Few great European cities fall under the radar as much as Antwerp. So, arriving here and finding it to be a properly outward-looking, bona fide world city comes as something of a surprise. And a pleasant one, at that. It’s remarkably small to fit into that category — the population is just a smidge over 500,000 — but all efforts to take it down a grade seem to fail. It’s the second-biggest port in Europe, the centre of the world’s diamond industry and among the globe’s fashion capitals.
It also has an unapologetically international population, representing 174 countries, while being simultaneously historic and industrial. And crucially, it doesn’t get chippy about not being lumped in with the big boys — it has enough self-confidence to know which tier it belongs to, even if the rest of the world refuses to acknowledge it.
Antwerp’s boom time came in the 16th century, when it blossomed as a trading port. But, unlike other once-mighty Belgium cities, it has constantly rebooted to stay relevant, rather than accept an inevitable decline and hustle a living as a giant open-air museum.
That’s not to say it doesn’t have pretty Flemish architecture — its historic centre is replete with tiered roofs. And it has more than its fair share of old master art to fall back on, with Rubens — who called the city home — furnishing just about every historic building with fulsome, buxom paintings.
But Antwerp doesn’t to stick to Ye Olde for long. It has an edge that slashes at any bimbling cosiness appearing. Shabbiness laps at the fringes, and the furiously contemporary is welcomed more than the dodderingly antique. To the north of the centre, the striking Museum aan de Stroom complex soars upwards among the centuries-old docks, while Zaha Hadid’s shimmering topping to the Port Authority building offers splendidly daring iconoclasm.
All the hallmarks of exquisite Belgianness are here — chocolate shops, pubs serving the best beers in the world, fries being wolfed down on every corner as though they’re some sort of divine life force — but Antwerp doesn’t sit back on that. It’s not a lazy city, and in 50 years from now, it’ll probably have found a completely new field in which to punch well above its weight.
See & do
The Cathedral: This soaring, 404ft-tall gothic beast has a distinctly un-gothic lack of austerity inside. That’s partly due to lavish stained glass windows, Rubens paintings and OTT side chapels, but mainly because it houses the religious art masterpieces of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts while it refurbishes until 2019.
Centraal Station: If it wasn’t for the train announcements, Antwerp’s main railway station could be mistaken for another cathedral. One of the most visually stunning stations in the world, the hulking stone exterior gives way to a vast domed and arched interior that defies easy style categorisation.
The port: As Europe’s second-largest port, vast banana warehouses, chemical works, oil refineries and loading docks line the River Scheldt. It’s not an obvious tourist attraction, but the sight of giant cranes unloading shipping containers is strangely absorbing. Flandria runs unexpectedly interesting afternoon cruises that show how it all works.
De Ruien: The canals that once flowed through Antwerp are now underground and home to the sewer system. But hold your nose, and you can head along De Ruien first by boat, then on foot. It’s uncompromisingly squelchy and unglamorous (wellies are a must), but provides an oddly fascinating perspective on the city.
Zurenborg: A largely residential area to the south east of the centre, Zurenborg has one of the world’s great concentrations of art nouveau architecture. Waterloostraat offers wrought-iron balconies, natural motifs and sumptuous curves, while Cogels Osylei veers into other styles, but almost every building has the wow factor.
MAS: The Museum aan de Stroom became an instant landmark upon opening in 2011. The permanent collection inside employs sweeping themes — life and death, or power — to display its anthropology-heavy artefacts. The presentation is impressive, and the views from the top of the building are the best in town.
The Red Star Line Museum: Over two million Europeans passed through Antwerp on their way to a new life in the US after 1800. This museum tells the stories of the mass migration, the gambles taken and the often shattered dreams at the other end. It is, quite frankly, brilliant.
Kulminator: This shambles of a place, almost subsumed in clutter — glasses and bottles — is all about the beer. It feels like a big garden shed with tables crammed in, but offers pretty much every beer in Belgium.
