Weekend in... Antwerp
by Ingrid K Williams
Kloosterstraat, a street packed with fashionable stores and antiques shops
The observation deck of the museum that overlooks the city.
Antwerp’s central railway station makes a grand first impression with its soaring glass ceiling, elegant hall and ornate turn-of-the-century architecture. And it’s a splendid entrance to this stylish city, the largest in the northern Belgian region of Flanders. Years ago, Antwerp established itself as a fashion hub following the international success of top designers like Dries van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester and fellow alumni from the local Royal Academy of Fine Arts, one of Europe’s premier design schools. But today, the imagination and innovation that initially spurred the cerebral fashions for which the city became known is now blooming in diverse forms, from comics to cuisine, art to architecture.
1. Rubens revival
While the Royal Museum of Fine Arts is closed for renovations (scheduled to be completed in 2017), a collection of its artworks is on display in another lofty location: the Cathedral of Our Lady, admission, €5. This grand Gothic cathedral, notable for having just a single spire, also houses major paintings from the hometown artist, Peter Paul Rubens. After touring the cathedral, visit Rubens’s former home and studio, now called Rubenshuis (admission, €8), which today functions as a museum filled with many works from the artist and his pupils.
2. Alley attractions
Winding streets circle the area around the city’s grand cathedral, but few are as pretty as Vlaeykensgang, a cobblestone alley with blooming flower boxes adorning handsome 16th-century stone houses. Since 2011, this hidden lane has also been home to the Axel Vervoordt Gallery, that showcases works from prominent contemporary artists including Hiroshi Sugimoto, Norio Imai and, currently, Lucia Bru. After exploring the art and the picturesque environs, continue south to De Vagant, a cozy bar specialising in the juniper-flavored spirit, jenever. The resident black cat, Berry, won’t help you choose from the hundreds of varieties – old, young, creamy, fruity – on the extensive menu, but you can always simply order a shot of the special jenever-of-the-week (€2.50).
3. Intimate brasseries
At Invincible, a tiny brasserie that opened in 2010, the emphasis is on the vin, as evidenced by windowsills lined with empty magnums. Pick an interesting bottle from the ever-changing assortment on display, and retire to a seat at the kitchen counter or in the dining room. Dinner is a three-course feast (€35) of traditional French fare. If you’d rather take the intimate dining concept to the extreme, nearby is the year-old ’t Leeuwekopke, a mini-bistro with fewer than a dozen seats. Dining at this one-man show – the enterprising chef doubles as waiter and host – can feel like a dinner party.
4. Musical lairs
After dinner, soak up some jazz at De Muze, a bustling café with live nightly performances. If it’s crowded around the bar, head to the upper levels. For a mix of musical styles from bands and local DJs, walk north to the divey bar, Homey. In warm weather, crowds spill outside onto the plaza, which is an enjoyable place to linger over a mango lassi (€3.50s). Make the last stop of the night Frituur No 1, a fantastic fry shop serving steaming piles of twice-fried Belgian fries topped with generous dabs of mayonnaise.
5. Off the page
Belgium’s sizable comic readership has helped propel cartoonish characters off the page and onto Antwerp buildings. Today nine outdoor murals painted by various comic artists are scattered around the city. See some of these works as you walk, starting near Groenplaats, where the cartoonist Dick Matena’s fedora-sporting character looms above Korte Nieuwstraat. Further west, a party scene mural by Brecht Evens, inaugurated last year, enlivens Oever plaza. And on the southern edge of Leopold de Waelplaats, find Philip Paquet’s jazz-inspired vignettes painted in the window frames of a building in the heart of the hip Zuid neighborhood.
6. Chocolate garden
Belgium knows its chocolate, but that still doesn’t fully explain the elaborate desserts that Roger van Damme concocts at the lunch-only restaurant, Het Gebaar. In a cottage on the edge of the botanical gardens, a meal began with crisp fried sweetbreads before moving on to artistically styled creations such as botanique (€19.95), an edible miniature “garden” punctuated by a chocolate river and a tiny chocolate tree.
7. Creative spaces
Though celebrated for its fashion, the city has an imaginative streak that colours more than what’s wearable. In 2011, a small publisher and a local artist opened the Bries Space, a genre-blurring gallery that hosts projects ranging from book readings to comic art shows. It’s open Saturday afternoons and during events. An even newer spot flourishing with creative energy is Viktor, a gallery beneath a design shop-cum-studio called Atelierdubbeloo. Browse the wares, including low-slung chairs and leather iPad sleeves upstairs, and then descend to the basement gallery to see a video installation or photography exhibition from local artists.
8. Shop hop
Whether your idea of shopping involves peering in windows or plunking down plastic, head to Kloosterstraat, a street packed with fashionable stores and antiques shops. Start in Your, an enormous two-story space where you’ll find everything from headphones and ikat-print trousers to a yellow 1975 Porsche 914. Then shop for a present with a past at Arrangerie 13, a nearby shop where cast-off furnishings are restored and reworked. Climb the steep wooden staircase to explore the treasures that are spread across three floors.
9. Futuristic Flemish
At the elegant restaurant De Godevaart, the young chef, Dave De Belder, pushes Flemish cuisine far beyond basic dishes like mussels and fries. A traditional starter of gravlax, for example, was paired with parsley ice cream and a quail egg yolk “cooked” at minus 20 degrees. Delectable wagyu oxtail was draped with a sliver of smoked entrecôte, smothered in tangy Remeker cheese and finished with a rich roasted-onion sauce. A sweet-and-salty homemade chocolate bar was accompanied by a cool scoop of mojito ice cream. Even the restaurant’s décor, with classical moldings, modern artworks and glittering chandeliers, is refreshing. Four courses, €65.
10. Beer cheer
Entering the specialty beer pub Kulminator may require squeezing past crates bearing the name Westvleteren, a Trappist brewery whose beers are as renowned as they are rare. Inside this small pub with its eclectic beer-centric décor, featuring a chandelier of corks and a wreath of caps, you’ll find a menu with hundreds of beers, including many vintage and hard-to-find bottles. Or try the pub Paters Vaetje for a “bolleke,” local slang for a glass of ale from Antwerp’s De Koninck brewery (€2).
11. Dockland delights
In the last couple of years, the once-dreary district of docks and warehouses known as Het Eilandje has been transformed into an attractive neighbourhood with many small shops and cafés. At Broer Bretel, a coffee bar with a vintage vibe, scope out the new surroundings from the outdoor bench while sipping an apple, fennel and parsley iced tea (€2.50). Then continue to the Museum Aan de Stroom, or MAS, in a 10-storey structure of undulating glass and Lego-like sandstone blocks. Inside, exhibitions tell the story of this evolving city (admission, €5). Up on the rooftop observation deck, panoramic views of the surrounding docks, locks and city unfurl.
12. Art park
After a morning in industrial surroundings, spend the afternoon in nature at Middelheimmuseum, a 74-acre sculpture park south of the city centre. Expanded and renovated in 2012, the open-air museum is home to over 200 works, from bronze Rodins to a bubbling pond by the Flemish artist, Philippe Van Snick. Stroll across open lawns, past a new bridge by Ai Weiwei and through an enclosed garden where temporary exhibitions are displayed inside Het Huis, a striking new outdoor pavilion. Then stretch out on the grass, perhaps beneath the swaying wires strung between tall trees, a multi-sensory work by the Belgian artist Honoré d’O and contemplate all the art and nature.
– New York Times service