In its heyday, Antwerp was the centre of world commerce. With the second largest port in Europe, its trade in sugar, pepper, and salt made Antwerp the richest city in the world during the 15th century. Today, many think of Antwerp as all quaint diamond sellers and chocolatiers. But Antwerp is a much trendier city than that image gives it credit for – trailblazing designers and organic coffee roasteries are much nearer the mark.
These are some of the city's hotspots that make Antwerp Belgium's capital of cool – and are all very good reasons why it should be your next city break.
The Antwerp Ruins are a series of subterranean channels, both natural and manmade, that once served as its sewers and streets. These underground passageways are four miles (7km) long and are remnants of Antwerp’s medieval open sewage system, which carried waste through the centre of town. For obvious reasons, the citizens of Antwerp decided to improve on this arrangement in the 15th century, and the sewers were turned into covered drains, which you can walk around today for a unique look beneath Belgium's second city. So long as it hasn’t rained, you can explore the underworld of sewers, vaults, canals, and bridges – wellies are provided.
Anyone who has lived in a big city or has gone to university can relate to the unique drudgery of washing your clothes in a launderette. Even worse: trying to get a wash done on holiday. Not so in Antwerp. At Wasbar you can do your laundry as you sip a gourmet coffee or enjoy breakfast in one of the city's coolest cafes (of course, you don't have to do your washing to visit) – try the bagels.
This spot is an example of a brown café (bruine kroeg in Dutch) – the name comes from these venues' darkly stained wood interiors. They function as both a watering hole and gathering place, where you can sit, chat, and have a drink with your neighbours until the wee hours of the morning. To that end, try one of de Vagant’s 200 varieties of jenever, the juniper-infused liquor that was first sold as 16th-century medicine (and later inspired the creation of English gin). To go with local tradition, try it as a chaser with a beer – known a kopstoot in Belgium and the Netherlands (just don't try too many!).
Though Antwerp doesn’t quite have the fashion world reputation of Paris or Milan, it's well and truly on the map – in part thanks to its superb museum. Since 2002, MoMu (The Mode Museum) has hosted contemporary Belgian fashion in richly curated exhibits. Each rotating showcase explores the full context of the clothing on view through multimedia displays.
Chocoholics rejoice: just visiting Antwerp awards you a golden ticket of sorts – by which we mean a trip to the chocolate factory, and one where enigmatic tests-of-character are mercifully absent from your itinerary. The Chocolate Line is the brainchild of Dominique Persoone, the famous chocolatier who recently designed spring-loaded devices for snorting cocoa powder, called ‘the Chocolate Shooter.’ His eccentric inventions aside, Persoone is an undisputed chocolate expert, and a visit to his shop in Antwerp guarantees insight into the process of chocolate-making, from bean to bar. Whether you cram any of it into your nose is up to you.
As its name suggests, this joint is Antwerp’s home of beer. Belgium is famous for its unique brews, so any beer-centric spot here is worth a punt (and a pint). There’s bound to be something on its 120-page menu that suits your taste. If you can’t decide on a beer, there’s a sampling option that provides eight servings. Plus, it’s only a couple blocks from Antwerpen Central Train Station, so you’ve got no excuse if you’re in town.
This pretty pub is best known as a jazz bar, and for good reason. When the music starts playing, it gets packed quickly (and there are only four bar stools). If you don’t mind a standing-room-only spot, this place is guaranteed to provide excellent music – so you can complement the melodic brass rips with gentle beer sips.
Brewing beer is of utmost cultural importance in Belgium. Here, this craft is a high art form, and was even acknowledged by UNESCO in 2016 as part of its ‘intangible cultural heritage of humanity’ list. Belgian brews range from Flemish reds, to sweet citrusy Belgian wheat beers, and dark dry lambic brews – with many varieties in between. There are more than 600 beers available at Cafe Kulminator, so you can sample the full Belgian spectrum. The only caveat: this popular bar is relatively small, so sometimes it’s best to aim for a not-so-busy time.
As you will be reminded in any tourist literature you happen upon in Antwerp, the famous painter Pieter Paul Rubens hails from here. An artist true to the Baroque style, his depictions of soft-bodied, full-figured women are what most non-connoisseurs remember him by (the term Rubenesque most often means a voluptuous female nude reminiscent of his work). Rubenshuis is an extravagant, Neoclassical building first built in 1611, which served as Rubens' home and studio. Now a museum, it boasts an excellent collection of the master's work, and an unparalleled glimpse into his life as a prominent artist in 15th-century Antwerp.
Nachtegalenpark (Nightingale Park) is a lush oasis of well-manicured lawns and wilder wooded areas in the south of Antwerp. It’s also where the archery competition was held during the 1920 Olympics. The park includes the Middelheim Museum, an open open-air sculpture garden, which features dozens of works from as many sculptors. Middelheim Museum provides a chance to see first-rate art outside the bounds of a museum; the pieces on display here interact with their natural surroundings to varying degrees. For a beautiful walk in a dynamic natural setting, head here.
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