Last updated on May 3, 2023 by Wandering our World
Belgium has some beautiful big cities to visit, with Antwerp and Brussels leading the way. The former is one of the biggest ports on the planet, while the latter is Belgium’s capital city, and they both have lots of interesting things to see and do.
There are amazing museums and cultural landmarks scattered throughout Antwerp and Brussels, for example. And visitors can spend many happy days in either city sampling delicious Belgian food, browsing the local stores, or simply wandering around and admiring the amazing buildings that line the streets of each city’s Old Town district.
Unfortunately, this all makes it quite tricky to choose between Antwerp and Brussels if you only have time to visit one of them. They both have such a lot of advantages and such similar features and landmarks, so how do you know which one to choose?
Well, even though Antwerp and Brussels have a lot in common, these two cities also have some clear differences…
Antwerp, for example, is regarded as a little livelier, with vibrant nightlife to keep you entertained in the evenings, while Brussels is arguably a more family-friendly destination with lots of fun and quirky attractions.
There are plenty more big differences to discover between Antwerp and Brussels, and in this guide, we’ll put the two cities side-by-side to see how they compare in several key categories, such as attractions, nightlife, food, accommodation, and affordability.
- A Quick Overview
- Which Is Best For Activities?
- Which Is Better For Day Trips?
- Which Is Better For Nightlife?
- Which Is Best For Shopping?
- Which Has The Best Food?
- Which Has The Best Hotels?
- Where To Stay According To Your Budget
- Which Is Better For A Family Trip?
- Which Is Better For Couples & Honeymoons?
- Which Is Better For Backpackers?
- Which Is Cheaper?
- Which Is Easier To Get To?
- Which Is Easier To Get Around?
- Which Is The Better Choice?
A Quick Overview: Antwerp vs Brussels
Antwerp: A Quick Overview
Antwerp is a large city in the Flemish Region of northern Belgium.
It’s actually the biggest city in the country by size, stretching out across more than 78 square miles in total, and it has a huge city population of over 530,000 people, with around 1.2 million in the surrounding metropolitan area.
Constructed along the river Scheldt and connected to the North Sea, Antwerp has centuries of history behind it, but it truly came to prominence from the 16th century onward.
It was around that time that this city really started to grow, establishing strong trading routes with many other countries to importing and exporting various goods, like sugar.
The world’s first commodity exchange, the Bourse of Antwerp, was founded in this city, and Antwerp was once classed as one of the world’s leading economic hubs and the richest city in all of Europe.
Of course, those golden years didn’t last, but Antwerp is still a great city with an active port and a burgeoning touristic scene, as well as being the heart of the diamond industry.
This city has grown, evolved, and adapted over the years, changing its face to suit the needs of the time, while still retaining the character and charm that made it so special in the first place.
It’s a great mixture of the old and new, blending modern nightclubs and trendy shops with historic landmarks from days gone by, with plenty for travelers to see and experience.
Brussels: A Quick Overview
Brussels is the capital city of Belgium and also serves as the administrative capital for the whole of the European Union.
It’s located in the central part of the country, with strong transport links to many other Belgian cities and other parts of Europe. Brussels has an inner city population of around 188,000, with over 1.2 million in the surrounding Brussels-Capital Region.
There’s a lot of history in Brussels, with the city itself being founded in 979 by Charles of Lorraine.
It was constructed in a fortuitous spot beside the river Senne, on a key trade route between Flemish cities, like Bruges, and German cities, like Cologne. It grew rapidly from the 12th century onward and was once known for its exports of luxury fabrics and tapestries.
These days, Brussels continues to be a very important city in Europe, especially for the EU, and NATO headquarters are also located here, making Brussels a key political center, as well as an economic, touristic, and historic hub.
Fittingly, the city is the most densely-populated part of Belgium, with the busiest train stations and largest airport.
In other words, Brussels is the busy, beating heart of Belgium.
