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Thursday, 14 March 2013 10:48

Antwerp Explorations

Written by  Monique Burns

With world-class arts and attractions, and an energetic multicultural population, Antwerp feels as dynamic as New York City. Belgium’s second-largest city attracts 800,000 visitors annually, including 100,000 cruise passengers, yet it’s surprisingly compact. Visitors can cross the center city on foot in a half-hour and traverse the city’s length in an hour. There’s a network of buses and trams, and red bikes can be rented hourly at convenient outdoor stations. As befits a great port city, sightseeing boats like Flandria offer tours along the River Scheldt and in the port, which stretches as far north as the Netherlands.

Many visitors arrive in Antwerp at Central Station, the recently restored Art Nouveau station that residents call their “Railway Cathedral” and that Newsweek rightly named one of the world’s most beautiful stations. Next door is romantic Antwerp Zoo, where lovers and families alike stroll tree-lined paths winding past whimsical 19th-century buildings like the Egyptian Temple, housing elephants and giraffes. In the surrounding Diamond District, gem-hunters can browse a warren of jewelry shops. The Diamond Museum is being renovated, but visitors can watch “rocks” being cut and set at Diamondland, the city’s largest diamond shop. 

South of the Diamond District is the Jewish District, which many of Antwerp’s 20,000 Jews call home. Hoffy’s, on Lange Kievitstraat, is famous for traditional Yiddish dishes like gefilte fish and liver with onions as well as schnitzel and grilled meats. On nearby Appelmansstraat, kosher Lamalo serves elegant Mediterranean cuisine. Koningin Astridplein, in front of the station, is ringed by cafes, restaurants and hotels. Overlooking the square, the four-star Radisson Blu Astrid, designed by star architect Michael Graves, has 247 contemporary rooms, a restaurant and terraced brasserie, and a pool and health club. Doubles start at $200. 

A half-mile south of the station, the Zurenborg district has gone trendy with nightlife and dining on cafe-lined Dageraadplaats, Draakplaats and surrounding streets. Two hotspots are jazz cafe Vertigo and Zeezicht. But the neighborhood’s top table, with one Michelin star, is Dome where Chef Julien Burlat offers fresh interpretations of classic French dishes.

 

The Meir, Latin Quarter and Historic District

Amble west of Central Station, down De Kayserlei boulevard with its jewelry shops, boutiques and outdoor cafes. At no. 25, Bier Central has more than 300 bottled beers and 20 Belgian beers on tap. Have a Bolleke, the popular amber beer produced at recently renovated De Koninck Brewery, which reopens for tours in October. 

Then head to the Meir, Antwerp’s car-free major shopping street. Sandwiched between department stores and boutiques is the neoclassic Stadsfeestzaal with 50 shops. Farther down the Meir, Paleis Op de Meir houses ornately rococo Cafe Imperial. Here, too, is The Chocolate Line, whose specialty, the “chocolate shooter”-created for Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones - is a spicy dark-chocolate powder that’s snorted, not nibbled. Just north, four-star De Witte Lelie has 11 stylish white rooms and a lush garden. Duplex doubles start at $360.

On cafe-lined Wapper square, a block south of the Meir, tour Rubenshuis, Peter Paul Rubens’ grand Renaissance-style palace and garden. A stone’s throw south, diners will find the Art Nouveau-style Grand Cafe Horta. On nearby Leopoldstraat, in the Botanical Garden - which first grew medicinal herbs for next-door St. Elisabeth’s Hospital - a restored gardener’s cottage is the elegant setting for Chef Roger Van Damme’s Michelin-starred Het Gebaar. Three-star Hotel Les Nuits, at nearby Lange Gasthuisstraat 12, has 24 stylish design rooms, and a spa with sauna and steam room. It’s also known for its fine restaurant, Flamant Dining decorated with modernistic black and white leather accents. Doubles start at $168. Also on Lange Gasthuisstraat: the art-filled Museum Mayer van den Bergh at no. 19 and the Maagdenhuis at no. 33. 

