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Antwerp’s stunning vista

Antwerp is cosmopolitan, fashionable and picturesque. Follow our guide to your short stay in Belgium’s pocket-sized metropolis


The largest city in Flanders, Antwerp is in the northern part of Belgium. 60 percent of the ten million Belgians are Flemings. Like their French and German-speaking compatriots they have their own parliament and government. The city’s 470,416 inhabitants live in a territory, which covers approximately 22,076 hectares.

Fine food is part of Antwerp’s everyday culture. Because of its unique location, in the 16th century – the “Golden Age” – Antwerp was a port where all types of foodstuffs, drinks, herbs and spices from distant lands arrived. Even today a wide range of exotic foods is still on sale in Antwerp. The majority of Antwerp restaurants tend to go in the direction of the French cuisine, with the addition of a few fine Belgian touches or the use of typical Belgian ingredients. However, you’ll find a whole range of European, ethnic and biological cuisine as well as restaurant experimenting with the latest food fads. The greatest concentration of places to eat is in the areas around the historic city centre, the central station and the South quarter of Antwerp.

Antwerp owes its prosperity to the River Scheldt. Over the centuries the city and the port have expanded into a maritime metropolis.

Walking along the river quays will notice a lot of new buildings. Contemporary architecture there often refers to the maritime aspect of the city – Antwerp is very clearly facing the water again. At sunset the colours of the Scheldt change. The signals on the water, the lights of the ships and the port installations bring a surprisingly enchanting spectacle.

The Port of Antwerp is the second largest port in Europe, is one of the ten largest ports worldwide and also the most productive. A dense network of rivers and canals, road and railways ensures an easy connection to the European hinterland.

Antwerp has a rich, historic past and is still a cultural pole of attraction today. Antwerp can rightfully pride itself on its rich, historic past with world famous artists such as Rubens, Van Dyck, Jordaens and Brueghel. Through the centuries the city has managed to develop a rich and unique, valuable cultural heritage. The city’s museums and historic churches are treasuries in which many of these riches are preserved and on display. Take time to stop and admire the cityscapes, the protected monuments and the various statues as well as the Madonnas and other saints that grace Antwerp’s streets.

And even today Antwerp has a sparkling cultural and artistic life. With world famous and lesser known artists, big and small cultural talents. With many theatres, cinemas, galleries,?dance and concert stages. With big established culture houses and experimental free ports. With talked-about and intimate architecture.

What distinguishes Antwerp as a shopping destination is the sheer variety of stuff on offer. That, and the dramatic seasonal sales. Because Belgian regulations forbid promotional discounts outside January and July, the pressure is on stores to clear un-sold stock ?as fast as they can.

Boutiques and brands tend to huddle in tribal clusters on Antwerp’s shopping streets. Walk from the station down to the grand, paved Meir and you’ll find familiar high street brands and hip young stores. It’s also home to the Princess department stores; the main branch has more traditional high-end brands, while down the street, Princess Blue has younger, more directional collections, including Hussein Chalayan and Kitsuné.

Turn left at the end on to Nationalestraat and you’ll enter the city’s fashion district. So low-key as to be almost invisible, outlets for Antwerp’s famous designers are strung out between laundromats, army surplus stores and shops selling sausage rolls. Dries Van Noten’s corner site looks like a costume fantasy from the 19th century, while Yohji Yamamoto’s store, next to the MoMu fashion museum, is his largest, stocking all his lines as well as that of his daughter Limi Feu.

Walter Van Beirendonck’s store is worth visiting for the spectacular setting alone. In a former mechanic’s garage, works by young and less established designers that are hung in wooden cabanas spread around like fairground stalls. There’s usually an installation of some kind – at one point the floor was occupied by an 8m teddy bear. More spectacular interiors can be found at Annemie Verbeke, a Brussels-based designer whose shop is like a mirrored jewellery box.

If Belgian designer gems are out of reach even at sale time, but you’re still longing, there’s little Labels Inc, just around the corner, which sells left over-stock and limited edition pieces, arranged according to label.

On the way down the fashion district, take lunch at the Biologisch-Dynamische Bakkerij on Volkstraat 17, an unpretentious organic cafe favoured by the area’s health-conscious style set. Real fashion nerds can play spot-the-designer over their courgette soup.

At the bottom end of the fashion district is Ann Demeulemeester’s town house opposite the museum of fine arts. The incense-laden air surrounds Demeulemeester’s design totems: white feathers, charms and enchanting tailoring. Local wisdom dictates that every woman should own an Ann Demeulemeester suit – partly for the rock attitude, partly because they’re so damned flattering. Fans of the style will be delighted by a guesthouse called Boulevard Leopold, set in a decadent chic 19th-century mansion in the old Jewish quarter. Owners Vincent and Bert wanted it to feel like the home of a beloved grandmother, and have kept prices low (from €95).

Opening a B&B alongside your business became something of a fad in Antwerp during the last decade – for a while it seemed as though every cafe and store had rooms for rent on its upper floors. Two that survive in the central strip around the top of Nationalestraat are Room National and m0851. The former was created by designers Violetta and Vera Pepa, who at the time had a shop on the ground floor. The boutique went, but the rooms remain under different, less chaotic, management. The top-floor room is particularly lovely – it has the best view and most light as well as a bathroom with a wooden Japanese-style tub. M0851, opposite, is run by the owners of the bag shop of the same name, and is a soothing, rather grown-up establishment with classic, sophisticated decor that reflects the accessories collection downstairs.

Over by the cathedral is the recently opened Linnen, a sleek B&B in an 18th-century building renovated and run by the owners of neighbouring lounge bar, Cocktails at Nine. The view from the breakfast room catches the morning light and opens out on to the cathedral roof. Be warned that accommodation gets booked up weeks in advance.

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