If Bruges represents chocolate box cuteness, together with the summer hordes that go with it, and if Brussels represents all the pomposity that goes with having that extra special kind of capital city feeling, then if almost by default, the massively underrated charm of Belgium is perhaps best represented in cities like Antwerp.
So what particular delights await the visit the first-time visitor to Antwerp? What about that key question of getting around?
Reasons why you might need a car in Antwerp
That’s not to say that Belgium is a particularly bad place to want to drive a car. Driving conditions are very similar to any other northern European country. It’s simply that if you do want to do a driving tour around Belgium, then it’s much more likely that you’ll be flying into Brussels in the first place. Failing that, you’ll be coming with your own car anyway!
Arriving by train or plane?
If you are coming into Belgium by train, you are probably still more likely to be connecting through Brussels for that as well. There’s little point in changing again to reach Antwerp, when you could pick up a rental car in Brussels Midi Station.
Needless to say, with the airport in Antwerp being well connected to the national road network, you won’t find any problem renting a car here. Since it’s a much smaller facility, the range of available cars is unsurprisingly much smaller than you will find at Brussels National Airport. National airport is still less than one hour by car away from Antwerp.
If you are arriving by train, then car-rental facilities are available at Antwerp Central Station. However, you will be dealing with an even smaller choice than you will find at the airport.
Arriving from Brussels?
Belgium is one of Europe’s most densely populated countries, and it has a well developed commuter rail network. This is particularly geared up for commuting in and out of Brussels. It’s also good for other major cities. Some of the more rural connections are a great deal slower. They are also considerably less frequent than the Brussels shuttles.
For more general suggestions on driving in Belgium, please see our Brussels car hire advice page.
Reasons for visiting Antwerp without a car
Is this Europe’s finest station?
Railway stations in many cities are simply mundane and functional places. The triple deck Antwerp Central is an entirely different matter altogether! Following the construction of the new railway tunnel which allows high-speed north to south trains to pass directly through the city, the station is now rated by many rail pundits as being amongst the finest in Europe, if not the world.
If, like many passengers, you are arriving here either via Brussels or via Rotterdam in the Netherlands, then you will alight at the lowest level of this vast cavernous station. You then proceed upwards through to the dramatic Beaux Arts main hall. You may or may not recognise from various flash mob YouTube videos.
Getting Around Locally
Just how Central?
Don’t be deceived by the name – Great Market Square (Grote Markt) is still around a mile / 1.7 kilometres away from the central station, but it still makes for a perfectly pleasant walk.
If you do decide to pick up a rental car at Antwerp station, then the chances are that you will just be driving it into a parking garage. You’ll then leave it there as you explore the city on foot. If you just want to hire a car in Antwerp for a day or two, then this might make a lot more sense than having one for the whole duration of your stay. That way you are cutting down on rental and parking costs – a natural win-win in a city that is so well connected.
Beyond Antwerp by public transport
Even if a hire car might be useful for having the flexibility to drive to smaller towns and villages beyond Antwerp, it is still by no means essential.
Local trains and buses will still take you where you want to go, and they aren’t just useful for travel within Belgium. Why not also consider popping across the border into the Netherlands. In particular, why not visit the massively misunderstood and underrated gem that is Rotterdam? Cross-border driving in a rental car from Antwerp shouldn’t be a problem, but always check the small print first. Rotterdam was so extensively rebuilt in the post-war motor age, but it’s far nicer just to pop across their by train and then pick up a rental bike in Rotterdam central station.
The same applies to almost any other Belgian town as well. If it’s large enough to have a manned station, then there’s a pretty good chance it will have bike rental as well.
So, do you need a car in Antwerp? Based on specifically arriving direct into Antwerp by air or rail, then our advice here is about as clear as it can be: Antwerp is very much a destination where you are better off using public transport or hiring a bike. The same goes for most of the places you might want to visit nearby.
It’s also somewhere that you’ll be perfectly happy getting around using nothing other than your own two feet, with or without pedals.
This makes the overall Carornocar verdict a very strong no.