More importantly, whatever your taste and budget, the Six - Dirk Bikkembergs, Ann Demeulemeester, Walter Van Beirendonck, Dries Van Noten, Dirk Van Saene and Marina Yee - and their successors have helped turn Antwerp into a fashionista's paradise. It's often described as the "Milan of the north", but the shopping here is far less sterile. Antwerp designers pride themselves on being democratic, on making clothes that are wearable as well as innovative, of good quality, but not exorbitantly expensive. There's a rebellious streak to the city's emporia and, even in the poshest places, staff are never snooty. It's not just clothes either: there's great antiques, divine interior design and, of course, chocolate and beer.
First, the fashion. The secret of Antwerp's success is its formidable Fashion Academy, which has turned out scores of superb designers over the past two decades. As well as the big six, its alumni include Martin Margiela, Veronique Branquinho, Stephan Schneider and AF Vandevorst, all of whom will be familiar to Selfridges regulars. Its aim is to produce fully fledged designers, and its formula is brutal in its simplicity. Tuition costs are low and every student displays their creations at the end-of-year fashion show; it's tough and only a few make it to the prestigious title of "Antwerp designer".
The academy is now housed in the Modenatie, handily placed for the shops at Nationalestraat 28, and also home to MoMu, the city's fashion museum (00 323 470 2770; www.momu.be; open only during exhibitions). Though your credit card may be straining at the leash, you'll find this a valuable introduction to the city's unique fashion culture, with big temporary shows, the latest devoted to Russia, a permanent display devoted to the stars of the city's fashion scene and excellent temporary exhibitions, textiles and items from the 16th century on - and a video of the Fashion Academy's end-of-year show, an exuberant, wildly creative affair that should provide a few names to drop in fashionable boutiques.
So to the shops. Most of the top names are in Sint Andries, a historic neighbourhood just south of the cathedral, with Nationalestraat, Lombardenvest and Kammenstraat the main drags. Formerly a down-at-heel district known as "the parish of misery", it now attracts fashionistas from around the world, who flock to Dries Van Noten's flagship store, Het Modepaleis, a sumptuous old building that used to be a traditional men's outfitters. Cheap his clothes are not, but an exquisite way with colour, layering and subtle ethnic influences they are.
The other draws for the trendily togged are Louis, the first shop to sell Antwerp design, and still a one-stop shop for Belgium's finest, as well as the swoonsome creations of Balenciaga; and Walter, home of the irrepressible Walter Van Beirendonck. The man behind the costumes for U2's Popmart tour, Van Beirendonck has never been afraid to do crazy, and his cavernous shop, in a former garage, is a blast, with assembly-line racks and bizarre mannequin ensembles. The shop stocks gorgeous stuff by fellow Sixer Dirk Van Saene and witty designs by Bernard Wilhelm, whose Converse boots in a fox-hunting print are perfect for a stylish soirée back home.
If your current look is a bit, well, scuzzier, then Kammenstraat should sort you out. It's packed with stores stocking skatewear, club clobber, fetish gear and vintage threads, along with a preposterous number of piercing and tattoo joints. The epicentre is Fish And Chips, a riot of street smarts and trendy trainers with a perpetual soundtrack of rabid drum'n'bass and mentalist choons. Last time I was there, someone photographed my feet for Swedish Vogue. As you do.
After exploring Sint Andries, fast-forward to the Zuid ("South"), an area packed with restaurants, bars, museums and clubs, to visit Ann Demeulemeester's vast, minimalist corner store, opposite the Fine Arts Museum. Demeulemeester is a favourite of the monochrome set.
DKNY, D&G et al can be found in the Latin Quarter, spread out around the domed Bourla Theatre. The area's name dates to the 19th century, when it was famous for theatre, high-class brothels and dissolute, left-thinking visitors, many of them from, you guessed it, Paris.
There's more 19th-century elegance on the Meir, which winds westwards from the station to the historic centre. While the shops are nothing special, the buildings that house them are flamboyant: a blend of Baroque and neoclassical, with vast windows and gilded statuary, they're an eloquent illustration of the city's commercial growth and soaring self-confidence following the reopening of the Scheldt.
For a bit more character, head for Kloosterstraat, which is packed with stores selling 1970s lights, 1950s armchairs, Art-Deco clocks and second-hand trombones. It's the most picturesque route from the town centre to the Zuid, best reached via the riverside Sint-Jansvliet square, famous for its Sunday flea market. You'll find antiques shops on Leopoldstraat, near the Botanical Gardens; or head to the Vrijdagmarkt on Friday mornings for the city's liveliest market, where traders proclaim the merits of salvaged goods: an old bathtub, a broken bicycle or a one-armed shop dummy.
You'll likely have worked up an appetite by now. On Saturday's make for the Exotic Market on Theaterplein, which offers picnic-friendly fare from Italy, Africa and Spain. Aternatively try Wilde Zee, between Nationalestraat and the Latin Quarter.
Goosens, an old-fashioned bakery, is famous for its raisin bread. Once donated by a benevolent citizen to prisoners on the eve of their execution - if you're not a condemned man, they make a hearty breakfast. The chic Van Bladel fishmonger has a weekend stall offering blissful lobster bisque; next door, Morleyn is famed for game.
Burie is an Aladdin's cave of confectionery, from perfect pralines to chocolate pots stuffed with mussels and Antwerp handjes, hand-shaped chocs inspired by the legend of Silvius Brabo. It may seem perverse to be tucking into the truffles after spending a fortune on designer clothes, but we all know that size isn't everything.