North lies the city’s historic district. Gothic Cathedral of Our Lady, with an ornate interior graced by no fewer than four Rubens masterpieces, rises between two cafe-lined squares: The Groenplaats (with its Rubens statue) and the Grote Markt (with its statue of Roman soldier Silvius Brabo who cut off a giant’s hand, threw it in the river and, thus, gave the city its name). Behind the Cathedral, choose among countless beers at Paters Vaetje or angel-adorned Het Kathedraal Cafe. South of the Cathedral, at Groenplaats 12, buy fries at venerable Fritkot Max. Or, do as Antwerpers do, and order the curryworst special: deep-fried sausage with chopped onions, curried ketchup sauce and mayo. 

Steps away, in an ornate 19th-century building at Groenplaats 32, is four-star Hilton Antwerp with 210 rooms and a new fitness area. Doubles start at $290. East of the Cathedral, three-star Julien offers 21 elegant black-and-white rooms, a sauna and hammam and a roof terrace. Doubles start at $298 .

North of the Cathedral is St. Paul’s Church with nearly 50 masterpieces by Rubens, Van Dyck and other Flemish masters. Outside, a one-of-a-kind Calvary features 60 life-size figures. South, on the Grote Markt, is the ornate columned Stadhuis, or city hall, as well as Den Engel, a historic beer bar. A bit farther south, on Vrijdagmarkt square, you’ll find Museum Plantin-Moretus. The only museum that’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this elegant art-filled mansion is where the world’s first commercial printing business was established in 1555. Behind the museum is ‘t Fornuis, a one-star Michelin restaurant where chef Johan Segers prepares updated classics like ris de veau with lentils. Steps away, another Michelin-starred restaurant, Lam & Yin, offers fresh, imaginative dishes in a minimalist setting. 

Four-star ‘T Sandt hotel, a stone’s throw from the Scheldt river, has 29 contemporary rooms in a 17th-century mansion with an Italian courtyard and a terrace with Cathedral views. Doubles start at $245. On nearby quays rise the crenellated towers of the Steen, a 13th-century castle and Antwerp’s oldest building. Moored nearby, the Pontoon is a huge wooden raft where Antwerpers snack, sip beer and relax along the river. 

 

the Fashion District to 

‘t Zuid

Antwerp’s Fashion District lies southeast of the Vrijdagmarkt. At Nationalestraat 28, ModeNatie, or Fashion Nation, a domed 19th-century building, houses the fashion museum MoMu, the Flanders Fashion Institute and the Royal Academy of Fine Arts fashion department. Here, too, are a boutique, restaurant, and the Copyright bookstore, where you can buy the Antwerp Fashion Map (with walking tours of five areas) for $2.45. On Nationalestraat and surrounding streets, fashionistas can browse through designer shops and outlets. Be sure to visit Het Modepaleis, the Belle Epoque flagship store of Dries Van Noten, one of the Antwerp Six, at Nationalestraat 16. 

A 20-30-minute stroll south along the quays or down Nationalestraat brings visitors to Het Zuid, a trendy arts and nightlife hub anchored on the north by the Royal Museum of Fine Arts. Though the museum is being renovated and won’t reopen until 2017, residents and visitors alike still pack cafes around Leopold de Waelplaats. Overlooking the square is Hotel O Antwerp, with 16 designer rooms, including 2 spa suites with outdoor whirlpools and saunas, and the popular street-level Brasserie Nero. Doubles start at $190. 

If gallery-hopping works up an appetite, head west, toward the river, to Kommilfoo, where Chef Olivier de Vinck earned his first Michelin star in 2011 for experimental molecular cuisine. Afterward, peek into M HKA, the Museum of Contemporary Art, which displays works from 1970 to the present in a huge white granary. Just south, FoMu, the photography museum, houses its renowned international collection in a 1912 warehouse. 

South, beyond ‘t Zuid, a new exhibition pavilion has opened at the Middelheim Museum, an open-air sculpture garden with works by the likes of Auguste Renoir and Henry Moore. But, before leaving ‘t Zuid, head to the district’s southern edge to see the 2006 Palace of Justice whose triangular roof gables were inspired by sails on the River Scheldt. 

 

For More Information

In June, Brussels Airlines (www.brusselsairlines.com), the Belgian national carrier, began daily service from New York’s JFK Airport to Brussels. American Airlines (www.aa.com), and several other domestic and overseas airlines, also provide frequent direct and connecting service to Brussels from Boston, New York, Los Angeles and other U.S. gateways. From Brussels, Antwerp is a 35-minute train ride. For more about Antwerp, log on to www.antwerpen.be. For information on Brussels and Flanders, log on to www.visitflanders.us

 
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