Antiques, gin and hip bars? Try Antwerp


It’s the underrated Flemish centre of fashion, food and design. And just a couple of hours from St Pancras by train



Shops to lose yourself in on Kloosterstraat: Blue Fonz
Shops to lose yourself in: Blue Fonz, on Kloosterstraat
Antwerp, teetering on the tip of Flemish Belgium, is not perhaps a destination you’ll have considered, despite being under three hours by train from north London.

And yet it’s an elegant 16th century city that’s as known for its gabled buildings in the Grote Markt (see below right) as it is for being a fashion hub. It’s something of a foodie mecca too, with dozens of internationally acclaimed restaurants, the most popular of which were all booked out even on our early week visit in November.

Like a Tim Burton movie: the Grote Market
Like a Tim Burton movie: the Grote Market
Casually fusing history with all things cutting-edge, Antwerp’s lust for culture can be traced back to a bustling Renaissance diamond industry which kick-started the first wave of architecture, as well as attracting artists including Peter Paul Rubens, whose work adorns the cavernous 14th century Cathedral. His ornate, atmospheric house (Rubenshuis, Wapper 9-11) is a must, too.

A second wave of prosperity followed with the Industrial Revolution, culminating in Antwerp hosting the Olympic Games in 1920, before the city slumped, like much of Europe, after two world wars.

It’s now the eclectic cultural scene that attracts most tourists – although diamonds are again big business. The latest opening is Red Star Liner, up on the Eilandje, the oldest harbour area in Antwerp, a wildly popular modern museum which follows in the footsteps of emigrants. You can find it by walking up through the sprawling red-light district on Schippersstraat.

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Get me to Dries

Inside the store: Demeulemeester
Inside the store: Demeulemeester
The city’s status as fashion epicentre dates back to the international acclaim around the “Antwerp Six”, a particularly talented group of students who graduated in the 1980s from the Fine Arts academy, including Ann Demeulemeester and Dries Van Noten (other greats include Margiela, Bikkembergs, and Raf Simons). Head straight to Nationalestraat where, opposite Van Noten’s original sartorial temple (16), you’ll find MoMu, the fashion museum, located in the 19th century ModeNatie complex, which also features the excellent Copyright bookshop, a library, café and the Flanders Fashion Institute. Don’t forget the Demeulemeester store on 38 Verlatsstraat, opposite the Fine Arts Museum. Other good shopping streets are Leopoldstraat (for interiors) and Schutterstraat (swanky like Bond Street).
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Don’t miss: Het Zuid

Mannequins stare down from X
Mannequins on Sint-Michielstraat

Once you’ve done Nationalstraat, stroll down to Het Zuid (the south district), for some years now the coolest quarter. En route, browse the tardis-like antique and bric-a-brac shops along our favourite stretch, Kloosterstraat (especially Blue Fonz at No 12, Erik-tonen Books at 48, interiors shop The Recollection at 1, and highly rummageable T Koetshuis (10, over several floors).

Elegant: Entrepot
Elegant: Entrepot
You’ll soon reach Waalse kaai/ Vlaamse Kaai. Originally a waterside quay, it’s been concreted over and now is home to busy restaurants and bars like elegant Entrepot Du Congo (42 Vlaamse Kaai), Pig’s Café (11 Visserskaai) and Bar Tabac (43 Waalse Kaai). Don’t miss the Museum of Photography (47 Waalse Kaai) or MUHKA, the contemporary art museum, on the edge of the river Scheldt, whose calming white circular rooms host often controversial exhibitions.
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Eating and drinking

Colourful: octopus and beetroot at Dome Sur Mer
Colourful: octopus and beetroot at Dome Sur Mer
It’s pricey. Surprisingly so. Expect to see mains regularly listed at around €20+, with starters from €10. Wine will probably be around €20+ for a house.

Top tip? Dome Sur Mer. Opposite one of the city’s most acclaimed restaurants, The Dome, is its more relaxed sister brasserie, the kind of place you can swing by and share a few plates at the counter. There’s no English menu, but the waitress patiently translated every dish for us, including the specials. Highlights? Tender octopus with beetroot (main pic), silvery mackerel with cooked endive, gilt-head bream with creamy parsnip, tagliata (grilled, sliced medium-rare steak). Starters around €12, Mains from €19 (1 Arendstraat)

Atmospheric location: Zuiderterras
Atmospheric location: Zuiderterras
Elsewhere, despite our midweek visit we failed to get into some of the most famous restaurants like Sir Nicholas Van Dijck, situated in a medieval cobbled quarter, but enjoyed pricey lobster linguine (€26) at Zuiderterras (37 Ernest Van Dijckkaai), the architect-designed ship-shaped glass tower with 360 degree views overlooking the river Scheldt.

In Het Zuid we recommend the flash-grilled steak tartare at Nick’s Cafe (19, Waalse Kaai), the relaxed room – like someone’s house – buzzing on a Tuesday lunchtime with a bohemian crowd. And on a previous visit we adored Da Kleine Zavel (2 Stoofstraat), which offers simple but tasty dishes for an understated local crowd.

Laidback - and delicious steak tartare: Nick's Cafe
Laidback – and delicious steak tartare: Nick’s Cafe
Some moules perhaps? Try Bacino (5 Torbrug), a candlelit brasserie in the old town, where a tasty bowl with frites will set you back €20+. Or De Pottekijker (5 Kaasrui) is a cosy place quite popular with locals near the cathedral. Other restaurants recommended by Martin from our hotel (see below) were Fiskebar, Bourla, Le John and Hofstraat 24.

Drinking? Hundreds of atmospheric bars, but hit Het Zuid for the most reliable options (a spritz at Octo, corner Remstraat, was fun); and the streets around Grote Markt like Reynderstraat, where you can sample 200 types of genever (local spirit with some similarities to gin) at wood-panelled bar De Vagant (25 Reynderstraat); elsewhere Vrijdagmarkt (in particular In De Roscam café on the corner) or arty hangout De Pelikaan (14 Melkmarkt), where a ‘bolleke’ (glass of beer) is a couple of euros.

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Accommodation

Gorgeous: Leopold
Gorgeous: Boulevard Leopold
Right in the heart of the Jewish Quarter is Boulevard Leopold. Original owners Burt and Vincent spent nine months converting a three storey 1890 Flemish townhouse into a stunning deco palace, restoring marble fireplaces, original tiling and floors, fabulous chandeliers and early 20th century furniture. It’s now changed hands but is of exactly the same high quality as it was on our first visit five years ago.

Detail in the living room
Detail in the living room
There’s a huge wooden table in the living room, lit by a forest of candles, and awash with design magazines and quirky detail. Continental breakfast of warm croissants, eggs, hams and cheese is served in a plant-filled atrium. Owner Martin will divulge snippets of history, and might even show you the hatch on the top floor that was a secret hiding place in the Second World War: a woman, born there in 1944, even scratched the name of her first love into the fireplace. And what’s more, a stay here won’t break the budget: rooms start at €110. Belgiëlei 135, 2018 Antwerp, Belgium (call +32 486 67 58 38)
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Getting There

Eurostar operates up to 9 daily services from London St Pancras International to Brussels with return fares from £69. Tickets to any Belgium station start from £79. We paid £89 booking a month upfront.


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