Het Modepaleis Nationalestraat 16, 00 32 3 470 2510
Veronique Branquinho Nationalestraat 73, 00 32 3 233 6616
Walter Van Beirendonck
St Antoniusstraat 12, 00 32 3 213 2644
Verlatstraat 38, 00 32 3 216 0133
Korte Gasthuisstraat 15, 00 32 3 232 8722
Fish and Chips
Kammenstraat 36-38, 00 32 3 227 0824,
Kammenstraat 32, 00 32 3 226 0231
Aalmoezenierstraat 4, 00 32 3 232 6056, www.labelsinc.be
Lombardenstraat 2, 00 32 3 232 9872
Reyndersstraat 53, 00 32 3 226 2614
Kloosterstraat 46-63, 00 32 3 248 1855
Kloosterstraat 13, 00 32 3 232 6542,
Kloosterstraat 40, 00 32 3 226 2596
Kloosterstraat 62, 00 32 3 248 3342
Kloosterstraat 74, 00 32 3 353 4000
Leopoldstraat 19, 00 32 3 231 1773
Leopoldstraat 4, 00 32 3 231 3381
Leopoldstraat 47, 00 32 3 231 4192
Also visit www.antiquesantwerp.com
Korte Gasthuisstraat 3, 00 32 3 232 3688, www.chobel.be
Van Bladel and Morleyn, Schrijnwerkersstraat 21-23 and 25, 00 32 3 233 2309
Lombardenvest 40, 00 32 3 294 0654,
FIVE TOP RESTAURANTS
With scores of superb restaurants scattered about town, the benchmark for new eateries is intimidatingly high, which may be why the most exciting new places are in conversions up in 't Eilandje. Lux is a great example. A vast space that sprawls over two floors, with terraces, a monumental old staircase and an ultramodern glass lift, yet manages to maintain an intimate feel. Downstairs, there's great views over the Bonapartedok, but upstairs is more special, with smooth service and subtle lighting changes. The accomplished cooking is Belgo-Med, with an emphasis on fish and seafood: Colchester oysters, salad with sautéed langoustines, goose liver and cured Spanish ham, monkfish with risotto and a compote of sweet peppers and tomatoes. The wine list is a delight and even a humble carafe of house wine comes with a swish little tag that bears the name and vintage.
Adriaan Brouwerstraat 13, 00 32 3 233 3030; www.luxantwerp.com; three courses about €45 (£32), lunch menu €20 (£14).
Another portside success story, this brasserie (above) used to be a shelter for dockers, a place where they could rest, wash and eat - but not drink. There are no such restrictions today, and the only trace of its former role is a series of blown-up black-and-white photos. The 1908 building has been transformed into a vast but ultra-romantic space, with sky-high ceilings, mini balconies on the upper floor, windows that let the light flood in, a tranquil terrace and an upbeat atmosphere. Again, the menu offers Belgian staples, with lighter French and Italian touches: heavenly scallops with crab and cucumber and apple tartar with vanilla vinaigrette, pigeon with truffle cake and cannelloni of pineapple with pistachio nuts and a passion-fruit sauce. It gets a bit clubbier on weekend evenings, with DJ sets, so come early if you don't want to eat to beats.
Londenstraat 52; 00 32 3 225 0102, www.lariva.be; three courses about €40 (£29).
While the Eilandje's eateries take full advantage of the space on offer, Didier Garnich's remarkable little restaurant proves that bigger isn't always better. It used to be known as Matelote, and Garnich's flair for fish dishes won it a Michelin star - but the chef is now a Red Guide refusenik, handing back his star in order to follow his own culinary path. Diners now perch at a long bar top around the stainless-steel kitchen, and watch food being prepared from scratch. There's no printed menu, so there's fun to be had working out what you're about to eat before the chef explains it. Garnich relies on the market for inspiration, so the dishes are hard to predict, but your four-course feast might include lobster, grilled oysters with lemon and coriander, tender turbot or a remarkably refreshing tomato soup. Wine is included in the price, and tailored to match the menu.
Haarstraat 9, 00 32 3 231 3207; €75 (£53), including wine.
There are less formal restaurants in the Zuid, but sometimes food has to come first - and it certainly does at this prize-winning place on the Vlaamse Kaai (above). The décor is understated but upmarket, but you're really here for the cooking, and from the amuse-bouche onwards, it doesn't disappoint. You could go à la carte - and unreconstructed carnivores may not be able to resist the Camargue bull - but the best option is the chef's surprise menu, an ever-changing affair that might feature king crab with rocket, halibut with almond mousseline sauce, slivers of quiveringly pink lamb with asparagus and yoghurt ice-cream with farm-fresh strawberries.
The service is discreet and seamless: "If sir doesn't like asparagus, perhaps sir would prefer Jerusalem artichokes."
Vlaamse Kaai 17, 00 32 3237 3000, www2.resto.be/kommilfoo; €60 (£43), including wine.
If atmosphere is as important to you as the food, Zoute Zoen will not let you down. Tucked away on a quiet street just north of the Grote Markt, this is a delightfully cluttered and cosy bistro with a mosaic floor, art books, silverware and other curious on the shelves and subtle spot-lighting. Adding to the pleasant illusion that you are dining in a friend's living room is the hospitable but unobtrusive presence of the owner, who is often to be seen serving at table. The food is Belgo-French with an Italian twist, and you can always expect to see several vegetarian options on the menu. Starters favour seafood, such as scallops in truffle sauce or mussels with tomatoes, shallots and garlic butter. For a main course, plump for lamb cutlets with fried garlic in cream or perch with olive and ratatouille.
Zirkstraat 15-17, 00 32 3 226 9220; www2.resto.be/zoutezoen; €30 (£22).Reuse content