Diamonds, Rubens, waffles and contemporary fashion — indulge in a winter visit to this cosmopolitan Belgian city. By Matthew Bell
Why go now?
Belgium's hip and sophisticated second city has a strong Flemish heritage and a noticeable lack of concessions to English-speakers (menus and streets signs are mostly incomprehensible), making it feel a long way from home. Yet it is only three hours from London St Pancras, Eurostar permitting, and offers some of the best in European art — Peter Paul Rubens was a former resident — as well as shopping, food and architecture. Home to the Antwerp Six, a half-dozen fashion students who burst on to the world scene in 1986, the city hosts a thriving fashion and design movement that also makes it an excellent destination for alternative January clothes shopping.
A ticket to Brussels on Eurostar (08432 186 186; eurostar.com) automatically entitles you to free onward train travel to any destination in Belgium. Returns from London St Pancras start at £69 (for £189, a Leisure Select ticket treats you to a three-course lunch or dinner). CityJet (0871 666 5050; cityjet.com) flies from Manchester and London City into Antwerp's Deurne airport, 3km south-east of the city. A taxi to the centre costs about €20, or the number 14 bus goes from outside the airport and takes about 25 minutes to the central station.
Get your bearings
Another perk of going by rail is arriving in the magnificent Central Station, where trains pull in on three levels and the main marble hall soars up to 44 metres, a metre higher even than Antwerp’s cathedral. Turn left out of the station: from here the old city fans out ahead of you in a triangle to the river in the west. Straight ahead is the main shopping street, Meir, which leads to the cathedral and market square, Grote Markt. Despite lying 40 miles from the sea, Antwerp is Europe's second most important port after Rotterdam, although most of the activity is some way out of the centre. Nearer at hand is the city's other great trade, diamonds, which are still bought and sold in the area immediately around the station.
Antwerp is ideally proportioned for exploration by foot, and there are plenty of good hotels within easy reach of the centre. In the top bracket is Der Witte Lelie, or The White Lily at Keizerstraat 16-18 (00 32 3 226 1966; dewittelelie.be), a boutique affair made up of three adjoining white 18th-century houses on a quiet street a couple of blocks north-east of the cathedral. Rates start at €195 for a duplex suite excluding breakfast, going up to €525 for the presidential suite that occupies much of the first floor. Not all the 11 suites have a bath, which you want for that money, if only to take advantage of all the Hermes products and giant white bathrobes. For a bargain bang in the centre, the Hotel Postiljon at Blauwmoezelstraat 6 (00 32 3 231 7575; hotelpostiljon.be) faces the cathedral and offers rooms from €60 per night, without breakfast. Room 25 has the best view of the cathedral. Both these get quickly booked up so if you go last minute, the Hotel Leopold at Quinten Matsijslei 25 (00 32 3 231 1515; leopoldhotelantwerp.com) is a friendly and comfortable executive hotel overlooking a park. It has 127 rooms with free Wi-Fi and iPod docks and boasts its own chocolate shop in the foyer. Doubles start at €79, room only.
Take a view
The best view of Antwerp's dramatic skyline is from the west bank of the Scheldt. First, locate the east entrance to the Sint Anna pedestrian tunnel, close to Sint-Jansvliet. From here you can walk 100ft beneath the river for one-third of a mile until you emerge on the west bank beside a tranquil park, full of rusty old buoys and anchors. Across the city you will see Europe's first skyscraper, the art deco Boerentoren — built in 1930 and now home to the Belgian bank KBC.
Lunch on the run
The waffle is the great Belgian snack, available dripping with chocolate or cream from street vendors all over the city. The Van Hecke Waffle House, on the corner of Nationalestraat and Franckenstraat (00 32 3 233 1972), has been there since 1905 and has hardly changed. Otherwise Desire De Lille at Schrijnwerkersstraat 14-18 (00 32 3 232 6226), is a chintzy tea-room with a big waffle and pancake menu. Frituur Number One at Hoogstrat 1 is something of an institution for its generous portions of French fries, available nearly all day and night.
Take a hike
Start in Groenplats, Antwerp's main square and transport hub, at the centre of which is a statue of the city's most celebrated citizen, Peter Paul Rubens. Head north-west to the cathedral and through the Grote Markt — a much prettier square, with a row of tall, steeply gabled guild houses, typically Flemish with their leaded windows and golden statues. They were lucky to survive heavy bombing during the war, which explains the less attractive modern developments as you wander north to the Vleeshuis — a beautiful castle-like structure that used to house the butchers' guild, and even an abattoir. Alternating red bricks and white sandstone make it a good example of the city's ‘streaky bacon’ architecture. From here head down a flight of old brick steps to the west bank of the river for a stroll along the raised terraces, the Wandelterras. To the north you can see the giant warehouses and cranes of the port. South takes you through the eclectic antique and design shops of Kloosterstraat.
