Take a quick walking tour of Antwerp and you’ll quickly learn a series of truths about this woefully underrated Belgian city.
For one, it’s the world’s largest diamond hub, with an unfathomable amount of bling moving through its streets to the tune of 40 billion dollars a year.
It’s also a place where chocolates shaped like severed hands are a chief commodity, and, rather importantly, it’s the humble home of the world’s prettiest train station.
I first visited Antwerp on a chilly January day in 2019, and had such a great time, I decided to share my exact walking route with you.
So without further ado, let’s go on a wonderful walking tour of Antwerp together.
Save this free walking tour of Antwerp for later!
You’ll be very glad you did.
A Brief Summary Of Today’s Antwerp Walking Tour
The following post will bring you along on a whirlwind tour through Antwerp, Belgium, designed to make you feel like you’ve stepped right into the action yourself.
It’s modelled after my exact 1 day Antwerp itinerary I followed, and was designed to give you a taste of all the best sights in the city.
Of course, it doesn’t leave much room for visiting Antwerp’s many cool museums (of which there’s many), but it’s a start… and you can always come back!
This free Antwerp tour can be enjoyed both virtually, or followed in-person for a DIY walking tour that you can use yourself. Either way, I hope you like it!
Now, onto the tour…
1. Twirl and gawk at the Antwerp Central Station
We’ll start your DIY Antwerp walking tour at the Antwerp Central Station.
Assuming you’ve arrived by train, congratulations! You’ve already checked off a major bucket list item – the Antwerp Central Station, hailed by many as THE most beautiful train station in the world.
The Grand Hall of the Antwerpen-Centraal is a stone-clad masterpiece of archways, columns, and lovely Art Nouveau flourishes. Little wonder why it’s locally known as the Spoorwegkathedraal, AKA the Railway Cathedral.
And while such a grand title feels a bit… dramatic for a mere transport hub, one look at its 75m monumental dome and you’ll see why it’s considered veritable place of worship for train geeks and starry-eyed travel bloggers alike.
Of course, this gloriously elegant station didn’t always look so glamorous.
Just over 100 years ago, Antwerp’s railway station was little more than a humble construction of wood and practicality. At the behest of (highly controversial) King Leopold II however, some of the country’s brightest architectural masterminds were recruited to turn the station into something wow-worthy.
Safe to say they succeeded.
After you’ve finished oohing and ahh-ing, take a step outside so we can continue our Antwerp walking tour!
2. Skip two of Antwerp’s Best known “attractions”
Straight outside of Antwerp Central Station, you’ll find two of Antwerp’s most well known hotspots on either side of you: 1) the Antwerp Zoo and 2) the Diamond District.
For this special version of Christina’s Antwerp walking tour, I want you to skip both.
I’m not a big supporter of zoos, and to be honest there are much more worthwhile things to do in Antwerp than visiting it.
Likewise with the diamond district, it is a LOT less glamorous than it sounds, and unless you’re here to like, ball out and shower yourself with diamonds, then I wouldn’t waste time exploring it…
It’s literally stall after stall of not-fancy-looking jewelry shops, and perhaps it was the grey January gloom that got to me, but I found the whole area rather depressing to look at.
It’s worth noting though (as you pass) that diamonds are to Antwerp as waffles are to Liège… If you haven’t had a Liège waffle before, what I’m trying to say is they’re delicious. Sorry – I meant important.
Antwerp is the undisputed diamond capital of the world, a status it has rocked for centuries, dating back to when the world’s first stock exchange was created here.
It is said that 84% of all rough diamonds and half of all cut diamonds in the world are traded here, which if you ask me, is a LOT of bling.
Why Antwerp? Well, many factors over the years have gone into why Antwerp has become the world’s diamond capital, but perhaps most importantly, it was here in Antwerp (back in the 16th century) that diamond cutter bad boy Lodewyk van Bercken invented a diamond polishing wheel called a scaif.
