When Southeast Asians travel to Europe individually or in groups, they often include in a brief one-day visit to Bruges and Brussels or skip Belgium altogether. In truth, they are missing one of the most vibrant cities in Belgium. Known worldwide for its diamond district, Antwerp is the self-proclaimed capital of avant-garde fashion. Paving the way back in the ’90s, the Antwerp Six made a name for themselves in the international fashion collection circuits, and in the process, the city was suddenly thrust into spotlight. The vibrant port city of Antwerpen – which means “throw the hand,”(Flemish name for Antwerp or Anvers in French) has its fair share of historical buildings and deep-rooted culture.
One of the ten biggest ports in the world, Antwerp has the oldest stock exchange building that dates back to 1531 and was rebuilt in 1872. Both contributed gradually to make Antwerp a major trade and cultural centre. Home to over 170 nationalities, a minimum of three languages are fluently spoken (Dutch, French,English) here. Antwerpenaar (inhabitants of Antwerp)are known to be cool, cosmopolitan, and social – a feature that is reflected in their design and cuisine. To get an authentic taste of stylish Flemish interiors, it is recommended to stay in one of the many boutique hotels around the city.
Hotel Franq is located just a stone’s throw from the Meir and Onze-Lieve-Vrouwe Cathedral. This luxury hotel will delight visitors with its combination of historical charm and contemporary chic visuals. Style maven Anok Van Spaendonck carefully selected elegant furniture and added refined touches in the public spaces to make everyone welcome and feel at home. Combining subtle colours and Asian elements in a neo-classical building that was formerly a bank, the property derives its name from the country’s old currency. The vault where the Belgian Francs were once stored has been restored to its former glory and transformed, of all things, into a unique wine cellar.
The gastronomic restaurant Franq will spoil connoisseurs with contemporary French-Belgian gourmet cuisine in an elegant setting. Fine cuisine is prepared by renowned Chef Tim Meuleneire and his team, whose previous success include his Restaurant De Koopvaardij. The hotel opened its doors to guests last October 2017 with a lavish party. Caviar from Imperial Heritage and Bollinger Champagne were served with freshly made canapes prepared by Chef Meuleneire’s team. The desserts were not forgotten with Del Rey Chocolate, and patisserie Toon de Klerck topped with premium coffee from Caffe Mundi. For those who missed this party, all these delicacies are available at the hotel bar and restaurant, daily.
Another option five minutes away is Hotel Julien, an urban retreat offering an oasis of peace in a relaxed setting. Dating back to the 16th century, the hotel is housed in two properties which were restored to combine the original buildings’ features effortlessly. The central location of the property is the perfect base to either explore the main shopping arteries or to find hidden gems in smaller alleys. Antwerp is best navigated on foot or bicycles.
Antwerp on a platter
Antwerp is a city of diversity, harmoniously combining places with historical background and sleek interior. Youngsters comfortably rub elbow with elders who have quickly adapted to the modern life as all Belgians bond over their shared love for good food, locally made beer and good conversations. Generation gaps are less prominent with a good bolleke, a beer made by local brewer De Koninck, a famous Antwerp-based brewery since 1833.
Located in an alley and house dating back to 1557, the Sir Anthony Van Dijck restaurant is one of the gourmet destination and must-see landmarks in the city. Centrally located near the corner of the Grote Markt, discreetly hidden in a narrow, cobbled alley, this exquisite restaurant is among Antwerp’s finest for French cuisine and classic Flemish staples in a tasteful and artsy surrounding.
It is named after Sir Anthony van Dyck, a Flemish Baroque artist from the 16th century. When the sun comes out, try to book a table in the indoor courtyard. The four-course gourmet menu du jour (€45~) for lunch is noteworthy.
Another gourmet institution, ‘T Fornuis restaurant holds one Michelin star since 1986 and is almost always fully booked up to two months in advance, sometimes even longer. Head Chef Johan Segers is a bon vivant who rides a Harley Davidson to work, and is a well-known personality in the Antwerp culinary scene. The restaurant name, translated, means “the stove” in Flemish, and not-to-be-missed is Johan’s collections of antique miniature stoves displayed by the entrance. His communicative passion for food and bright personality allows him to enjoy and still have fun at what he does best: a simple, consistent, warm-hearted cuisine.
