Summary: If historical immersion is what you’re after, go here instead of Brussels.
How to See Antwerp
As with many European cities, Antwerp seems quite compact, but uncomfortably large to walk across. The Central station is exceedingly far from the old-town and the main sights that city offers. Unlike other European cities though, Antwerp does not offer an easy fix to this problem without a car. I would recommend walking but keep that in mind when planning your day.
The main sites are quite far from each other, posing an additional challenge to someone interested in seeing everything. Quite frankly, if seeing everything is the goal, you will likely need two days at a minimum. Otherwise there is not much to mention here, as I find the city fairly straightforward. Standard rules apply, if you want to get into a popular church or museum, you need to get up early. If you want to eat at a popular restaurant you will need a reservation.
The following section will take you on a chronological tour of the main sights in the city.
A Center of Trade and Art
In the Middle Ages, Antwerp was one of the leading cultural centers in Europe. Well this assertion is only true once the river Scheldt silted up in the 14th century, preventing trade from reaching the previous center, Bruges. Prior to this, Antwerp shows remarkable Rhenish influence, notably the foundations of its Romanesque cathedral show a tri-form conch shape of the choir and transepts, something that could only have come from Cologne. Its transformation into the main center of trade for the wealthy lowland cities of Flanders and Brabant would turn it into the main center of the Renaissance in Northern Europe, far outshining the cities of the Rhineland.
Unfortunately, much of the architectural heritage of the late Gothic and Renaissance would be lost over the following centuries. A combination of religious iconoclasm, warfare and a taste for the baroque along with Belgian “urban planning” provides for a very mixed cityscape today. Ironically, the richest part of Antwerp’s cultural heritage is its belle epoch, art nouveau and art deco architecture around the city center. Most of its peripheral neighborhoods are of very high quality and well preserved.
The Brabantine Gothic
From the late Gothic Antwerp has four main monuments. Of the four great churches, St. Paul, St. Andrew and St. James are clear examples of the Brabantine Gothic, whereas the Cathedral is a radical departure from existing paradigms and relates to how the city thought of itself in the world.
The Brabantine Gothic has a clear preference for round columns, cabbage leaf capitals and a well delineated triforium. These can be easily seen in most churches in Brabant and Flanders. The influence of the Brabantine court was substantial, more so when the Burgundian and Later Austrian court moved to Mechelen. In this case, its likely that influence was primarily spread through familiarity. The civic pride of lowland cities encouraged the construction of soaring towers and churches. As Brussels was the first city to see major French-styled Gothic construction, the experience gained there contributed to the constructions and innovations elsewhere in the lowlands.
In contrast, the Cathedral Church of our Lady has none of these features. Instead we have bundled columns and a continuous blind tracery that merges into a triforium-window combination. An idea taken perhaps from England, e.g. Gloucester Cathedral. As a style it did not go very far, perhaps the city church of St. James in Liege or St. Rumbold in Mechelen took note, otherwise it is unique in Europe. A desire for an independent civic identity from the stifling aristocracy of the Brabantine court in Brussels may have played a role. This becomes more apparent when you look at the plans to rebuild the cathedral in the 16th century. The new building would have been truly colossal in dimension with plenty of space for the family graves of every patrician family.
Medieval and Renaissance streets are few and far between. The core of the medieval city fell victim to German artillery in the early days of WWI. The main sights are the central square and an alleyway near St. Paul. Most of the architecture is a mixture of Renaissance, Baroque-ified Renaissance and Neo-Renaissance architecture. Nevertheless the core of the old town surrounding the main market is representative of a much older cityscape. The market itself reflects the Golden Age of the Netherlands in general, when Antwerp was Europe’s most important city.
The Townhall and Old University Building reflect the monumental architecture of the Renaissance. A focus on symmetry in both the overall facade and in the ornamentation helps distinguish it from nearby baroque-ified facades. The Vlaeykensgangand the Maagdenhuis (Orphange Museum) show life in the Renaissance period for normal people and offer a glimpse into the daily life of old Antwerp.
The Counter Reformation
The restoration of Catholicism to Antwerp resulted in a profound change in the aesthetic interests of its residents. The fall of Protestant Antwerp to the Catholic Spanish in 1585 marks the end of Antwerp’s Golden Age. However, before patterns of trade would shifted decisively northward to Amsterdam, Antwerp would briefly assume the role as cultural center of the Counter Reformation in Northern Europe. With the Spanish Netherlands now purged of Protestants, the Catholic population needed to fill the empty churches and convert those who remained.
Enter the legendary Peter Paul Rubens and the Flemish Baroque. The Baroque style assumes a more national character than is often realized, with the French under Louis XIV preferring a more reserved classical interpretation and the English being completely uninterested in the style. Viewing the Baroque through the lens of the counter reformation reveals a style with a clear purpose, and where every element is subordinate to a central objective. In Antwerp and Flanders, the Baroque became the primary artistic vehicle of the Counter Reformation and local identity.
