EN ROUTE: ANTWERP
This foggy, unassuming, austerely beautiful port city remains redolent of its glorious past.
In its golden age, in the 16th century, Antwerp was one of the richest and largest cities in Europe, attracting artisans and merchants from the four corners of the then-flat world. These days, the world is round, but this foggy, unassuming, austerely beautiful port city on the River Scheldt remains redolent of its own glorious past—particularly in the historic center, where the tolling bells, gabled townhouses, and the soaring Gothic spire of the cathedral evoke the days of van Dyck and Bruegel. And yet it’s not a reverence for the Old Masters that draws us here—though Peter Paul Rubens’ beautifully restored mansion, just off the Meir, Antwerp’s Baroque pedestrian avenue, is a must-see—but for the artistic minds of the present, and future.
Bring an empty suitcase. On Nationalstrasse, Dries Van Noten’s vintage haberdashery of a boutique, Het Modepaleis, is at #16 (32-3 470 2510); Veronique Branquinho is down the street at #123 (32-3 233 6616). Further south are the funhouse-like Walter (Sint Antoniusstraat 12, 32-3 213-2644) and the zen temple of monochrome that is Ann Demeuelemeester (Verlatstraat 38, 32-3 216-0133). Just off Groenplaats, Stephan Schneider’s wearable coats and knits for men and women can be found (Reyndersstraat 53, 32-3 226 2614). Also in the center is Verso, Antwerp’s luxe department store—think of a more sumptuous, art nouveau Barneys (Lange Gasthuistraat 11, 32-3 226-9292). The shoe store of one’s dreams, Coccodrillo carries both Belgian and Italian brands for men and women (Schuttershofstraat 9A/B, 32-3 232-9872), while the punky jewelry collective Atelier 11 completes the accessories tour (Schelestraat 32, 32-3 248-1164). Easier on the wallet is the secondhand shop known as Francis, where Belgian designs a few seasons old can be found at greatly reduced prices (Steenhouwersvest 36, 32-3 288 9433) or the more au courant Labels Inc (Aalmoezenierstraat 4, 32-3 232 6056). All shops are closed on Sunday—the day of rest for all things sartorial in Belgium—with the exception of the antique stores on Kloosterstraat and Hoogstraat. Americans, be sure to present your passport at the time of purchase for a rebate of the crushing 21% V.A.T. tax.
In Rubens’ time, it was fashionable to be fleshy. Mussels, the most Belgian of specialties, can be found around Grote Markt, and candlelit pubs for quaffing a pint can be found on what seems like every other corner. But then there are far more ambitious culinary horizons to be explored. One of Antwerp’s newest and best, Lux is an impressively vast, elegant space in Het Eilandje with a serious wine list, as well as a menu that features Colchester oysters, langoustines, and foie gras (Adriaan Brouwerstraat 12, 32-3 233 3030). For seafood, our favorite is De Kleine Zavel, with more oysters, impeccably fresh fish, and the most charmingly rustic of rooms (Stoofstraat 2, 32-3 231 9691). A trendy option in Het Zuid is Hippodroom, with crimson velvet banquettes and an upscale, fun-loving clientele (Leopold De Waelplaats 10, 32-3 248 5252), or the more casual, youthful Berlin (Kleine Markt 1-3, 32-3 227 1101). Perfect for a mid-day shopping break is the café in Verso (Lange Gasthuisstraat 9-11, 32-3 306 0202), or check out a relic of 80s architecture and Scheldt river views at Zuiderterras (Ernest Van Dijckkaai 37, 32-3 234 1275). For vegans, die-hard hippies, or anyone who cares to dine while sitting on a fiberglass pumpkin, the best bet is Lombardia (Lombardenvest 78, 32-3 232 0203). On the sweet end of things, chocolate (Leonidas is the quintessentially Flemish brand, with numerous locations throughout the city) and take-away waffles, also found on nearly every street, are great ways for fashionphiles to stay fortified on foot.
With D.J.s spinning vinyl and a low-key, insidery vibe, Mogador (Graaf von Egmontstraat 57, 32-3 238 7160) is a great place to start or end the evening—ring the doorbell for admittance. Flawless cocktails can be found at Sips (8 Gillisplaats, 32-3 257-3959), or try the Japanese-inspired Soeki, where the finger foods are as elegant as the clientele (Volkstraat 21, 32-3 238 7505). For music, including Belgian bands, themed club nights and electronica showcases, Petrol is a good option on Friday or Saturday nights (d’Herboukillekaai, 32-3 226-49-63), or try the somewhat more populist Café d’Anvers, which attracts international DJs (15 Verversrui, 32-3 226 3870). Beware Luikstraat, where red ropes and Paris Hilton wannabees seem totally incongruous. Check listings in Week Up, distributed in shops and cafes around the city.
This story was published on April 2, 2007.