Johan cooks as he comes to the table to greet patrons: relaxed and with a good dose of relativism which translates onto the plate with finesse and sobriety. Chef Segers was recently awarded the title of Craftsman of the Year 2018 by Gault & Millau.
For meat lovers, Black Smoke BBQ Grill & Bar brings serious heat and meat to the heart of Antwerp. Mixing American barbecue traditions with local influences, the meat is cooked in the low & slow style and prepared on wood-fired smokers or classic hot & fast style on the unique Argentinian parilla grill. At the bar, Belgium’s finest bartenders concoct award-winning cocktails or serve locally crafted beers on tap directly from the cellars. Their sixth-floor urban rooftop offers Antwerp’s finest view with a drink in hand.
A cosier and stylish dinner alternative, Soma offers a cuisine a quatre mains in a semi-private apartment setting. Soma is the equation of two talents, Adriana Zafiris and Frederic Chastro. Additionally, they are the sum of four food cultures: Belgian and Greek for her, French and Colombian for him. Together they provide both the kitchen and the service in an elegant dining room with a view of the stoves. Cooking together, serving together and giving explanations of their philosophy, their mise-en-bouche serving of brioche bread with Serrano ham and Tête de Moine cheese are only the beginning of these four courses’ gastronomic journey. Patrons are welcome to watch the show in the open kitchen or even sit with Zafiris and Chastro.
For oriental delights, head to Dim Dining where the youngest Belgian chef, Dimitri Proost at 23, proposes Japanese dishes with a Western twist. The focus is on contemporary Japanese kitchen with worldly influences from Tokyo, New York, London, and Los Angeles. Get a seat at the bar to watch Dimitri doing wonders in the kitchen.
Music and art calm the souls and it will be certainly true at Think Jazzy, an eclectic jazz bar photo and art gallery. Accompanied by a piano player, jazzy tunes are de rigueur during tapas happy hours (free tapas served from 6pm-8pm) while after 10 pm, things can get a bit crazier and often curtains are closed to maintain the guests’ privacy and the madness inside. Rotating exhibitions are part of the gallery of the same name and refreshed every three months. A five-course menu is also available for €29.
Besides its wide gourmet offerings, Antwerp is rich in cultural and historical institutions.
Start your day travelling back in time – four hundred years ago precisely – to see how words and images were spread around the world long before today’s digital age. A must-see UNESCO World Heritage site, the Plantin-Moretus Museum is the oldest print and typography museum in Belgium which dates back to the 16th century. Christophe Plantin and his son-in-law Jan Moretus were the first printers on an industrial scale, a revolutionary duo of their time.
Here visitors can see over three hundred years of book-printing art and family history. Upon entering the old mansion, visitors are invited to explore different connecting rooms and admire in awe the oldest printing presses in the world, a rich collection of artworks including portraits by Rubens, old manuscripts, incunabula, and original prints in the library. Tactile interactive digital screens explain more about the daily life in both the printing works and the mansion.
Back in 1576, Plantin relocated his printing works to the Vrijdagmarkt and converted the ‘Gulden Passer’ (Golden Compass) into a beautiful mansion. The Moretus family cherished and passed their printing works from one generation to the next, which then became a part of the city heritage when the last owner, Edward Moretus, sold the house to the City of Antwerp in 1876.
With a century-old port, the city has worked actively to restore areas around the docs that were once derelict warehouses and abandoned buildings. Antwerp continued to reinvent itself during the last decade, starting with Het Eilandje, which embraced its maritime history through multiple projects. Beginning way before the striking architecture of the Museum aan de Stroom (MAS), the bold broken LEGO-shaped building opened its doors in 2011, and the apparent buzz brought all sorts of other projects that mushroomed around it.
