x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Belgium's Antwerp is an artistic port of call

My Kind of Place Once the richest city in Europe, this Belgian city still has a thriving cultural scene.

The Baroque Brabo fountain by Jef Lambeaux, which dates from 1887, is one of the many architectural treats in Antwerp. Getty Images
The Baroque Brabo fountain by Jef Lambeaux, which dates from 1887, is one of the many architectural treats in Antwerp. Getty Images

Why Antwerp?

Antwerp is a city where medieval, Gothic and art deco buildings mingle with modernist and cutting-edge architecture, where music lovers can attend world-class opera performances and underground electronic music gigs. Sophisticated, quiet, it's an ideal city for aimless wandering throughout the historical centre, the port area and the Zuid, or south, where students and artists live.

An historical port and a centre of the Flemish Renaissance, Antwerp became the mercantile capital of western Europe by the end of the fifteenth century thanks to the lucrative spice and sugar trades. It came under the rule of the Franks, the Spaniards and, after the Twelve Years' Truce signed by the rulers of the United Provinces and the Spanish Netherlands in 1609, the city flourished with the help of the diamond trade and the city's legendary printing houses. In the late 19th century, Antwerp became the third-largest port city in the world after London and New York. Its Red Star Line steamer carried millions of Europeans to Ellis Island to start a new life in America.

Antwerp remains sophisticated and creative to this day. In the 1980s, a vibrant contemporary art and fashion scene emerged, which includes Dries Van Noten and Martin Margiela.

A comfortable bed

The sleek boutique Hotel O (www.hotelo.be; 00 32 03 292 6510), decorated by architect Jo Peeters, features back-lit reproductions of historic paintings and a view of the Beaux-Arts architecture of the South District. The Philippe Starck bath tubs are deep and relaxing, while the bed induces immediate slumber. For those who do wake up, Café Nero in the lobby serves light bites in an elegant decor. Double rooms cost from €165 (Dh766) per night.

On a quiet but central street, Hotel Les Nuits (www.hotellesnuits.be; 00 32 03 225 0204) is a luxurious b&b decorated with objects from the Flamant store in the same building. Antiques from the Far East bring a touch of warmth to the stylish all-black rooms, while large windows offer sweeping views across the city. Double rooms cost from €145 (Dh673) per night.

Find your feet

Start at the Cathedral of Our Lady, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture completed in the 16th century. Inside, three paintings by artist and diplomat Peter Paul Rubens are on display.

Now walk towards the waterfront, where a cultural and residential district is rising. The new MAS museum, erected on the banks of the Scheldt river, is an icon of the city and its maritime heritage. From inside, the city, port, river and sky shine through the floor-to-ceiling undulating glass panels.

Head back to the city centre, where boutiques and cafes abound. The fashion department of the Royal Academy of Fine Artsshares the Beaux Arts ModeNatie building with the city's fashion museum, MoMu, which curates provocative fashion exhibitions on designers such as Walter van Beirendonck and Stephen Jones.

Book a table

It's easy to find tasty, well-prepared fish in Belgium, but the best seafood restaurant in Antwerp must be Dôme-Sur-Mer (www.domeweb.be; 00 32 03 281 74 33), which faces both its sister, Michelin-starred Dôme, and the Scheldt.

In the alluring all-white interior, crustaceans and fresh fish are served up with a Spanish and French flourish.

Het Gebaar (www.hetgebaar.be; 00 32 03 232 3710), a bucolic restaurant nested in the Botanical Garden, is the ideal choice for a quiet lunch.

On a sunny day, the terrace air is scented with whiffs of lavender and basil from the nearby garden. Prestigious chef Roger Van Damme uses both of these herbs in his delicate cuisine.

Meet the locals

The Zuid, or south area, is the city's hippest neighbourhood, filled with art galleries and charming cafes. After a visit to the MuHKA contemporary art museum, stop at Café Hopper for a drink and some live jazz music.

Shopper's paradise

Collectors and decorators from around the world visit Kloosterstraat's antique and modern design stores, where anything from 1950s club chairs to beautiful silverware and rococo tables can be found.

On the same street, the concept store RA is a sprawling space where avant-garde fashion mingles with art books, jewellery and indie music. The adjacent cafe serves fresh, organic salads and tasty soups.

What to avoid

Don't linger near the cathedral and by all means avoid the tourist-filled cafes in the adjacent square, which serve overpriced and mediocre dishes.

Don't miss

Make sure to stop at a waffle stand for the steaming, chocolate sauce-covered delicacy.

Go there

Etihad (www.etihadairways.com) flies direct to Brussels from Dh3,440 return, including taxes. The fast train to Antwerp takes an hour.