A short stay in... Antwerp

Belgium is not boring, honest. Gareth Lloyd visited its second city and found a charming medieval haven, boasting 70 per cent of the world's diamond trade and 2,500 bars. Food, history, art and chocolates are all taken seriously, and, yes, it's even got a demure red-light district

WHY GO THERE?

Many first-time visitors to Antwerp are surprised to find it a relaxed and charming place with a medieval heart. Belgium's second city is more lovable than the capital, Brussels, and can boast of being the birthplace of Rubens, having 70 per cent of the world's diamond trade and a fair portion of its finest cuisine. With its thousands of bars, its river cruises and fine museums, as well as its red-light district, this compact city would seem to have something for everyone. You'll wonder why you had never been before.

GETTING THERE

The national airline of Flanders, VLM (0171-476 6677), offers regular direct daily flights from London City Airport. The one-hour flight costs just pounds 105 return, with check-in 20 minutes before departure. British Airways offers a direct service from Gatwick for around the same price. Eurostar (0345 303030) trains go as far as Brussels, where passengers must change for the short hop to Antwerp. The journey from Waterloo is three and a half hours and costs from pounds 89 return. Sally Line (0990 595522) runs ferries between Ramsgate and Ostend. Sally sails five times a day and charges from pounds 55 for a car with up to five passengers.

GETTING AROUND

The city is well served by its bus and tram network, which runs from at least 6am to 11pm. Transport maps are available from the city tourist office. Bus 16 links the city's Centraal train station with the airport every 15 minutes or so, covering all departures and arrivals. Trams 2 and 15 travel between Diamont metro station (just outside the Centraal train station) to Groenplaats, in the heart of the old city. City transport tickets cost Bfr40 (65p) and allow unlimited travel for one hour. Most of the main sights are concentrated within the old city and are best explored on foot.

WHAT TO SEE & DO

Many of the museums and galleries have excellent children's packs and suitcases to counteract the boredom factor. Walking and bar tours are available through the tourist office. The most popular is the self-guided "City Walk: Number 2", costing Bfr30 (48p), which takes in most of the sights. One of the most fun is the guided tour of some of the city's 2,500 or so bars, in which you can sample some of the most popular and unusual beers. Bar tours are organised upon request and cost Bfr2,500 (pounds 40) for any number of participants.

Rubenshuis (Tues-Sun 10am-5pm; adults Bfr75/pounds 1.25, children under 12 free, closed until May). The 17th-century home and studio of the artist was later used as a school, a prison and a warehouse, before gradually falling into disrepair. In 1937 the city bought what was little more than a pile of rubble and set about restoring it.

Boat trips (until 1 May Sat & Sun only, after 1 May daily; 11.30am, 1pm, 2.30pm, 4pm; adults Bfr25/pounds 4; children Bfr150/pounds 2.50). A one-and-a-half-hour tour up and down the Schelde river offers a relaxing way to take in the cityscape and Antwerp's huge dockland area, which has traditionally formed the basis of the city's wealth. In summer there are romantic early-evening tours (see Information).

Stadhuis (tours Mon, Tues, Wed, Fri 9am-3pm, Sat 12am-3pm; Bfr30/48p; 220 8211). Completed in 1564, Antwerp's town hall is widely recognised as one of the most important buildings of the northern Renaissance. Tours can be arranged through the tourist office.

The red-light district, centred on the streets around St Pauluskerk, is not nearly as intimidating as some guidebooks would have you believe. It's like a miniature version of Amsterdam, with improbable shop-window displays of scantily clad women and transvestites of all shapes, colours and sizes. Many locals come here to take their early-evening stroll.

Onze Lieve Vrouwe Cathedral (Mon-Fri 10am-5pm, Sat 10am-3pm, Sun 1-4pm; Bfr60/pounds 1). This is one of Belgium's finest Gothic churches and boasts one of the world's tallest Gothic towers. Although fire and vandals have taken their toll on this 16th-century building, it still has some stunning stained glass windows, four works by Rubens, and an amazing 3D painting on the back of the altar.

Plantin-Moretus museum (Tues-Sun 10am-5pm, closed Mon; adults Bfr100/pounds 1.65, children Bfr50/80p). Here you can see the world's oldest printing presses, dating from the 16th and 17th centuries. The museum is also home to some of the earliest printed books, produced in many different languages for the wealthy patrons of Christophe Plantin.

Diamond museum (daily 10am-5pm; free). At least 70 per cent of the world trade in diamonds takes place in Antwerp, so if you want an explanation on how they are formed, mined and used, this should be the best place to come. Sadly the museum does not quite live up to its potential and has a dated, 1970s feel. The section on the history of diamond trading in Antwerp is the most interesting.

Museum voor Schone Kunsten (Tues-Sun 10am-5pm; adults Bfr180/pounds 3, children free). This is, quite simply, one of Belgium's finest art collections. Along with many fine Flemish works by the likes of Jan van Eyck, Memling and Matsys, there are plenty of pieces by Rubens, including the outstanding Adoration of the Magi. The comprehensive modern Belgian art collection is also well worth some time.

WHERE TO STAY

Whatever your budget, booking a hotel room through the city tourist office is a good idea (see Information). It has special hotel deals with savings of up to 50 per cent, even on weekend rates.

Hotel Rubenshof (Amerikalei 115; 231 4795). This budget option has been converted from a 19th-century town house, just 20 minutes' stroll from the old town centre. Singles/doubles/triples cost from Bfr1100/1900/2400 (pounds 18/30/40) with breakfast.

