The Port of Antwerp has way more to offer the interested tourist than just ships, locks and containers. Trot Op! took a discovery tour through the harbour, and will lead you to peaceful natural areas, cosy little polder villages and a whole lot of unknown public art. So prepare both your bike and your lunchbox, because soon you’ll be cycling past all of the Port of Antwerp’s greatest sights.
We should all be ashamed of ourselves. The Port of Antwerp is bigger than the actual city, and by creating more than 140.000 jobs it almost singlehandedly makes us Flanders’ main economic engine. Sadly, for a lot of locals the harbour area is still a giant blind spot on the map. A lot of us never even ventured past the new Port House. I have to plead guilty here as well. For almost twenty years I’ve been living in the city centre, and until recently I could tell you less about the port than about the mating ritual of the European fruit fly – I have weird interests. Luckily my knowledge was significantly improved in recent months. This happened because I became one of the official photographers for Port of Antwerp this year. Exciting job by the way, I get to shoot the container cranes at night, and climbed a 30 meter high gas tank for a picture, which made me feel like Macgyver. Shoots like these allowed me to get familiar with the area while on the job. And sweet baby Jesus, there is more to see and do than I had anticipated.
Cycling through the Port of Antwerp: eight interesting tips
Someone unfamiliar with the port probably supposes it is one large, continuous industrial area. Well, this is completely false my misinformed friend! The Port of Antwerp runs from Hobokense Polder all the way to the Dutch border. Whole villages are located in the middle of the port area, as are surprisingly large patches of wild nature. Even the Kinepolis movie theatre is surrounded by port companies. Throughout the past couple of years, the aim was to make the area more attractive to tourists. A lot of infrastructure got an upgrade, new bicycle lanes were added and in the MAS Harbour Pavilion, you can now get a free cycling map guiding you to all the main sights. So there you go: no more excuses to not get off your lazy ass and start cycling. Get on it!
1. Cyclant: guided tours through the Port of Antwerp
Want to explore the Port of Antwerp without getting lost or ending up in a container on its way to Panama like a total idiot? Book a cycling tour with Cyclant! They’ve been offering all sorts of fun tours through Antwerp from their little office in the Central Station for years, one of them being a harbour tour. It will take you through parts of the port in one big three hour loop, past a lot of the more interesting sights. You’ll eventually ride back to the city centre past Noordkasteel and the pretty cycling lane along the Scheldt River. Want to cycle through the harbour area by yourself? Just rent one of their bikes then. They even have electric ones for fat lazy bastards like me. It will keep you from bathing in your own sweat after passing the first bridge. Shape up or ship out buddy. www.cyclant.com
2. Urbex in Doel: Belgium’s most infamous ghost town
Doel’s heyday as the most notorious ghost town in the country – and as a dream location for every emo photography student – has already passed. Five years ago, all abandoned homes were still open, and you could discover the most outrageous graffiti and drunken messages both inside and outside the buildings. It felt like walking around in a post-apocalyptic hellhole. This said: Doel was never completely abandoned, and was thus never a true ghost town. After it was declared uninhabitable due to a planned port expansion, a couple of residents stubbornly refused to move and hunkered down into their homes until this day. Because all the vacant buildings drew a horde of squatters and arsonist Dutch junkies, life became almost impossible even without the port expanding. Eventually the nuisance was ended by boarding up all the empty homes with steel plates. A visit to Doel nowadays is still worth your time, but slightly less adventurous than it used to be. This said: if you look thoroughly, you might find an unattended gap somewhere.
3. Nature in the Port of Antwerp
There’s a surprising amount of green spots to be found in between the port companies and container terminals. Some patches of nature are small and seemingly forgotten; others are large, beautiful reserves. Bird lovers especially should find everything their little heart desires in the Port of Antwerp. Galgenschoor close to Lillo for example, is a rare area of mudflats and salt marshes, attracting a vast number of water birds. De Kuifeend – close to Ekeren – is a big secluded pond full of reeds, tucked in between a couple of railroad tracks. This is a bird paradise as well, with several viewing huts where you’ll almost always be completely alone (or with someone special: hubba hubba 😉 ) Beautiful Opstalvallei – close to Berendrecht – on the other hand, is a prime hiking spot. From an artificial hill, you’ll get a great view on the harbour industry, while behind you a flock of sheep grazes on wooded green pastures. Many of the most tranquil places in Antwerp, are ironically located in the centre of its largest industrial area. Check out www.havenland.be for a complete overview.
4. Hidden art in the port area
The fountain on the picture above – a “liquid” version of the one in front of the city hall – was made by Wim Delvoye and would look quite nice on the new Opera square. Sadly you won’t find this impressive piece of art in Antwerp at all. Instead you’ll have to go to f*cking Beveren of all places. It’s the crown jewel of the Burcht Singelberg site: an office complex owned by Katoennatie, which comes with a restaurant and a nice garden as well. You can have lunch here – there’s even a summer bar – and while you wait for your food you can check out the impressive art collection outside. They have everything from abstract art to classic nudes. There’s even a gigantic kneeling rabbit on the parking lot – you have to put it somewhere I guess. Another place to check out some harbour art is the weir wall at Scheldelaan across from the Total refinery. There you’ll find 900 consecutive meters of amazing street art.
5. Fortifications in the Port of Antwerp
On the left bank in Waaslandhaven, you can visit two old military fortresses. Fort Sint-Marie is one of the oldest fortifications in the city, and until recently it served as a harbour for the Belgian navy and as the site for a high school for sailors. Nowadays it stands completely abandoned. The school buildings are slowly crumbling down, but are still open. Some of the blackboards still have lectures on them, which makes it a slightly creepy and otherworldly place for a stroll. Fort Liefkenshoek can be found a little deeper in the port area, and is still in use. This is one of the more popular stops for harbour tourists, and comes with a cosy cafeteria, some concerts in summer and a surprisingly well done museum on the history of the fortress, the area and the port. Check out their display on the most common diseases of the middle ages: nice and gruesome. www.fortliefkenshoek.be
6. Lillo: Antwerp’s smallest village
Lillo can be found smack in the middle of the Port of Antwerp, but is probably the most peaceful place in the whole city to grow up in as a kid. It’s built on the foundations of another fortress, has only a couple of picturesque little streets and just fifty residents, is completely enclosed by trees and water and even has its own tiny marina along the river. Four years ago, this little place suddenly made national headlines when it got overrun by an army of thirty year old, neck-bearded Pokemon Go players looking for rare Pikachus. These model adults flooded the village day and night, and because there weren’t any public toilets, they sometimes did their business where they stood – gotta catch’em all, y’all! This of course angered the actual residents, and no fun was had by anyone. Luckily the whole world forgot about the game a year later, and Team Rocket has safely returned to their retired parents’ basement, where they spend their days posting antifeminist slogans on Reddit. Lillo is once again as peaceful as it ever was, and is still the ideal stop for every harbour visit. You can even spend the night here.
7. Lost churches in the Port of Antwerp
Lillo is luckily still alive and kicking, but the largest part of the village disappeared for a port expansion in the fifties. Other polder towns got handed an even worse deal and disappeared completely. For two of them, the local church is the only remaining proof of their existence. This happened because in the good old days it was perfectly fine to evict actual people, but Jesus was not to be touched. The church of the former town of Oosterweel can be found in a little forest next to the road close to Noordkasteel, where it lies in a six meter deep pit surrounded by ferns. Even stranger is the location of the bell tower of Wilmarsdonk. That one stands right in the middle of the Trans-Continental Logistic container storage. You probably won’t be able to make a picture like the one above in any other place on the planet.
8. The PolderMAS: curiosities near the Dutch border
In Ouden Doel – a couple of hundred meters from the Dutch border – you can visit the PolderMAS Museum. This is the passion project of an archaeologist collecting everything relevant to the history of the area or salvaged on the banks of the Scheldt. You’ll find all sorts of things here, from porcelain dolls to old sailor maps and pipes, fossils and even human skulls. The result is a completely packed and lovely disorganised old barn where the village pub used to be. Fun to browse around in, and also a pleasant stop for lunch when open. A visit can be arranged on appointment or on a Sunday afternoon. Call them beforehand to make sure they’re open. They were closed all through the first covid wave. www.facebook.com/poldermas/
There you go, with these eight tips you’ll have no problem finding all of the sweet spots while biking through the port. What is your favourite place in the Port of Antwerp? Did I miss a couple of locations? Are you working the docks and want to share a couple of wild stories? Let it all out in the comments below!
Visiting the Port of Antwerp: practical information
Port of Antwerp organises and supports a lot of harbour tours as well. There are many ways to discover the port: by bike, by ship or even by tuktuk. Click this link for a complete overview of the possibilities.
For a list of literally everything you can see and do in the Port of Antwerp, surf to www.havenland.be. They have a digital map highlighting every point of interest in a bunch of categories.
Want to discover some hidden spots in the city of Antwerp as well? Click here and here. Craving some nice food? Read my articles on the best vegan, Italian, Asian, Middle Eastern and burger restaurants in Antwerp. Want to discover a couple of other places in Belgium? Read my blogs on Gaume, Leuven, Charleroi, Spa and Koksijde.