This scaif is what made the multi-faceted diamond we revere today possible – an invention so game-changing that the industry itself was revolutionized, with Antwerp at the heart of all the action.
Today, the Diamond District is a fairly average looking square mile crammed with over 1500 traders that deal with over 30 billion dollars worth of diamonds annually (and that’s considered a “bad year”).
But again, you wouldn’t know it from its fairly drab aesthetic.
3. Start walking down De Keyserlei
If you’ve exited the Antwerp Central Station from its main entrance (you know, where the whole fancy looking façade is), then you should be on De Keyserlei.
Besides sounding like an evil character off Game of Thrones, this is the street you should walk down to eventually hit Antwerp’s main shopping area.
That said, if your priorities are anything like mine, you should first…
4. Get yourself a hot chocolate for strolling at Chocolatier Del Rey
A quick detour onto Lange Herentalsestraat (literally the first street when you turn left while walking down De Keyserlei) and you’ll find yourself at one of Antwerp’s most beloved chocolate spots.
At the Chocolatier del Rey, a sign that simply says “THE BEST HOT CHOCOLATE IN THE WORLD” beckons from afar.
Getting a treat here is a more than just an indulgence – it’s an experience. Order a hot chocolate and they’ll retrieve your desired cacao level from a chocolate-filled bulb of glass before plunking it in some hot milk for your eager consumption.
And while you wait for your choco-magic to be made, you can entertain yourself with the stunning pastry creations and whimsical chocolate shapes like diamonds (of course) and…. hands. More on the hand chocolates later.
Once you’ve got your sipping chocolate, walk back onto De Keyserlei to continue this tour.
That’s right, we couldn’t even walk 100m without a chocolate stop. Welcome to my tour, where I make the rules.
5. Continue on De Keyserlei until you hit the Meir
There’s nothing super notable about De Keyserlei – a few regular shops, restaurants – there’s a Five Guys too if you want to get excited about that… but it’ll lead somewhere great – I promise!
My tip: Don’t forget to turn around for another glimpse of Antwerp Central Station. From afar you can really appreciate its beauty (and capture a cool shot of the street leading down towards it).
After some walking, you’ll soon reach the Statue of David Teniers (a renowned Flemish artist), framed with a nice backdrop of gorgeous Antwerp architecture. Soak it all in. Mmm mmm.
Continuing straight, you’ll soon hit the Meir, Antwerp’s most well-known shopping street. Whip out those wallets folks!
6. Step into a stunning shopping mall and an even more stunning chocolate shop
Honestly, the Meir is okay but it’s not my favourite place in Antwerp… not even for shopping.
It’s that typical street you see in every major city with the exact same chain shops like H&M, Zara and Uniqlo.
If you’re on a time crunch, I wouldn’t bother shopping at these places you would probably have back home.
The Meir is still worth visiting though because of two exceptional stops.
Firstly – be sure to step into the Shopping Stadsfeestzaal.
Yes it’s a mall but it’s a ridiculously pretty one that’s all golden and majestic, a big step up from the malls I grew up with, where the most cultured thing was a Jamba Juice.
This former festival hall is a striking piece of neoclassical architecture to behold… especially when you consider much of it was destroyed in a fiery blaze in the year 2000.
Nonetheless, extensive restorations came to the rescue and today, the Shopping Stadsfeestzaal is looking just as fine as in her glory days…. except now there’s an Urban Outfitters.
A few minutes from here, you’ll find The Chocolate Line, the prettiest chocolate shop you’ll see in Antwerp.
At this shop, you’ll find pretty floral wallpaper, chandeliers, etc. all touting the products of Belgium’s chief choco-bad boy, Dominique Persoone.
If the name rings no bells, let me catch you up to speed: this is a guy that once called himself a “shock-olatier” and (for a special Rolling Stones party) invented a catapault that throws cocoa-herb directly into your nose like a whimsical choco-cocaine. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.
