Flanders special

Antwerp: The fine art of fashion

Capital of diamonds, city of Rubens, vibrant centre of fashion: Antwerp has a dazzling variety of attractions. To shop for some of the world's most fabulous jewellery head to Appelmansstraat and Hoveniersstraat near the Central Station. Diamonds here are cheaper than in Britain – there's a good selection at the huge gem store, Diamondland, at Appelmansstraat 33.

Then go west. The mansion where Rubens lived between 1610 and his death in 1640 is a sumptuous property at Wapper 9-11 (museum.antwerpen. be/rubenshuis). It contains 10 of the artist's works and gives an absorbing insight into Flemish fine living in the 17th century. Further west another of Antwerp's highlights is on the picturesque square of Vrijdagmarkt. Plantin-Moretus Museum museum.antwerpen.be/ plantin_Moretus) is set in the world's first industrial printing house, founded in 1555. It was added to Unesco's World Heritage List in 2002.

For a complete contrast, wander through Antwerp's fashion district. It is located between Groenplaats in the historic heart of the city and the art museums around Leopold de Waelplaats. Nationalestraat and Volkstraat are the shop windows for many of the city's most exciting designers (Dries Van Noten at number 16; Veronique Branquinho at number 73, Annemie Verbeke's at number 76, among others).

Antwerp started to become a significant fashion city in 1986, following a hugely successful show of six of its designers in London. It developed into such an effervescent style centre that a fashion museum was created in 2002. MoMu, at Nationalstraat 28 (www.momu. be) organises two innovative exhibitions a year. The current show (until February) celebrates the influential Flemish designer Martin Margiela.

At the southern end of the fashion district, Leopoldplaats is the one of the city's most popular restaurants. For excellent Belgian-French cuisine head to Hippodroom in a lovely turn of the century building at number 10 (00 32 3 248 52 52; www.hippodroom. be).

For chic dining in an atmospheric setting make for the university neighbourhood where the excellent Restaurant Bernardin is at St Jacobsstraat 17 (00 32 3 213 07 00; www.restaurantbernardin.be). Or go south to the stunning Zurenborg district: stroll along Waterloostraat and Cogels-Osylei to see striking villas and Art Nouveau townhouses and then make for Dageraadplaats. Around this square there's a great choice of cafés and bistros serving inexpensive salads.

Antwerp offers a generous range of elegant accommodation. Boulevard Leopold B&B at Belgielei 135 opened 18 months ago and is big hit with the visiting fashion industry. It has three well-presented rooms and is set in the Jewish quarter close to the Diamond district (00 32 486 67 5838; www.boulevard-leopold.be; doubles from €100/£83 including breakfast). Hotel 't Sandt at Het Zand 13-19 has 29 rooms set in a neo-Rococo building in the historic centre (00 32 3 232 93 90; www.hotel-sandt.be; doubles from €170/£141, including breakfast).

More information from Tourism Antwerp, Grote Markt 13 (00 32 3 232 01 03; www.antwerpen.be) www.visitflanders.co.uk

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