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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Belgium.
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Belgium.
Antwerp is Belgium’s second city, and its best-kept secret. Once a Renaissance metropolis, today this fashion and design centre combines historic character with cutting-edge creativity. Head out on two wheels, delve into the past and sample local flavours on a weekend exploring Flanders’ unofficial capital.
On Antwerp’s peaceful left bank, Jona de Beuckeleer points out the landmarks of the city’s skyline across the river: the slender cathedral, the Art Deco glamour of Europe’s first skyscraper, the Gothic church of St Paul’s. He’s leading the Marnix bike tour, one of four offered by Cyclant, the company he runs with his friend and fellow Antwerp native Nicolas. Teachers by trade, they give an entertaining inside track on storied spots and less-pedalled places alike. On Marnix, for example, they take participants through the old town, with its medieval houses and riverside castle, and also the left bank and docklands. At Park Spoor Noord, reclaimed railtracks lead beside grassy lawns and street art, while in multicultural Borgerhout, the colourful arches of Chinatown frame the grand domes of Antwerpen-Centraal station. Antwerp is a walkable city, but to see some of its most interesting corners it’s best to make like the Belgians and saddle up.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, Antwerp was the largest city north of the Alps. A commercial powerhouse, it grew rich on the spoils of the Spanish Empire, and people came from far and wide to make their fortune. One of them was Christopher Plantin, a printing pioneer whose home and headquarters lives on as the one-of-a-kind Museum Plantin-Moretus. A warren of beautifully preserved rooms spread around a peaceful medieval garden, it’s the only museum in the world that’s listed as a World Heritage site by Unesco —although it still feels like Plantin could walk in at any moment. The smell of musty books and wood polish hangs in the air of his creaking, timber-beamed home, its walls lined with tapestries and gilded leather wallpaper. Treasures include early maps, a Gutenberg Bible and paintings by his friend Rubens —while in the printing quarters, the collection is rarer still. Here, there are stacks of inky letters up to the ceiling, original font sets and, in the workshop where printers once toiled from dawn until dusk, the oldest printing presses in the world.
Eggs sizzle in the tiny kitchen where Charlotte Koopman and Hadas Cna’ani are cooking, their movements fast and deliberate as they stir, pour and fry food for the eclectic crowd settling at tables. With its concrete columns and metallic pipes, the first floor of warehouse-turned-arts-complex Het Bos is an industrial setting for a resolutely home-spun occasion: the Otark Sunday breakfast club. Today, there’s warm Georgian flatbreads heaped with hummus, artichoke and dukkah (an Egyptian spice mix); aubergine jam with Romanian sheep’s cheese; and fried eggs with tomatoes, honey and oregano. There’s also ice cream: fig leaf, salted butter caramel, roasted strawberry with white miso. Ice cream might seem an unusual choice for breakfast, but as morning turns to afternoon and an increasingly hungover crowd spills in, nobody needs convincing. With food this good, it’s only right that breakfast is a three-course meal.
It’s just turned three, and a tuneful chatter of bells drifts in through the open doors of Hotel O Kathedral. Set over two historic town houses, the design hotel has pride of place right opposite Antwerp’s medieval Cathedral of Our Lady, a Gothic masterpiece whose tower soars dizzily above the old town. Most of the 37 rooms have views, some with window seats to gaze out from, others have skylights that frame the spire. Inside, they pay homage to another Antwerp icon — the artist Rubens, with details from his paintings spread across walls and ceilings, their rich colours contrasting with the mellow blacks and golds of burnished walls, bathrooms and beds. Breakfast is held downstairs, in a softly lit area lined with vintage radios; at night, this segues into a bar serving cocktails and local beers. But Hotel O Kathedral is also a relaxing hangout during the day — grab one of the tables on the pavement outside and watch the world pass by in the cathedral square.
Old Antwerp – Despite severe WWII bombing, Antwerp retains an intriguing medieval core. At its heart is a classic Grote Markt (Market Sq) featuring the Baroque Brabo Fountain, photogenic guildhalls and an impressive Italo-Flemish Renaissance-style town hall from 1565. Nearby, the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal is Belgium’s finest Gothic cathedral, with four early Rubens canvases inside.
De Groote Witte Arend – This place combines the joys of a good beer bar with the satisfaction of well-cooked, sensibly priced Flemish home cuisine, notably stoemp (potato hash), stoofvlees/carbonade (beef, beer and onion stew) and rabbit in rich Westmalle beer sauce. De Groote retains the stone arcade of a former convent building.
De Vagant – Tap into Antwerp heritage just across the street from De Groote Witte Arend. More than 200 types of jenever (a distilled drink similar to gin) are served in this bare-boards local cafe or sold by the bottle across the road from its slijterij (bottle shop), which resembles an old-style pharmacy.
Station Quarter – With its neo-Gothic facade, vast main hall and splendid dome, the 1905 Antwerpen- Centra al train station is reason enough to head east to the multicultural Station Quarter. Here, sleazy peep shows rub shoulders with grand cerrtury-old buildings and the world’s main diamond exchanges. To see the Diamant area, walk southwest to heavily guarded, pedestrianised Hoveniersstraat and Schupstraat.
Fieskbar – Locals head to’t Zuid, south of the centre, to dine and they swear that Fiskebar serves Antwerp’s best sea food, meaning there’s always an almighty crush for tables in this bustling, fashionably dish evelled former fish mongers’ shop. If you can’t get a booking, try its oyster bar next door, which serves a more limited selection and works with out reservations.