Of course, if you’re feeling daring, it’s no surprise that wacky flavours are a starring attraction at the Chocolate Line, whether you want some almond praline with deep fried onions (the “Cebolla”), ganache and marzipan with wasabi (the “Green Tokyo”) or of course, a praline with hemp seeds and a cute lil marijuana leaf decoration (the “Hennep”).
The service is a little snobby and the prices are pretty high, but what else would you expect? It’s a gorgeous little shop and you can even walk in to a demo room where you can watch the chocolate masters at work!
NOTE: Just before the Chocolate Line is the famous Rubens House. I’ve heard this is a great museum but I didn’t have time to visit.
7. Turn right on Sint-Katelijnevest and make your way to Hendrik Conscienceplein
If you haven’t blown your entire trip budget on mariju-ocolate, let’s continue.
We’re going to take a quick detour before we reach the goodness of Antwerp’s main square… why?
I think Antwerp is a city best explored through bouts of wistful wandering, and the best parts of the city are the ones you discover while taking side streets and wrong turns.
This is a right turn though (ha literally), take a right onto Sint-Katelijnevest.
Walk down this pretty unremarkable street until you hit Wijngaardbrug at which point you should take a left.
A left turn will lead you into what I think is one of the prettiest squares in Antwerp: Hendrik Conscienceplein.
It’s a stunning little square with perfect facades, including the Saint Carolus Borromeus Church. On that note…
8. If you can, step inside the Saint Carolus Borromeus Church
This might be tough because the church has very random opening hours, but if it’s open, be sure to scope it out. Visiting is free, and wow does this place have a story.
The year was 1718, and Antwerp’s Carolus Borromeus Church was the talk of the town.
About a hundred years prior, local Jesuits had begun work on this effortlessly grand Baroque church, which was built quickly and with grandiose contributions from some seriously famous names… specifically 39 ceiling paintings from Peter Paul Rubens himself, only THE most influential artist of the period. People were stoked.
And while for decades, people came from near and far to admire the work of Rubens (and the beautiful church itself), everything changed on a fateful day in 1718, when a blaze of lightning struck struck the church, creating a devastating fire that resulted in the loss of Rubens’ glorious paintings.
Meaning yes, they are sadly gone.
Nonetheless, the church is worthwhile sight to behold (if you manage to catch it open to the public). After all, it still does look like this:
9. If you can, visit the Heritage Library Hendrik Conscience, specifically the Nottebohm Room
Another gem can be found in the Hendrik Conscienceplein.- in fact, one of the prettiest libraries I’ve ever set foot in.
Again, visiting might be tough because the room is only open for special exhibitons and events, but I happened to be in town for one so I threw 5 euros at the woman and enthusiastically leaped up the stairs to one of the best kept secrets of Antwerp: the Nottebohm Room, a book-sniffer’s dream stacked with old books, dark wood and celestial globes.
Originally built in 1936, today this room houses 150,000 items from the deepest depths of the library’s archive. Seriously, if you have the chance, go inside!
10. Continue onto Wijngaardbrug
After you’ve had enough of this ridiculously good-looking square (and its equally good looking/historical inhabitants), continue down Wijngaardbrug to enjoy a slice of cozy, pretty Antwerp.
In the winter, this street was decked out in pretty twinkly lights, with adorable shops like the Poppins Bolemen en Verbeelding flower shop (pink IG bench included!) providing picturesque perfection.
11. Keep going straight and you’ll hit Grote Markt, Antwerp’s main square
We definitely took the scenic route, but we now find ourselves in Antwerp’s main square, Grote Markt.
And yes, it’s seriously stunning.
Maybe it was the lack of crowds but I actually prefer it to Brussels’ Grand Place. Here, you’ll find stacks of glorious 16th century guildhalls squeezed together like dominos, Antwerp’s illustrious city hall, and the fascinating Brabo Fountain, which depicts a local legend that today is connected to one of the city’s most famous treats…
Take a peek in any Antwerp chocolate shop and you’ll likely see a delicious take on a not-so-delicious object: severed hands!
