In a city as self-consciously chic and sleek as Antwerp, the term "boutique hotel" holds even more of a fervent grip on the popular imagination. Where other tourist destinations might be able to offer a certain level of boutiquerie simply with the introduction of a shearling rug or some chrome taps, a hostelry set in the heartland of fashionable minimalism has a bit more to live up to.
The Hotel Matelote, situated in the cobbled Old Town of the Belgian port, ticks all the boxes deserving of the description, from its quirky but ascetic décor to its cosy, apartment feel.
In the medieval city centre, it's common for 16th and 17th-century merchants' houses to be divided into a few bedrooms and suites. The Matelote is no exception with 12 rooms ranging from small and functional bases to more luxurious suites and duplexes. All, however, share a pleasant feeling of not being crammed in together; the Matelote is the perfect size for a weekend break in a city that is, after all, not that big either.
The Hotel Matelote is clearly inspired by the minimal and utilitarian aspects of Antwerp's slightly puritanical sense of style. Yet it feels at home in its surroundings – there's nothing worse than a misplaced sense of modernism and edginess for the sake of it.
A concrete, urban-looking entrance hall leads into a small and cosy bar area, made welcoming with a fire and sofas; routes to rooms are discreet spiral staircases – nothing too strenuous or vertiginous, but the building's listed status means there are no lifts.
If the contemporary aesthetic seems a little at odds with the late gothic surroundings, it's a dichotomy that is true of the entire city. Built on and made rich by freight and port trade, the city has acquired a reputation for sophistication and a cosmopolitan way of life. Thanks to a historical link with the fine arts, luxury items and fashion, Antwerp is surely Paris's chic little sibling.
On a quiet side street in the city's historic centre, a five-minute taxi ride from Centraal station or 10 minutes on the Metro. It's also a short walk from the Grote Markt, the dazzling square bordered by 16th-century Guild houses and dominated by the Brabo fountain, depicting the mythical young giant-slayer who founded the city. Drinks around the square feel suitably grand and continental, while dinner in the district's wood-panelled hideyholes are intimate and hearty. A stroll beyond the old town takes you to more modern cuisine; as befits Antwerp's cool, young demographic, there are plenty of brutalist bars and restaurants with steel-topped tables and no visible accoutrements. Dress only in black should these take your fancy.
With Antwerp known for its design history, the nearby Fashion District is also a notable zone on any visitor's map. The Antwerp Six – a group of Belgian designers who graduated from the city's Royal Academy of Fine Arts and took the fashion industry by stormed in the late Eighties – all have stores around the city; look out for Dries van Noten on Nationalestraat, which is more of a gallery than a shop. The fashion museum is also easily accessible, with its internationally acclaimed exhibitions, currently of, naturally, the history of black.
You'd be forgiven for thinking modern minimal hotels often sacrifice comfort for creativity. The Matelote's rooms were individually conceptualised by local artist Peter Deelen under an umbrella of clean, contemporary design, and they are a triumph of both style and substance. Comfort is above the usual standard for a small, mid-range hotel, though with a couple of exceptions. An architectural sink that didn't drain, and a baffling double shower (two, side by side in a long cubicle) were perhaps utilitarian extensions too far.
Simple and basic are not necessarily interchangeable and the Matelote is mainly the former and just enough of the latter.
All other mod cons are present and correct, with cable TV, music systems and free broadband. And when you're done with your beauty sleep, the rustically styled breakfast bar is across a small but prettily sun-dappled courtyard.
Hotel Matelote, Haarstraat 1(12A), Antwerp, Flanders, Belgium (00 32 3201 8800; hotelmatelote.be)
Doubles start at €90, room only.