All you need to know for the perfect city break in Antwerp
Léa Teuscher visits the Flemish capital, Europe’s largest port and a top shopping destination, full of hip fashion, glittering diamonds and sparkling beers
Antwerp is a girl’s best friend. The fashionable historic Flemish capital boasts an astonishing number of great boutiques, art galleries, designer stores, jewellers and diamond shops. Boys won’t be disappointed with the exhaustive choice of beers, while art lovers will be delighted by the wonderful museums and striking architecture. Here, red-brick gabled houses of wealthy 16th-century merchants sit next to art nouveau mansions, gothic churches and art deco skyscrapers. The home town of Peter Paul Rubens, the great Baroque painter, is a welcoming, bustling place peopled by creative types, including the famous Antwerp Six couturiers. So choose a topping for your Belgian waffle, and wander through the compact centre in search of fashion, diamonds, and plenty more hidden gems.
What to do?
Walk the cobbled streets around the grand Grote Markt, and look up at the colourful madonna statues that adorn almost every street corners of the old town. Their apparent popularity is less to do with religion and more with tax evasion: houses with madonnas didn’t need to pay heavy taxes under the Spanish occupation in the 16th century. If you are careful, you might also be able to spot the entrance to the atmospheric 16th-century alley, Vlaeykensgang, just between two quaint gabled houses. It’s the best place to listen to the chimes of the Cathedral of Our Lady, which should be your next stop. The gothic masterpiece is filled with Rubens paintings and Baroque decorations.
Stop for a coffee on the charming square Hendrik Conscienceplein, then visit Rubens’s house and studio (www.rubenshuis.be): it has a beautiful ornate courtyard and grand portico. Also worth popping into are the avant-garde Mode Museum (www.momu.be), where fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto has just opened an immense boutique, and the Museum Plantin-Moretus (www.museumplantinmoretus.be). This charming old printer’s house comes with medieval printing press (some of the oldest in the world), gilded leather wallpaper and a fabulous library. Then head to the river Scheldt for a waterside walk. You’ll be able to visit the Steen, a fairy tale castle once part of the city’s wall. Continue north and you’ll find Antwerp’s huge docklands – the port is the second biggest in Europe.
To get the best view of the town, take the beautiful St Anna pedestrian tunnel under the river. Built in the 1930s, it links the old town with a newer neighbourhood on the left bank and was beautifully preserved. It boasts wooden escalators, vintage signs and classic white tiles. From the left bank, you can admire the Old Town panorama with the towering cathedral and Europe’s first skyscraper, the wonderful art deco Boerentoren, also built in the 1930s.
Make sure you take a look at the stunning train station, Antwerp-Centraal, which now combines a historic building with turn-of-the-century facade and glass canopy (and is said to be one of the world’s finest example of railway architecture) with a brand new super-modern extension, dug out a few years ago. It is just next to the city’s famous zoo and diamond district. Antwerp has been a diamond centre since the 15th century, and has 85 per cent of the rough diamond trade; no wonder the highest international mark of approval for polished diamonds is the ‘Cut in Antwerp’ label.
Most high-street chains have a flagship store on the Meir, an elegant pedestrian boulevard. Don’t miss the Stadsfeestzaal (www.stadsfeestzaal.com) shopping centre, with its enormous glass-domed ceiling covered with magnificent gold-leaf stucco. Nearby, Wilde Zee, a maze of pedestrianised narrow streets and squares, is the place for more exclusive shops and delis. For high fashion, walk down Nationalestraat where Dries Van Noten and a crowd of other local designers and jewellers have opened their boutiques. The surrounding neighbourhood of Sint-Andries, once the poorest part of the city, is great for vintage clothes and antiques. Navigate your way to the best shops with the Antwerp Fashion Map, which is available from the tourist office.
Where to eat and drink?
For brunch and afternoon tea breaks, try De Foyer (00 32 3 233 5517), a beautiful Viennese-style café with great views, inside the Bourla Theatre. For lunch with views of the river Schelde and tasty seasonal fare, head to the Zuiderterras (00 32 3 234 1275; www.zuiderterras.be). Or grab a bag of Belgium's famous fries at Fritkot Max on Groenplaats. Choose between ten different sauces to accompany your chips, which are served in the traditional ‘cornet’. There are delicious kosher specialities at Hoffy’s (00 32 3 234 3535), a traditional restaurant and takeaway near Central Station. De Stoemppot (00 32 3 231 3686) is known for its hearty Flemish dishes, but for something more modern visit Hecker (00 32 3 234 3834; www.hecker.be), where chef Kasper Kurdahl serves a delicate menu accompanied by an extensive wine list. De Kleine Zavel (00 32 3 231 9691) is a lively place where you can dine on great steak tartare or crab tourelle. Seafood lovers should head to Gin Fish (00 32 3 231 3207); there’s no menu in this open kitchen restaurant, as meals depend on the catch of the day. To try the local tipple, check out the Bierhuis Kulminator (00 32 3 232 4538), which has 700 different types of beer, while De Vagant (00 32 3 233 2815) serves hundreds of different jenevers as well as Elixir d’Anvers liqueur.
Where to stay?
Fashionistas can sleep above a designer shop at Room National (00 32 3 226 0700; www,roomnational.com). Located on the Nationalestraat, this cool and chic b&b has three design rooms, two of them with their own small kitchen. On the other side of the Old Town, the romantic Hotel Julien (00 32 3 229 0600; www.hotel-julien.com) has understated contemporary rooms arranged around a charming green courtyard. The exclusive but welcoming De Witte Lelie (00 32 3 226 1966; www.dewittelelie.be) is the best address in town. Its elegant rooms are hidden behind the white gabled façades of three canal houses, five minutes away from the Grote Markt.