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
A survey carried out by Sainsbury's Finance found 20% of new university students have never washed their own clothes, while 14% cannot even boil an egg
science...and the results are not as pointless as that sounds
Dominique Alderweireld, also known as Dodo de Saumure, is the owner of a string of brothels in Belgium
newsPhilip Sweeney gets the inside track on France's trial of the year
Cumberbatch was speaking on US television when he made the comment (Getty)
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge, Travis Barker and Mark Hoppus of Blink-182 pictured in 2011.
musicBassist Mark Hoppus and drummer Travis Barker say Tom Delonge is 'disrespectful and ungrateful'
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'
tvBroadchurch series 2, episode 4, review - contains spoilers
cyclingDisgraced cycling star says people will soon forgive his actions
Britain's Prince Philip attends a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace in London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Sheeran will play three sell-out gigs at Wembley Stadium in July
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Lena Dunham posing for an official portrait at Sundance 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Bradford City's reward for their memorable win over Chelsea is a trip to face either Sunderland or Fulham (Getty)
Lars Andersen took up archery in his mid thirties
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: Tour Drivers - UK & European

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join a is a...

    Old Royal Naval College: ORNC Visitor Experience Volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary work: Old Royal Naval College: Join our team of friendly volu...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service / Sales Assistant

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This airport parking organisation are looking...

    Recruitment Genius: PCV Bus Drivers

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Do you enjoy bus driving and are looking for ...

    Day In a Page

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea