Locals liken Antwerp to a village. But don’t mistake that for humility: Flanders’ de facto capital has been punching above its weight since it was a medieval trading hub. Intriguingly, the north Belgian port’s rich past is matched by a sharply progressive edge – taking in avant-garde fashion, most famously, but also stellar food and design.
Visit now and you’ll find two top exports in the spotlight. Opening on 7 May, museum DIVA will probe Antwerp’s world diamond-capital status while, from 1 June, festivalAntwerp Baroque will honour local light Peter-Paul Rubens with a host of performances and exhibitions across town.
What to do
Go for a stroll
Scope old town classics – Gothic icon Onze-Lieve-Vrouw cathedral (entry €6), and extravagant square the Grote Markt – and then stroll south to chi-chi neighbourhood ‘t Zuid, with its distinctly Parisian air. In the north of town, once-seedy marina Het Eilandje now hums with dockside cafes and restaurants, and houses two cultural showpieces: MAS(Museum aan de Stroom, €5-€10), exploring Antwerp’s maritime heritage, and the emigration-themed Red Star Line Museum (€8).
Get a museum fix
Golden Age icon Rubens’ palazzo-turned-museum the Rubenshuis (€8) is a must for its Renaissance-style garden, monumental portico and art horde – including a Tinteretto formerly owned by David Bowie. Also starring in baroque season is contemporary art hubM HKA (€10) and magnificent sculpture park the Middelheim Museum (free), where works by Calder, Rodin and co. adorn tidy lawns and cascade over the water.
Do an architour
The soaring, cathedral-like Antwerpen-Centraal often tops “world’s most beautiful train station” polls – but it’s not even the city’s grandest architectural statement. That honour falls to Zurenborg axis Cogels-Osylei, a fin de siècle street whose houses offer a schizophrenic sampler of styles from Belle Époque to Art Nouveau. Another overachiever: the KBC Tower, Europe’s tallest skyscraper when it opened in 1931.
Cross the river
As Europe’s second biggest port, the river Scheldt is Antwerp’s lifeblood. Connecting left and right banks, the Art Deco Sint-Annatunnel defines “hidden gem”. Take the beautiful original wooden escalators thirty metres below ground, and you’ll soon emerge on Linkeroever (the Left Bank), with its summer pop-ups and epic city views.
Tour a brewery
The De Koninck brewery, which has been producing beer in Antwerp since 1833, has a new interactive visitor “experience” which is genuinely enjoyable – 10 interactive rooms feature videos, talking portraits and a VR ride in a van. The tour winds up in the bar, where visitors can try a flight of three signature beers. There are also bistros and boutiques on site, selling everything from artisanal baked goods to local cheeses. Open 10am-6pm daily, closed Mondays; entry €12.
Where to stay
Hotels play second fiddle to interiors magazine-worthy B&Bs in Antwerp – not least the one-off De Witte Nijl, right by the al fresco watering holes of hip ‘t Zuid square Marnixplaats. Its two suites occupy a floor apiece, with freestanding roll-top tubs and a colonial Africa theme. Breakfasts featuring homemade crêpes can be taken in the garden or atmospheric conservatory, adorned with framed butterflies and antique maps. Doubles from €130, B&B.
The first Belgian branch of IHG’s millennial-friendly boutique spin-off, Hotel Indigo’s charms include a guest record player and local library. Rooms nail vintage-chic with terrariums and hammered-copper lights. Skip the housekeeping and you get a €5 bar voucher to redeem in on-site café QA’s Kitchen, which also does small plates and a breakfast buffet with DIY waffles. Doubles from €115, room only.
Commanding a trio of 17th century gabled houses, idiosyncratic four-star bolthole De Witte Lelie is Antwerp’s rich architectural mix in microcosm. Eleven rooms, each with its own individual style, include understated, high-ceilinged options, and eye-popping suites with clashing floral prints. There’s also a decadent, monochromatic Bronze Bar, and arty lounges with leopard-print and crushed-velvet sofas. Doubles from €280, room only.
If you can deal with the slightly sombre decor, Hotel Postiljon is a rare local bargain in the shadow of the cathedral, and stumbling distance from several excellent bars. Doubles from €65, B&B.
Where to eat
Breakfast isn’t Antwerp’s forte, but there’s a major exception: foodie-friendly hotel U Eat & Sleep, which opened last year. Its three-tiered breakfasts (served 7.30-10.30am daily) come with artisanal charcuterie, salted green tomatoes and farm-fresh eggs – plus beautiful decor and serene views of the marina’s bobbing yachts.