These chocolate hands are an Antwerp staple thanks to the tale of Brabo (the delightful naked guy seen in the fountain) who, according to local legend, saved dwellers of the Schledt River by defeating an evil giant who used to cut off the hands of sailors that refused to pay his toll.
In defeating the giant, Brabo (poetically) sliced off its hand and hurled it into the river, a legend immortalized in this bizarre statue (which I like to call ‘Naked man yeeting dismembered hand into abyss’), along with the hand-shaped chocolates now sold in every shop of the city.
Budget lots of time here for gratuitous photo opps! And reading Christina’s long stories!
12. Eat… lunch… maybe?
This is a quick break in our DIY Antwerp Walking Tour to remind you to eat something. I had minimal time in the city so I settled for a quick take-out meal which I wolfed down in approximately 2.5 seconds.
For tips on where to eat in Antwerp, this article has plenty of local recommendations.
13. Spend some time wandering around the area
After lunch (or perhaps just a giant coffee), it’s time to indulge in one of my favouite past times: getting lost in the name of fun and photo opps!
Vague, I know, but like I said, Antwerp is so much more magical when you’re just wandering around and discovering little nooks and crannies for yourself.
If you need a little nudge, here are some spots I really enjoyed.
Vlaaikensgang: This medieval alley dates back to 1591. There’s not much to do here, but it’s a pretty escape and one of the most photogenic spots in the city.
Plantin Moretus Museum: This creaky UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to some of the world’s oldest printing presses, and offers insight into the lives and work of legendary 16th-century printers Christophe Plantin and Jan Moretus.
Vrijdagmarkt: This historic square has hosted bustling markets since the 16th century. Even today, a famous flea market takes place every Friday in this square. While it’s quite a chaotic market and there’s otherwise not much else to see in the square, it’s a nice spot to peek at if you’re in the area.
Chocolatier and Confiserie Burie: This family-run Antwerp chocolate shop is a must-see even if you’re not hankering for chocolate, because every month they display a new chocolate sculpture in their window for customers to gape at. During my visit, there was a giant chocolate snowman! FYI, their hot chocolate is also excellent.
Melkmarkt and Lijnwaadmarkt: Some nice streets to explore in Antwerp for scenic views.
14. Travel to St Anna’s Pedestrian Tunnel
After enjoying your afternoon exploring some of the spots above, it’s time to venture off to one of Antwerp’s lesser frequented spots.
The St Anna’s Pedestrian Tunnel is an awesome old-school underpass below the Scheldt River (again, giant and toll free thanks to Brabo and his choppy chop ways).
It was built in 1933 as a way to traverse the river without needing a ferry. While the tunnel is largely (and monotonously) covered in plain tiles, what makes it unique and interesting is that it transports you underground via a series of wooden escalators.
The walk across to the other side is a bit spooky and takes just under 10 minutes, with ‘accidental Wes Anderson vibes’ guaranteed.
And while the tunnel itself isn’t anything special, once you get to the other side, there’s a wonderful surprise that awaits.
15. Admire the view of the Antwerp skyline from across the water
While it’s a bit of a detour/trek to go through the St Anna’s Tunnel (it’s much quicker by bike of course), I do recommend this little trip if you have get an excellent view of the Antwerp skyline and there’s a nice park to boot (a perfect picnic spot on a warm sunny day!)
I mean, look at it!
… Then retreat back into the (mildly) creepy tunnel I just made you walk through, because we’re headed back to the other side for more sightseeing.
16. Stop by Het steen Castle
If it’s not completely covered in scaffolding for restorations (like it was during my visit), a short walk from the St Anna’s tunnel is the Het Steen Castle, which is mostly just a nice spot for a photo.
At the moment, you can’t tour the castle nor is there something inside, but it’s quite pretty to look at… while letting your imagination run wild.
