It may be famous for high-end fashion and diamond traders, but there’s far more to Antwerp than mere sparkle and commerce. As Tim Skelton discovers, Belgium’s vibrant second city is a fascinating mix of medieval architecture, buzzing bars, and a cultural scene that’s second to none.
Belgians are not known as early risers, so you may have to wait for the breakfast eateries to open. But as the streets will be quiet before the tourist crowds roll in, the early dawn is also a good time to take in some of the city’s architectural wonders. Arguably the most impressive building of all is the soaring Gothic Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal (Groenplaats 21, 03 213 9951), the largest church in Benelux. Nearby Grote Markt square is ringed with grand guild houses, with the splendour of the 16th-century city hall as their centrepiece. Stop for breakfast at a nearby café such as Caffe Mundi (Oude Beurs 24, 03 223 6868), where you can choose from a menu of fresh roasted coffees from several continents. Meanwhile, breakfasts at Kloonies (Kloosterstraat 183, 03 689 2171) range from simple croissants to smoked salmon platters washed down with a glass of fizzing cava.
Antwerp has a deserved reputation for cutting-edge fashion, and the city’s best designers – especially the so-called “Antwerp Six” - are regularly spoken of in the same breath as those from Milan or Paris. Top local names such as Dries van Noten (Nationalestraat 16, 03 470 2510) sell their chic creations around the world from Hong Kong to Singapore and San Francisco, but several still maintain flagship stores in their hometown. Perhaps lesser known, but no less special, Maison Anna Heylen (Lombardenstraat 16, 03 232 3282) 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 accessories. If that doesn’t give you enough food for thought, their in-house restaurant serves real sustenance, with a daily changing menu.
Beyond fashion and diamonds, Antwerp is also a major port. To get the lowdown on its strong maritime links that stretch back centuries, visit the 10-story Museum aan de Stroom (Hanzestedenplaats 1, 03 338 4400), or MAS for short. When you’ve seen its dozens of fascinating galleries, finish off by drinking in the breathtaking panoramic city views from the open-air roof terrace. Essential viewing for classical art aficionados is the brick-red Rubens House (Wapper 9-11, 03 201 1555), former home of the city’s most celebrated artist. The house today is a museum, but it was also where Peter Paul Rubens created his most famous works, and some still hang on its walls.
If all the culture makes you hungry, walk a few steps south from Rubens House for lunch at the Grand Café Horta (Hopland 2, 03 203 5660). Here you can enjoy a salad, a roll or a filling bowl of pasta in the picturesque surrounds of a spacious, light-filled Art Nouveau atrium. For something a little darker in ambiance, head underground and eat by candlelight in De Pelgrom (Pelgrimsstraat 15, 03 234 0809), a homely tavern serving hearty traditional food in the brick-vaulted cellars of one of the city’s oldest buildings.
Walk off lunch with a wander through Vlaeykensgang, a winding alley tucked away just off Hoogstraat. Virtually unchanged since it was built in 1591, this quaint narrow street was once home to shoemakers, and now houses a series of antique and curio shops. Step back into the modern world by taking a tram out to the De Koninck – Antwerp City Brewery (Mechelsesteenweg 291, 03 866 9690). As well as being a working brewery you can go on an interactive multimedia-led journey to learn about the brewing process and the company’s long and proud associations with the city.
Back in the centre, dip a last toe in the shops at the Stadsfeestzaal (Meir 78, 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 a pre-dinner drink with a more traditional feel, drop into Oud Arsenaal (Maria Pijpelincxstraat 4, 0486 717 912) and experience city life at its most authentic. A popular gathering spot for local residents, the bar’s Art Deco-inspired interior has remained virtually unchanged in 90 years.
Antwerp is awash with informal restaurants and cafés where you can dine on Belgian classics such as witlof (chicory, wrapped in ham and baked in a cheese sauce) or mussels. One of the best spots to enjoy them is on the peaceful enclosed courtyard terrace at the Groote Witte Arend (Reyndersstraat 18, 03 233 5033). For something a little more upmarket try the elegant surrounds of Godevaart (Sint-Katelijnevest 23, 03 231 8994) where you can order up to seven refined courses from a seasonally changing menu. For something altogether more informal and intimate, Eetkamer à l’Infiniste (Kasteelpleinstraat 6, 03 237 4337) limits itself to 16 guests each night. The set menu is prepared by a single chef, and there are no prices – you keep tabs yourself and pay what you think is fair.
You’ll be spoiled for options if you want to delve deeper into Belgium’s famous beer culture. Among the best pub hangouts, with a fine selection of over 300 Trappist and other ales, is ‘t Antwaerps Bierhuyske (Hoogstraat 14, 0475 894 964). Trumping even that impressive total, the Kulminator (Vleminckveld 32, 03 232 4538) has over 500 choices including many long-cellared rarities, and is widely regarded as the unofficial world capital of Belgian beer. Or take a break from the traditional cafés by dropping in for a perfectly blended cocktail with a retro industrial-chic backdrop at Dogma (Wijngaardstraat 5, 0496 953 377). Another cracking cocktail spot is Sips (Gillisplaats 8, 0477 639 152), a discreetly beautiful bar run by cocktail maestros Manuel and Ollie Wouters.
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