Antwerp Historic Center Walk, Antwerp

Antwerp Historic Center Walk (Self Guided), Antwerp

Antwerp is a bustling metropolis, replete with modern entertainment, yet it is the centuries-old city center that fuels tourists' interest the most. Indeed, downtown Antwerp is steeped in history. So much so, in fact, that to see all that it has to offer, you'll need way more than one day.

Here history awaits you practically round every corner – seen in the ancient building-fronts on narrow streets, breathed on the banks of the Scheldt River, or tasted in the intimate pubs and restaurants abounding the area.

Still, if you have only one day in the city, here are several stop-off points to look out for on the charming cobbled streets of Antwerp:

Antwerpen-Centraal – the Antwerp Central Station, one of the city’s main landmarks and, according to American Newsweek magazine, the fourth most beautiful train station in the world.

Antwerp Zoo – one of the oldest (open since 1843) and best-known zoos in Europe, with 5,000 animals gathered on 10 hectares of land.

Chocolate Nation – the largest chocolate museum in the world, entirely devoted to Belgian chocolate.

Vlaamse Opera – aka the Kunsthuis, home to the Flemish Opera and the Royal Ballet of Flanders.

Meir Street – the most frequently visited shopping thoroughfare in Belgium; pre-eminent hotspot for every shopaholic.

Rubenshuis – the palatial house-museum of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), brilliant and versatile artist, who spent here 25 years, producing most of his oeuvre.

Bourla Theater – the splendid theatrical temple, created by Pierre Bruno Bourla in the 19th century; top-class theater of international quality.

Stadspark – triangular City Park to respite in, away from the hustle and bustle of the shopping streets.

Diamond District – the home of jewelers and diamond merchants.

To explore these attractions more closely, take our self-guided walking tour and enjoy yourself!
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Antwerp Historic Center Walk Map

Guide Name: Antwerp Historic Center Walk
Guide Location: Belgium » Antwerp (See other walking tours in Antwerp)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 9
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 3.9 Km or 2.4 Miles
Author: mary
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Antwerpen-Centraal (Antwerp Central Station)
  • Antwerp Zoo
  • Chocolate Nation Museum
  • Vlaamse Opera (Flemish Opera)
  • Meir Shopping Street
  • Rubenshuis (Rubens House)
  • Bourla Theater
  • Stadspark (City Park)
  • Pelikaanstraat (Pelikan Street) and Diamond District
Antwerpen-Centraal (Antwerp Central Station)

1) Antwerpen-Centraal (Antwerp Central Station) (must see)

Antwerp is a perfect blend of old and new, renowned for its great effort in preserving historic buildings. One such building is the Antwerp Central Station, aka Middenstatie (Middle station). The latter name – now an antiquated expression in Dutch – is seen on the plaque fixed on the north wall of the Station.

A key landmark in the city, this mighty edifice is one of the finest examples of railway architecture in Belgium. It's been repeatedly voted among the world’s most impressive railway stations, including number four in 2009 by the U.S. Newsweek magazine, and number one in 2014 by the British-American magazine Mashable.

The original stone-clad structure, with a steel platform covering, was designed by Louis Delacenserie. It was built between 1895 and 1905 as a replacement for the first terminus of the Brussels-Mechelen-Antwerp railway.

Because of its unique architecture, historians still struggle to attribute the Antwerpen-Centraal to any particular style. The eclectic mix features a Neo-Gothic front, a massive dome over the iron-glass waiting hall, for which the building has been colloquially referred to as the "spoorwegkathedraal" ("railroad cathedral"), and a modern multilevel platform system. Another notable element, the viaduct leading into the Station, was designed by local architect, Jan Van Asperen.

During WWII, the train hall sustained severe damage by V-2 rockets, which is still visible today due to a lasting wave-distortion in the roof.

Recently, the Station was completely renovated, and in 2007 had an underground tunnel opened. Today it operates 14 railways tracts at four different terminals and plays a vital role in connecting various parts of Belgium.

If you're an architecture buff or railway enthusiast, having the Antwerpen-Centraal on your list of things to see is a must! But even if you're neither of these, we still recommend visiting it, just for the spectacle.
Antwerp Zoo

2) Antwerp Zoo (must see)

Established in 1843, the Antwerp Zoo is one of the oldest zoos in the world and is home to the Centre for Research and Conservation (CRC) along with the many animals and their various exhibits. Open all seven days of the week, the Zoo is located right next to Antwerp Centraal Railway Station at the Astrid Square.

The Zoo that started off in a small area of about 4 acres occupies over 26 acres of land today and is home to almost 950 different species of animals. From penguins to sea lions, from zebras to macaws and toucans and from commonly occurring apes to the near threatened okapis, the Zoo has them all. For some period, the Zoo also housed dolphins but the infrastructure demands could not be accommodated by a Zoo that was right in the center of the city.

