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Sleep: Antwerp

Explore the ancient port city of Antwerp — Belgium’s capital of cool — whose fashion and arts scene beats fast and furious, and find a hotel retreat. Either keep it simple in a new-wave hostel bunk or splash out on a suite in a 17th-century rococo mansion with its very own spiral staircase

Sleep: Antwerp
Reception area at the Hotel Julien, Antwerp.

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The historic centre

The most prosaically attractive part of Antwerp is the historic centre, which harks back architecturally to the city’s pre-industrial revolution glory days. It fulfils all the usual mooching requirements: massive cathedral, pretty old buildings and pedestrianised cobbled streets. The central focus point is Grote Markt, which feels slightly tired, but contains one of the most fabulously gruesome fountains you’re ever likely to see: above monsters and headless bodies, a man prepares to throw a severed hand away.

We recommend: Hotel Julien
First impressions are formed via the nose rather than the eyes at the Julien — the perfumed whiff is a thundering sensory assault. And that’s before you reach all the fresh flowers. The townhouse hotel plays the design card, but not too hard. The lounge, with roaring fire and church fresco-esque painted ceiling, leads through to the bar area where the wall is decorated with dozens of magazine spines. The bar itself is sunken and surrounded by ultra-comfy swivel chairs. The rooms are light and airy, helped immeasurably by the high ceilings and a clever choice of furnishings. The shelves built in behind the pillows on the bed, with plug sockets, are particularly well done. Black and white prints of Serge Gainsbourg line the walls, the bathrobes are magnificently fluffy and a general louche air pervades. Plus, in the rather unexpected basement spa area — this is a three-star hotel, after all — there’s a hammam and solarium.
Rooms: Doubles from €179 (£147). hotel-julien.com

Best for location: Linnen
The seamless Blauwmoezelstraat/ Lijnwaadmarkt has to be the most agreeable street in Antwerp — it’s all bars, cafes and cobbles. Right in the middle of it, in the shade of the Cathedral of Our Lady, is Cocktails At Nine, one of the city’s smartest spots for a drink, and the owners rent out the three rooms above it. They’re loosely themed on different cocktails — Chocolatini, Tequila Sunrise and White Russian. The wooden ceilings give a reassuring sense of history and through the blinds you can peek out at the
tops of church spires.
Rooms: Doubles from €140 (£115). cocktailsatnine.be

Best for art: Hotel O
The 20-room Hotel O, designed by architect Jo Peeters, is fun from the moment you step in. The lobby wall is covered in speaker boxes, old radio sets and tape decks. Upstairs the rooms are a full-on monochrome blitz, with open bathrooms allowing you to watch TV in the bath
— though there’s not much privacy if you’re staying with a friend. But it’s the Kathedral rooms that are truly spectacular, with baroque prints of local boy Rubens’ wonderful paintings blown-up to cover a feature wall and ceiling.
Rooms: Doubles from €99 (£81). hotelokathedral.com

In the breakfast 'orangerie' at De Witte Nijl, Antwerp.

In the breakfast ‘orangerie’ at De Witte Nijl, Antwerp.

Het Zuid

To the south of the fashion district, Het Zuid has a cluster of key museums.  KMSKA, the biggest, is, alas, closed for renovation until 2017, while FoMu tackles photography and MHKA does contemporary art installations. But Het Zuid’s real appeal is that this is where Antwerp locals go out, and the terrace cafes seem to be permanently occupied. There’s a young and yummy mummy skew to it, and there are signs the fashion district is moving south as more and more boutiques are opening up here.

We recommend: De Witte Nijl
Antwerp has design-focused accommodation by the bucketload, but nothing matches this tiny B&B for uproarious fun. An African theme runs throughout — downstairs is a museum-like collection of tribal masks and statues, while the two suites are called Stanley and Livingstone, and adorned with some marvellous touches. The TVs, for example, sit on top of the sort of hefty metal trunks explorers would cart round with them in the days before 80-litre backpacks. You’ll find safari helmets on top of the wardrobe, and big black rhino or elephant figurines on the mantelpiece. And the bathrooms are luxuriously massive. Elsewhere, in the breakfast ‘orangerie’, you’ll come across over 1,600 butterflies pressed in glass cases. Then there are the things that are just plain odd — the dangling light from the ceiling is covered in a ball of swan feathers, and the jar of preserved seahorses on the shelf in the bathroom… Behind all this, however, is a really gorgeous apartment.
Rooms: Apartment from €129 (£106). dewittenijl.be

Best for social life: Soul Suites
Marnixplaats is the heart of Het Zuid and Soul Suites has the right home-from-home feel. Above a hair salon and gallery, each suite has a very different look to it — all the handiwork of interior designer Jeanne van de Meulengraaf. You might find tables made out of road signs or photos of street art behind the beds. The suites feel like a shared house dolled up by fashion graduates — a good fit for the area. And the kitchenettes are handy for self-caterers on longer stays, too.
Rooms: Studios from €100 (£82). soulsuites.com

Best for food: The Glorious Inn
This sumptuously decorated restaurant received its first Michelin star in November 2013. But the rooms are a visual feast too. Depending on which one you pick, your shower could be a fairy garden with plants growing behind the glass wall or you could have a fireplace made from fragments of willow-pattern china. Either way, there’s a four-poster bed with shimmering drapes to jump into and a whole world of fun exploring the details.
Rooms: Suites from €175 (£143). theglorious.be

Guest room at The Leopold, Antwerp.

