48 Hours In Antwerp

Belgium's second city offers a seductive mix of architecture, shopping, great food and Rubens. Christine Rush visits the diamond capital of Europe



While summer crowds flock to the Med and beyond, Belgium's second city remains the territory of sophisticated travellers. Antwerp is intensely proud of its local hero, Peter Paul Rubens: in 1843 the leaders of this resolutely Catholic city replaced a huge crucifix in the central square, Groenplaats, with a statue of him. The city is celebrating the 400th anniversary of Rubens' birth with tours and special exhibitions. The city's Trappist beer, diamond district and fashion emporia make fine distractions for a weekend break.


VLM Airlines (020-7476 6677; www.flyvlm.com) flies from London City to Antwerp with connections from Liverpool, Guernsey, Jersey and Manchester. Return fares for a long weekend in August start at £129 from London and £168 from Manchester. Antwerp's Deurne Airport (00 32 3 218 1211) is three miles south-east of the city centre and is served by the number 16 bus (€1/£0.70), which will take you to the magnificent Centraal Station. A taxi to the city centre costs around €15 (£11).

By rail, Eurostar (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com) takes about two hours 20 minutes to reach Brussels Midi from London Waterloo. Your ticket (starting at £59 return) entitles you to connect to any Belgian station; Antwerp Centraal is under 50 minutes away.


The diamond district starts just north of Centraal Station on Hoveniersstraat. The station is connected to the city centre by de Keyserlei, which leads into Meir, the principal shopping street. Groenplaats (1) and the adjacent Grote Markt constitute the spiritual centre of the Old Town. 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.


Its exposed beams and sweeping cast-iron staircase have earned t'Sandt at Zand 17-19 (00 32 3 232 9390, www.hotel-sandt.be) a place in the Hip Hotels: Budget guide. The neo-Rococo hotel is just a block from the river, five minutes from Grote Markt and a short walk to the main antiques street, Kloosterstraat. At weekends, doubles cost from €145 (£104) for a duplex-style room including breakfast. In a more serene location is de Witte Lelie at Keizerstraat 16-18 (00 32 3 226 1966; www.dewittelelie.be), a minimalist haven that has been a hotel since the 16th century. Doubles cost from €245 (£175) including breakfast. A good central budget B&B option is The Big Sleep at Kromme Elleboogstraat 4 (0032 474 849 565; www.intro04.be/thebigsleep). Its one room sleeps up to four people and costs from €45 (£32), including breakfast.


Europe's first skyscraper, the Boerentoren, is closed to the public, but on Mondays and Wednesdays until October there are three tours a day (at noon, 1pm and 2pm) of the 123m north spire of the Cathedral of Our Lady. Admission is a steep €7.50 (£5.40), and it's quite a hike up the 615 steps, but worth it for the view. To join a tour, meet at Vleeshuis, the Butchers' Hall. For details call 00 32 3 233 6404.


Dansing Chocola at Kloosterstraat 159 (00 32 3 237 1905) is a cosy bohemian café-bar that serves soups, meals and vegetarian options from €5-14 (£3.50-£10). Try the superb, if stodgy, Belgian version of bangers and mash, stoemp met worst (€8/£5.70) with a beer.


Take in Antwerp's Golden Age architecture by starting at the town hall, which is open to the public daily at 11am, 2pm and 3pm, 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. A few blocks further on in Veemarkt is Saint-Paul's church, a former monastery with a external "Calvary Hill" of sculpted figures and three of Rubens' works; it opens 2-5pm. Rockox House at Keizerstraat 12 (00 32 3 201 9250) is the former home of Rubens' patron Nicolaas Rockox, now a museum open Tuesday-Sunday 10am-5pm, admission €2.50 (£1.40).


The flagship stores of the Antwerp Six designers are scattered around Steenhouwersvest, Nationalestraat, Kammenstraat and Lombardenvest. A popular store for one-offs is Gozo at Steenhouwersvest 63 (0032 3 226 2458). A few blocks along at number 14 is Francis, crammed with retro furniture and vintage clothing (00 32 3 288 9433; www.francis.be). And don't miss Emery and Cie at Reyndersstraat 20 (00 32 3 231 3084), an interiors store that sells artisan tiles, floral furnishings and wrought-iron lamp-stands. Most shops are closed on Sundays and Monday mornings.


