From Harbor Industry to Trendy Hotspot: The (New) Best Area of Antwerp - Het Eilandje

by Leontien Brondijk

Rather than be one of the tourists who normally go en masse to the center of Antwerp to shop or to see the diamonds museum, there is somewhere else you should go. Be one of the first to visit the new hotspot of Antwerp: Het Eilandje (The Island)

Het Willemdok
Het Willemdok. Photo by Jeanhousen

Antwerp, the second biggest city in Belgium, is famous for its diamonds and its fashion. However, the lesser-known treasure winding its way through Antwerp is the river the Schelde (translates to the Scheldt), a landmark that has long been the lifeline of the city.

More than a century ago, this place, now called Het Eilandje (The Island), was the harbor of Antwerp. Unfortunately, after a new harbor was built in the north of the city, it became a forgotten place where no one wanted to go. This changed in the late 1990s, when it gained its popularity back with the revival of the beautiful maritime history of Het Eilandje.

This nostalgic area has become the new must-visit spot in Antwerp, with its picturesque waterfront, romantic bridges, and historical statues. It offers visitors not only the unique history of Het Eilandje, but also modern day attractions. The neighborhood, which has had many of its old warehouses converted into trendy lofts, clubs, restaurants, and museums, has become one of most rapidly developing areas of the city. To fully enjoy the historic area of Antwerp, there are a few key spots you should make sure to include in your trip's itinerary.

If you mention to the locals that you want to visit Het Eilandje, they will insist that you go see the MAS (translates to Museum on the flood). Since the MAS opened its doors in 2011, the sixty-meter high museum tower has become a new focal point in the city. Here the city and the harbor meet in every sense of the world. The museum’s collection tells the story of the city, the harbor and the world. From the roof of the MAS you can enjoy a 360-degree panoramic view of Antwerp. MAS, Hanzestedenplaats 1.

The MAS stands in the middle of two little docks, the Willemdok, which is in front of the entrance to the MAS, and the Bonapartedok, which is on the side of the Schelde. The docks were the heart of the old harbor and are now the heart of the new neighborhood. They originate from the 17th century, when Napoleon Bonaparte occupied Antwerp in a time of poverty and decay. Thousands of prisoners were forced to dig the big hole where the Willemdok and the Bonapartedok are now located. Napoleon wanted to make Antwerp’s harbor the finest in Europe, so he could surpass London’s harbor, but he was defeated in the battle of Waterloo before he could see the plan to completion.

Both docks were redesigned at the beginning of the 18th century by architect Nicolas Mengin. The Willemdok, the most famous sight in Het Eilandje, was named after King Willem the First of The Netherlands, who gave the unfinished docks to Antwerp as a present in 1815. The Bonapartedok was named after Napoleon.

Nowadays, there are only yachts and sailboats in the Willemdok. One of the boats, the Flandria, will take you on a boat tour of the Scheldt. Flandria, located at the Willemdok.

Another ship moored at the Willemdok has been converted into a bed & breakfast. On the Marjorie II, you can chose from a number of luxury cabins for the ultimate night's sleep at 125 euros a night. The Marjorie II can also be booked for parties, or you can join one of its sailing cruises. Marjorie II, located at the Willemdok.

Surrounding the Willemdok and the Bonapartedok are warehouses from the 18th and 19th centuries. This neighborhood was filled with dockworkers and traders who worked in the warehouses. Every warehouse had its own function.

One of the warehouses, the Sint-Felix Pakhuis, which used to store coffee, grain and tobacco, has been converted into a restaurant, where visitors can enjoy a drink or bite to eat. The warehouse also functions as an archive. It stores almost 40 miles of archived information about the history of Antwerp. Sint-Felix Pakhuis, Godefriduskaai 30.

Another iconic place in Antwerp is the Red Star Line Museum, which opened in September 2013. The museum takes visitors back to the 18th and 19th century, when millions of people were gathering at the port of Antwerp to sail to North America to begin a new life. The museum is now located where people once came for a medical check-up and for filling out administrative paperwork before boarding the Red Star Line heading to America. Between 1873 and 1934 more than two million adventurers and fortune seekers were on board of the Red Star Line. Red Star Line Museum, Montevideostraat 3.

Of course, the hotspots highlighted in this article are not the only ones to see on Het Eilandje, but they could be considered the most important parts of the history of that neighborhood. They are the new trendy places that are bringing the old Het Eilandje to life.

The following list offers more suggestions of places to visit in Het Eilandje:

Food & Drink

1. Restaurant Duvels Genot. An exquisite restaurant that cooks with one of Belgium's most famous beers: Duvel. Sint-Aldegondiskaai 56-58.

2. Restaurant ‘t Zilte. This Michelin restaurant is located on the top floor of the MAS, and offers a 360-degree panoramic view of the city. Hanzestedenplaats 5.

3. Restaurant Nome. A Belgian-French kitchen that offers a different menu every day. Verbindingsdok westkaai 8.

4. Restaurant Lux. A luxuriously restaurant in a warehouse where you can enjoy the maritime style of the 19th century. Adriaan Brouwerstraat 13. 

5. Café Breughel. An old maritime harbor café where sailors and workmen used to come. Still in its original style. Kempisch dok westkaai 82, they don’t have a website. The best you can do is to stop by and experience it yourself.

More Things to Do and See

1. Badboot (bath boat). A swimming pool on top of a boat that offers a stunning view of Antwerp’s skyline. In the winter, the pool is transformed into an ice-rink. Kattendijkdok-Oostkaai, where you see the Mexico bridges.

2. Royal Ballet Vlaanderen. The royal Ballet of Belgium has a small theatre where you can watch them perform. Kattendijkdok Westkaai 16.

3. Roxy. A club with house and R&B music. Rijnkaai 14.

How to get to Het Eilandje

From the Antwerp airport, you can take bus No. 31, which goes directly to Het Eilandje. This bus leaves every hour and you will be there within 45 minutes. 

If you travel by train you will arrive at Antwerp Central Station. In front of the station you can find the bus lines. Take bus line 1, 13, 31, 35 or 37. They all stop in the Londenstraat, which is close to the MAS.