From its inception, the Zoo has promoted wildlife preservation and through its recreational and educational exhibits pitches the importance of conservation to its 1.5 million visitors every year. The Zoo participates in the European Endangered Species Programme and has helped in the breeding of okapis, peafowls, tamarins and otters to name a few.

The Antwerp Zoo deserves at least half a day’s attention and once you are there, we are sure you will stay for more. But do not forget to pick up the schedule of the feeding times for these natural wonders at the entrance to see them interact with the Zoo staff.
Chocolate Nation Museum

3) Chocolate Nation Museum (must see)

The Chocolate Nation museum recounts the proud history of Belgian chocolate, from day one to the present. The innovative display – 14 themed rooms, 4,000 m² of space – offers an extensive and informative journey, from the cocoa plantations in the equatorial jungle to the world's largest cocoa storage in the Port of Antwerp.

A giant, moving fantasy machine shows how Belgian chocolate is made and what inspires its worldwide adoration. The museum has ateliers, rooms for workshops, and its own Bean To Bar Laboratory where visitors can see chocolatiers at work or even partake in a workshop, learning to make chocolate themselves.

There are multiple sampling opportunities along the way, where you can taste many different kinds of chocolate to your heart's content – great fun for those with a sweet tooth! The museum also has its own restaurant, Octave, where you can enjoy typical Belgian dishes with a twist, combining classic flavors with contemporary influences.

A trip to Antwerp is not complete without a visit to Chocolate Nation – undoubtedly Belgium’s most delectable attraction! Especially not to be missed by chocolate lovers!

Why You Should Visit:
A unique insight into Belgian chocolate traditions and innovations; packed with experiences and tales of chocolate brands and chocolatiers.

The ticket prices include an audio guide and various chocolate tastings.
Vlaamse Opera (Flemish Opera)

4) Vlaamse Opera (Flemish Opera)

The Vlaamse Opera is the Flemish Opera financed by the Flemish Government and the city councils of Antwerp and Ghent. Directed by Aviel Cahn, this single opera company performs in both, Antwerp as well as Ghent. The Opera is carrying forward the trend of one opera company performing in two historical theatres of the Flemish region set in 1981 by Opera voor Vlaanderen.

The history of opera in Antwerp dates back to 1661 when performances were held at the Grote Markt. The influence of the French artists in the performance troupes led to the adoption of French as the official language for all performances. A theatre was first constructed in 1709 and even enjoyed royal patronage between the years 1815 – 1829. However, it never garnered the attention it deserved and was never big enough to entertain a large crowd. It was only in 1834 that a new theatre was built to this effect and is used to this date for theatre performances. After many discussions, work for renovation of the theatre was finally taken up in 2005 at a budget of 24 million euros. The seating in the main auditorium, office spaces for the theatre and a new heating system were put in place. Much of the renovation work still remains but the Vlaamse Opera’s contemporary performances are being conducted in the renovated building since 2007. The Opera never ceases to amaze its audience whether they are in Ghent or in Antwerp or whether they are performing a classic or something altogether anew.
Meir Shopping Street

5) Meir Shopping Street (must see)

Meir is a famous shopping destination for the city of Antwerp and, along with the New Street in Brussels, one of the most important shopping areas in Belgium. The Meir shopping district encompasses the streets surrounding Our Lady’s Cathedral all the way to the Central Station. Once used to store wet wood for furniture, the area has come a long way to be recognized as one of the prime areas for shopping in the country. Once being a small street on the outskirts of the city, today Meir is an integral part of the city center.

With the opening of the Stadsfeestzaal Shopping Centre in 2007, the Meir has become the most expensive shopping destination in the economic union of Benelux. The area is home to all major shopping brands and attracts over 200,000 visitors from neighboring states and other European countries.

Along with being a shopping capital, the Meir has also seen the richness of architecture and the lavishness of the rich. It is home to some exquisite buildings such as ‘Osterrieth House’ at number 85 and the Royal Residence of the Belgian Kings, both built in the old Rococo style by architect Van Baurscheit. Whether for a shopping experience or just visiting to catch a glimpse of the past, Meir is a place that all must visit.
Rubenshuis (Rubens House)

6) Rubenshuis (Rubens House) (must see)

Known for his Counter Reformation portraits, landscapes and paintings, Sir Peter Paul Rubens was a Baroque painter, book illustrator and a diplomat during the early 1600s. The Rubens House is a city of Antwerp-owned and curated building that Rubens designed himself and spent most of his lifetime in.

Located on 9, Wapper Street, Rubens purchased this house in 1610 and added a gallery, porch and a large studio in Greco-Roman classic styles and a hint of Italian Renaissance to the structure. Within the walls of this house, Rubens and his students, such as Anthony Van Dyck and Jacob Jordaens, created most of their works. Rubens’ work is categorized by various stages of productivity of his own life. However, all of Rubens’ work that is on display in the House today came back only after great efforts were put in by the people of Antwerp once it was decided to make the building into a monument in 1937.