De Vagant at Reynderstraat 25 (00 32 3 233 1538) has more than 200 types of genever. Also worth a look for its kitsch religious decor, jovial atmosphere and fine selection of beer, Trappist or otherwise, is Het Elfde Gebod at Torfbrug 10 (00 32 3 289 3465). Its name translates as the 11th Commandment - eat, drink, and be merry, apparently.


De Kleine Zavel at Stoofstraat 2 (00 32 3 231 9691) was turning away hordes of hungry punters the night I dined there, so book ahead to savour its bang-up-to-date brasserie cooking and relaxed, romantic vibe. Its extensive wine list and seafood-heavy menu mean you'll probably spend far more than you intended - about €70 (£50) a head for three courses, drinks and service - but it'll be worth every cent. Another popular spot is Grand Café Horta at Hopland 2 (00 32 3 232 2815, www.grandcafehorta.be), an elegant glass-and-curved-steel affair. The reasonably priced menu includes pasta from €10-19 (£7-£13.50), or Belgian specialities such as shrimp and potato croquettes entrée (€11/£7.90) , gamey stews and local fish (from €18/£12.90).


The Cathedral of Our Lady in Grote Markt hosts Rubens' 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. An alternative is discreetly to attend a weekly artiestenmis (artistic mass) at 11.30am, at the intimate Baroque church of St Carolus Borromeus, about five minutes' walk from the main square. Rubens designed the external sculptures and also provided 28 paintings for the interior; sadly the latter were destroyed by fire in 1718. For details call the tourist office (00 32 3 203 9585).


For a refined repast in the midst of the fashion district, try Temmerman at Schuttershofstraat 13 (00 32 3 227 0390); open 10.30am-6.30pm daily (Monday from 1pm). After lunch you can ogle its selection of truffles.


All the Old Town's attractions are within walking distance, but to explore beyond - especially the fabulous Belle Epoque district of Zurenborg - buy a one-day ticket, which for €3 (£2.20) gives unlimited travel on Antwerp's trams and buses. Alternatively, De Windroos at Steenplein 1a (00 32 3 480 9388) rents bikes for €2.50 (£1.80) per hour, or €12.50 (£9) for a day.


In the early 20th century, Zurenborg was a chic village for Antwerp's upper and middle classes. It has several exquisite Art Nouveau buildings that are well worth a look. Take tram 8 from Groenplaats (1) to Berchem, or tram 11 to Dageraadplaats. Key buildings include the Euterpia house, with its pretty gilded trumpeter; the Four Seasons corner houses; and much of the architecture along Cogels-Osylei. Then pop into the nearby bakery/ café Wattman at Tramplein 3 (00 32 3 230 5540; closed Monday) and tuck into an organic cake and hot chocolate or beer at its gingham tables.


The small but beautifully restored Rubens House is at Wapper 9-11 (00 32 3 201 1555; museum.an- twerpen.be/rubenshuis). It includes the artist's workshop, living quarters and garden. It opens 10am-5pm daily except Monday; admission €5 (£3.50). The city is also keen to flag up its fashion credentials. The swanky new MoMu at Nationalestraat 28 (00 32 3 470 2770; www.momu.be) hosts exhibitions on the history of fashion design; it opens 10am-6pm daily (Mondays from 1pm), admission €7 (£5).


Try the trendy café Het Zuiderterras at Ernest Van Dijckkaai 37 (00 32 3 234 1275) with its views over the tranquil river Scheldt.


Indeed, it was "ice" that made Antwerp one of the wealthiest cities in the world. Spend an hour at the Provincial Diamond Museum, right next to the station at Koningin Astridplein 19-23 (00 32 3 202 4890; www.diamantmuseum.be). You can learn how to spot the "Antwerp cut", and there are even special hands-on exhibits for the blind. It opens 10am-6pm daily (Mondays from 1pm); admission €5 (£3.50).

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