If like many a tourist you've found yourself in Brussels wondering what all the fuss is about, catch the train to Antwerp instead! The largest city in Flanders is chock-full of enough museums, design shops, and eloquent restaurants to keep visitors busy for weeks. But if you only have 48 hours, here's your ideal itinerary to make the most of your stay.
Arrive by train
Antwerp has mastered the art of the first impression. Although not a possibility for everyone, the best way to arrive is by train. Antwerpen-Centraal is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful train stations in Belgium, if not all of Europe. It was heavily damaged during World War II and was only restored in the 1980s. But now, stepping into the main hall of the station is like stepping back into the 19th century, and it's just as grandiose from the outside.
Get ready for the day with a delicious brunch
While Belgium may be famous for pomme frites and waffles, there's way more on offer than just the classics. Antwerp is Belgium's capital of cool, and its restaurants are no exception. If you're still waking up from your nap on the train, there are a number of delightful breakfast spots around the city, and your biggest problem will be choosing one. Cafe Mundi, Cafematic and Butchers Coffee all offer excellent brunch spreads with modern twists on menu items like eggs Benedict, avocado toast and cheese plates. But be sure to arrive early or make a reservation, especially on weekends.
Take in the Grote Markt and the Town Hall
Make your way to the Grote Markt to get a glimpse of Antwerp's old market square. Ornate 16th century buildings can be found everywhere you turn, all surrounding the Brabo Fountain. The fountain depicts a man holding a hand and standing on a pedestal and a giant's head beneath the man's feet, meant to evoke the legend of the city's founding. If you spin around just a little bit, you'll be standing in front of the Town Hall, a magnificent Renaissance building that's still used today as Antwerp's seat of government. It's especially impressive when decked out with flags for celebrations.
Visit the Cathedral of Our Lady
Just next to the Grote Markt is the city's most magnificent church, the Cathedral of Our Lady. Its Gothic bell tower is hard to miss and can be seen from multiple spots in the city center. The cathedral costs six euros to enter, but it's well worth it for the treasure trove on display inside. Two magnificent triptychs by the Flemish master painter Peter Paul Rubens can be found just before the altar, along with a number of other religious paintings and icons. Besides art from the Old World, contemporary artists are also exhibited in the cathedral, including an installation from 2018 called Diasporalia by artist Koen Theys. The installation displays mattresses and personal effects representing groups of people from all over the world seeking refuge in a new place.
Time for lunch
Antwerp has a whole host of sit down restaurants, but its street food is just as great. Grab a quick bite to eat at one of the many frituurs around the city. And they don't just sell fries. They usually offer other deep fried delights like curryworst, not to be confused with the German currywurst and also known as frikandel. This minced meat sausage is served with chopped onion, mayonnaise and ketchup. Take your lunch on the go and take in the sights and sounds of dynamic Antwerp as you meander to your next destination.
Pay Peter Paul Rubens a visit
For those looking to take in even more of the Old Masters, head straight to Peter Paul Rubens' house itself for Baroque splendor like no other. The influential Flemish painter lived in Antwerp from 1609 to 1612 just as the city was experiencing an uncharacteristic period of peace and revival. Passionate about Italian Renaissance art and architecture, he designed his elaborate house in Antwerp himself. It's now filled with paintings and artworks by Rubens and his contemporaries.
Unwind after a long day
Just as there are numerous brunch places around the city, there are numerous dining and drinking establishments. Belgian beer is world renowned for both its quality and quantity, and Antwerp is home to some of the best of everything. For the best of Belgian beer and food in the old center, head to Billie's Bier Kafetaria for a casual dinner with numerous local and international brews on tap. Get a beer flight and taste all that Antwerp has to offer before heading back to your hotel for a well-deserved rest.
Get an early dose of culture and history
After a quick pastry from Lints or any of the other excellent pastry shops in town, make your way to the MAS, the Museum aan de Stroom. You could easily spend an entire day at this 10-story museum, but with just 48 hours it's best to get there when it opens at 10 AM to make the most of it. The MAS has been a mainstay of the Antwerp cultural scene since its opening in 2011, chronicling Antwerp's place on the world stage throughout history and in modern times. Its mission statement is broad, but its exhibits are anything but generalized. From expositions about celebrations around the world to the effects of urban expansion on our food supply, you'll not only get an idea of Antwerp's history but where Antwerp stands now. Don't miss a trip to the very top of the building. Weather permitting, the roof deck offers panoramic views of Antwerp's harbor, the second largest port in Europe, and of the whole city. Most of the exhibits are trilingual in Dutch, English and French, but some might only be in French and Dutch. Pamphlets or laminated pages might be provided for speakers of other languages if English isn't available in the exhibit.
Take a break
After the previous day's frenzy, take things a little bit easier. Stay in the Het Eilandje neighborhood where the MAS is located and enjoy a sit-down meal at one of the many excellent restaurants that have sprung up in the district. In the eight years since the museum has opened, trendy clubs, bars and eateries have settled in here creating a lively contrast to the city's old town. Head to the café aptly titled No Worries for a light lunch of soup, sandwiches and salad, or if you're looking for something more upscale try the contemporary French cuisine at Lux. After lunch, take a walk to the port authority building. Completed in 2016, the building is a true blend of Antwerp's past and present. The base of the building is an old fire station, and on top is a futuristic ship-shaped addition with a reflective glass facade that offers panoramic views of the whole harbor.
A living, breathing port
If time permits, head to the Red Star Line Museum to get a sense of Antwerp's role in the surge of emigration from Europe during the 19th and early 20th centuries. A few minutes' walk from the MAS, this museum is dedicated to the history of the now-defunct Red Star Line that once ferried passengers between Antwerp and the US and Canada. About 2 million people from across Europe traveled from Antwerp to North America in search of a new life between 1871 and 1935. The museum has curated a number of stories and artifacts from the families of those who made the crossing, many of whom remain in North America today.
End on a high note
To finish out the day, take the tram to the other end of the city to Het Zuid, one of Antwerp's most chic neighborhoods. Art Nouveau buildings, trendy restaurants, art galleries and tree-lined streets are the hallmarks of this district, but like most of Antwerp, Zuid resists pretension. Stop into Chatleroi for a beer and a light snack, or for something a bit different, visit the Borgerhout neighborhood instead. The smallest neighborhood in Antwerp, it's also the most diverse representing over 90 different nationalities. It's undoubtedly one of the most interesting neighborhoods in the city, with incredible Moroccan and Turkish cuisine and lively festivals. It's located just behind Antwerpen-Centraal and is a great place to grab something to eat before your train.