Nestled between some of Europe’s most evocative capitals, tiny Antwerp may not conjure many images in your mind. Relatively unknown, this Belgian port city has often been overlooked in favor of its more famous neighbors, Amsterdam or Paris. The beauty and charm of this Flemish gem, however, are well worth going out of your way for and will certainly take your breath away.
Only three hours by train from London, Antwerp makes a perfect weekend break for the savvy traveler seeking to avoid the crowds and indulge in the city’s architectural and sartorial delights. Antwerp offers everything from historic, stately architecture to cutting-edge museums, showing some of Europe’s edgiest art.
Despite its small size, Antwerp packs in as much as a capital city and does so better and with more flair than most. The effervescent city sparkles like its famous diamond district, filled with 1,800 dealers that handle 80% of the world’s rough diamond trade in one square kilometer next to the city’s central station.
The city is a global trade powerhouse supported by Europe’s second-largest port, and its wealth has been put to good use embellishing the city. Medieval guild houses, art nouveau mansions, genteel parks, and dockside lofts all vie for space in this mini-metropolis.
These days, the city moves to a more sartorial rhythm, as it makes yet more riches selling rags. Antwerp has been a fashion and design powerhouse since at least 1988 when a group of young Flemish designers rented a truck, filled it with their own collections and drove to London Fashion Week, The Antwerp Six, as they came to be known, made a monumental splash and the city they came from hasn’t looked back since. Nowadays, designers emerging from the legendary Royal Academy of Fine Arts continue to build the fashion reputation of this plucky little Flemish upstart.
The city has more to offer than clothes, though, and has staked its future on the creative power of its citizens. Home of the artist Jan Fabre, enfant terrible of contemporary Belgian art, it is no surprise that the Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst (MuHKA), Antwerp’s contemporary art museum, enjoys an international reputation.
Not far away, the grande dame of the trendy Het Zuid neighborhood is the Antwerp Museum of Fine Arts (KMSKA), which houses an impressive collection of Flemish Masters, including the Adoration of the Magi by Rubens.
The winding cobbled streets in Antwerp’s historic center are largely closed to cars, making the city a pedestrian and cyclist’s paradise. The beautiful gabled townhouses that line them, once the homes of Antwerp’s powerful merchant class, now house smart boutiques, trendy coffee shops, and exciting restaurants, all testaments to the city’s newfound creative energy and its role as Europe’s coolest city for those in the know.
These two traditions come together in Het Eilandje, Antwerp’s former docklands. The working port has been moved into deeper water to accommodate larger vessels. In its stead have come lively bars, new parks, and stunning apartments in converted warehouses. Rising like a sublime monolith in the center of the docks is the new Museum Aan de Stroom.
Set to open in May, the museum will house the city’s multifaceted art and history collections under one roof for the first time. Designed by Dutch architects Neutelings Riedijk, the building beautifully plays with light as it reflects off its corrugated glass and red sandstone facade. Stunningly contemporary, yet elegantly timeless and with a nod to the city’s heritage, the new museum is a perfect symbol of Antwerp’s marriage of tradition and modernity and shows off the city’s confidence and creative vision.
Before the secret is out, now is the perfect time to visit.