48 Hours In: Antwerp

Diamonds, Rubens, waffles and contemporary fashion – indulge in a winter visit to this cosmopolitan Belgian city

Click here for the 48 Hours In... Antwerp map

Why go now?

Belgium's hip and sophisticated second city has a strong Flemish heritage and a noticeable lack of concessions to English-speakers (menus and streets signs are mostly incomprehensible), making it feel a long way from home. Yet it is only three hours from London St Pancras, Eurostar permitting, and offers some of the best in European art – Peter Paul Rubens was a former resident – as well as shopping, food and architecture. Home to the Antwerp Six, a half-dozen fashion students who burst on to the world scene in 1986, the city hosts a thriving fashion and design movement which also makes it an excellent destination for alternative January clothes shopping.

Touch down

A ticket to Brussels on Eurostar (08432 186 186; eurostar.com) automatically entitles you to free onward train travel to any destination in Belgium. Returns from London St Pancras start at £69 (for £189, a Leisure Select ticket treats you to a three-course lunch or dinner). CityJet (0871 666 5050; cityjet.com) flies from Manchester and London City into Antwerp's Deurne airport, 3km south-east of the city. A taxi to the centre costs about €20, or the number 14 bus goes from outside the airport and takes about 25 minutes to the central station.

Get your bearings

Another perk of going by rail is arriving in the magnificent Central Station (1), where trains pull in on three levels and the main marble hall soars up to 44 metres, a metre higher even than Antwerp's cathedral (2). Turn left out of the station: from here the old city fans out ahead of you in a triangle to the river in the west. Straight ahead is the equivalent of Oxford Street, Meir (3), which leads to the cathedral (2) and market square, Grote Markt (4). Despite lying 40 miles from the sea, Antwerp is Europe's second most important port after Rotterdam, although most of the activity is some way out of the centre. Nearer at hand is the city's other great trade, diamonds, which are still bought and sold in the area immediately around the station.

Check in

Antwerp is ideally proportioned for exploration by foot, and there are plenty of good hotels within easy reach of the centre. In the top bracket is Der Witte Lelie (5), or The White Lily at Keizerstraat 16-18 (00 32 3 226 1966; dewittelelie.be), a boutique affair made up of three adjoining white 18th-century houses on a quiet street a couple of blocks north-east of the cathedral (2). Rates start at €195 for a duplex suite excluding breakfast, going up to €525 for the presidential suite that occupies much of the first floor. Not all the 11 suites have a bath, which you want for that money, if only to take advantage of all the Hermes products and giant white bath robes. For a bargain bang in the centre, the Hotel Postiljon (6) at Blauwmoezelstraat 6 (00 32 3 231 7575; hotelpostiljon.be) faces the cathedral (2) and offers rooms from €60 per night, without breakfast. Room 25 has the best view of the cathedral. Both these get quickly booked up so if you go last minute, the Hotel Leopold (7) at Quinten Matsijslei 25 (00 32 3 231 1515; leopoldhotelantwerp.com) is a friendly and comfortable executive hotel overlooking a park. It has 127 rooms with free Wi-Fi and iPod docks and boasts its own chocolate shop in the foyer. Doubles start at €79, room only.

Travel essentials

Day one

Take a view

The best view of Antwerp's dramatic skyline is from the west bank of the Scheldt. First, locate the east entrance to the Sint Anna pedestrian tunnel, close to Sint-Jansvliet (8). From here you can walk 100ft beneath the river for one-third of a mile until you emerge on the west bank beside a tranquil park, full of rusty old buoys and anchors. Across the city you will see Europe's first skyscraper, the art deco Boerentoren – built in 1930 and now home to the Belgian bank KBC.

Lunch on the run

The waffle is the great Belgian snack, available dripping with chocolate or cream from street vendors all over the city. The Van Hecke Waffle House (9), on the corner of Nationalestraat and Franckenstraat (00 32 3 233 1972), has been there since 1905 and has hardly changed. Otherwise Désiré De Lille (10) at Schrijnwerkersstraat 14-18 (00 32 3 232 6226), is a chintzy tea-room with a big waffle and pancake menu. Frituur Number One (11) at Hoogstrat 1 is something of an institution for its generous portions of French fries, available nearly all day and night.

Take a hike

Start in Groenplats (12), Antwerp's main square and transport hub, at the centre of which is a statue of the city's most celebrated citizen, Peter Paul Rubens. Head north-west to the Cathedral (2) and through the Grote Markt (4) – a much prettier square, with a row of tall, steeply gabled guild houses, typically Flemish with their leaded windows and golden statues. They were lucky to survive heavy bombing during the war, which explains the less attractive modern developments as you wander north to the Vleeshuis (13) – a beautiful castle-like structure that used to house the butchers' guild, and even an abattoir. Alternating red bricks and white sandstone make it a good example of the city's "streaky bacon" architecture. From here head down a flight of old brick steps to the west bank of the river for a stroll along the raised terraces, the Wandelterras (14). To the north you can see the giant warehouses and cranes of the port. South takes you through the eclectic antique and design shops of Kloosterstraat (15).

