I recently took the train from The Hague to Antwerp for a quick mini break. It’s surprisingly close: 1.5 hours on the high speed train and you’re there. Even from the UK you can take the Eurostar, from Brussels you’re there in less than an hour, from Paris in two. I was taken aback by how much I liked the city; its historical centre is very pretty (a little like Brughes, especially the market square) but it has an added style which the rest of Belgium misses. It’s filled with the trendiest boutiques, akin to Copenhagen, from furniture to clothes to homeware. It’s a lovely city to visit in the winter, when the Christmas markets are out and the city is beautifully lit. I highly recommend it for a short romantic city break, and it won’t break the bank either.
WHERE TO STAY
Antwerp lacks top five star hotels, but has a few good boutique options as follows:
ROOM NATIONAL, CENTRAL – for modern, minimalist design
This is not a hotel, but three spacious rooms located very centrally on National Straat. The owner Karin is very friendly, and will meet you there when you arrive, explain everything and give you local tips. They call themselves Bed & Coffee, as breakfast is not included, but they have a good coffee machine in each room. We opted for the apartment (Room 1), the most expensive option (but at around £100 a night, is still a steal), which comes with a small kitchen, sitting room with Mac computer, bedroom and small bathroom (with epic bathtub). Everything is white. And despite that, it felt very cosy. You can’t get more central in terms of exploring the city.
They also have a sister property aplace/antwerp, around the corner, which looks equally appealing. Karin has clearly combined her passion for interior design and eye for detail to create the perfect weekend break accommodation. While the style of these suites/apartments are very different to Room National (less flash/white), they are certainly as comfortable and as stylish. The apartments are fantastic for families or groups of friends.
HOTEL JULIEN, CENTRAL – for a well-priced boutique hotel
While I didn’t see St Julien, I’ve heard good things about this small hotel. Prices seem reasonable, with a clean design, lovely courtyard, small spa and a great bar. Rooms from £130 per night.
WHERE TO SHOP
Antwerp does shopping and design like no other. I was surprised by how beautiful all the boutiques were and the sheer amount of them. Especially the area around the Klooster Straat is ideal for antiques and bric a brac.
ST. VINCENTS, CENTRAL
Wow, I wish this place existed in London, because this is one of the most beautiful high end ‘concept stores’ I’ve set foot in. They actually call themselves a Coffee Bar & Shop, using the coffee bar to showcase some of their beautiful furniture as well as a tool for drawing people into the shop and keeping them there. If you’re looking for inspiration of how to design your home, look no further. It brings out the materialistic side in you. This is easily a place to you can find a comfy – but effortlessly stylish – chair and have a coffee, and then still find yourself there 2 hours later.
The minute you walk in it’s hard not to fall in love with this place. Absolutely stunning design, beautiful products (think Aesop, stunning scented candles and scents, Belgian linen, sleek furniture, beautiful photo frames). Their tag line is ‘Objects of desire’, and this is 100% true. They are so proud of their concept and the lay out of the shop that photos aren’t allowed, in case anyone copies them (thus the photos below are their own).
Antwerp is full of coffee shops. But not just stand alone coffee shops. Antwerp has barbers with a coffee shop, book shops with a coffee shop, countless boutiques (like St Vincents) with a coffee shop. Bottom line, there is no escaping coffee! While Belgium has always been famous for waffles, chocolate and beer, it is quickly becoming quite the coffee pro too.
BUCHBAR, SOUTH – for book and coffee lovers
A fairly new opening in Antwerp, this is a small and very cosy coffee shop and book shop, all in one. Serving warm soups and good cakes, this is also a nice option for a chilled, if modest lunch. The design was done by the same clever people who did Tinsel, so full marks for that too. My only negative comment would be that it was understaffed with just one girl serving a full cafe. And that the cake ran out as I was about to order…
NORMO, CENTRAL – for the coffee experts
This is generally known in Antwerp as the best place to come for coffee. The staff are super passionate and ensure you get a coffee you’ll remember. The place itself is inviting too, with free wifi, free magazines and comfortable interiors, making it the ideal place to while away the afternoon.
