Published: April 2009
By Maria Shollenbarger
At the crossroads of northern and western Europe, a style capital steps into the limelight with a fresh crop of hotels, restaurants, and—yes—fabulous places to shop.
You won’t hear locals bragging about it, but Antwerp’s the best ‘little big town’ in northern Europe,” says Ben Bolduck, the American sous-chef at the Michelin-starred Dôme (2 Grote Hondstraat; 32-3/239-9003; dinner for two $220), the city’s hottest dining ticket for more than five years. Combining the history of one of Europe’s oldest (and richest) ports with the energy of a contemporary fashion capital (thanks to pioneering Flemish designers such as Ann Demeulemeester and Dries Van Noten), Antwerp is in a league of its own. Indeed, as several Next Hot Cities in northern Europe have enjoyed their moments in recent years, Antwerpers just keep doing what they do best: quietly creating absurdly stylish places to eat, shop, and relax. Just south of the old city, the Zuid district—which, for years, was only mentioned with the qualifier “up-and-coming”—is now the city’s glamorous nexus. New restaurants abound. Craving scallop ceviche and aquavit?Hit Fiskebar (12–13 Marnixplaats; 32-3/257-1357; dinner for two $70), a white-tiled Danish joint. Or do you fancy pad thai and an industrial-emporium vibe?Then Lucy Chang (16–17 Marnixplaats; 32-3/248-9560; dinner for two $65), across the way, is your best bet. Later this spring, the 12-suite hotel Delaneau 20 (20 Karel Rogierstraat; delaneau20.com; doubles from $367) will open in connecting town houses, with a spa, tea salon, and cocktail lounge. And the area around the Nationalestraat is brimming with new boutiques. Among the best: the daring shoe store Elsa (147 Nationalestraat; 32-3/226-8454); Baby Beluga (1 Volkstraat; 32-3/289-9060), a fuchsia-and-black jewel box filled with frothy dresses and accessories; and Violetta & Vera Pepa (24 Nationalestraat; 32-3/238-0021), carrying two sisters’ pared-down women’s line. (The Pepas have also opened a B&B above their shop: turn the page for more.) But is the city still on the major fashion players’ map?Just ask Yohji Yamamoto. In October, he cut the ribbon on his Antwerp boutique (32 Nationalestraat; 32-3/213-2178)—the largest Yamamoto store in the world.
Boulevard Leopold Bed & Breakfast
Each of the five rooms and suites in this 19th-century Jewish Quarter mansion has been restored with original moldings, parquet floors, and tiles intact. Antique chesterfields and mounted hunting trophies abound. 135 Belgíëlei; 32-3/225-5218; boulevard-leopold.be; doubles from $180.
De Witte Lelie
A perennial favorite, this whitewashed hotel (its name, after all, means “white lily”) comprises three restored 17th-century canal houses, all filled with bouquets of fresh flowers. 16–18 Keizerstraat; 32-3/226-1966; dewittelelie.be; doubles from $410.
Here’s where you book if proximity to old-town charm is important. The hotel is just a cobblestone’s throw from the historic market, Grote Markt, and is wedged between gently listing 350-year-old merchants’ houses. 11A Haarstraat; 32-3/201-8800; matelote.be; doubles from $175.
Great value Check into Violetta and Vera Pepa’s petite B&B and a smiling sister will install you in the gold leaf–filled double room (tiny and sexy), or one of two simple, airy suites. Croissants, fruit, and strong coffee will be waiting outside your door in the morning. 24 Nationalestraat; 32-3/226-0700; roomnational.com; doubles from $139.
De Kleine Zavel
A quick walk from Grote Markt, this traditional restaurant serves rib-sticking Flemish dishes prepared the old-fashioned way; the saddle of hare with “melted” root vegetables is a standout. 2 Stoofstraat; 32-3/231-9691; dinner for two $150.
Dôme Sur Mer
Two years ago, the owners of Dôme opened this seafood brasserie across the square in the Zurenborg district. With a wide marble bar, open kitchen, and walls of windows, it’s the perfect place to polish off a split of Krug and a couple dozen belon oysters. 1 Arendstraat; 32-3/281-7433; dinner for two $150.
If you find yourself on the Lange Gasthuisstraat (and you should; see “Shop,” below), combine lunch—linguine with black truffles perhaps—with amusing bourgeoisie-watching at concept store Flamant Home Interior’s swank brasserie. 12 Lange Gasthuisstraat; 32-3/227-7441; lunch for two $110.
In De Roscam
Friday mornings see an antiques auction in the Vrijdagmarkt (Friday Market). You’ll have to look closely to find this unassuming restaurant on the square’s southeast corner, but don’t be dissuaded. In De Roscam’s fare is cheap, organic, and delicious—and a stealth fashion hot spot. 12 Vrijdagmarkt; 32-48/642-5606; lunch for two $35.
Furniture and Clothing Selection
Sometimes you just really need a vintage Dior travel case, a Pucci foulard, and rare Jugendstil glass. That’s what Furniture and Clothing Selection—or FCS—is for. The space is fairly bare-bones, but fans of early-20th-century design should put this on the agenda. 8 Timmer-werfstraat; 32-3/294-3378.
If collections in black, off-black, and charcoal-black are your thing, Schneider’s tiny atelier will please you. Skinny men’s trousers, shirts, and pullovers come in unexpected felts, knits, and thick cottons; so do the demure dresses and skirts. 53 Reyndersstraat; 32-3/226-2614; stephanschneider.be.
This mini department store stocks a very un-Antwerp lineup of blingy Italian brands in a space that’s the apotheosis of the Antwerp aesthetic: neutral and burnished, simultaneously rich and plain. A cocktail at the adjacent Martini Bar is de rigueur. 9–11 Lange Gasthuisstraat; 32-3/226-9292; verso.be.
Wouters & Hendrix
A jeweler?A metalsmith?An art gallery?Call it what you like, but definitely stop by. The pieces—made of sterling silver or hand-hammered 18-karat gold—are set with roughly tooled semiprecious stones and pearls. 13 Lange Gasthuisstraat; 32-3/231-6242; wouters-hendrix.com.
Belle Époque Mansions
The houses in Zurenborg—along Cogels-Osylei, Transvaalstraat, and Waterloostraat—are unique in Europe; more than 150 are designated landmarks. They range from the weird (Tyrolean half-timbering in Flanders?Really?) to the glorious (hand-painted Art Deco tile façades).
The small museum’s collection of vintage cameras and photography equipment offers a comprehensive history of the craft. Don’t miss the bookshop, which has excellent monographs. 47 Waalse Kaai; 32-3/242-9300; fotomuseum.be.
This pioneering conservatory of style is housed in the same building as the Flanders Fashion Institute and the new Yamamoto store. 28 Nationalestraat; 32-3/470-2770; momu.be.