It’s a diverse, multicultural place with a lot to see and do, from UNESCO World Heritage landmarks like the iconic Grand Place to fun family attractions, like the Mini Europe miniature park, with tiny versions of famous European cities and structures. Unsurprisingly, it’s the most-visited city in Belgium.
Which Is Easier To Get To?
So, how can you get to either Antwerp or Brussels? Well, both of these cities have international airports – Antwerp International Airport is just a few miles south of the city, while Brussels Airport is around 7.5 miles northeast of the capital.
But there’s a pretty big difference between them, with Brussels Airport being much larger, busier, and better-connected with the rest of the world.
There are only a handful of cities with direct flights to Antwerp, like London in the UK and Antalya in Turkey, making it a pretty tough airport to access. In contrast, Brussels Airport has direct connections all over Europe, along with the US, Canada, China, Japan, and various parts of Africa, too.
Even if you’re heading to Antwerp, it’s usually much easier and more convenient to fly into Brussels first and then hop on a train to your final destination.
Because of this, Brussels definitely wins in the battle of accessibility.
Which Is Easier To Get Around?
After arriving in either Antwerp or Brussels, you’ll need to consider how you’re going to get around, see the sights, and make the most of your time in either city. So, how is the public transport in Antwerp and Brussels, and do you need a car to really enjoy these cities?
Firstly, rental cars are available in both locations, but they’re not needed unless you’re planning to venture beyond the city and explore the rest of Belgium.
In general, you can make your way around large parts of both Antwerp and Brussels on your own two feet, with many major landmarks being quite close together in the cities’ respective centers and Old Town districts.
Both cities have trams and buses, and there’s also an excellent metro system in Brussels to get you across the city in no time at all.
You can also rent public bikes in both locations, and cycling can be quite a fun way to get around, especially in Antwerp, which is a little less crowded and chaotic.
Overall, Brussels definitely wins in terms of the quality and reliability of its transport system, but Antwerp is arguably easier to get around and see the main sights, with a more compact historic center.
Which Is Best For Activities?
When it comes to activities and attractions, Brussels and Antwerp are quite similar to one another, boasting an array of historic landmarks, beautiful religious buildings, and cultural tours to enjoy.
In this section, we’ll look at the main things to do in both locations to help you see which one might be better-suited for your tastes and preferences.
Antwerp: The Activities
Most of the big Belgian cities have their own Old Town area, filled with the prettiest buildings and centuries-old structures, and Antwerp is no different.
Most tourists will begin their Antwerp adventures here, visiting the amazing Grote Markt square, surrounded by gorgeous guildhalls that date all the way back to the Middle Ages.
In the Old Town, you can also visit Het Steen, Antwerp’s oldest building. It takes the form of a small castle, complete with well-preserved towers and ramparts, and it’s a great place for families, with play areas and kid-friendly exhibits.
Speaking of family-friendly attractions, Antwerp Zoo is also a fun way to spend a day, housing over 4,000 animals.
Even if you’re not taking a train, it’s worth checking out Antwerp’s Central Station, one of the most architecturally impressive train stations on Earth.
Other landmarks include the Cathedral of Our Lady and Rubenshuis – the home of iconic Flemish painter, Rubens. Or, for a totally different view of Antwerp, head to De Ruien, an underground complex of tunnels and ruins.
Given its diverse architecture and neighborhoods, Antwerp is also a joy to simply walk around.
You can discover all sorts of sights along the way, from the UNESCO-listed Maison Guiette to the Art Deco Boerentoren, and there are plenty of museums and galleries, like the Museum aan de Stroom, which focuses on Antwerp’s history, as well as the MoMu fashion museum.
The Diamond District can also be quite fun to explore, and there are lots of charming little alleyways and secret side streets to explore, like Vlaeykensgang – home of some of the city’s top cafes.
Or, if you’re looking for a little greenery, head to one of Antwerp’s many large parks, like Nachtegalen or Rivierenhof, with walking paths, playgrounds, and gardens.
