The Kloosterstraat is not an especially long street, but a walk along it can easily last for hours. Linking the old town with the arty Zuid district, it’s lined with antique and design shops selling a staggering inventory of hebbedingetjes (things you want but don’t need). Hunting among these is a favourite Antwerp pasttime, especially on Sundays. Come afternoon, the street buzzes with locals strolling pavements heaped with mannequins, suits of armour and second-hand books. The variety is huge: junk grottoes like Tante Brocante rub shoulders with dealers selling ancient Egyptian parchment or Congolese swords. For the best pick of local talent, time your visit with the monthly Market for Tomorrow, which hosts young makers, as well as DJs and a cocktail truck.
Belgium has no shortage of great beers, and in Antwerp there’s one that’s got to be on the menu: De Koninck. A symbol of the city, this malty, mahogany-coloured brew was the first beer to be made here and, while some microbrews are just emerging, is now the last to be produced in significant quantities locally. The recently revamped De Koninck brewery makes an unbeatable introduction, with a new tour that puts the typical shuffle round an yeasty brewing floor to shame. A hands-on look at the beer’s history and production, it includes a primer on beer glasses held beneath a ceiling glittering with them, a delivery van that hurtles on a virtual tour of the city, and a last-chance saloon with a self-playing piano. The final stop is, happily, the bar, where visitors can sample De Koninck in its unique glass — the chalice-like bolleke — and its two sister beers, Wild Jo and the potent Triple D’Anvers. If this all gives you the urge for an accompanying snack, in-house artisan producers are on hand to advise on pairing cheese, meat and chocolate with Belgian beers.
Step into the Paleis op Meir and you’ll find a place as lavish as you’d expect from a haunt of Belgian kings and Napoleon Bonaparte: gilded ceilings, paintings and glittering chandeliers—plus a lot of chocolate. This is the unusual home of The Chocolate Line, the second outpost of Bruges-based “shockolatier” and tireless experimenter Dominique de Persoone. His inventions—all made on-site, in a kitchen with a 19th-century stove —area fever dream of outlandish flavours like wasabi, lavender, and Earl Grey; one chocolate even comes with a tequila-filled syringe. And they taste good: “Miss Piggy” somehow manages to capture the flavour and crunch of bacon, while a sundried tomato, basil and black olive confection mimics pizza. Also on offer are chocolate lipstick and “pills” certain to cure a broken heart.
Head up one of Antwerp’s taller buildings at night and you’ll see lights glittering for miles-the tell-tale signs of Europe’s second-largest port, sprawling beside the River Scheldt as it curves out to the North Sea. The city’s maritime heritage is everywhere in Het Eilandje, the once-decrepit docklands whose buildings now house cool clubs, bars and restaurants like Het Pomphuls. Set in a grand ’20s pumping house with its original machinery intact, the towering space is packed with diners ensconced in plush armchairs, their conversations and clinking cutlery echoing up to the glass roof above. They tuck into artfully presented, seasonal dishes: the likes of goose liver with strawberry and shallot compote, or rabbit fillet with mozzarella, tomatoes and lemon gel, plus marine bounty from the North Sea, including sole, plaice and mussels. To finish, there are dainty dessert plates laden with mini mousses, biscuits and sorbets – perhaps with a last drink on the restaurant’s terrace, as container ships inch by.
Inside De Vagant, friends chat at rough-hewn tables, sipping from shot-glasses as resident cat Berry purrs his way between their legs. An old, timber-beamed house updated with vintage liqueur posters and low-strung lights, De Vagant is Belgium’s leading purveyor of jenever – a historic drink with a new-found following. A juniper-based spirit and forerunner of gin, it was invented here (or by the Dutch, depending on who’s talking), but banned from 1919 as a national vice. After its re-emergence in 1985, Antwerpian Ronald Ferket opened De Vagant with just a few varieties behind the bar. Today, the pub and adjacent shop offer more than 200, spanning jenever’s spectrum of flavours from vodka-like neutrals to sharp, herby Oude Antwerpse and oaky, barrel-aged Filliers. In summer, cocktails and “jeton” (Jenever G&T) are popular, as are sweet, bright fruit jenevers like lemon and blood orange. However lightly it may go down, jenever packs a punch .Take your cue from the locals: sip, sit back and relax.