Guest room at The Leopold, Antwerp.

Centraal

For most visitors, the marble-drenched Antwerpen-Centraal is their extraordinary first taste of the city. But in the grand tradition of just about every railway hub on earth, the immediate vicinity is somewhat less impressive. The slightly scrappy surroundings do, however, include the child-pleasing zoo and Aquatopia aquarium. Many of the major business hotels are here, as is the Diamond District — Antwerp is the world’s diamond trading capital and there are bargain sparklers to be found in the humdrum jewellers’ shops to the west of the station.

We recommend: Radisson Blu Astrid
From the outside it looks curiously like a building from a hitherto undiscovered Beatles cartoon film, but the Radisson Blu does a fine job. Part of the appeal is down to its location — it’s opposite Centraal station (making it perfect if you want to leave the bags on the last day without taking a massive detour on the way home) and city-wide trams stop right outside. But other aspects start to mount up, too. It’s in the same building as Aquatopia, so it’s ideal for a low-hassle family stay, and it has a decent-sized pool — which is pretty rare in Antwerp. It also serves arguably the best breakfast spread in town, Nespresso machines come as standard and, mercy be, there are proper king-size beds in a city prone to strapping two singles together and slapping a thin sheet over the top of them. Upgrade to a spacious junior suite and you’ll also get an exercise bike in the room — so you can work out without having to don gym gear and schlepp it to the first floor.
Rooms: Doubles from €127.20 (£105). radissonblu.com/astridhotel-antwerp

Best value for money: The Leopold
There’s a warmth about the Leopold — lots of dark woods, deep reds and feature walls. Despite mainly catering to business clientele, the staff have a chatty friendliness about them. The Stadspark across the road, with its duck pond and playground, makes it a surprisingly good family option, too. Book in advance for a steal.
Rooms: Doubles from €77.40 (£64). leopoldhotelantwerp.com

Best for business: The Hyllit
The business hotels in the area are frankly interchangeable, but the Hyllit adopts the city’s stylish sensibilities, like the golden handwriting covering the wall behind the bed. Its key advantage, however, is its faux Roman pool — the biggest hotel pool in town. Its opening hours are a bit weird (closed weekday afternoons), but it’s big enough to get some serious laps in.
Rooms: Doubles from €147 (£121). hyllithotel.be

Restaurant, Jeugdherberg Pulcinella

Restaurant, Jeugdherberg Pulcinella.

The Fashion District

South of the historic centre, the Fashion District is where Antwerp ups the cool ante. Its main streets are dominated by clothing stores, with local designers out in force. Antwerp has been punching way above its weight since the late 1980s, when half a dozen graduates of the city’s Royal Academy stormed the global catwalks. The Antwerp Six are still here, but they’ve got company. And it’s the sheer concentration that makes the area so strollable for window-shoppers.

We recommend: Hotel Elzenveld
In a city of design and style, the Elzenveld stands out for being so staggeringly, weirdly unusual. It’s accessed through an archway that may as well lead into Narnia — the busy street suddenly becomes a tranquil church and convent complex. It dates back to the 13th century, when it was used as a hospital, although the chapel, cloisters and vicarage are 15-17th century.
It’s now a three-star hotel, largely used for conferences. The rooms are solidly decent, but it’s the atmospherics — creaking wooden stairs, a cloakroom with memorial slabs and arched church windows behind it, odd little statuettes in the corridors — that make the place special.
There’s a garden with two ghoulish statues of bodiless white cloaks. But head further in and there’s a magnificent secret courtyard.
■ Rooms: Doubles from €112 (£92). elzenveld.be

Best for backpackers: Jeugdherberg Pulcinella
This is how dorms should be — an en suite bathroom, a plug socket and reading light for each bed, and individual lockers. The Pulcinella belongs to the new breed of hostel, with its cool, minimalist swagger and a bar that would pull in the fashionistas were it in a hotel. There’s a guitar for anyone who fancies a quick strum, and the big, amply-stocked bookshelf spells out ‘READ’.
■ Rooms: Dorm beds from €24.10 (£19.75), twins from €57 (£47). jeugdherbergen.be

Best for peace & quiet: Hotel ‘t Sandt
The central cobbled courtyard with its calming, trickling fountain sums up the feel of this place. The 17th-century rococo mansion has been converted into an angelic haven, draped in white linens and with a tinkling grand piano in the corner. All the rooms are suites, with the entry-level duplexes being especially adorable — it’s up the semi-spiralling wrought iron staircase to bed.
■ Rooms: Duplex suites from €210 (£173). hotel-sandt.be

Published in the September 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)