The Rubens House is home to paintings such as St. Claire of Assisi, The Annunciation and Adam and Eve made by the great painter himself in addition to the works of other contemporaries of his time. The House also displays various objects of art from the 17th century giving visitor a peek at the lavish lifestyles of those times. The Renaissance Garden which was renovated in 1993 takes inspiration from Rubens’ paintings and should not be missed.
Bourla Theater

7) Bourla Theater

Whether you are a theatre buff or not, you are sure to get captivated and enthralled by this enchanting little theatre in Antwerp. Standing tall, boasting a neat Neo-Classic style of architecture, the Bourla Theatre is a must visit in Antwerp.

Although there are bigger names that beat Bourla in terms of magnitude and status, they all lack the charm, brilliant design and sheer grandeur that the Bourla Theatre proudly showcases. Atop this magnificent structure are the noted figures of theatre right from Shakespeare and Mozart to Aeschylus and Gluck.

Built in 1827, the Bourla Theatre was designed by Pierre Bruno Bourla, a French architect who served the city of Antwerp since 1819. At a time when Europe was going through a Golden Era in theatre and performing arts, the only theatre that Antwerp possessed was the Tapissiers House, once a market for tapestry. When the rest of Europe boasted grand world class theatres, the main theatre of Antwerp lacked style and modern amenities. It was during the Dutch occupation when the Pierre Bruno Bourla was commanded to come up with innovative and revolutionary designs for a new opera house and theatre. The result of his hard work is the Theater that stands to this day.

Apart from its rich history, the Bourla Theatre is well known for its magnificent design and opulent interiors. And if you want to really get a feel of this majestic building without sitting through a play, you can stop for brunch at a restaurant in the foyer of the building.
Stadspark (City Park)

8) Stadspark (City Park)

The Stadspark is an English styled park laid out over 35 acres of land not very far from Antwerp Centraal Station. This triangular park located between Rubenslei, Van Eycklei and Quinten Matsijslei is the only park located in the city center of Antwerp. Constructed in the late 1860s by architect E. Van Cuyck, the Park is a conversion of an old Spanish fortification.

A pond in the Park adds to the scenery while also playing host to some common water birds. A white pedestrian bridge was constructed over the pond which makes it even more picturesque. Various statues decorate the Park along with war memorials. A World War II bunker has remained a part of the Park since it was created. Today, the Park is a destination for joggers, rollerbladers and elderly walkers. You can often see rabbits around the Park who are more than willing to jog (or hop) along with you. However, the Park is too centrally located and cannot manage to take you completely away from the traffic noises arising from the city.

The Park is filled with different kinds of trees, some of which are not even native to the land. Open all times of the day, you can visit the park anytime you prefer although a day light visit is recommended. Once here, you can always go back to shopping areas which are located just outside the Park.
Pelikaanstraat (Pelikan Street) and Diamond District

9) Pelikaanstraat (Pelikan Street) and Diamond District

From the second half of the 19th century Pelikaanstraat (Pelikan Street) is a world famous diamond trading center. The street is also interesting because of its architecture, dominated by picturesque buildings in the Art Nouveau and eclectic style.

Antwerp has been a focus of the diamond trade since 15th century. The industry was transformed when Lodewyk van Berken invented a new form of diamond polishing tool, the scaif, which enabled the creation of the stereotypical sparkling, multifaceted diamond. This attracted orders from European nobility - and attracted other craftsmen to Antwerp. Charles the Bold commissioned him to cut and polish the Florentine Diamond. In the 1890s a diamond industry was established in Antwerp by families of diamonds traders and manufacturers who came from Amsterdam

Antwerp's diamond district is also known as the Diamond Quarter (Diamantkwartier), and dubbed the Square Mile. It consists of several square blocks covering an area of about one square mile. While as of 2012, much of the gem cutting and polishing work historically done in the neighborhood had moved to low wage centers elsewhere, about 84% of the world's rough diamonds passed through the district, making it the largest diamond district in the world with a turnover of 54 billion dollars. Each year, approximately 50% of the rough diamonds return to Antwerp for cutting and polishing. Over 80% of rough diamonds were purchased in Antwerp.

The neighborhood is dominated by Jewish, Jain Indians, Maronites Christian Lebanese and Armenian dealers, known as diamantaires. More than 80% of Antwerp's Jewish population works in the diamond trade; Yiddish was, historically, a main language of the diamond exchange. No business is conducted on Saturdays.

The diamond district is located adjacent to the Central Station (Antwerp Centraal) and a few minutes' walk to Meir, Antwerp's main shopping street. There are numerous and various restaurants, bars and cafes around the district.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.

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