KOLONEL KOFFIE (in Antwerp South) and CAFFENATION (in the Theatre area) are also meant to be good for your caffeine hit.
WHERE TO DRINK
MAD HATTER HENDRICKS, CENTRAL – An Alice in Wonderland speakeasy with a gin emphasis
We came across this bar as we were wondering through the little streets of central Antwerp. Anything ‘speakeasy’ and I’m there! Having recently opened in the basement of X, I loved this Alice in Wonderland bar. All the cocktails are gin based, of course, and the barman goes through great efforts to ensure you get the right drink for you. You can also order sharing platters from upstairs, the medium is massive, so if you’re just peckish I think the small will do. Full marks!
BELGIAN WINES, THEATRE AREA – the best wine bar in town
Sadly this place was shut when we were in Antwerp, but if you’re looking for a wine bar, this is the place for you. While sceptics may question how good Belgian wines are, the reviews have been good. And if the wine doesn’t do it for you, then it’s still worth seeing, as the interior design of the place (by the super talented Klein Agency – photo below) is stunning.
VITRIN – the bar for the trendy creatives
Where all the quirky, arty people come for post dinner drinks, this is a fun and upbeat bar, ideal for a boozy and sociable evening.
WHERE TO EAT
VASCOBELO V-BAR, CENTRAL – for an all day hangout
Don’t be put off by the size (it is large), this relatively new cafe/all day hang out was set up by Belgian Coffee brand Vascobelo and it’s the first of its kind. Offering all day breakfast, lunch, snacks and – of course – excellent coffee, this is a charming and well-designed cafe, well worth your time. Its been such a hit that they’ve also opened in Amsterdam, and will be opening many more branches in due time.
ABOL COFFEE AND BREAD, CENTRAL – for an affordable brunch
We walked past this place and it looked so inviting that we decided to try it for breakfast. The interiors are not as charming as the exteriors (I loved the green outside, the brown inside less so), but the menu was good and very well-priced. Come here for a pancake, or a waffle, or their scrambled eggs, salmon and spinach was delicious too.
TINSEL, SOUTH – for the perfect cosy brunch
Popular for a reason, be prepared to wait for a table in this small but super cosy cafe. Ideal for a girlie brunch and catch up, the breakfast and lunch menu are equally good. Be it pancakes for breakfast, or one of their incredible sandwiches for lunch (the beef tartar and pesto one was our favourite); you can’t really go wrong here.
Other than the above, Mirlo’s is also meant to be a nice breakfast hangout.
COMPTOIR NATURAL FOOD BAR, ZUID
Comptoir is a small but rather beautiful deli and ‘tea room’. I loved their selection of salads, cold-pressed juices and the endless cakes (gluten free) and other delicious options. I enjoyed their coffee, and think it’s an ideal place for a quiet health lunch.
I also rather liked the look of Raw, in Antwerp Central, good for a quick but healthy lunch, or a juice on the go.
GRAANMARKT 13, THEATRE AREA
This is the place I was set on going to for breakfast, a boutique – restaurant – gallery hybrid, where the design of the place looked so gorgeous I didn’t even look at the menu. While not cheap, the prices are reasonable if you consider how good (apparently) the food is – 43 euros for a 3 course dinner. A reason to return.
RENAISSANCE, CENTRAL – for Italian fine dining in a modern setting
We were recommended this restaurant by a local, and considering it’s located in prime tourist territory (right next to Room National), it was mostly filled with locals. Renaissance is not just a restaurant. They describe themselves as ‘a cosmopolitan vision on cutting edge fashion, beauty, art & fine food’. Thus Renaissance is thus part of/next to a boutique selling expensive designer clothes, in an all white space. The interiors continue in the same style in the restaurant – all white and black, with lots of marble and shiny surfaces. It looks expensive. If you opt for the ‘Primi’ dishes (i.e the carbs), the prices are actually quite reasonable. The family who own it also own two other recommended restaurants in Antwerp: Ferrier 30 and Arte.