Belgium’s vibrant second city, and also its largest port, Antwerp has carved itself a niche as a stylish fashion design capital, and the centre exudes a well-heeled affluent elegance that other places in the region can only aspire to, as long-term Benelux resident Tim Skelton reveals.
Belgians are not known as early risers. While you wait for the breakfast eateries to catch you up and open, the dawn hours are a good time to take in the more beautiful sights before the tourist crowds roll in. Arguably the most impressive building is the soaring Gothic Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal (Groenplaats 21, 03 213 9951), the largest church in Benelux. Nearby Grote Markt is ringed with grand guild houses, with the splendour of the 16th-century city hall as their centrepiece. Of the places that are open for an early bite to eat, the best is Le Pain Quotidien (Steenhouwersvest 48, 03 226 7613). There are three branches in town, but this is the most central, and serves home-baked bread with a variety of sweet and savoury accompaniments in cosy surroundings. Those who want to wake up and literally smell the coffee will want to try another central hangout, Caffe Mundi (Oude Beurs 24), where the beans are fresh-roasted and ground on the premises.
While the tourist brochures sell Antwerp as a centre of diamond trading, its real selling point is its reputation for cutting-edge fashion, now so well established that the best designers are often spoken of in the same breath as those from Milan or Paris. Top local name Ann Demeulemeester (Leopold de Waelplaats, 03 216 0133) sells her chic creations in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tokyo, but still maintains a flagship store in her home town. Perhaps lesser known, but no less special, Maison Anna Heylen (Lombardenstraat 16, 03 232 3282), one of the new wave, is a small boutique selling unique made-to-measure items. Easy to find as it’s named after its location, Graanmarkt 13 (Graanmarkt 13, 03 337 7992) is both a high-end fashion boutique and a showroom for designer pottery, jewellery and other trendy curiosa. If that doesn’t give you enough food for thought, their in-house restaurant serves real sustenance, with a daily changing menu.
To get the back story on the latest clothing designers, visit the ModeMuseum, or MoMu (Nationalestraat 28, 03 470 2770), which has a large collection of changing fashions in the form of clothing, accessories and textiles from the 18th century to the present day. Or head off at a tangent, and learn about the city’s importance as a trading centre and international port at the Museum aan de Stroom, or MAS (Hanzestedenplaats 1, 03 338 4400), a purpose-built modern museum in a renovated docklands area. It brings together several of the city’s historical collections under one roof, with a strong emphasis on its illustrious maritime past.
Head underground at lunchtime by eating in De Pelgrom (Pelgrimsstraat 15, 03 234 0809), a homely tavern serving hearty traditional food in the candlelit, brick-vaulted cellars of one of the city’s oldest buildings. Hip Grand Café Horta (Hopland 2, 03 203 5660) is airier and lighter, but no less atmospheric. It occupies a glorious 19th-century iron-framed and glass building designed by Belgium’s most famous art nouveau architect, Victor Horta. The eclectic brasserie dishes – from salads, bagels and tapas to full-on steaks and fish – are equal to the surrounds.
In contrast to the morning’s odyssey of design, take a step into the past at the Museum Plantin-Moretus (Vrijdagmarkt 22, 03 221 1450), the restored offices of a former printing company, with a collection that includes the world’s oldest surviving printing presses. Nearby Rubens House (Wapper 9-11, 03 201 1555) will prove that the Flemish master who lived here was one artist who did not lack for wealthy clients. Meanwhile, the small but rewarding Museum Mayer van den Bergh (Lange Gasthuisstraat 19, 03 338 8188) will remind you that in addition to Rubens, Flanders has an astonishing legacy of great painters, including Pieter Brueghel.
Dip a last toe into shopping at the Stadsfeestzaal (Meir 78 / Hopland 31, 03 202 3100). This former 1908 exhibition hall was rebuilt in the 2000s following a devastating fire, and transformed into an elegant warren of designer fashion outlets. Take in the magnificent view of the neoclassical grand hall by stopping for an aperitif at the mezzanine champagne bar. Or feel like you’ve stepped back in time by going for a drink at the Oud Arsenaal (Maria Pijpelincxstraat 4, 03 232 9745). This café’s characterful art deco interior is unchanged since it opened in 1924, and you could be forgiven for thinking some of the regulars haven’t changed either.
For top-notch dining in the heart of the Old Town, look no further than ‘t Fornuis (Reyndersstraat 24, 03 233 6270). The oak-beamed ceilings and traditional heavy wooden furnishings are sturdy, but the French-influenced food has a light and delicate touch. In the docklands area north of the centre, Het Pomphuis (Siberiastraat, 03 770 8625) was once a pump house used to drain the adjacent dry dock. Now it’s an eclectic blend of art nouveau architecture and chic modern eatery with refined international fare.
Antwerp is one of the best cities in the country to savour Belgium’s famous beer culture. Among the more characterful pub hangouts, all with a fine selection of Trappist and other ales, are: De Groote Witte Arend (Reyndersstraat 18, 03 233 5033), built around a peaceful colonnaded courtyard; tiny Paters Vaetje (Blauwmoezelstraat 1, 03 231 8476), with an even smaller mezzanine and a terrace in the shadow of the cathedral; and the Kulminator (Vleminckveld 32, 03 232 4538), with over 500 choices including many long-cellared rarities, and widely regarded as the unofficial world capital of Belgian beer. Those who prefer something less hoppy and more hopping should not miss Café d’Anvers (Verversrui 15, 03 226 3870). This long-established nightclub hosts regular local and international DJs and has been at the top of the local nightlife tree for over two decades.
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Written by World Travel Guide.