A tasty experience

Few places will feed your mind and stomach quite like Antwerp, says David Orkin


WHERE?

WHERE?

Few places in Europe reward an arrival by train as much as Antwerp. The building work on the magnificent Central railway station is almost finished, which means that once again you feel aggrandised merely by stepping off the train. Antwerp may defer to Brussels in size and status, but its terminus compensates. And this is, of course, merely the beginning. The core of the city, between the railway and the mighty River Scheldt, is deeply cultured and profoundly beautiful.

Less romantic travellers can arrive instead at Antwerp's Deurne airport, just 5km from the city centre; a taxi to the city centre costs around €18 (£13) but the airport is also served by the number 16 bus (€1.50/£1), which will take you to the magnificent Centraal Station. This is where those coming by train from Brussels, 60km away, will arrive.

From the station, walk west along de Keyserlei, which leads into Meir, the principal shopping street. You are now very close to the Old Town of which Groenplaats and the adjacent Grote Markt constitute the spiritual centre. The latter is the location of the tourist office (Grote Markt 15; 00 32 3 232 0103; www.visitantwerpen.be; open 10am-5.45pm daily).

The Old Town and many points of interest are central and easily explored on foot, but make the effort to go a bit further out to see equally fascinating but less-visited areas new and old. Buy a one-day ticket, which for €5 (£3.60) gives unlimited travel on Antwerp's trams and buses. Visit the Zuid (south) area, with three museums, art galleries, auction houses and several good choices for wining and dining. Two other areas that have been reawakened from decades - even centuries - of slumber are the Belle Epoque district of Zurenborg, or the once- derelict, now-happening Het Eilandje ("The Little Island"). The latter, named because it is almost surrounded by waterways, lies north of Antwerp's historic core. It's now home to the Royal Ballet of Flanders and, moored alongside Het Pomphuis (see Five for Food and Drink, below), the Ark, a multipurpose venue that was established in 1993 during Antwerp's time as European Cultural Capital.

Traditionally, finding a room in Antwerp used to be far from simple and at times there is still a shortage of beds. However a number of interesting B&Bs have opened recently to ease the burden slightly - many have just a handful of rooms. If you like space, try The Big Sleep, Kromme Elleboogstraat 4 (00 32 47 48 49 565; www.intro04.be/thebigsleep/), set in a quiet backstreet near the river; €65 (£47) for doubles with breakfast. De Witte Lelie at Keizerstraat 16-18 (00 32 3 226 19 66; www.dewittelelie.be) has been a hotel since the 16th century. There are 10 rooms in two adjoining gabled houses; the double room rate of €265 (£190) includes a copious breakfast.

For style just a block from the river, try the former Customs Office, 't Sandt at Zand 17-19 (00 32 3 232 93 90; www.hotel-sandt.be). This neo-Rococo building was declared a protected monument in 1981; doubles from €145 (£103) including breakfast. Finally, the 15-room Hotel Firean at Karel Oomsstraat 6 (00 32 3 237 02 60; www.hotelfirean.com) offers comfort - and an excellent breakfast - in a 1929 Art Deco mansion a short tram ride from the centre. Doubles from €157 (£113).

WHY?

Antwerp has long been one of the world's major diamond centres. The city is intensely proud of its local hero, Peter Paul Rubens. And if superb museums and galleries, vibrant nightlife, world-class shopping plus excellent food and drink were not enough, it is also a fashion capital.

In the mid-1980s, some graduates from the fashion department of the city's Royal Fine Arts Academy became overnight sensations after exhibiting at the British Design Show. The creative haute couture spark is now evident not just in boutiques but also in a host of chic restaurants and hip galleries.

Images, both still and moving, are celebrated at the Photography Museum (00 32 3 242 93 00; www.fotomuseum.be), at Waalse Kaai 47; Tuesday to Sunday 10am-6pm, €6 (£4.30). An exhibition on Irish photographer Paul Seawright runs until 12 June.

Roma (Turnhoutsebaan 286; 00 32 3 235 04 90; www.deroma.be), a cinema dating from 1928 is a major venue for concerts and films. The performance calendar features the best of Belgian classical music, pop and rock, world music and jazz.

Until 26 June there is an exhibition of bronzes from India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Tibet at the Ethnographic Museum (Suikerrui 19; 00 32 3 220 86 00, museum.antwerpen.be/etnografisch_museum).

The influence of the marrying of African and Western European influences on fashion is explored until 14 August at Beyond Desire, an exhibition at MoMu (see What?, below).

For fresh air and the smell of the sea - or at least the River Scheldt - watch over 200 yachts participate in the Antwerp Race ( www.antwerprace.be) this 1 October.

WHAT?

The obvious place to start a pilgrimage to the Old Master, Peter Paul Rubens, is the Rubenshuis (see Wow!, right): the other Rubens "don't miss" is the Cathedral of Our Lady in Grote Markt in the heart of the Old Town which displays two of the artist's most spectacular religious paintings, The Descent From The Cross and The Raising Of The Cross, and charges all visitors €2 (£1.40); tourist visits are discouraged during masses. The tourist office sells a Rubens Walk booklet for €4 (£2.80).

