Is it Colin Farrell’s fault that Antwerp isn’t better known, or loved? Ever since the 2008’s In Bruges, that is the city that has cornered the market as Belgium’s quirky tourist destination, while the country’s actual coolest city flies under the radar. With a historic centre that’s a blend of picturesque streets and shopping heaven, Antwerp ought to be far better known. In size, population and cultural significance, it’s comparable to Edinburgh, and if you’re coming from London the train journey is an hour faster.
Fashion rules here, thanks to the global influence of a breakthrough group of 1980s designers that included Dries van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester. The Antwerp Six, as they became known, cemented the city’s reputation as a happening place, and their legacy manifests today in the hundreds of ateliers, outlets and concept stores among the shopfronts. Many of the streets have their own individual feel: Meir, the most famous thoroughfare, is dominated by high-street brands, Schuttershofstraat offers high-end luxury labels, while Nationalestraat and Kammenstraat are the places to go for new names and local designers, from haute couture to streetwear. The ModeMuseum (or “MoMu”) has been hosting impressive exhibitions of contemporary fashion for 20 years, with a library, bookshop and cafe that have turned it into a spiritual home for fashion students and industry professionals alike. Expect it to be an even more popular hangout when it reopens in October after a major expansion and two-year renovation.
Adjacent to the fashion district, the medieval and renaissance streets of the city centre bustle with nightlife, emanating from the Grote Markt, a square overlooked by the beautiful facades of its 16th- and 17th-century guildhalls. To the north, Europe’s second-largest seaport sits on the banks of the Scheldt river, and its docks and surrounding areas have benefited from considerable investment in the past decade, including a space-age port authority building designed by Zaha Hadid. Like most of the city, it’s an area best explored by bike rather than on foot – the distances are far more comfortable to cover on two wheels, while the trams and buses can be irregular.
There are all sorts of delights to be discovered as you venture away from the centre. In Zurenborg, for instance, is the nexus of Antwerp’s most extraordinary townhouses: fin-de-siècle mansions, built in eclectic and ever more extravagant styles, line Cogels-Osylei and Waterloostraat. Expanding ever southwards is a mix of enjoyably cosy family suburbs and hip, emerging districts such as Berchem, where the locals have taken up the habit of writing inspiring or philosophical quotes on the inside of their windows. The neighbouring “Green Quarter” is a car-free development in the grounds of a former military hospital, whose chapel is now the stunning backdrop to The Jane, chef Nick Bril’s two-Michelin-starred restaurant; in 2019 Belgian architect Vincent Van Duysen transformed a nearby Augustinian convent into the August hotel.
Eat and Drink
Antwerp is a great place to visit if you’re beer-curious, and a good start is the De Koninck City Brewery. It makes the city’s popular bolleke beer, named after the goblet-style glasses it is served in, and its visitor centre is an impressive food complex where a baker, a butcher, a cheesemaker and a chocolatier all sell their wares. Within a minute’s walk are some great post-tasting dining options – head to Black Smoke for barbecue, or De Pelgrim for celebrated vol-au-vents.
Craft beers from across Belgium are on offer at the special Belgian taproom in PAKT, the Green Quarter’s hidden gem. Since 2017, food entrepreneurs and urban farmers have filled this warren of warehouses with sustainable businesses, including rooftop diner Racine and coffee roastery Caffènation. For a more traditional beer experience try Cafe Zeezicht, with its wood-panelled rooms and cool clientele. It sits on Dageraadplaats, a charming square handy for a number of neighbourhood restaurants, including the vegetarian Salt & Mint, whose Moroccan cuisine reflects Antwerp’s strong north African community.
The Schipperskwartier and Eilandje districts around Antwerp’s old port boast a buzzy nightlife, and the old town remains a popular place to eat, drink and stay out late: Fiera brings fine dining and a smart crowd to the classily restored stock exchange building, the Handelsbeurs, while at tiny brasserie Invincible diners can sit at the counter and watch the chefs assemble the wine-paired dishes – from lobster sausage to salt-crusted dorade.
Antwerp’s history as a trading town has been rich in all senses. Museums abound here and one of the best is also one of the newest: MAS – the Museum Aan de Stroom – sits in the centre of the docks like a piece of Lego in the middle of a carpet, and its cubic design contains 10 themed floors relating to the art and culture of the city. It’s the kind of place you can return to again and again, and worth the visit alone for the ride up the outward-facing escalators to the long-range view from its roof. Another must is the Rubenshuis, the 17th-century family home of Antwerp’s most famous artist, Peter Paul Rubens. There’s something compellingly transgressive about the way you’re allowed to let yourself into his historic, canvas-covered rooms, as if you’re nosing around while he’s out at the shops.
Art is a major constituent of Antwerp’s cultural capital and KMSKA – the Royal Museum of Fine Arts – whose collection covers seven centuries, will reopen in September after a considerable upgrade. Fomu, in the fashionable “Zuid” or south district, is one of the most important photography museums in Europe, exhibiting works by international names and screening films daily in its two beautiful cinemas (many in their original English). Dutch-language theatre is a popular outing for Antwerpers, and the city has its own vibrant theatre district, the Quartier Latin. In the old town, capacious jazz cafe De Muze is a staple of the music scene, and has been serving live gigs almost every evening since 1964.
It’s just over 15 minutes by bike from the town centre to Nachtegalenpark, 90 hectares (220 acres) of green space formed by the erstwhile aristocratic estates of Vogelenzang, Middelheim and Den Brandt. They’ve belonged to the city since 1910, and offer a wide variety of outdoor recreation, from peaceful walks through leafy woods or horticultural gardens to children’s play areas and sports clubs (there’s even an unexpectedly popular cricket club).
The showpiece is the Middelheim museum, an open-air sculpture park displaying more than 200 works in a stunningly varied setting. You could walk around for hours without seeing the same thing twice, stumbling across a Rodin here, a Hepworth there, and the pavilion at its centre contains thousands more artworks in its repository. Quirky postmodern pieces interact with older items, and there are numerous outbuildings dotted around the grounds including a cafe-restaurant at the and residential streets around the park contain a fascinatingly varied selection of Belgian architecture.
Where to stay
On a quiet sidestreet in the creative heart of Berchem is Yust, which opened in 2019 with the aim of being as much a community as a hotel. Its rooms, in a building that housed the city’s telephone and electrical works at the turn of the 20th century, include everything from hostel dorms to deluxe suites and long-term loft rentals, with a lobby that doubles as a co-working space and a restaurant that presents its offerings as a variety of sharing-plate set menus. A busy calendar of talks, events and hangouts encourage guests to connect with each other, and there are normal and electric bikes to rent. Dorm beds from £24, private rooms from £80