After all, this is Antwerp’s oldest structure, an epic stone fortress that has over the years been all of the following: protection from intruders, an actual prison, a museum of archeology, a museum of maritime history and today, a photo stop on Christina’s Antwerp Walking Tour.
Fun fact: Het Steen is Flemish for “The Rock”, as in Dwayne “Het Steen” Johnson.
17. Visit the oldest house in Antwerp
Continuing our little Antwerp walking tour, let’s go from the oldest building in Antwerp to Antwerp’s oldest house.
Walking along the water is pretty boring (I tried it) so I would advise you squeeze in a few cool stops while en route to MAS (which is our next main stop).
On Stoelstraat 11, you’ll find the oldest house in Antwerp, a cool, wooden façade that you can easily visit en route. Built in 1500, this wooden house is a truly badass sight when you consider it has survived the horrors of six major wars. Not bad for a simple wooden house.
18. Stop by St. Paul’s Church
From here, you’re not far from another one of Antwerp’s most iconic churches, so be sure to schedule a stop at Saint Paul’s Church if you want to peek at dozens of paintings and hundreds of statues from some of the country’s most renowned masters.
The church you see before you was completed in 1639, and is known best for its splendid Baroque altars. Sadly, I can’t tell you more than that as the church was closed during my visit, but please take a look inside so I can live vicariously through you. I’ve heard it’s beautiful!
19. Walk through (or avoid) the Antwerp Red Light District
Now from a splendid church to… something entirely different.
In Antwerp, there are only three streets now (Verversrui, Vingerlingstraat and Schippersstraat) where prostitution is openly flaunted à la Amsterdam, with women in windows beckoning the attention of potential clients.
Guess who accidentally waltzed into this area during her wistful wanders?
That’s right – meeee!!
And guess who spent a solid few blocks dodging eye contact while waltzing through said district?
That’s right – also meeee!
This is definitely not the touristy affair that it is in Amsterdam, but if curiosity calls, feel free to peruse Verversrui, Vingerlingstraat and Schippersstraat, or otherwise avoid them to keep your trip PG.
20. Grab an incredible free view at MAS
At last, the final stop of our Antwerp walking tour… and I’ve certainly saved the best for last – with a sweeping view over the city. Best of all, it’s completely free!
The Museum aan de Stroom (MAS) is a modern riverside museum that houses hundreds of thousands of artifacts related to Antwerp.
Besides being Antwerp’s largest museum, it’s also uniquely covered in… you guessed it: hands! Tiny little silver hands that pay tribute to the legend of Brabo, and also patrons of the museum during its construction phase.
At ten stories tall, MAS is a giant museum that’s beyond the scope of our short Antwerp walking tour today, but the view up top is free, so let’s go check it out.
Not gonna lie, taking 10 floors worth of escalators gets tedious, but the view from up top is worth it:
And with that, you’ve completed your walking tour of Antwerp with yours truly!
On your way back to the train station, feel free to swing by the Begijnhof Antwerpen and Antwerp’s Chinatown (Van Wesenbekestraat). Both can be visited en route and have interesting stories of their own.
The Begijnhof Antwerpen is one of the most peaceful pockets of the city, originally built centuries ago for Beguines, devout women who lived in semi-monastic communities (but never took official religious vows).
Today, the space is still residential, but open to the public, and oh so pretty to see:
Antwerp’s Chinatown on the other hand is far less quiet.
This bustling piece of the city near Antwerp Central Station is packed with Chinese restaurants, bakeries, supermarkets, and even kung fu schools. It’s the only officially recognized Chinatown in all of Belgium, and even has its entrance gate flanked with marble lions.
Luckily, the lions’ hands are all in tact.
I hope you enjoyed this DIY Walking Tour of Antwerp!
Antwerp is a wonderful city with gorgeous sights and fascinating stories. I hope you enjoyed taking this walk with me, whether in person or virtually. Thanks for reading!