Coffee bars, artist ateliers, and stunning architectural projects have popped up, making the area a must-visit. International visitors and locals can access the horizontal boulevard leading towards all the adjacent galleries, and enjoy the panoramic views of the city below its rippling glass, while the building reflections in the water create intriguing patterns. The exhibition ‘Dazzling Desire – Diamonds and their emotional meaning’ runs at MAS from 18 October 2017 to 14 January 2018.
The recently opened MV Art Center is a welcome addition to the vibrant art scene. MV Art Center focuses primarily on the promotion and recognition of Belgian art with a permanent exhibition of artists from after the Second World War (1945 until 1975). Temporary exhibitions are held every two months showcasing international artists carefully selected by Caroline Vanden Balck.
Upon entering the neo-classic building on the left side, Tapta café and restaurant is dominated by large windows, white tables and an open kitchen, where Chef Magalie, the daughter of Maurice Verbeek, prepare innovative dishes with artful touches. Tapta is the pseudonym of the Belgian-Polish sculptor Maria Irena Boyé who’s monumental work is displayed in the foyer.
A Centre of Fashion
Diamond and fashion were also key factors that contributed to Antwerp’s rise to fame on the global stage with the city’s flag on the fashion world firmly planted by the Antwerp Six: Walter Van Beirendonck, Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs, Marina Yee, and Maison Martin Margiela, a group of fashion designers who graduated from the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts.
The school’s Fashion Department is currently housed in ModeNatie, a building built in the 19th century as a department store for the New England Menswear and Children’s fashion shop. Quickly becoming an icon in the heart of the fashion district and after ongoing thorough renovations in 2000, Mode Museum (MoMu) also opened its doors in September 2002 on the same premises, later joined by Artesis Hogeschool Antwerp, the Flanders Fashion Institute (FFI), and Copyright Bookshop. MoMu currently exhibits “She Walks in Beauty” by Olivier Theyskens until 18 February 2018.
Another landmark in the fashion district, Het Modepaleis is home to the designer Dries Van Noten. His flagship store is a period house from 19th century with one floor entirely dedicated to women’s clothes, another one to menswear, and his atelier on the top levels.
For shoe junkies, Coccodrillo is the go-to brand. It was first opened in 1983 by its two founders Geert Bruloot and Eddy Michiels in collaboration with fashion designer Martin Margiela. The duo embraced creativity and took risks by creating shoe lines in partnership with famous designers. Their visions and privileged relations with key luxury brands solidified their position as leader of the avant-garde chic shoes. The shop moved recently to a more prominent space, where brut volumes are blended with elegant fixtures, combining rough and refined elements in an organic harmony – a typical characteristic of Flemish people as well.
Established in 1884 and one of the few remaining gloves shop in Belgium, Huis A. Boon is an institution for crafted gloves. Ganterie Boon has been a family business for three generations and the quality has constantly pleased travellers from all around the world. The added art deco character kept intact since 1920 adds a unique shopping experience.
Welcoming and offering three activities in one, each floor at Graanmarkt 13 tells a different story. Founded by Ilse Cornelissens and Tim Van Geloven, visitors can step into this wonderland and experience calm and inspiration. The store on the first floor is a place where established fashion, interior, and beauty brands meet their cutting-edge, emerging counterparts. Each object in the house is sourced from the duo’s travels around the world.
Their motto is not to sell trends, but objects, for life. The restaurant downstairs is run by acclaimed Chef Seppe Nobels. He transforms the daily harvest of locally sourced fresh ingredients, garden herbs, and Graanmarkt rooftop honey into generous dishes. Chef Nobels’ honest and healthy kitchen was voted the “Best Vegetable restaurant 2015 from Flanders” by Gault & Millau. The top floor luxury apartment with hotel service is the founders’ best-kept secret: a home away from home in the heart of the fashion hub.
Diamonds are women’s best friend and the same can be said for the city of Antwerp as well. The precious stone trade played a significant role to establish Antwerp and its diamond district (nicknamed the Square Mile) as one of the best places in the world for polishing and finishing. Since 1890, families of diamonds traders have come together to establish the diamond industry here. As of today, about 84 per cent of the world’s rough diamonds pass through the district, valued at over $16 billion annually. One reputable and established specialist, DiamondLand, organises a free guided tour of their showroom and ateliers.