Between star-strewn restaurants, edgy threads and iconic architecture, Belgium’s baroque‘n’roll second city Antwerp rides high in the cool stakes. Home to the country’s most influential fashion designers, the city’s also a thrill to shop in. Get the look at cool concept store Graanmarkt 13, or pick up a handmade pair of leather gloves at the adorably old-school Ganterie Boon.
If you’re in the market for a treat to bring home, G Bastin stocks white pralines imprinted with the city’s initial. Hunt down a bottle of Elixir d’Anvers: a daily shot of the liqueur is said to ward off illness. Outside of the first Sunday of the month, when many shops are open, Antwerp snoozes on the final day of the week. The exception is prime antiques and design strip Kloosterstraat, home to heirloom pieces, bric-a-brac and everything in between.
Need more inspiration? Here are our top picks.
Start at Museum aan de Stroom (MAS), shaped like a stack of Lego blocks. The waterside structure has some of the best views in town. While you wander through town, look out for Antwerp’s hand-shaped biscuits, inspired by a battle between a giant and the Roman centurion who lopped off his hand. ‘Hand-werepen’ (‘throwing the hand’) morphed into the city’s name. Or wander to the Port House, an eye-catcher designed by starchitect Zaha Hadid.
If you only do one Belgian designer, make it Dries van Noten, whose elegant fashion palace houses equally elegant, pattern-clashing clothes. Lifestyle emporium Enes is set in a grand old townhouse, complete with a bar and patio. It stocks carefully curated womenswear, books, accessories and beauty finds (displayed in a real bathroom). Vier started out as a skate shop, and now toes the oh-so-cool line between streetwear and high fashion.
Head under the railway tracks for Belgium’s first ‘eco-club’ Ampère. It’s a newish it-spot juggling techno nights and top Belgian DJs. Wacky ingredients (goat’s cheese foam, say) grace the libations at Dogma Cocktails, a classy, ’20s-style speakeasy with lounge-worthy Chesterfields. Hot and happening since 1964, three-floor brown bar De Muze is soundtracked by regular jazz and blues acts.
Scope the Rubens masterpieces made for the Cathedral of Our Lady, Belgium’s largest Gothic church. Then have a tipple in its new bar. Museum Plantin-Moretus, the world’s only Unesco-listed museum, explores the artistry of Baroque books. Don’t miss a visit to Rubenshuis: Rubens’ stunning ex-studio holds his most valuable works, plus a Tintoretto once owned by Bowie.
Designed by interiors guru Axel Vervoordt, and in the city’s cutest alley, Sir Anthony Van Dijck is Dries Van Noten’s fave Franco-Belgian bistro. Sergio Herman’s hip fritkot Frites Atelier raises the humble potato to new heights with kimchi or ‘Indo-peanut’ variations. Between the princely port views and six- or eight-course tasting menus, the MAS’s two-star, top-floor restaurant ‘T Zilte is fit for tycoons.