Fashion, free speech and first-rate coffee are the things that Antwerpenaars hold in highest regard. Belgium’s second city has blown a bubble of ‘cool’ around itself, with locals calling it ‘t’ Stad’ (‘The City’), as if no other existed. This isn’t snobbery — they’ve just got an insatiable desire for the next new thing. The city revels in pop-up parties, inventive architecture and cutting-edge cuisine.
The wonderful thing is that foreigners aren’t excluded. Antwerp is one of the world’s most international cities, second only to Amsterdam, with communities of Moroccans, Turkish and Bulgarians adding flavour to the mix.
First-time visitors tend to restrict their rambles to the 16th-century Old City with its UNESCO-listed Grote Markt, the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwe cathedral and the mini districts nearby, including the seedy-yet-safe red-light district in Schippersquartier. Similarly popular are the Sint-Andries fashion district and the diamond district around Centraal Station. Visitors wanting to go beyond the tried and tested routine should cycle southeast to the up-and-coming Zurenborg area, filled with art nouveau architecture.
Alternatively, walk north to explore the once dingy, newly revived, Het Eilandje and Dampoort districts clustered around the docks. They’re home to the city’s newest museums — MAS (Museum aan de Stroom) and Red Star Line — as well as plenty of kooky cafes, an art deco swimming pool and Park Spoor Noord. The Linkeroever (Left Bank) across the river even has its own sandy beach.
Wherever you wander, you’ll find intrigue and innovation, from a cocktail bar inside an old tram shed to a tour of the sewers where the aristocracy once hosted secret parties. Indeed, Antwerp is so vibrant the locals may have got it right when they tease: ‘The rest of Belgium is just parking space.’
Where to eat
Antwerp’s hotchpotch of nationalities has made it the best place in Belgium to try world cuisine, from Portuguese pastel de natas around Sint-Jansplein to the finger-licking Vietnamese streetfood served by the likes of Bún, a new offering in Het Zuid. New restaurants are as common as frites and established eateries have been forced to up their game. Time-worn brasseries have been replaced by hip diners, pop-up venues or novelties such as Caravan — an old apothecary turned vintage-style bistro famous for its koppijnontbijt (hangover breakfasts) served with either a beer or an aspirin. Or try Te Kook, which has a single, circular neon-yellow dining booth and a menu of 16 ever-changing gourmet tasting dishes — think lobster ravioli with goose-liver sauce — that can be eaten in any order you like, much like a sushi bar.
Even supermarkets are reinventing themselves. Robuust has a zero waste policy and uses no food packaging, while Hngry groups together ingredients based on recipes.
And for dessert? Specialties include roggeverdommeke (raisin-stuffed dark rye bread) and Antwerpse handjes (hand-shaped biscuits and chocolates). Try all the best ones at Goossens.
When the working day is done, locals prefer to head out for a beer. In the summer months, ‘terrasken’ — the Belgian tradition of soaking up the sun and sipping ale while seated at tables scattered across the cobblestones — is customary. Look out for beers such as ‘Seef’, a revived ale that won best speciality beer at the 2014 World Beer Awards. You’ll find it at ‘t Waagstuk, an authentic biercafe serving hundreds of varieties of Belgian ale. Drinking is an art form here: beers are strong, so take your time. You won’t have the landlord breathing down your neck and encouraging you to leave when the clock strikes 11pm — he’s more likely to pull up a chair and join you.
For fancier tipples try establishments such as Sips and Cocktails at Nine, whose superstar bartenders mix premium spirits and rare ingredients to create deliciously blended concoctions. Remember you’re in a city that lives and breathes fashion: Antwerpenaars like to dress up, so be sure to wear your finest garments.
When it comes to partying, Belgians follow the Mediterranean rule of thumb: start late (after midnight) and keep going until the sun comes up. Antwerp has some of the best nightclubs in the country — Café d’Anvers and IKON (formerly Noxx) are classics. Locals are equally in love with good live music, particularly jazz, and Kid’s Rhythm ‘n’ Blues Kaffee is a popular option.
All major international designers have a presence here — but you can save a pretty penny by shopping at Jutka and Riska, which sells brands such as Versace at cut prices. Lila Grace stocks jewellery and clothes produced by smaller local designers who can’t yet afford their own storefront. Most clothes shops are dotted along Nationalestraat — aka Fashion Alley — and the surrounding streets of Kammenstraat, Lombardenvest and Steenhouwersvest.
It’s not all lavish labels — locals love their vintage clothes too. Second-hand store T2 is so popular it’s just opened another outlet.
Blogger Nele Moen’s vintage clothing website, the Public Image, is so successful that she now has her own shop selling her kooky printed T-shirts and sweaters, as well as jewellery designed by Melody Ehsani (who makes stuff for Rihanna).
When it comes to bling, Antwerp processes more than 70% of the world’s diamonds — and they’re approximately 20–25% cheaper than in the UK. Dozens of stores line Pelikaanstraat and Vestingstraat east of Centraal Station.
It’s not just about making yourself look good. The fashion district is brimming with inspiring interior design and concept stores. Atelier Solarshop offers a carefully curated selection of vintage furniture and curiosities, while Rewind Ecodesign focuses on recyclable items.
Top 10 local tips
02 Whizz around the city on a little red bike. VELO rental stations are dotted all around town. Day passes start from €3.60 (£2.62).
03 The Antwerp City Card gives you free entry to all major museums and churches, plus free public transport and shopping discounts. Available for 24/48/72 hours. visitantwerpen.be
04 There are bargains to be found at Antwerp’s flea markets, particularly the one held in the Cargo Zomerbar hangars on Sundays. goegekregen.net
05 Badboot is an open-air swimming pool – on a boat!
Come winter, it’s a floating ice rink.
06 Most major museums offer free entry on the last Wednesday of every month.
07 For a perfect city panorama, walk under the river via Sint-Annatunnel to the Linkeroever (Left Bank).
10 Gorge on Belgian specialties at the annual Taste of Antwerp/Antwerpen Proeft food festival held in mid-May.
Books: Flanders & Brussels. RRP: £15.99
(Bradt Travel Guides)
Films: Any Way the Wind Blows (2003)
Published in the November 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)