Brussels: The Activities
In Brussels, most of your time will probably be spent in the so-called Pentagon, or historic city center. It’s a big place, divided into various neighborhoods, or quarters, each with their own landmarks and attractions.
The Central Quarter is a great place to start, home of the famous Grand-Place square and Mannekin Pis fountain.
The Royal Quarter is arguably the prettiest part of Brussels, boasting the most impressive buildings in the city, like the Academy Palace and Royal Palace.
There, you can also take a walk through Brussels Park, the biggest park in central Brussels – there are several monuments to check out within the park itself, like the Royal Park Theater and Vauxhall of Brussels.
To the north, the Laeken Quarter houses some of Brussels’ other famous attractions, like the amazing Atomium, which was built for the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958, or the Church of Our Lady of Laeken, where the tombs of the Belgian Royal Family are kept.
Mini Europe is also in Laeken – this kid-friendly park has mini versions of around 80 European cities.
The list of diverse quarters and fascinating landmarks in Brussels simply goes on and on. There’s the Mutsaard, or Pagoda District, with its remarkable Japanese Tower, for example, or the European Quarter, home to the extraordinary Europa Building, which serves as the seat for the Council of the European Union.
You can spend many days exploring each of Brussels’ unique spaces and seeing all it has to see.
And, just like Antwerp, Brussels has a long list of museums dedicated to many different collections and concepts, from the AutoWorld vintage car museum to the Belgian Comic Strip Center, along with the Royal Museums of Art and History, with artifacts from all over the world.
As we can see, both Antwerp and Brussels have plenty of attractions and activities to keep you busy.
In terms of quantity, Brussels takes the win, as it has so many landmarks to see, but both cities have great diversity in their attractions, with a good mixture of family-friendly fun spots, historic buildings, and educational museums.
Which Is Better For Day Trips?
Antwerp and Brussels both have plenty of attractions and activities to keep you busy for a few days or even a week, but you might like to take a day out of your trip to set off and see somewhere different.
Fortunately, both Brussels and Antwerp are well-placed for some fascinating day trip adventures.
Since Antwerp is right beside the border between Belgium and the Netherlands, it’s perfect for people who want to see two different countries on one trip.
You can hop on a train and pass into Dutch territory, visiting a range of cities along the way, like the maritime hub of Rotterdam, the fascinating design haven of Eindhoven, or even the capital city of Amsterdam.
Brussels, meanwhile, with its central location in the middle of Belgium, is best-suited for travel to other Belgian cities.
You could even visit Antwerp itself, for example (the train ride takes around 40 minutes) or head to other locations like the medieval gem of Bruges, the charming historic hub of Mons, or the university town of Ghent, with its famous Gravensteen castle and tall Belfry.
Overall, both cities are nicely-placed for day trips, and the best choice for you will depend on where you want to go.
Antwerp is ideal for exploring the Netherlands, while Brussels is better for Belgian adventures and has slightly better transport links overall.
Which Is Better For Nightlife?
When it comes to nightlife, Antwerp and Brussels are both pretty lively places to spend an evening. They both have plenty of clubs, bars, and night-time hang-out spots to enjoy, but which one is best?
Well, in this category, it’s Antwerp that takes the win. The nightlife scene is Antwerp is a big draw, with many young travelers and backpackers specifically heading to this city for its evening excitement.
You can find some thrilling nightclubs around the Stadswaag and Mechelseplein squares, in particular, along with some funky jazz spots and great cocktail bars.
Brussels has a pretty good nightlife scene, too, but it’s not quite as vibrant and raucous as Antwerp.
In the capital, clubs and bars can be found in various neighborhoods, all over the Pentagon. The Sablon district is a great place for trendy bars, and there are several highly-rated dance clubs that play music until the early hours.
Which Is Best For Shopping?
Since they’re both big cities with lots of shops, markets, and department stores, Antwerp and Brussels are both super spots for shopping.
