It might be famous for its diamonds but there’s more to Belgium’s second city than sparkle and commerce. A hub for Belgium’s creative industries, Antwerp is a vibrant mix of medieval architecture, buzzing bars and a cultural scene that is second to none, discovers Ruth Styles.
Belgians are not known as early risers. While you wait for the breakfast eateries to 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. Stop for breakfast at one of the nearby cafés; the Grand Café du Nord (Grote Markt 24, 03 232 8216) is as impressive within as the name suggests and does a good line in fresh pastries and potent coffee. Better still is the brew on offer at the Daily Roast (Hoogstraat 13, 03 225 2454), which has seven house blends that can be combined to create something as strong (or not) as you want.
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 hometown. 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 backstory 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. Essential viewing for art aficionados is Rubens House, former home of the city’s most celebrated artist, the late Peter Paul Rubens. The brick-red Rubens House (Wapper 9-11, 03 201 1555) is today a museum. It was where he created his most famous works, some of which still hang on its walls.
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. For something a bit lighter, head to the unpretentious Patine (Leopold de Waelstraat 1, 03 257 0919), a wooden-floored brasserie that combines Parisian insouciance with purse-friendly prices. Pleasant enough in winter, it really comes into its own in summer thanks to the smattering of tables just outside the front door and the tasty selection of salads and quiche.
Walk off lunch with a wander through Vlaeykensgang, a winding alley tucked away just off Hoogstraat. Virtually unchanged since it was built in 1591, the quaint little street, once home to shoemakers, now houses a series of antique shops as well as the upmarket Sir Anthony Van Dyck restaurant (Oude Koornmarkt 16, 03 231 6170). Keep walking towards the port and eventually you’ll come upon Het Steen (Steenplein 1, 03 202 8380), a hulking medieval castle that was once home to the city’s ruling margraves. Built in 1225, it is Antwerp’s oldest building and has been a prison, a fortress and a museum at various points in its long history. Climb the battlements for a gorgeous view of the port.
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. For something a bit different, stop off at Zurenborger (Dageraadplaats 4, 03 271 0773) for a beer – there are around 20 different types to choose from. While its walnut bar and silver-topped bottles look old-fashioned, the black-and-white-tiled floor and the determinedly stylish crowd make it feel anything but.
There’s no shortage of quaint Belgian eating spots to tuck into classic moules-frites, but for something a little different, try Mampoko (Amerikalei 8, 03 257 7710). Possessed of a sunny terrace and an airy wooden-floored dining room, it specialises in comfort food such as sausage and mash as well as eclectic salads and lighter versions of Belgian classics such as stoofvlees (Flemish stew with fries). More upmarket is Dôme (Grotehondstraat 2, 03 239 9003), which limits itself to a menu of just nine dishes changed daily by the head chef.
Belgium’s famous beer culture is present and correct in Antwerp and there’s no shortage of choice. Among the more characterful pub hangouts, all with a fine selection of Trappist and other ales, are 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. Take a break from the beer at Cocktails at Nine (Lijnwaadmarkt 9, 03 707 1007), which occupies a 200-year-old building next to the cathedral. A particularly cracking cocktail spot is Sips (Gillisplaats 2-8, 47 763 9152), a discreetly beautiful bar run by cocktail maestros Manuel and Ollie Wouters.
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