiful train station to its soaring cathedrals to its grand plazas, I found lots to occupy my time wandering around downtown for a day.
How to Spend One Day in Antwerp
Central Railway Station
The main train station in Antwerp – opened in 1905 – is worth a visit even if you’re not accessing the city via rail. The stone building and metal canopy were designed in built in the late 1800s and the overall style is impressive and ‘cathedral-like,’ as I saw one brochure describe it.
With a metro stop at hand, it’s easy to get to/from the station and many major sites in Antwerp. If you prefer to be above ground, I stumbled upon a bike rental area under the ground level where you could acquire wheels for your visit.
Church of Our Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedral)
I took the metro from Antwerp Central Station to Groenplaats and was greeted by the Church of Our Lady immediately upon exiting the station into the square. My first order of business was to wander about the square, taking pictures of the church and surrounding architecture.
As I walked around outside, I paused to admire a statue of the city’s famed and influential artist, Peter Paul Rubens. I was fortunate to see several of his large works inside the Church of Our Lade, however I wasn’t able to visit his tomb this trip, which is inside St-Jacobskerk.
The church, constructed in 1521, has interesting asymmetrical towers on one end, and I loved the statue of the people repairing the masonry near its front entrance.
There was a 6 euro fee to roam around inside but it was well worth it – I was handed a helpful self-guided tour map and appreciated that much of the art had small plaques nearby with details about the artist and time period.
Many visitors were there simply to see the four works by Rubens. I was also impressed by several other pieces pictured in my photos below: the Chapel of our Lady, the Corona (glass crown of thorns), The Man Who Bears the Cross (golden statue of a balancing act), the stained glass windows, and the central rotunda.
I also enjoyed some of the ceiling artwork, which is in the process of being uncovered and restored.
Grand Market Square (Grote Markt)
It was a short stroll among shops and restaurants to the Grote Markt where groups were beginning to gather to admire the city hall and guild halls surrounding the square.
The impressive city hall was build in the 1560s and has a statue out front featuring Silvius Brabo, who is the official symbol of the city and claimed founder of Antwerp. He is shown throwing away the hand of a giant who threatened the city.
Are you familiar with the legend of Brabo and Antigoon? The frightful giant Antigoon lived in Het Steen, requesting a toll from any skipper who sailed down the Scheldt river. When a skipper couldn’t or wouldn’t pay, the giant would cut off his right hand and cast it into the river. That is, until the brave Roman soldier Brabo confronted him one day, defeating the giant, cutting off his hand and throwing it into the Scheldt.https://visit.antwerpen.be/en/6-amazing-things-you-didnt-know-about-antwerp-and-het-steen
The guild halls along the square are mostly replicas based on original paintings – only a few are original. Each one has a statue at its top demonstrating which guild is represented by that house.
As I walked around the square I caught site of the ferris wheel along the water. Some school children had just climbed aboard and you could hear their shrieks from all around!
Steen Castle (Het Steen)
Across from the ferris wheel is Het Steen, which serves as the present-day visitor center. There has been a fortress in this location since the 9th century and the present medieval fortress has walls dating back to the 1200s.
The cruise terminal (you can see one of the ships to the side in my photo below) is in Het Steen, welcoming visitors directly into the history of the city.
I was distracted by the statue out front, featuring the giant Antigoon. While I understand the significance of the city’s origin story, the giant’s stance in this statue is a little funny to me!
Nello and Patrasche Statue
In the shadow of the Cathedral of Our Lady, a boy and his dog rest in an embrace. Only a blanket of cobblestones keeps them warm.
The statue on Antwerp’s Handschoenmarkt is that of the poor farmer boy Nello and the faithful Patrasche. The inseparable pair play the leading role in A Dog of Flanders, a novella written in 1872 by the British Ouida. The writer got the idea for her book during a stay in Belgium. Ouida is appalled by the way dogs are treated and wants to denounce this injustice. The story takes place in and around Antwerp.https://mas.be/en/page/nello-and-patrasche#:~:text=The%20statue%20on%20Antwerp’s%20Handschoenmarkt,during%20a%20stay%20in%20Belgium.
I saw lots of books and toys in shops around town featuring Nello and Patrasche but this large statue and the way it has been incorporated into the square’s brickwork was most impressive!
Wander and Window Shop
The fog started to roll in while I was by the water so I decided to wander the narrow shop-lined streets around the church for a while before heading back to the metro and train station.
I was excited to find a Hard Rock Cafe, where I bought my city pin, and a variety of restaurants ranging from local to international cuisine.
It was a wonderful and relaxing day exploring some of the major sites in Antwerp and not nearly enough time to see everything on my list. Here are a few other places I’ll have to check out next time!
- Museum Plantin-Moretus, oldest printing press and 1700s bookshop
- Red Star Line Museum, stories of those who journey on the ships
- St-Jacobskerk, tomb of Rubens
- St-Carolus-Borromeuskerk, 1621 Baroque church
- Elfde Gebod, local cuisine
- Fiskebar, best seafood in food