Travel: Give me a break: Antwerp on pounds 250

It is noon on Friday and you are in central London in desperate need of a weekend getaway. Clare Thomson prescribes a Belgian break

Down payment

Fly Air Flanders (0171-646 0755) from City Airport to Deurne. The trip takes 50 minutes and a weekend return will set you back pounds 105. A 20-minute bus ride (50 BF) brings you to the bustling heart of Antwerp. If you simply must arrive in style, catch the Eurostar (0123 3617575) from Waterloo to Brussels and a train to Antwerp Central, a stunningly flamboyant neo- Baroque station-cum-cathedral of commerce. The three-and-a-half-hour journey costs pounds 75 (if you reserve a week in advance) or pounds 119, plus 250 BF (around pounds 4) for a return ticket to Antwerp.

Instant briefing

Head straight for the tourist office in the historic town (15 Grote Markt, telephone 03/232.01.03). It's a 10-minute walk from the bus and railway stations up the crowded central shopping street, the Meir. Grab a map and the Antwerp Bulletin, a free cultural listings magazine, or buy the English-language weekly The Bulletin for up-to-date arts and events listings.

Rest assured

Cash-strapped romantics should book into the 17th-century Postiljon hotel on Blauwemoezelstraat (03/232.14.13), a cobbled, bar-lined street facing the cathedral and within spitting distance of the Grote Markt. Prices are low (about pounds 35 for a double and pounds 17 for a single room, both with shower but with shared toilet) and won't make single travellers feel like a burden on society.

If the prospect of clanging cathedral bells strikes a discordant note, try the cosy Pension Cammerpoorte near the De Wilde Zee shopping district, where sleek boutiques offer the best of the city's celebrated designers: Dries Van Noten, Martin Margiela, Ann Demeulemeester and Raf Simons. Single rooms start at about pounds 31, doubles at pounds 39.

Must see

Must buy

For 200BF (about pounds 3), snap up pioneering Renaissance printer Christope Plantin's sonnet "Joys of the World" printed on a 16th-century press. It's available at the leather-panelled, marble-floored Plantin-Moretus Museum, which has a cobbled central courtyard, maps by explorer Mercator and a Bible once owned by Good King Wenceslas.

Your budget may not allow you to invest in diamonds, although prices here are the lowest in the world (over 70 per cent of the world's diamonds pass through the city). But you can easily afford a box of chocolate diamonds (for those with "good taste but no money to waste"). Or choose from nearly 300 Belgian beers and buy a credibility-enhancing vintage beer glass from the Sunday junk market on St Jansvliet. The strong pound means penny-pinching fashion victims can splash out on a Dries Van Noten T-shirt.

Must eat

Plan your weekend around brunch at the renovated 18th-century Bourla theatre cafe, De Foyer (03/233.55.17), which has an ornate high-ceilinged brasserie, rich crimson curtains and attentive, white-aproned waiters. Reservations for the feast, which includes breads, fruits, cheese, charcuterie, bacon, sausages and cardiac desserts, should be made three weeks in advance.

Local eating habits would make Gargantua blanch. Try earthy specialities like rabbit or beef stewed in beer, or fresh fish dishes - lobster soup (kreeft soep), eel (paling) or mussels (mosselen) - opt for a cosy Flemish tavern or hip, minimalist decor at the ship-shaped Zuiderterass, by the river. Wijngardstraat and its neighbourhood are packed with fashionable, inexpensive dining delights. Zout & Peper, with African-style painted walls and the ubiquitous sparkling chandelier, offers a generous 995 BF menu including an aperitif and a two-glass carafe of wine. Sticky, warm waffles, chocolate hands and frieten provide sustenance between sights, or try lobster soup at the Van Bladel stall in De Wilde Zee.

Night moves

Antwerp has around 2,500 bars, but beer-lovers won't want to leave Kulminator, which has more than 500 beers on the menu, including vintage Trappist beers and a selection of Seventies bottled English ales (try a 1978 Fuller's Golden Pride).

Trendy locals hang out on the filled-in canal square between the Waalse Kaai and Vlaamse Kaai, south of the centre. Try the mellow Le Routier, Bar Tabac (Gallic-tinged inverted snobbery with chipped chairs and seedy lighting) or The Heming Way (heaving and sociable). Check out the glistening vats at restaurant/microbrewery Pakhuis, and try the excellent Antwerp Blond brew while you're there. Kaai Man attracts a self-conscious young crowd who lounge about on old-fashioned sofas to a soundtrack of hip-hop and chemical beats, leaving the frantically grooving bar staff to create the atmosphere. For undemanding clubbing, try Cafe Local, where the bar is a pseudo-Cuban coffee-and-sugar-lined warehouse setting and the music is non-stop garage-lite (hardcore clubbers should try Cafe d'Anvers, in the red-light district). Cafe Hopper attracts top-class jazz acts, but if you'd rather try traditional Flemish oom-pah, brave the gaze of elderly locals at the riverside Beveren bar.

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