You can buy pretty much anything you want in these cities, from typical Belgian souvenirs like beer and chocolate to high-end fashion.
Speaking of fashion, Antwerp has recently started to emerge as one of Europe’s top fashion cities, attracting many top designers to rival the likes of Milan and Paris.
So, if you’re looking for some fancy designer clothes and accessories, you’ll find some fabulous fashion houses around this city, especially in the De Modewijk district.
The city’s main shopping street is Meir, which has been compared to the likes of Oxford Street in London or 5th Avenue in New York City.
Plenty of big brand stores line both sides of Meir, and it’s one of the most expensive shopping streets in all of Europe. For more budget-friendly buys or indie stores, try exploring the smaller side streets around the historic center.
In Brussels, there are also many excellent places to shop. Like Antwerp, the capital is home to some big fashion brands, and the Avenue Louise is the most famous street in the city for up-market attire.
The stunning Royal Saint-Hubert Galleries, dating back to the 1840s, are also worth checking out, with a range of fashion boutiques, chocolate shops, and other stores.
While Antwerp might have the edge for fashion, Brussels is best for market shopping. There are a lot of weekly markets around this city, like the Marché du Midi, which is one of the largest markets in all of Europe.
The Marché de Stockel is a fun place for flowers and fresh produce, while the Place du Jeu de Balle is where you can find all sorts of oddities and collectibles.
Overall, it’s tough to call a clear winner in this category, as both cities have more than enough shopping opportunities to keep you busy and satisfy your souvenir needs.
The markets of Brussels make it easier to find great bargains, but Antwerp is ideal for world-class fashion.
Which Has The Best Food?
When it comes to food, you’ll have pretty similar experiences in both Antwerp and Brussels.
Both cities have excellent restaurants, including several Michelin-starred establishments, and both are famed for their amazing Belgian waffles, chocolates, and fries.
In Antwerp, the culinary scene is mainly focused on local and national flavors and ingredients, with a big focus on all the things that make Belgian cuisine so delicious, like chocolates, biscuits, mussels, fries, stews, and beer.
The city is also known for its fantastic coffee, as well as its ‘Antwerp Hands’ chocolates.
Over in the cosmopolitan capital of Brussels, the culinary scene is more diverse. You can find restaurants specializing in various culinary styles, from Mediterranean to Japanese, giving you more choices.
In addition, the street food in Brussels is out-of-this-world, and many tourists will be tempted to grab a chocolate-drizzled waffle or cone of crispy fries as they explore the streets.
Overall, both cities are fabulous for food, but Brussels is arguably the better option, with extra diversity to appeal to travelers with varying tastes.
Which Has The Best Hotels?
When planning your visit to either Antwerp or Brussels, you’ll also have to consider where you want to stay.
Fortunately, both of these big cities have lots of accommodation options to choose from, including classic chain hotels, independent guesthouses, hostels, and more.
In Antwerp, you can take your pick from a wide array of hotels to suit different budgets and needs. There are a lot of the big hotel chains in this city, and it’s never too hard to find a place to stay.
Over in Brussels, there are even more accommodation choices. The capital city offers a diverse selection of hotels, from cheap and simple spots to luxurious places with massive rooms and long lists of amenities.
Given its larger size and more touristic nature, Brussels has the better selection of accommodation.
However, you will need to be careful when planning a trip during the busy summer months, as many of the main inner city hotels can run out of rooms.
Where To Stay According To Your Budget
Luxury: Simply put, the five-star Botanic Sanctuary Antwerp is a piece of paradise in this bustling, busy city. The grounds are gorgeous, the rooms photogenic and the service world class. See photos and rates!
Luxury: Set in a gorgeous historic building, the five-star Juliana Hotel Brussels is as photogenic as it is special. Alongside the spa facilities, indoor pool and luxurious feel, this hotel is also smack bang in the middle of the capital. See photos and rates!
Which Is Better For A Family Trip?
