From frocks to rocks, sparkling shopping opportunities make Antwerp the perfect girly getaway
Antwerp is a picturesque Flemish city perched on the banks of the Scheldt river; medieval timber and brick buildings line genteel lanes. It presents itself as an ordered, demure city not prone to extravagance. It is stylish, in an unassuming way. Other European cities may be brash and bold in their appeal, but Antwerp quietlty charms its way into your heart.
Antwerpen, Anvers or Antwerp - whatever you choose to call it, this is a city with a name based on a gruesome hand-throwing - hantwerpen - incident. Allegedly, the giant Antigoon demanded a toll from all who crossed the Scheldt; for those who refused, he would chop an offending hand off and toss it into the river. Antigoon got his comeuppance in the form of heroic Brabo, who in turn chopped the giant’s hand off and killed him. The hand is still the symbol of Antwerp, adorning everything from paper napkins to beer glasses.
Avoiding a river crossing was my first concern; I didn’t want to reenact the Antigoon atrocity. This is easily achieved with Eurostar; it’s only 2 hours to Brussels from London St Pancras, and then a half-hour local train journey to Antwerp, with no extra fare to pay. Before we knew it we were stepping into Antwerp’s glorious Centraal station in style.
We checked into Hotel Julien, an intimate and chic hotel in the city centre, within stiletto-heeled striking distance of Antwerp’s best shops. First stop? The fine boutiques made famous by the Antwerp Six, a clutch of local fashion designers who took London by storm 30 years ago, and continue to stun with their designs… and price tags. Dries van Noten’s beautiful Belle Epoque shopfront enticed us, but we satisfied ourselves with perusal rather than purchase. The stark modernity of Ann Demeulemeester’s double-height white space wowed, and fine leather handbags, belts and boots made us drool. Then it started to drizzle. With not an umbrella between us we sought shelter and comfort in Belgium’s finest chocolate.
Del Rey’s window displays an array of sweet treats imprinted with textile designs. Impressed, we delved into the café for a pick-me-up. What was to come could only be described as obscene indulgence - molten dark hot chocolate infused with Amaretto, accompanied by a pile of freshly whipped cream, vanilla ice cream, three types of whimsically shaped sugar cubes, and a selection of miniature macaroons.
Refreshed, revived and calorifically off the scale , we were enticed by Antwerp’s promise of big rocks at reasonable prices. Once inside the Antwerp World Diamond Centre (Hovenierssstraat 22), we learned about the 4 Cs (carat, clarity, colour and cut) - essential info for any girl looking for a best friend. The city is the capital of the world diamond trade, with over half the globe’s polished diamonds making their way to or from Antwerp. But a stroll down Rijfstraat, Antwerp’s diamond district, revealed a world of dealers and designers behind closed doors. There was a real lack of bling on display, save for a few shops around the railway station. Alas, I’d have to wait for my Breakfast at Tiffany’s moment.
Champagne cocktails were the only way to console ourselves, so we headed to the Stadsfeestzaal (Meir 78). Once the Town Hall, it has been restored to its golden glory and transformed into a high-end shopping arcade. But its crowning glory is the world’s only Champagne bar in the form of a giant Champagne glass, where you can sit, sip and watch the world go by 20 metres below.
The rest of our trip was a whirlwind: bagging hand-shaped biscuits, fine Belgian cheeses and baked delights in the foodie shops along the city centre’s Korte Gasthuisstrat and Wiegstraat; rummaging for bargains at the Vrijdagmarkt (Friday market) in the square of the same name; and admiring antiques at the Saturday morning Handschoenmarkt next to the Cathedral
My star Antwerp purchase? An exquisite pair of turquoise leather gloves from Huis A Boon (Lombardenvest 2-4), a shop trading for 125 years and full of tiny drawers with every kind of manual adornment a girl could desire. For a city named after a severed appendage, it was a brave move. You’ve got to hand it to Antwerp!
Hotel Julien does a two-night Fashion Special package from around €244pp, including two nights' accomodation, breakfast, a bottle of cava upon arrival, entrance to MOMA Fashion Museum, a shopping guide and one three-course dinner.
Fashion, Foodie and Diamond District themed guided tours of Antwerp are available, from €55.
Eurostar returns from London to Brussels cost from £59 return, including free local train to Antwerp.