A casual city-centre gem, Fish a’gogo’s daily changing catch (around €5-€7 a dish, get four or five to share) is irreproachably fresh. Wash it down with a crisp, affordable Chardonnay while propping up a barrel outside. Open 12-10pm, Thursday to Monday.
Bourla is a crowd-pleasing brasserie with a fantastic terrace and theatrical interiors – a nod to its location just round the corner from the Bourla theatre. The menu sticks to Flemish staples like stoofvlees (beer and beef stew). Open 11am-11.30pm daily except Sundays.
A trip to a frites joint is essential: Frituur No. 1, as per its name, is the top dog, and right on the Grote Markt. There are booths inside, but it’s better to take away to the raised riverside promenade nearby. Open 11am-4am daily.
Where to drink
Moody brown bar Café De Kat is a place out of time – its mahogany furniture, chequered tiles and neon De Koninck sign a symptom of Belgium’s chain-resistant ethos. Tucked away on atmospheric Wolstraat, it attracts local artists and inveterate boozers, and has a refreshingly minimal drinks list (specify that you want the “good red”). Open Monday to Saturday, 12pm-2am (open from 5pm on Sundays).
On Sint-Paulusplaats, hugging the city’s Red Light District (a striptease pole pierces the communal table) multitasking newbie Table Dance is run by a young couple active in the local underground scene. Besides Filipino lunches and small plates, it offers organic beer and wine, and live music on Saturdays. It will host several events for May’s Antwerp Art Weekend. Open Wednesday to Sunday, 12pm-12am.
Mixologists abound in Flanders, and the top spot right now is the rock ‘n’ roll Dogma Cocktails, where even the water is laced with absinthe. Order a deconstructed old-fashioned and collapse onto a Chesterfield. Open Tuesday to Sunday, 5pm-12am (Friday and Saturday until 1am).
Third-wave coffee bars that roast on-site aren’t hard to find: top spots are pioneeringCaffènation (open Monday to Friday 8am-6pm, Saturday 9am-6pm, Sunday 11am-6pm) and the hip Normo (open 8.30am-6pm daily except Sundays) for drip coffee or a cooling affogato.
Where to shop
The city’s best fashion shopping is to be had in the Sint-Andries quarter, especially the streets radiating off Nationalestraat. Here you’ll find the sophisticated, eye-catching prints of Dries Van Noten, the most enduring of the “Antwerp Six” designers who put the city on the map in the 1980s, and boutiques by later talents like Christian Wijnants. For the Belgian look minus the price tag, second-hand label haunt Rosier 41, not far away, has racks packed with bargain Raf, Margiela and more.
Elegant concept store Granmaarkt 13 juggles a gallery, edgy fashion and design (much of it local) and a vegetable-led restaurant. On Saturday next-door square Theaterplein hosts a vibrant food market – join the locals for prosecco and oysters.
Cobbled zone De Wilde Zee is the city’s larder: a must-try are the local biscuits, Antwerpse Hands, from Philip’s Biscuits, and chic fusion chocolates at Pierre Marcolini. Old-school bakery Goossens (+32 3 226 07 91) invariably attracts crowds for its nut bread and bokkenpootje (an almond-cookie and cream sandwich dipped in dark chocolate).
A converted fire station with a faceted-glass “diamond” floating above it, two-year-old icon the Port House is as dazzling as you’d expect from Zaha Hadid’s office.
Nuts and bolts
What currency do they use?
What language do they speak?
Flemish – a softer cousin of Dutch.
Should I tip?
Not obligatory as there’s usually a service charge.
What’s the time difference?
One hour ahead of the UK.
What’s the average flight time from the UK?
Flights to Zaventem, 30 minutes by train from Antwerp, take an hour. You can also fly direct to the tiny, hassle-free Antwerp International Airport from London (an hour) and Birmingham (one hour and 35 minutes).
The compact city-centre rewards strollers. For anything further afield, two wheels are best. City-bike scheme Velo Antwerpen offers €4 day passes (available online only).
There’s no charge to visit MAS’s rooftop, with its 360-degree panorama of the city.
Antiques and design strip Kloosterstraat, packed with bric-a-brac and mid-century furniture, is a rare beacon on sleepy Sundays.