For families, there’s lots to love about both Antwerp and Brussels.
Antwerp, for example, has its own historic zoo, where kids can get up-close and personal with a myriad of species from all over the world.
There are also plenty of parks, play areas, and green spaces where little ones can have fun, and kids of all ages and kids of all ages should enjoy the underground ruins.
Over in Brussels, there are even more family-friendly attractions.
There’s no zoo, but there is the Mini Europe park, which can entertain young kids and teens alike, as well as the Museum of Chocolate and the Comic Strip Center to learn all about Belgium’s comic book heroes, like Tintin and the Smurfs.
Kids can also marvel at the Atomium and enjoy the collections of the many museums of the capital, making Brussels just slightly better for family vacations.
Which Is Better For Couples & Honeymoons?
For couples, the choice between Antwerp and Brussels will mainly be a question of personal preference, as both of these cities have plenty to please the average pair of lovebirds, from romantic restaurants to fun cultural activities.
In Antwerp, you and your partner can sample great baked treats at the many cafes dotted across the city, stroll hand-in-hand in the large parks, or spend a full-day shopping on streets like Meir, before hitting up the clubs and pubs once the sun goes down.
Over in Brussels, couples can tour the museums, visit the famous landmarks, take chocolate-tasting or beer-tasting tours, and explore the various side streets and alleyways of the Pentagon to find unique boutiques and amazing architecture tucked away in every corner.
The experiences for couples are pretty similar in both of these cities.
But Brussels has more to do and arguably has more romantic locations spread out across its historic center, like the Parc du Cinquantenaire or Royal Greenhouses in Laeken.
Which Is Better For Backpackers?
Again, for backpackers and budget travelers, it can be very tricky to choose between Brussels and Antwerp, as both cities have so much to offer and work pretty well for typical backpacking adventures.
Antwerp has that slightly less touristy and more off-the-beaten-path feel, which may appeal to adventurous backpackers.
It’s a big city, but easy to get around on foot, and there are several cheap hostels to stay at. In fact, the average costs of most things, from accommodation to food, are cheaper here, making it the better choice for budget-conscious backpackers.
Brussels is more tourist-orientated, with an even bigger and broader selection of hostels where you can sleep cheaply and mingle with other travelers.
There’s tons to see around the capital, and it’s really easy to get around on foot. Plus, it has excellent transport links with the rest of Belgium, making it the best option for those who plan to explore beyond the capital’s boundaries.
Overall, experienced backpackers might appreciate the less tourist-oriented vibes of Antwerp, and young, student-age travelers will like the city’s nightlife.
For less experienced travelers or those looking for more activities and attractions to fill up their itineraries, Brussels is the place to be.
Which Is Cheaper?
When it comes to costs, average prices in Antwerp and Brussels are similar to other big cities around Western Europe.
However, there is a clear difference between the two in terms of how much you’ll have to spend on hotels, food, and touristic activities.
As the capital, Brussels naturally has higher prices for most things.
You can save money by planning ahead and booking your hotel far in advance of your visit, but you’ll still probably spend a little more there compared to Antwerp.
Antwerp vs Brussels: Which Is The Better Choice?
Overall, Antwerp and Brussels have quite a lot of things in common, which is why so many travelers struggle to choose between them.
However, as this guide shows, there are some big areas of difference in terms of things like nightlife, family attractions, and things to do.
For the majority of travelers, Brussels is the best place to go. It has all the character and excitement that comes from being a big European capital, with iconic landmarks and long lists of attractions.
Plus, it’s the easier city to get to, with a big airport only a short distance from the center of the city, and amazing transport links all over Belgium, and beyond.
With that said, Antwerp still stands out as by far one of the best cities to visit in Belgium, right alongside the likes of Bruges and Ghent.
Antwerp is an exciting place with awesome nightlife, a fabulous fashion scene, some awesome galleries, and a brilliant blend of modern and historic vibes, perfect for those who are looking for something a little different to the usual touristic hubs.