In contrast to the Churches of the Rhineland and France, the styles found in Antwerp probably share more in common with those of Austria and Bavaria. The South German Baroque was also a response to a violent religious struggle, and the Counter Reformation looms large. The central message is the suffering and sacrifice of Christ, and the goal is to have the viewer experience the emotions themselves. Though Rubens and the Jesuits especially would deviate from this paradigm, here architecture is always ensuring the viewer participates in the story. The focus on a central element was one of the first major departures from the Renaissance style, which otherwise favored symmetry.
Antwerp is a city of the Baroque more than anything else. Its cityscape is defined by the style, its churches and museums filled with Baroque artwork. The greatest single monument to the style is the Church of St. Charles Borromeo. Originally the Jesuit Church, it was rebuilt in 1626 to represent the goals of the Counter Reformation underway in Antwerp. It was filled with paintings by Ruben, of which only a few survived the fire in the early 18th century. The Nave has been extensively renewed but largely captures the original design intent. The most splendid part of the church is the chapel, which is covered in rich marble and stucco work.
Also worth visiting is Ruben’s home, most notably for the exterior and interior decorative arts. Thought much of the interior simply reflects 18th century life in Antwerp, the exterior of building was designed by Rubens himself in the style of the Italian Renaissance. The dichotomy between the styles of his art and his choice in architecture is narrowed by the elaborate ornaments that adorn the building.
In a similar vein the Rockox house displays artifacts and interior design elements from the later Baroque and Rococo periods. The Rockox family were wealthy Antwerp patricians that contributed to many famous landmarks, including the restoration of St. Charles Borromeo. The museum itself is extremely focused, and unless you have an interest in historical furniture, I would not prioritize this destination.
The Kingdom of Belgium
As with most nations in the latter half of the 19th century, rapid increases in urban populations required planned expansions of urban infrastructure. Usually this was accompanied by a desire for a national style to reflect emergent national identities, sometimes even regional identities. Belgium was no different, indeed, Belgium more than any other country needed a visual identity. The result was some of the most spectacular contributions to the styles of the belle epoch and art nouveau.
An astute observer will note that some areas of the map looks far more structured than other parts. The turn of the 20th century in Antwerp saw the creation of a new urban plan. To the south, the focus was on the Zuid (Art Museum) and Zurenborg (Cogels-Osylei) neighborhoods. These neighborhoods were built according to plan from roughly 1894-1906 in largely historicist and art nouveau styles. These areas are some of the richest and best preserved examples of this style in Europe, and they extend beyond the markings on my map. The area around the Royal Art Museum is more accessible to tourists but the Cogels-Oslyei neighborhood in particular, is higher quality.
The most famous landmark of this period in Antwerp is one most tourists will see, the central train station. In addition, the Old Stock Exchange is famous for this style but has been closed to the public for over a decade. It should reopen for tourists some time in the coming years.
For a detailed overview of the opening hours and accessibility information for the destinations described in this guide, checkout the following list:
Antwerp is a very accessible city, most of the opening hours are convenient and easy to appreciate. It also helps that most of the main sites in the old town are located within easy walking distance of each other. Below is a list of the opening hours for the sites mentioned in this guide.
Antewerp is a city worth seeing for anyone interested in the history of European arts. Its history as the center of the Renaissance, Lowland Protestantism, North European Counter Reformation and an emergent Belgian state is unique and is reflected in the cityscape. Especially for those interested in the North European Baroque, Antwerp is unique, since very little of this style survived WWII. Its comparable in a sense to the Prussian Rococo, a style that happened to emerge only at a very specific time and place.
- Jules Van Ackere, Hugues Boucher, and Brian John Collins. 1973. Baroque and Classic Art in Belgium, 1600-1789 : Architecture, Monumental Art. Brussels: M. Vokaer.
- H Gerson, and Engelbert H Ter Kuile. 1960. Art and Architecture in Belgium, 1600 to 1800. Baltimore, Penguin Books.
- De, Van, and J A Kennedy. 1971. [Belgique Gothique.] Gothic Art in Belgium. Architecture, Monumental Art. Translated from the French by J.A. Kennedy. (Photographs by Hugues Boucher.). Brussels: Marc Vokaer.
- Herman De Pooter, A De Belder, and Onze Lieve Vrouwkerk Te Antwerpen. 1988. Our Lady’s Cathedral, Antwerp. Antwerp, Belgium: Cathedral Church-Fabric D
- F Huybrechs. 1991. The Church of Saint Charles Borromeo, Antwerp : Church Fabric and Art Treasures. Antwerp: Kerkfabriek Van St Carolus
- All Maps made with Datawrapper