Antwerp is Europe's second-largest port and has much of the zest often associated with a harbor town. But it also has an outsized influence in a very different realm: that of clothing design. Since the 1980s, Antwerp-trained fashion designers have become renowned for experimental styles paired with time-honored workmanship. Several designers, such as Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester, stay firmly rooted in the city; others have filtered into major European couture houses. On their home turf, you can experience the fascinating mix of tradition and innovation that influences their work. In its heyday, Antwerp (Antwerpen in Flemish, Anvers in French) played second fiddle only to Paris. Thanks to artists such as Rubens, Van Dyck, and Jordaens, it was one of Europe's leading art centers. Its printing presses produced missals for the farthest reaches of the Spanish empire. It became, and has remained, the diamond capital of the world. Its civic pride was such that the Antwerpen Sinjoren (patricians) considered themselves a cut above just about everybody else.
The area that surrounds Centraal Station, Antwerp's magnificent railway station, is in the commercial center of the city, but is not representative of its character. Hop on the subway to Groenplaats and walk past the cathedral and then into the Grote Markt. This is where Antwerp begins.
Antwerp cuisine understandably focuses on fish, presented with few frills in even the finest restaurants, often poached or steamed, and reasonably priced. From the chilled whelks and periwinkles (marine snails) picked out of their shells with pins, to piles of tender little grijze garnalen (small shrimp), to the steamy white flesh of the mammoth tarbot (turbot), the scent of salt air is never far from your table. The ubiquitous mosselen (mussels) and paling (eels), showcased in midpriced restaurants throughout the city center, provide a heavier, heartier version of local fish cuisine. Bought live from wholesalers, the seafood is irreproachably fresh.
Antwerp has a high number of restaurants for a city its size. Many of the traditional places, both formal and casual, are clustered in Oude Stad. There are plenty of tourist-focused restaurants on the Grote Markt, but if you look along the smaller streets around the square you'll find some excellent local favorites. Het Zuid, meanwhile, is known for trendier cafés and restaurants. Peak dining hours are generally from noon until 3 and from 8 pm to 11 or midnight. Since the dining scene is quite busy, it's best to make reservations.
Antwerp's hotels with the most character are generally found in the Oude Stad and its adjacent neighborhoods. There are several intimate boutique hotels, but as these can fill up far in advance, be sure to make reservations as early as possible. Some hotels have set prices throughout the year but many offer weekend rates. All hotels include taxes (6%) in their room rates. The city's tourism
bureau, Toerisme Antwerpen, keeps track of the best hotel prices and can make reservations for you up to a week in advance. Write or e-mail (toerisme@
There are 2,500 taverns in Antwerp—one for every 200 inhabitants—and the city is the club-going capital of Belgium, which means that the centers of nightlife are abuzz until the wee hours of the morning.
Along the waterfront at Vlaamse Kaai and Waalse Kaai there's a large parking square where you'll find some of Antwerp's biggest clubs as well as a group of smaller pubs. Be advised, though, that they share the area with Antwerp's red-light district.
Much of Antwerp's reputation for edgy chic comes from its clothing designers; dedicated followers of fashion consider the city in a league with Milan and Paris, and Antwerp-based couturiers regularly appear in the international glossies. Credit for this development goes to the so-called Antwerp Six (students of Linda Loppa from the class of 1981 at Antwerp's Fashion Academy) and in equal measure
to the new wave of talent that has more recently stormed the catwalks. Ready-to-wear by stalwarts Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk Bikkembergs, Dries Van Noten, Martin Margiela, and relative newcomers Raf Simons, Véronique Branquinho, and Wim Neels command high prices. However, in the shopping area south of Groenplaats, prices are less astronomical. And, of course, the Diamantwijk is prime territory for glittering precious stones.
Check the Bulletin, a weekly English-language newsmagazine, for details on arts events in Antwerp. You can pick up a copy at bookstores and newsstands.
Ann Demeulemeester sells her clothes in an elegant corner store not far from the M HKA (Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst).
Dries Van Noten collections for men and women can be found in the splendid Modepaleis, a five-story belle epoque building that he bought in 1989.
The largest diamond showroom is Diamondland, where tours of polishers, goldsmiths, and setters at work can be arranged before you settle down to business. Loose diamonds can be set while you wait. The store is open by appointment only, Mon.–Sat., 9:30–5:30.