More of Rubens' work - and that of many other greats such as Frans Hals and Auguste Rodin - is on show at the palatial Museum of Fine Arts (00 32 3 238 78 09, museum.antwerpen.be/kmska); open 10am-5pm daily except Monday (Sunday to 6pm), admission €6 (£4.40); the current exhibition featuring the work of Brueghel ends on 28 August.

To take in some of the city's Golden Age architecture, start at the town hall, which is open to the public for tours at 11am, 2pm and 3pm, daily except Thursday and Sunday. At the end of Braderijstraat, off Grote Markt, is the 500-year-old Butchers' Hall, the only building in Antwerp that still belongs to a guild.

One of the many titles that Antwerp proudly used in the 16th century was de triomfelycke coopstad, which roughly translates as "the city renowned for shopping". Today this still rings true. The fashion district's main thoroughfare is Nationalestraat but fashionistas should also check out the Wilde Zee neighbourhood, around Huidevetterstraat and Lange Gasthuisstraat. Kammenstraat features an eclectic mix of posh boutiques and streetwear stores. Fashion is also well to the fore at ModeNatie at Nationalestraat 28. This is home to the Flanders Fashion Institute (FFI), the Fashion Academy and the fashion museum known as MoMu (00 32 3 470 2770; www.momu.be), which hosts exhibitions on the history of fashion design; it opens 10am-6pm daily except Sunday and Monday, admission €6 (£4.40). The complex also houses the popular café-restaurant Brasserie National.

In the area known as the Latin Quarter near the Museum of Fine Arts are upmarket chic boutiques. Leopoldstraat is good for antiques. Go to Volkstraat for lighting, home decor and Art Nouveau. Kloosterstraat is a good place to hunt for bric-a-brac.

Burie, at Korte Gasthuisstraat 3, is arguably one of the best of the many chocolate shops here. Meanwhile, Antwerp's number-one secondhand shop is Francis, 14 Steenhouwersvest (00 32 3 288 94 33; www.francis.be). More traditional is the city's flea market, the Vrijdagmarkt, which has been held every Friday just west of the cathedral since the 16th century.

Find time too for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Leuvenstraat 32 (00 32 3 260 99 99; www.muhka.be; Tuesday to Sunday, 10am-5pm; €5/£3.60) known almost universally as MUHKA, and housed in a converted grain silo and adjoining warehouse in the Zuid.

FIVE FOR FOOD AND DRINK

De Vagant, (Reynderstraat 25; 00 32 3 233 15 38; www.devagant.be) has more than 200 types of genever - potent Flemish gin - including several fruit-flavoured varieties. Snacks are served, too.

Invincible (Pacificatiestraat 3 (00 32 3 294 48 78; www.restaurantinvincible.be) is probably the city's best wine bar; food is also served here. It is closed on Sundays and Mondays.

Dome sur Mer (Arendstraat 1; 00 32 3 281 74 33) is a cheaper but not noticeably poorer sister to the nearby Dome restaurant. The design is contemporary and the menu favours seafood.

Het Pomphuis (Siberiastraat z/n; 00 32 3 770 86 25; www.hetpomphuis.be): a converted Art Nouveau dry-dock pump house. It has great views of the port and food to match. Inside are old posters of the great days of sea travel. In the summer, sit on the outdoor terrace.

De Kleine Zavel (Stoofstraat 2; 00 32 3 231 96 91). Enjoy excellent seafood in traditional surroundings in this restaurant opposite the Hotel t'Sandt.

ROCK CITY: ANTWERP'S DIAMONDS

Antwerp's association with diamonds began in the late 15th century when a new technique to polish and shape the gems was evolved here. Today, seven out of 10 of the world's rough diamonds and half the polished diamonds change hands within the boundaries of the world's largest diamond centre. It spreads out along the Pelikaanstraat, Vestingstraat, Rijfstraat and Hoveniersstraat axis near the Centraal Station. Within an area of less than one square kilometre you can find around 1,500 diamond companies and four diamond exchanges.

A good place to find out more is the Diamond Museum, at Koningin Astridplein 19-23 (00 32 3 202 48 90; www.diamant-museum.be); open 10am-5pm daily except Wednesday; admission €6 (£4.40). Until 19 June the museum will display a rarely seen collection including permanent and "loaned" stones and jewellery.

If you're looking to buy diamond jewellery you could try your luck at the establishments along Pelikaansstraat. Reckon on around £2,000 for a one-carat stone. To be safe, look for businesses displaying window stickers marked ADJA (Antwerp Diamond Jewellers Association). Check that your purchase will come with an HRD certificate - an internationally recognised classification issued by the Diamond High Council in Antwerp, which grades a diamond according to the four Cs: clarity, carat (weight), colour and cut.

At Krochmal and Lieber at Lange Herentalsestraat 29 (00 32 3 233 21 69; www.krochmal-lieber.com) visitors can see diamond cutting and polishing. The same applies at the city's largest diamond shop, DiamondLAND at Appelmansstraat 33A (00 32 3 229 29 90; www.diamondland.be). A working factory with free tours. It opens 9.30am-5pm daily (Sunday from 10am) between April and October.

Much of Antwerp's diamond business is run by the city's orthodox Jewish community; the Jewish Sabbath runs from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday so note that virtually the entire diamond district is closed for business at weekends. Guided walks around both the diamond district and the Jewish Quarter are offered - contact the tourist office for details.

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