Antwerp may be best known as THE shopping destination among visitors, but also culture lovers can easily satisfy their art & culture cravings in this beautiful Belgian city. Together with my bestie Suzanne, I went to Antwerp for a short cultural city trip. We visited a great number of museums, admired the Jugendstil villas in, according to some, the most beautiful street of Belgium, and drank pints in the city’s oldest bar. And all of this on a budget!
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“When I was still a young lad, we all drank beer,
but of course the alcohol percentage in beer was significantly less then”, according to the owner of the rustic bar Telefoneke, Antwerp’s oldest bar (Lange Nieuwstraat 121). When we passed the bar in the afternoon, Suzanne immediately said she wanted to go there that evening for a drink. “This is where the locals go, not tourists. You can tell straightaway.” Although she was probably right about this, it’s ironic that the only customers on this particular Wednesday evening happen to be tourists.
The owner tells us the property once used to be the work and living space of the famous Antwerp painter Rubens. While we’re sipping from our Belgian beers, we are overwhelmed by more historical facts about the city. Having heard more than enough trivia for one night, we finish our drinks in the authentic local bar, which resembles someone’s cozy living room, and head back to our beautiful bed and breakfast The Baron, located in an old town house.
The ultimate budget tip: buy an Antwerp City Card
The next morning we’re treated to fresh rolls and boiled eggs served on the most beautiful breakfast table I’ve ever seen. (Unfortunately no photos because I devoured it all too quickly.) After this tasty start of the day, we make our way to the Central Station to buy our Antwerp City Cards. Depending on the type of card you choose, it allows you free (or discounted) access to dozens of museums and attractions over a period of 24, 48 or 72 hours. The card also allows you free travel on public transport in the city! Since we’ll be driving back to the Netherlands that evening, we opt for the 24H card.
In case you’re not travelling to Antwerp by train, do make sure to pop into the station anyway. As you can see in the photo, the striking Central Station is definitely worth a visit. This architectural gem was built between 1895 and 1905 and I think it’s quite clear from the photo below why this station is regarded as one of the most beautiful train stations in the world.
Drinking beer in the name of culture
The Antwerp City Card offers a wide range of attractions, offering plenty of options for everybody. Suzanne and I chose for a true culture marathon. Below you can see our itinerary for the day!
Museum aan de Stroom (MAS)
We start our culture-filled day in the eye-catching modern museum MAS in Antwerp’s harbour area. Here we discover the works of forgotten Flemish painter Michaelina Wautier (1604–1689). Baroque’s leading lady is the first retrospective exhibition of this extraordinary artist. It most certainly leaves a big impression on me. Feeling inspired, we also check out the other exhibitions in the museum and learn more about Antwerp’s colourful history.
One of the most memorable stories is the legend of a giant who terrorised the city hundreds of years ago. His unfortunate defeat by a Roman soldier supposedly gave the city its name. When the soldier chopped off the giant’s hand, he threw it in the river. This act was referred to as ‘hand-throwing’, or hand-werpen in Dutch. The Dutch word eventually evolved into the city’s name. Pretty cool story, right? Finally, we admire the great views over the city from the Panorama deck on the tenth floor. (But you can visit this for free even without the Antwerp City Card.)
Art somehow always makes me ravenous. (This is just an excuse as I actually always have an appetite.) Luckily, they serve lovely food in the beautiful grand café of MAS. After our filling smoked salmon focaccia we feel recharged again and are ready for our next stop: Brewery De Koninck!
City brewery De Koninck
“This is the best welcome in a museum ever!” I exclaim when the girl at the ticket desk hands us two pints of the delicious beer Tripel D’Anvers upon arrival at the museum brewery De Koninck. During our fun and interesting interactive self-guided tour through the city brewery we learn more about Antwerp’s famous ‘Bollekes’. This is the local nickname for De Koninck beers (named after the shape of the distinctive round-shaped glass in which the beer is served). We finish the tour with our second free glass of beer in the inviting industrial-chic bar.
Cogels-Osylei: Antwerp’s picturesque street from the belle époque
The next budget tip is also accessible without the Antwerp City Card. A visit to Antwerp’s most stunning street in the charming neighbourhood of Zurenborg is free to all. Suzanne and I spent some time wandering through the picturesque streets of this residential area. After admiring the astonishing Jugendstil villas, we hop onto the tram at the local Berchem Station. There’s still lots to see and do today, so we’re off to our next stop on the agenda!
Printing office Plantin-Moretus
If you are a book nerd like me, then this next stop is absolute heaven! Museum Plantin-Moretus used to be a printing office and home to the family Plantin-Moretus. Here you can find the oldest printing presses in the world and family portraits painted by none other than Rubens. Whilst visiting this stunning building with its picture-perfect courtyard, you’ll understand why this is the first museum on the UNESCO World Heritage List!
The museum is located on the lively Vrijdagmarkt square. This is where we rest our feet and minds for a moment with a drink and much-needed cheese platter.
Cathedral of Our Lady
After the short pit stop we dash off to the nearby Handschoenmarkt. We manage to squeeze in a visit to the city’s striking cathedral just 15 minutes before closing time. This magnificent structure was built between 1352 and 1521. And with its 123 metres it’s the tallest Gothic church of the Low Countries.
M HKA (Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp)
Almost entirely culture-saturated, we step inside the M HKA for a number of very interesting modern and contemporary art exhibitions. We are challenged to think about the tension between contemporary and baroque art (inspired by the cultural city festival Antwerp Baroque 2018. Rubens inspires) and also get to see the highly unsettling installation Five Car Stud. Besides the artworks on display, also the stark white and spacious building itself is an artwork in its own right.
When Suzanne and I go out for dinner together, we prefer a Thai curry as both our partners aren’t so good with spicy food. So, when we find out there’s a Thai restaurant in walking distance from the museum, we’re sorted for the night! Before we hit back on the road for our drive back to the Netherlands, we tuck into our scrumptious curries at Yam Thai (76 Volkstraat). The perfect ending of our Antwerp city trip!