Baravin: An unassuming wine bar with terrace tables on a street ideal for people-watching. The restored stucco ceilings and wall paintings give it 19th-century character and there’s a mini art gallery at the back.
Dogma: Candlelit and with big leather seats, this is an A-grade cocktail bar. The menu includes low-alcohol options, fruity tikis and some seriously whisky- and vermouth-heavy efforts.
There’s a mix of business-leaning and design hotels, clustered near Centraal station.
The Park Inn: This three-star hotel is comfortable and reasonably priced. You also get free use of the pool at the nearby Radisson.
The Elzenveld: Set inside an old church and convent complex, it feels tranquilly cut off from the world. Rooms are a little spartan, but the peaceful courtyards and atmospheric creaky floorboards make up for it. elzenveld.be
Hotel Julien: Church-like ceiling paintings, airy rooms with Serge Gainsbourg prints and a basement spa all add to the Julien’s cool feel. It looks great without ever feeling calculatingly cold.
Loa: The concept — street food from around the world, whether pad Thai, meatball-stuffed Moroccan pancakes or pulled-pork sandwiches — is great. The setting, with little metal chairs on a lively square, ain’t bad either.
De Groote Witte Arend: A former convent with a marvellous, arch-lined central courtyard. Come here for trad Flemish stews washed down by excellent beers. Very atmospheric too.
The Jane: Book well in advance for this Michelin-starred, tasting menu-only treat. It’s become the pride and joy of the Green Quarter project — a heartening park-ification transformation of a gigantic military hospital complex.
Like a local
Dageraadplatz: At the heart of Zorenblum, this is one of those squares every traveller wants to stumble upon. It’s tourist-free, but surrounded with restaurants and bars; everything from Egyptian to Japanese cuisine, from casual cocktails to white-tablecloth dining. The perfect place if you’re not quite sure what you fancy.
Sunday trauma: It’s a big shopping city, but don’t save that shopping for Sunday as almost everywhere will be closed. On the first Sunday of every month, however, there’s an inexplicable special dispensation.
Linkeroever: The left bank of the Scheldt is quieter, greener and often used as somewhere to have a picnic with a great view of the city skyline. Good luck hunting down a bridge to get over there, though — the only way across is via the Sint-Anna pedestrian tunnel that dips underwater from the city centre.
Het Modepaleis: The most interesting shopping district, though, is just to the south in Sint Andries; many of the internationally recognised local designers have their flagship stores here. Het Modepaleis is one — Dries van Noten’s uncompromisingly bold designs are great to window-shop, even if beyond the wallet’s boundaries.
The Diamond District: Around 84% of the world’s uncut diamonds and half of its polished diamonds are traded in Antwerp. But the focus is wholesale, rather than direct to customer. This makes the Diamond District rather dowdy. If you’re after bling, seek out the ‘Most Brilliant’ logo — marking out the city’s most reputable dealers.
Getting there & around
The Eurostar from London St Pancras is the easiest option. It stops at Brussels with connections to Antwerp included in the price. Cityjet flies from London City to Antwerp. Brussels Airlines flies there from Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh and Belfast-City.
Average flight time: 1hr 5min.
Average train time: 3hr 30min.
Both Antwerp’s tram network and buses are covered by the same tickets, which are cheaper if bought before boarding. Go for the Antwerp City Card for free public transport and museum entry: €27 (£23) for 24 hours, €35 (£30) for 48 hours or €40 (£34) for 72 hours. Taxis are rather scarce, and expensive.
When to go
It’s warmest between May and September (boat cruises only run then, too) but winter city break deals are worth looking at; the city is about much more than the weather.
Lonely Planet Belgium and Luxembourg. RRP: £14.99.
How to do it
Superbreak has three nights at the Diamond District’s Leonardo Hotel with return Eurostar tickets from London from £200 per person.
Published in the May 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)