Hotel Postiljon (Blauwmoezelsstraat 6; 231 7575). Being perfectly situated just opposite the cathedral in the heart of the old town helps make up for the size of the single rooms. Spotless singles/doubles/ quadruples cost from Bfr1000/2000/4400 (pounds 16/32/71).

Antwerp Hilton (Groenplaats; 204 1212). This is the finest hotel in the city, and has all the extra trimmings you'd expect. With the special weekend rates, deluxe singles and doubles cost Bfr5500 (pounds 90), including breakfast.

SHOPPING

It would be a shame to leave Antwerp without some diamonds and chocolates, or at least a few beers. Don't be tempted by the cut-price jewellery shops along Pelikaan Straat; unless you're an expert there's no way of gauging the quality of the workmanship. One of the most respected diamond retailers is Diamondland (Appel- mansstraat 33A), where you can also watch the diamonds being graded, cut and set. All pieces come with a certificate.

Chocoholics can get a fix at any one of many confectioners dotted around the city. Ovidas (Meir 13-15) is a small place that's a cut above the rest. It doesn't go in for elaborate displays, but there always seems to be a small queue of well-heeled customers waiting to be served. The GB supermarket, in the basement of the shopping centre next to Groenplaats, has a great selection of Belgian beers at bargain prices.

FOOD & DRINK

You'll find the locals take their food seriously, and don't seem to think twice about splashing out on a fantastic slap-up meal. But having said that, lowly but tasty "mussels and chips" is practically the national dish.

Drinks worth sampling include the local sickly sweet elixir d'Anvers and, of course, the 350 or so delicious Belgian beers. The most notable are the abbey-brewed Trappist beers (strong and dark) and the sweet or sour lambics, which are fermented using wild, airborne bacteria.

Oude Koornmarkt, a street close to the cathedral, is the best place to tuck into some mussels and chips with mayonnaise. The locals call this place Pitta straat due to the number of ethnic fast-food places, which become a welcome refuge for pubbers and clubbers after dark.

Het Elfde Gebod (Torfbrug 10, next to the cathedral) means The Eleventh Commandment. It's a cosy place, despite the dozens of staring statues of saints and angels. The menu of the day costs just Bfr600 (pounds 10) and includes vegetarian options.

De Foyer (Komedieplaats, inside the old theatre; 233 5517) is a stylish semi- circular cafe with lots and lots of plants. If you can't make it for the Bfr690 (pounds 11.25) three-course lunch time buffet, at least come for the afternoon tea, where tea and coffee are accompanied by a delicious pastry buffet costing Bfr350 (pounds 5.70).

Dock's Cafe (Jordaenskaai 7; 226 6360) is a popular restaurant with baroque- industrial architecture. Reckon on around Bfr1,150 (pounds 18) per person for three courses, before all the drinks.

La Rade (Ernest Van Dijckkaai 8; 233 3737) is an exclusive place, with attentive service, an extensive wine cellar and walls covered in antique Spanish leather. Specialities include grilled turbot with a dijon mustard and mayonnaise sauce. A three- course meal will cost around Bfr2700 (pounds 45) without wine.

NIGHTLIFE

Most of Antwerp's nightlife is based around its bars and cafes, which close when the last customer leaves. If you fancy making a night of it there are plenty of different clubs to choose from, with a beer costing anywhere between Bfr60-120 (pounds 1-2). But if your tastes don't run to pubs and clubs, or the brothels of the red-light district, check the Cultural Bulletin for more highbrow art theatre and music events (see Information).

De Muze (Korte Koepoorstraat 15) rates as one of the trendiest places in town, with a young jazz-oriented crowd.

Swing Cafe (Suikerrui 13-15) is the place you're most likely to encounter some spontaneous jazz. Audience participation is welcomed but not obligatory.

Pelgrom (Pelgrimstraat 15) is a cavernous candle-lit cellar, where customers sit at beer-hall benches and tables, selecting drinks from a large and tempting menu.

De Kulminator Bar (Vleminckveld 32-34) stocks 350 speciality beers, which make it well worth the five-minute walk just south of the centre.

Le Beau Zoo Le Bo Zo (Godefriduskaai 50; free entry) has an easygoing atmosphere, playing an eclectic mix of funk, big beats and mainstream.

CURRENCY

The Belgian franc (Bfr) is around Bfr61 to pounds 1. The most convenient of the foreign exchange bureaux around town is the Wissel Exchange on Grote Markt (open until late seven days a week).

PACKAGES

Belgian Travel Service (01992 456156) offers a range of package deals to Antwerp; self-drive from pounds 102, Eurostar from pounds 165 and flying from pounds 180. All prices are per person, based on two people sharing a standard en suite hotel room for two nights. Crystal Holidays (0181-241 4000), Eurotours (0181-289 8889) and Travelscene (0181-427 8800) offer similar deals.

INFORMATION

The Belgian Tourist Office (29 Princes Street, London W1R 7RG; 0891 887799 - calls 50p per min peak rate, 45p per min at all other times) is a useful source of general information on Antwerp and Flanders. Antwerp Tourist Information Office (Grote Markt 15; 231 1937) offers a friendly and efficient information service, supplying maps, booking hotels, and handing out plenty of free leaflets. This is also the place to find the English language Cultural Bulletin (published every six months), which has details on the city's many exhibitions and events. To dial Antwerp from the UK, dial 00 32 3, followed by the number.

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