Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Small city, big appeal: what to do in Antwerp

 The home of chips slathered with creamy mayo and decent beer brewed by monks, there’s not much to dislike about Belgium, and Antwerp has all this country’s best bits.

Once the biggest city in the northern half of Europe thanks to its enormous port, it’s now a fairly compact but seriously cool weekend destination. But it’s not all just beer and frites.

It was the home of world-famous 16th-century painter Pieter Paul Rubens, whose home and studio still stands in the centre today while his art is scattered throughout the city, and the fashion-conscious will know of the radical Antwerp Six. This collective of designers studied at the famous Roscam fashion school during the 1980s and made waves in the industry. Their legacy can be seen throughout the boutique-lined streets of the fashion district and, of course, in the fashion museum.

If you’re sold on Antwerp, here’s what to do on your weekend away.


Get there: One of the joys of this city is the ease of getting there, and the grand arrival afforded to those who take the train. Take the 3pm Eurostar to Brussels and change for a local train to Antwerp. Jump off at Antwerpen-Centraal, the city’s main station, and be greeted by the grandest entrance hall of all European train stations.

Check into: The Queen A. Just a couple of minutes’ walk across the square from the station you’ll find yourself at the Queen A. Opened in 2017, this new hotel is modern, minimalist and comfortable. Rooms are reasonable, from under £100 per night.

Catch the sunset atMAS. Head straight for Antwerp’s newest trendy district Het Eilandje, where the once down-at-heel port area has had a facelift thanks to the striking MAS museum, which houses a slightly random collection of historical objects related to the city. The exhibitions close at 5pm, but the rooftop remains open until midnight, so catch the sunset over the city before dinner in winter (or afterwards if it’s summertime).

Dine atMon. Carnivores will rejoice at Mon’s delectable steaks and extensive wine list. Overlooking the Willemdok marina, the location is beautiful for an al fresco summer dinner, and the meat is top-notch. Using meat only from Limousin cattle, steaks are grilled in a Josper oven heated up to 400°C and have a mouth-wateringly rich flavour and melt-in-the-mouth texture.


Get breakfast at: Café Impérial. Skip the hotel breakfast and take an early morning walk to the old town. Tucked away in an old palace, Café Impérial has a pretty courtyard for an al fresco bite. Order the Napoleon breakfast: truly fit for a soldier, you’ll get croissants, bread, cheese, a fresh fruit salad and muesli with yoghurt, alongside a glass of Cava and some orange juice.

Explore: by bike. Now you’re well-fed, head to the water and take the 11am bike tour with Antwerp by Bike. An excellent way to get your head around this small city’s big history, you’ll explore the prettiest squares of the old town, learn about the enormous port that made the city such a pillar in European trade, and snap some of Antwerp’s most photogenic buildings.

Top tip: Get yourself an Antwerp City Card at the beginning of your trip. You can use it on the trams, the subway and buses, and it’ll get you entry to the city’s major attractions.

Lunch atMercado. After your bike tour, head back into the old town and find yourself a seat in Mercado on the southern side of Groenplaats. This small food court makes for an excellent lunch stop, with individual vendors offering everything from dim sum and steamed buns to oysters and Moroccan tagine.

Shop in: the fashion district. It would be almost criminal not to at least window shop in one of Europe’s fashion capitals. Between Groenplaats and the museums of Leopold de Waelplaats is the best concentration of boutiques. Head to Volkstraat and Nationalestraat to see some of the city’s top designers.

Visit: the fashion museum. End your tour of Antwerp’s best boutiques with a visit to ModeMuseum (or MoMu). There are two exhibitions a year here, and for the remainder of 2017 a brilliant show celebrating the ingenious work of Martin Margiela (of Maison Margiela) is the flagship. You’ll see his functional pieces on display alongside catwalk videos and signature tabi-style shoes.

Have dinner atRas. End your day where it began: on the banks on the Scheldt. Ras opened in 2016 in the distinctive Zuiderterras building, a structure that resembles a ship and looks out over the waters. If the weather’s good, sit out on the terrace to enjoy the views and be sure to save space for dessert – the Dessert RAS is a delicious trio of chocolate mousse, apple fritter, and crème brûlée.


Explore: the sewers. It might not be the first place you’d choose to spend a weekend in, but Antwerp’s underground network of old canals-turned-sewers is a surprisingly informative experience. Not for the weak-stomached (it stinks down there), the 90-minute tour of De Ruien begins with a short boat ride on the water (just rain run-off, not real sewage) as you don your new blue jumpsuit & wellies.

Guided by an iPad, you’ll then wade through the sludge and discover a world even few residents have seen. There’s history, wildlife (if you count the rats and spiders) and even a photo opportunity in the underground chapel, should you feel brave enough to get out your cameras.

If the sewers aren’t your bag, spend the morning in any one of the city’s many museums. The Plantin-Moretus Museum, featuring the work of 16th-century printers Christophe Plantin and Jan Moretus, is a surprisingly engaging exhibit in a wonderful old building.

Visit: St Paul’s church & the Cathedral of Our Lady. As you emerge from the depths of Antwerp’s sewers you’ll be conveniently close to St Paul’s church, one of the most beautiful in the city. Hidden away behind a fairly unassuming facade, its interior will wow, and the gorgeous sculpture garden and grotto is magical.

Back in the old town, the Cathedral of Our Lady is an enormous structure, full of art (including a few Rubens) and some interesting excavations in the crypt.

Lunch atFrituur No. 1. You can’t leave Belgium without having chips and mayo, and not far from the cathedral this is one of the best places for it in Antwerp.

Have a beer atElfde Gebod. Now you’ve lined your stomach, sample some Belgian beers at this atmospheric little pub. Next door to the cathedral, its location down a cobbled alleyway makes for a wonderful al fresco brew. If the weather’s not on your side, though, head indoors and sit among the hundreds of Virgin Mary statues and figures scattered throughout the pub.

See art atRubenshuis. One of the city’s main attractions, Rubenshuis is a wonderful place to while away the afternoon before your Eurostar home. The artist’s home, a gorgeous 17th-century Italian-inspired villa, doubled as the workshop where many of his students, including Antony van Dyck, trained and painted major works.

Today, you can see the work of Rubens and his apprentices throughout the house before relaxing in the pretty gardens and courtyard.

Stock up at: Carrefour. It might seem an odd stop on this itinerary, but if you’re a beer lover you’ll thank yourself for a quick trip to supermarket chain Carrefour. One of the joys of taking the Eurostar is that you can bring liquids home, so pop in and stock up on Antwerp’s home brew, De Koninck, and any other Belgian beers that take your fancy.

There’s nothing to stop you cracking one open on the train home, too, so you can keep your Antwerp adventure going right until the last moment.

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