It’s easy to add another European country to your list with a side trip to this Belgian gem.
While it’s easy to spend a week kicking around Paris or Amsterdam, you might consider knocking another country or two off your list while you’re in the heart of Europe.
One of the easiest cities to get to — and that is perfect for a quick trip — is Antwerp, Belgium.
Here are some highlights for a day or two in the city.
LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT
At less than three hours, the train ride to Antwerp is over before you even finish your ham and baguette sandwich. But click your mind over to your new city, because the sights begin as soon as you hit the train station — one of the most beautiful in the world.
Ogle for a few minutes, then take a cab to the historic town center (it’s faster than the rail system and inexpensive). There you’ll ogle some more: The soaring Cathedral of Our Lady looms over the central plaza, Grote Markt, which is surrounded by gorgeous buildings and the magnificent City Hall.
But the best of Antwerp is somewhat hidden. Step through a 3-foot-wide passage to enter the Vlaeykensgang, a nearly hidden street of 15th- and 16th-century buildings restored by renowned designer and art collector Axel Vervoordt. Once slated for demolition, Vlaeykensgang now contains homes, restaurants and the Axel Vervoordt Gallery. Have a traditional Belgian meal at Sir Anthony Van Dyck, whose interior also was designed by Vervoordt, or simply get a glimpse into life as it was in medieval Antwerp.
(Vlaeykensgang: Oude Koornmarkt 16, near the Cathedral of Our Lady. Look for an opening with a heavy wooden door between the Popoff and El Torro restaurants.)
After lunch, head to the MAS museum, located near the Scheldt River. To enter, you cross a white tiled courtyard. Pay to see historic exhibits about this fascinating port city, or head to the observation deck for free. The view of the city and bridgeless river is stunning.
And be sure to look down onto that courtyard you walked across — you’ll see that it’s actually an enormous mosaic of a skull, created by Belgian artist Luc Tuymans. It’s hard to shake the feeling of wonder that you just walked across a great piece of artwork without even realizing it.
As you head back toward the city center, pop into Saint Paul’s Church. Unassuming from the exterior, the interior is jaw dropping, with soaring, pure-white ceilings, Rubens paintings and a towering organ topped by trumpeting angels in black and gold. Continue outside to the Calvary courtyard, which is filled with dozens of haunting, life-sized statues and reliefs depicting heaven and hell. They’re a marvel of art and devotion that wait quietly to be discovered.
(MAS: Hanzestedenplaats 1. The best views of the mosaic are from the windows in the stairwells as you ascend to the top floors of the museum. Saint Paul’s Church: The main entrance is at the corner of Veemarkt and Zwartzustersstraat, across from a basketball court — don’t listen to Google Maps on this one.)
Stay at the Banks, a chic and affordable boutique hotel in the heart of it all, and you can easily stop off to freshen up before dinner. Hungry after all that exploring? There are free drinks and tapas in the lounge from 4:30–8 p.m. every day. If you haven’t started taste-testing Belgian beers yet, now is a good time to start.
Sit down for fancy pizza at Arte, which has outdoor seating on the plaza for great people watching. Or grab a meal of twice-fried Belgian fries and other freshly fried snacks at Frituur No. 1, and head to Dogma Cocktails for interesting cocktails served by a cute staff. Need more fries? Hit Frituur again on the way home; it’s open until 4 a.m. every night but Sunday.
(Arte: Suikerrui 24. Frituur No. 1: Hoogstraat 1. Dogma Cocktails: Wijngaardstraat 5)
Throughly enchanted and wanting more? Shoppers will want to start day two at the Dries Van Noten flagship at Nationalestraat 16 and then hit Meir street for a mix of European chains and boutiques. But be aware: Most are closed on Sunday.
History buffs should be sure to visit the Plantin-Moretus Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site housing some of the world’s oldest printing presses and printed books.
Art lovers can take a cab out to the Middelheim Museum, an outdoor modern sculpture museum.
Beer lovers should spend the day at the brown bars on every plaza. Hit Den Engle, right next to the City Hall, and the cozy ’t Antwaerps Bierhuyske, right down the street.
And foodies can stock up on Belgian chocolates at Burie and Neuhaus, conveniently located right next door to each other. (Burie: Korte Gasthuisstraat 3. Neuhaus: Korte Gasthuisstraat 1)