Keep going to reach the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten (00 32 3 238 78 09; kmska.be) at Plaatsnijdersstraat 2 (16), a big classical building housing Antwerp's chief art collection of Belgian paintings. Ponder the symbolism of the apple and the egg precariously poised on the roof and admire the constantly emptying and refilling fountain installation by Cristina Iglesias outside if you don't have time to go in. Open Tues-Sat 10am-5pm; Sunday 10am-6pm. Admission €6.

Window shopping

Antwerp is crammed with clothes shops, from the big everyday names lining the main drag of Meir (3) to high-end labels such as Gucci and Hermes on Schuttershofstraat (17) and around Komedieplaats (18). Dries Van Noten, the most famous of the Antwerp Six, has his flagship store at Nationalstraat 16 (19).

An aperitif

The Belgians – whisper it – do low-key café culture better than the French: the service is friendly and smoking is, amazingly, still allowed in bars and cafés. And then of course there are the beers: for authentic Trappist beer in a jolly tavern visit Paters Vaetje (20) at Blauwmoezelstraat 1 (00 32 3 231 8476), opposite the cathedral (2), where they also serve (oddly) hard-boiled eggs. A couple of doors down there's Witzli-Poetzli (21), an understated joint favoured by writers, philosophers and other Bohemians. Even more no-nonsense is Bar de Kat (22) at Wolstraat 22, an old-fashioned music-free oasis where locals drop in to while away an hour or three over a beer and a bowl of soup, watching the world go by outside.

Dining with the locals

For mussels, rich fish soup and hearty portions of excellent fresh fish, try Fiskebar (23) at Marnixplaats 12-13 (00 32 3 257 1357; fiskebar.be). There's no formal menu and the catch is fresh and different every day.

Day two

A walk in the park

The Stadspark (24) is a pretty spot with some wild white rabbits and, in the north corner, a skatepark where kids show off their latest moves. A more memorable option is the zoo (25) (00 32 3 202 4540; zooantwerpen.be). There are 4,000 animals including elephants and hippos, and a set of scales that tells you what animal you most closely resemble in weight (I was a goat). Open daily 10am-4.45pm, hours vary later in the year; €18.50.

Out to brunch

't Brantyser (26), Hendrik Conscienceplein 7 (00 32 3 233 1833; brantyser.be) is a good brasserie that serves hearty dishes like steak-frites (€19) and croque monsieur (€6.50). Beamed and cosy inside, it overlooks the Baroque church of St Carolus Borromeus, which once housed 39 paintings by Rubens; sadly they were lost in a fire in 1718.

Go to church

You cannot leave Antwerp without visiting the Cathedral (2), not so much for the building which has undergone countless ravages and remodellings but for two of Rubens' most important and expressive pictures – The Raising of the Cross and The Deposition, each dominating an aisle either side of the nave. Entry is €5 from 1-4pm on Sundays (Monday to Friday 10am-5pm, Saturday 10am-3pm). Services are at 9am, 10.30am, noon and 5pm.

Write a postcard

Be inspired by the art school where Van Gogh studied, the thriving Koninklijke Academie voor Schone Kunsten (27) at Mutsaertstraat 21 – which, although not open to the public, is one of Europe's oldest art schools. Equally striking is the glass box on De Coninckplein, the perfect cafe for postcard writing called Kubus (28), popular with academics and students taking a break from the adjacent library. Open 10am-2.30pm (10am-8.30pm Mon–Fri).

Cultural afternoon

Most visitors will want to tick off the Rubens House Museum (29) at Wapper 9-11 (00 32 3 201 1555; rubenshuis.be); open 10am-5pm daily except Monday; €8. While it does have a few pretty pictures, almost none of the house is as it was during the 25 years the painter lived here. Included in the ticket is the Mayer van den Bergh Museum (30) at Lange Gasthuisstraat 19 (00 32 3 232 4237; same opening times). Among the many treasures collected by Fritz Mayer Van Den Bergh are some fine tapestries and a striking picture by Breugel.

For a more authentic insight into late-16th- century life head for the Museum Plantin-Moretus (31) at Vrijdagmarkt 22 (00 32 3 221 1450; museum.antwerpen.be; same times; €6) the home of one of the earliest European publishing houses which has remained unmolested to this day and is chock full of 16th-century books, furniture, maps and pictures, including 18 potraits by Rubens.

The icing on the cake

Chocolate is, rightly, taken very seriously here, which makes souvenir hunting easy. Günther Watté (32) is a slick chocolate cafe at Steenhouwersvest 30 (00 32 3 293 58 94; open 1–6pm on Sundays and 10.30am-6.30pm Mon–Sat), which attracts connoisseurs of both coffee and hand-made chocolates, the only items it sells. You can see the chocolates being made by an elderly couple through a window at the back and then sample a couple of dozen, before making your final selection to take home.

Suggested Topics
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor - OTE £20,000 Uncapped

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Guru Careers: Membership Administrator

    £23K: Guru Careers: We're seeking an experienced Membership Administrator, to ...

    Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

    £32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

    Day In a Page

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor