I HAD THREE OBJECTIVES during my two-day stay in Antwerp: Eat a waffle, find the best moules frites and track down a pair of shoes I’d been coveting. Conveniently, Antwerp proved the ideal location to do all three, as the city is the country’s shopping and fashion hub and is known for its food and beverage offerings, as is all of Belgium.
Antwerp also proved the perfect spot to visit with friends. Begin by acquainting yourself with the city, easily navigable by foot. The walkability of Antwerp in part led to the city’s most recent green initiative, enacted Feb. 1, 2017. In an effort to eliminate soot and fine particle pollution, the City of Antwerp now excludes the most polluting vehicles from driving in certain areas, making the city center an official low-emission zone.
In the historic heart of Antwerp a first stop should be the Cathedral of Our Lady, recognizable from many points throughout the city. After 169 years of construction, it’s no surprise the cathedral is the architectural gem of Antwerp, boasting the title of highest Gothic building in the Low Countries. And if you find yourself without time to visit another iconic Antwerp site, Rubenshuis, the former home and studio of artist Peter Paul Rubens and now a museum, you can view some of the artist’s works, including Elevation of the Cross, at the cathedral. Stroll the surroundings to get a feel for Antwerp’s historic charms.
Fashion and Antwerp are intrinsically linked; the city boasts one of the world’s oldest academies providing one of the most renowned fashion degrees. Many of the world’s acclaimed designers and fashionistas have passed through here to design, innovate, shop, study and learn more about the international fashion scene. Enthusiasts can begin their education at ModeMuseum; twice a year, a new exhibition debuts. The museum’s collection boasts 25,000 pieces, and the expositions aim to tell the deeper story behind fashion trends, themes and designers.
Put your education to use at any number of stores in Antwerp’s seven fashion districts. MoMu is located in the aptly named Fashion District, as is Nationalestraat, considered Antwerp’s most fashionable avenue. Start here and base your next decision on your group’s shopping interests. For antiques, collectibles and the Grand Bazar shopping center, stay in the historic section near Groenplaats. My shoe quest led me to European chains housed in Rococo buildings in the Meir, also the site of Stadsfeestzaal, a shopping area in the restored city festival hall. For a quieter stroll punctuated by boutiques boasting top brands, enjoy the Quartier Latin.
One of my other indulgences was met in Wilde Zee, five pedestrian shopping streets for foodies and those seeking hip, trendy clothing and shoes. I nibbled my waffle while finding the perfect boxes of Belgian chocolate to take home as gifts.
The Station District offers a myriad of shopping pleasures to suit a variety of tastes. Find Asian specialties in Chinatown or design delights in Designcenter de Winkelhaak. But the true gem of the area, if you will, is the Diamond District. The diamond trade in Antwerp dates back several centuries, and today more than 1,700 diamond companies and four diamond exchanges make their homes here.
The concept stores and design products on showcase in Het Zuid provide a wonderful jumping-off point for your group’s next stops: Antwerp’s world-class museums. Again, a range of options exists to meet any of your friends’ tastes. We enjoyed “Energy Flash. The Rave Movement,” a special exhibition at M HKA, Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp. Time did not allow a visit to Museum aan de Stroom, as recognizable for its exterior and architecture as it is for its immense collection of artwork, utensils and other objects, numbering nearly 500,000 items. Consider MAS my No. 1 mission on my return visit to Antwerp.
The Red Star Line Museum tells the story of Antwerp from 1873 to 1935, when the city served as the starting point of a new life for more than 2 million people traveling from Antwerp to New York on Red Star Line. More an archive of reports, testimonies and experiences, the museum continues to seek stories from the time period.
For a smaller city, Antwerp offers a seemingly endless list of options. Specifically suited to groups or families looking to sample a little bit of everything, the purchase of an Antwerp City Card, available in 24-, 48- or 72-hour increments, entitles users to free admission to a number of the city’s best attractions as well as unlimited access to public transportation.
As I’d already fulfilled my quest to taste a waffle and share moules frites with friends, I was only too pleased to indulge in a few of Antwerp’s local products. To quench my thirst, a visit to De Koninck Brewery was in order. Antwerp’s last remaining city brewery is among its oldest, with the second-oldest trade registry number in the city and an illustrious history cleverly and interestingly told in the brewery’s accompanying museum. End the day with a Bolleke Keuning, served in the signature Bolleke glass.
While shopping — especially for diamonds — can prove many a girl’s best friend in Antwerp, you’re in Belgium, so chocolate can, too. And in Antwerp the specialty is “Little Hands from Antwerp,” considered a symbol of Antwerp as a harbor city — or, as legend has it, a symbol of the triumph of good over evil. Giant Druon Antigoon guarded a bridge on the river Scheldt, demanding a high toll from passing ships. If they refused, he chopped off one hand and threw it in the river. He was finally defeated by a young Roman soldier, Brabo, who threw one of Druon’s hands into the river. Today the chocolates serve as a celebration of Antwerp’s folklore and the perfect sweet finish to a visit to this small but legendary city.
Antwerp Info to Go
Brussels Airport is the main gateway for international flights into Belgium. From Brussels, trains depart regularly to Antwerp. The 30-minute ride arrives at Antwerp’s beautiful, cathedral-like Centraal Station, on the edge of the city center. Antwerp also connects via the Thalys high-speed network to Paris and Amsterdam.
Where to Stay in Antwerp
HILTON ANTWERP OLD TOWN Conveniently located in the heart of historic Antwerp, executive-level guests enjoy the Executive Lounge and private roof terrace with breakfast, complimentary snacks and drinks. Groenplaats 32 $$$
LEOPOLD HOTEL ANTWERP Eco-conscious travelers should consider Leopold Hotel Antwerp, near popular attractions and boasting Green Key certification and environmentally friendly accommodations. Quinten Matsijslei 25 $$
RADISSON BLU ASTRID HOTEL With a setting near Antwerp’s fashion and diamond shopping districts, this property offers 247 guestrooms and suites with extended-stay options available. Koningin Astridplein 7B $$$
Restaurants in Antwerp
BRASSERIE DE HERK Tucked away in a picturesque alley near Antwerp’s Oude Koornmarkt and Groenplaats, the authentic eatery is recommended for its classic dish, moules frites. Reyndersstraat 33 $$
THE JANE Housed in a former chapel, the Michelin 2-starred Jane shines brightly, even amid Antwerp’s other Michelin-starred restaurants. Fittingly, the motto here is, “Food is our religion.” Paradeplein 1 $$$$
RAS The architecture of this restaurant scenically situated on the Scheldt rivals the beauty of the plated cuisine. Enjoy lunch or dinner either indoors or alfresco and enjoy wonderful views. Ernest van Dijckkai 37 $$$
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