Keep going to reach the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten (00 32 3 238 78 09; kmska.be) at Plaatsnijdersstraat 2, a big classical building housing Antwerp's chief art collection of Belgian paintings. Ponder the symbolism of the apple and the egg precariously poised on the roof and admire the constantly emptying and refilling fountain installation by Cristina Iglesias outside if you don't have time to go in. Open Tues-Sat 10am-5pm; Sunday 10am-6pm. Admission €6.
Antwerp is crammed with clothes shops, from the big everyday names lining the main drag of Meir to high-end labels such as Gucci and Hermes on Schuttershofstraat and around Komedieplaats. Dries Van Noten, the most famous of the Antwerp Six, has his flagship store at Nationalstraat 16.
The Belgians — whisper it — do low-key cafe culture better than the French: the service is friendly and smoking is, amazingly, still allowed in bars and cafes. And then of course there are the beers: for authentic Trappist beer in a jolly tavern, visit Paters Vaetje at Blauwmoezelstraat 1 (00 32 3 231 8476), opposite the cathedral, where they also serve (oddly) hard-boiled eggs. A couple of doors down there's Witzli-Poetzli, an understated joint favoured by writers, philosophers and other Bohemians. Even more no-nonsense is Bar de Kat at Wolstraat 22, an old-fashioned music-free oasis where locals drop in to while away an hour or three over a beer and a bowl of soup, watching the world go by outside.
Dining with the locals
For mussels, rich fish soup and hearty portions of excellent fresh fish, try Fiskebar at Marnixplaats 12-13 (00 32 3 257 1357; fiskebar.be). There's no formal menu and the catch is fresh and different every day.
A walk in the park
The Stadspark is a pretty spot with some wild white rabbits and, in the north corner, a skatepark where kids show off their latest moves. A more memorable option is the zoo (00 32 3 202 4540; zooantwerpen.be). There are 4,000 animals including elephants and hippos, and a set of scales that tells you what animal you most closely resemble in weight (I was a goat). Open daily 10am-4.45pm, hours vary later in the year; €18.50.
Out to brunch
't Brantyser, Hendrik Conscienceplein 7 (00 32 3 233 1833; brantyser.be) is a good brasserie that serves hearty dishes like steak-frites (€19) and croque monsieur (€6.50). Beamed and cosy inside, it overlooks the Baroque church of St Carolus Borromeus, which once housed 39 paintings by Rubens; sadly they were lost in a fire in 1718.
Go to church
You cannot leave Antwerp without visiting the cathedral, not so much for the building, which has undergone countless ravages and remodellings, but for two of Rubens' most important and expressive pictures — The Raising of the Cross and The Deposition, each dominating an aisle either side of the nave. Entry is €5 from 1-4pm on Sundays (Monday to Friday 10am-5pm, Saturday 10am-3pm). Services are at 9am, 10.30am, noon and 5pm.
Write a postcard
Be inspired by the art school where Van Gogh studied, the thriving Koninklijke Academie voor Schone Kunsten at Mutsaertstraat 21 — which, although not open to the public, is one of Europe's oldest art schools. Equally striking is the glass box on De Coninckplein, the perfect cafe for postcard writing, called Kubus, popular with academics and students taking a break from the adjacent library. Open 10am-2.30pm (10am-8.30pm Mon-Fri).
Most visitors will want to tick off the Rubens House Museum at Wapper 9-11 (00 32 3 201 1555; rubenshuis.be); open 10am-5pm daily except Monday; €8. While it does have a few pretty pictures, almost none of the house is as it was during the 25 years the painter lived here. Included in the ticket is the Mayer van den Bergh Museum at Lange Gasthuisstraat 19 (00 32 3 232 4237; same opening times). Among the many treasures collected by Fritz Mayer Van Den Bergh are some fine tapestries and a striking picture by Breugel.
For a more authentic insight into late-16th century life, head for the Museum Plantin-Moretus at Vrijdagmarkt 22 (00 32 3 221 1450; museum.antwerpen.be; same times; €6), the home of one of the earliest European publishing houses that has remained unmolested to this day and is chock full of 16th-century books, furniture, maps and pictures, including 18 potraits by Rubens.
The icing on the cake
Chocolate is, rightly, taken very seriously here, which makes souvenir hunting easy. Günther Watte is a slick chocolate cafe at Steenhouwersvest 30 (00 32 3 293 58 94; open 1-6pm on Sundays and 10.30am-6.30pm Mon-Sat), which attracts connoisseurs of both coffee and hand-made chocolates, the only items it sells. You can see the chocolates being made by an elderly couple through a window at the back and then sample a couple of dozen, before making your final selection to take home.