48 hours in: Antwerp
Diamonds, fashion, Rubens and waffles -- indulge in a winter visit to this cosmopolitan Belgian city, says Matthew Bell.
Why go now?
Belgium's hip, sophisticated second city has a strong Flemish heritage and a noticeable lack of concessions to English speakers, making it feel a long way from home. Yet it is only hours away, 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 which also makes it an excellent destination for alternative January clothes shopping.
There are no direct flights to Antwerp from Ireland. It's easiest to fly to Brussels (Aer Lingus, 0818 365 000; aerlingus.com). Antwerp is 40km from there and an hourly coach service leaves from the airport to the city.
Get your bearings
In the magnificent Central Station (1), the main marble hall soars up to 44 metres, a metre higher than Antwerp's cathedral (2). 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 thoroughfare, Meir (3), which leads to the cathedral (2) and market square, Grote Markt (4).
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 to hand is the city's other great trade, diamonds, which are still bought and sold in the area 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 (5), or The White Lily, at Keizerstraat 16-18 (0032 3226 1966; dewittelelie.be), a boutique affair made up of three adjoining 18th-century houses on a quiet street a couple of blocks from the cathedral (2). Rates start at €195 for a duplex suite, excluding breakfast, going up to €525 for the presidential suite. Not all the 11 suites have a bath, which you want for that money, if only to take advantage of all the Hermès products and giant white bathrobes.
For a bargain, the Hotel Postiljon (6) at Blauwmoezelstraat 6 (0032 3231 7575; hotelpostiljon.be) faces the cathedral (2) and offers rooms from €60 per night, without breakfast. Room 25 has the best view of the cathedral.
Both of these get booked up quickly so if you go last minute, the Hotel Leopold (7) at Quinten Matsijslei 25 (0032 3231 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 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 (8). 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. 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 (9), on the corner of Nationalestraat and Franckenstraat (0032 3233 1972), has been there since 1905 and has hardly changed. Otherwise, Désiré De Lille (10), at Schrijnwerkersstraat 14-18 (0032 3232 6226), is a chintzy tea-room with a big waffle and pancake menu. Frituur Number One (11) at Hoogstrat 1 is something of an institution for its generous portions of French fries, available nearly all day.
Take a hike
Start in Groenplaats (12), 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 (2) and through the Grote Markt (4) -- 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 (13) -- a beautiful castle-like structure that used to house the butchers' guild, and even an abattoir.
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 (14). 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 (15). Keep going to reach the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten (0032 3238 7809; www.kmska.be) at Plaatsnijdersstraat 2 (16), 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. Open Tuesday-Saturday, 10am-5pm; Sundays 10am-6pm. Admission €6.
Antwerp is crammed with clothes shops, from the big everyday names lining the main drag of Meir (3) to high-end labels such as Gucci and Hermès on Schuttershofstraat (17) and round Komedieplaats (18). Dries Van Noten, the most famous of the Antwerp Six, has his flagship store at Nationalstraat 16 (19).
The Belgians -- whisper it -- do low-key café culture better than the French: the service is friendly and smoking is still allowed in bars and cafés. For authentic Trappist beer in a jolly tavern, visit Paters Vaetje (20) at Blauwmoezelstraat 1 (0032 3231 8476), opposite the cathedral (2). A couple of doors down there's Witzli-Poetzli (21), an understated joint favoured by writers, philosophers and other Bohemians.
Even more no-nonsense is Bar de Kat (22) at Wolstraat 22, an old-fashioned, music-free oasis where locals drop for a beer and soup.
Dining with the locals
For mussels, rich fish soup and hearty portions of excellent fresh fish, try Fiskebar (23) at Marnixplaats 12-13 (0032 3257 1357; fiskebar.be). The catch is fresh and different every day.
A walk in the park
The Stadspark (24) is a pretty spot with some wild white rabbits. A more memorable option is the zoo (25) (0032 3202 4540; zooantwerpen.be). There are 4,000 animals, plus a set of scales that tells you which animal you most closely resemble in weight. Open daily 10am-4.45pm, hours vary later in the year; €18.50.
Out to brunch
't Brantyser (26) at Hendrik Conscienceplein 7 (0032 3233 1833; brantyser.be) is a good brasserie that serves hearty dishes such as steak-frites (€19) and croque monsieur (€6.50). Cosy inside, it overlooks the Baroque church of St Carolus Borromeus, which once housed 39 paintings by Rubens, lost in a fire in 1718.
Go to church
The cathedral (2) has undergone countless ravages and remodellings but for two of Rubens' most important pictures: The Raising of the Cross and The Deposition. Entry is €5 from 1pm-4pm on Sundays (Monday to Friday 10am-5pm, Saturdays 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 Koninklijke Academie voor Schone Kunsten (27) at Mutsaertstraat 21. Although not open to the public, it's one of Europe's oldest art schools.
Equally striking is the glass box on De Coninckplein, the perfect café for postcard writing called Kubus (28), popular with students.
Rubens House Museum (29) at Wapper 9-11 (0032 3201 1555; ruben shuis.be) is open 10am-5pm daily, except Monday; €8. While it has 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 (30) at Lange Gasthuisstraat 19 (0032 3232 4237; same opening times). Among the many treasures 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 (31) at Vrijdagmarkt 22 (0032 3221 1450; museum.antwerpen.be; same times; €6), the home of one of the earliest European publishing houses which has remained unmolested to this day and is chock-full of 16th-century books, furniture, maps and pictures, including 18 portraits by Rubens.
The icing on the cake
Chocolate is taken very seriously here, which makes souvenir-hunting easy. Günther Watté (32) is a slick chocolate café at Steenhouwersvest 30 (0032 3293 5894; open 1pm--6pm Sundays, 10.30am-6.30pm Mon-day--Saturday), which attracts connoisseurs of both coffee and hand-made chocolates. You can see the chocolates being made by an elderly couple through a window at the back. W