Antwerp: This major Belgian port feels like a village

The buzz in Antwerp is about cafés not container ships. David Atkinson offers some ideas for new and returning visitors

Why visit?



Antwerp is the Flanders city with that rare quality in Belgium: quirkiness. Yes, it's got diamonds, fashion and enough old-Europe money to stuff a bank vault several times over, but it's the variety of village-style districts, all easily explored on foot and revelling in their own idiosyncratic character, that sets it apart from living-museum Bruges and pen-pushing Brussels.



Yet Antwerp is in the throws of regeneration, too, with a whole new district of the city, the Eilandje (Small Island) docklands area north of the Old Town, opening up. This city remains the world's fourth largest port but the buzz is now about café culture not containers. To be fair, the urban renaissance is still a bit of a work in progress, but the slow evolution is even tempting the traditionally reserved Antwerp residents to leave their comfort zone of the fashionable south of the city to explore the shabby-chic north.



September in the Old Town also means the tour-party hordes are subsiding, and the cobbled side streets are less crowded for hunting out interesting little galleries, cafés and boutiques. But don't fall for the last menus touristiques of the season around Groenplaats. A tram heading south will deposit you near Leopold de Waelplaats, where nearby you can eat among the locals at the pavement tables of Grill or Bar Italia and watch the ritual weekend parade of designer garb and sports cars over a waffle-free brunch.



When you're full, pop across the road to the landmark Royal Museum of Fine Arts (kmska.be). This is your last chance to visit the permanent collection, with works by Rubens and Magritte, before it closes in October for a major renovation that will continue until 2014.



Don't miss...



... the legacy of the Antwerp Six fashion collective on the city's fashion sense. Fashion stalwart Dries van Noten maintains his flagship store, Het Modepaleis (driesvannoten.be) at Nationalestraat 16. But the latest crop of fashion graduates can be found exhibiting their collections at the Fashion Museum (momu.be).



... the Diamond Museum (diamantmuseum.be), which tells the story of the city's love affair with big rocks – some 85 per cent of the world's rough diamonds are traded in Antwerp's diamond quarter. From October, the museum hosts a new exhibition, For Honour and Glory: Treasures of Napoleon (napoleondiamant.be/en), marking 200 years since the emperor first came to Antwerp with his lavish jewellery collection and inspired the city's love of decorative arts.



... a close brush with Adam and Eve in Paradise. This iconic work is one of several by the Flemish master kept at The Rubens's House (rubenshuis.be), with its baroque aesthetics and informative audio tour. But, for art without the crowds, the revamped Photo Museum (fotomuseum.be) offers a more contemporary view.



... people-watching from a pavement café with a glass of local brew, De Koninck. Or as thoughts turn to autumn, from a comfy armchair at Günter Watté's chocolate-themed café (watt.be), sipping a latte and negotiating one of his dainty chocolate-pastry creations with a cake fork and a taste for indulgence.



... dipping your bitterballen (meatballs) into spicy sauce at the art deco-style Frituur No 1. Flanders has the finest fries on earth – prepared from Belgian Bintje potatoes, cut to a length of 11mm and fried twice for extra crispiness, since you ask – and this frituur is one of the best places to try them.



What's new



Het Eilandje



The first fruits of regeneration in the Small Island district are now ripe. New places to eat and drink, such as Felixpakhuis and Lux, have a new following, the Royal Ballet of Flanders (koninklijkballetvanvlaanderen.be) has moved to a new performance space, and a major, modernist new museum, Museum aan de Stroom (mas.be), opens its doors next May, telling the story of Antwerp as a world port city. By 2014, the tram system catches up to improve access.



Graanmarkt 13



Concept stores are de rigueur in Antwerp and this über-chic new opening, located at the heart of the Latin Quarter, takes the trend to its zenith. It combines a minimalist high-fashion clothes and interiors store upstairs with a chic, candlelit downstairs eaterie. But don't blow the budget on a new outfit because the degustation menu costs €80 (£67) for eight nouvelle cuisine courses without wine.



Details: Graanmarkt 13 (00 32 3 337 7991; graanmarkt13.be)



Hotel Les Nuits



The en vogue home interior shop Flamant is branching out. First came the restaurant, Flamant Dining (flamantdining.com), with its cool lounge and sunny roof terrace. Now the adjacent Hotel Les Nuits lives up to its nocturnal moniker with 24 Asian-styled rooms, each featuring lacquer cabinets and a low-lit, boudoir-chic feel. If you like the décor, you can buy every piece in the shop next door. Doubles cost from €135 (£113), room only.



Details: Hotel Les Nuits (00 32 3 227 7441; hotellesnuits.be)



Paleis op de Meir



The city's major new cultural space is the 18th-century, rococo building once chosen by Napoleon as his imperial place but never inhabited. The stately building has been saved from years of neglect, and the restored rooms, all elaborate and ornate, recount their own individual story. Downstairs the Café Imperial (cafe-imperial.be) serves afternoon teas fit for an emperor at €28.50 (£24) with a glass of bubbly.



Details: Paleis op de Meir (00 32 3 206 2121; paleisopdemeir.be)



The Chocolate Line



Across the courtyard from the entrance to the Paleis op de Meir, chocolatier to the stars Dominique Persoone has opened the latest Chocolate Line shop. Next to the lavish displays of chi-chi chocs, the open kitchen lets visitors pick up the secrets of a chocolate-crafting master at work. If you're adventurous, inquire about a pure cocoa hit from the chocolate shooter. Well, it was good enough for Keith Richards ...



Details: The Chocolate Line (00 32 3 206 2030; thechocolateline.be)

'Pick up some bargains – but get there early!'



Tom Le Clef , Manager, Felixpakhuis lounge and restaurant (felixpakhuis.nu)



"The warehouse next door to our restaurant is Dries van Noten's offices, but he also holds stock sales there each spring and summer. Time your visit well and you can catch up to 80 per cent off original designs. But get there early – queues start at 6am."

How to get there



Railbookers (020-3327 0751, railbookers.com) offers packages from £169 per person, including return Eurostar travel from London St Pancras International to Brussels, onward return train travel from Brussels to Antwerp and two nights B&B. The newly expanded Hotel Julien (hotel-julien.com) offers doubles from €170 (£140) B&B, including use of the in-house spa.



Further information

Tourism Flanders-Brussels (0207-307 7738, visitflanders.co.uk); Antwerp Tourism (visit.antwerpen.be).

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