De Koninck – Something would be missing if beer tourism didn’t figure in a trip to Belgium. Historic De Koninck-one of the few true city breweries left in the country – is a wonderful tern pie to Antwerp’s favourite drop and an evocative exam pie of early- 20th-century industrial architecture. Self-guided tours begin with interactive exhibitions on brewing, then a walkway that takes you over the brewery hall, to finish with a tasting.
Mas – The Museum aan deStroom is a 10-storey complex that redefines the idea of a gallery. Floors are designed around big-idea themes using a barrage of media, from old m aster paintings through to tribal artefacts and video installations. You don’t need to pay the entry fee to take the external escalators to the roof for views across the city.
Kloosterstraat – Most of Antwerp’s shops aren’t open on Sundays, but the brocante dealers and vintage stores on historic Kloosterstraat are an exception, making this street a pleasant place to stroll on Sunday afternoons. Highlights include Art Partout (No 30), where you can browse and buy prints by Antwerp artists and always-busy Chez Fred bistro (No 83) formoules-frites. Most shops open 1pm to 6pm.
Peter Paul Rubens’ home and studio for the last 30 years of his life, from 1610 to 1640, is found on Wapper Square in Antwerp. The city bought the premises just before World War II, but the house had fallen into disrepair, and what can be seen today is the result of careful restoration. Rubens’ House (Rubenshuis) is divided into two sections and offers a fascinating insight into how the artist lived and worked.
To the left of the entrance are the narrow rooms of the artist’s living quarters, equipped with period furniture. Behind this part of the house is the kunstkamer, or art gallery, where Rubens exhibited both his own and other artists’work, and entertained his friends and wealthy patrons such as the Archduke Albert and the Infanta Isabella. To the right of the entrance lies the main studio, a spacious salon where Rubens worked on—and showed—his paintings.
Rubens had apprenticeships with prominent Antwerp artists from an early age and was inspired to visit Italy in 1600 to study and copy the work of the Italian Renaissance masters.
On returning to Antwerp in 1608, Rubens’ reputation earned him an appointment as court painter to the governors of the Low Countries, the Archduke Albert and his wife, the Infanta Isabella. He became the most renowned Baroque painter in Europe, combining Flemish realism with the Classical imagery of Italian Renaissance art After 1626, he was assigned diplomatic missions and nominated to the courts of Charles I in England, Marie de’ Medici in France and Felipe IV in Spain. In 1630, having helped to conclude a treaty between England and Spain, he was knighted by Charles I for his peacemaking efforts. In his later years, Rubens focused once more on his painting.
On his return to Antwerp in 1608, Rubens was swamped by commissions from the nobility, Church, and state He painted pictures for church altarpieces, etched, engraved, designed tapestries, and planned entire pageants. His well-run studio, modeled on those in Italy, was able to meet the demand and under his guidance, a school of superior artists flourished.
Rubens’ sojourn in Italy (1600-08) influenced his views on architecture as well as painting. Rubens’ House was embellished to reflect his love of Italian Renaissance forms, incorporating Classical arches and sculpture. His style boldly contrasted with the architectural traditions of the day and bears witness to his voracious creativity. It was here that he received prominent guests throughout his career. The house is entered as Rubens intended: through the main gate, which leads to an inner courtyard that creates an imposing impression of the surrounding features. The opulent Baroque Portico between the courtyard and the Formal Gardens was designed by the artist himself The renovations completed in 1946 were based on the artist’s original sketches.
The family sitting room is cosy, with a pretty, tiled floor. It overlooks Wapper Square.
The Rubens family lived the Flemish section of the house, with its small rooms and narrow passages.
Intricately fashioned leather panels line the walls of this room, which also displays a noted work by Frans Snyders.
Facade of Rubens’ House
The older, Flemish part of the house sits next to the later house, whose elegant early-Baroque facade was designed by Rubens.
One of the few remaining original features, this was designed by Rubens and links the older house with the Baroque section. It features a frieze with scenes from Greek mythology.
The small garden is laid out formally and its charming pavilion dates from Rubens’ time.
It is estimated that Rubens produced some 2,500 paintings in this large, high-ceilinged room. In order to meet this huge number of commissions, Rubens often sketched a work before passint it on to be completed by other artists employed in the studio.
This art gallery contains a series of painted sketches by Rubens. At the far end is a semicircular dome, modeled on Rome’s Pantheon, displaying a number of marble busts.
Rubens was a fervent Roman Catholic, prompting magnificent religious and allegorical masterpieces. Several of these can be seen in Antwerp, including the beautiful ceiling of St. Ignatius and triptych in the Cathedral of Our Lady.
1610: Rubens buys a house on Wapper Square, Antwerp, and re models it in Italian style.
1614: Rubens’ studio is enlarged to satisfy the growing demand for his work.
1640: After Rubens’ death, his second wife rents out the house to a riding school.
1700s: Rubens’ House undergoes various renovations, and then becomes neglected.
1937: Rubens’ House is bought and renovated by the city of Antwerp. It opens to the public in 1946.
GRAND PLACE – One of the world’s great urban spaces, the enclosed cobblestone square is only revealed as you enter on foot from one of six narrow side alleys. It’s crammed with 15th- to 18th-century guildhalls that are unashamed exhibitionists. Magically lit at night, it’s alive with classic Belgian cafes and hosts a flower market on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings.
MUSSES ROYAUX DES BEAUX-ARTS – This prestigious mega-museum incorporates Brussels’ museum of Old Masters, where the 15th-century Flemish Primitives are well represented, its Modern Art museum, an Art Nouveau museum and the purpose-built Musee Magritte, which holds the world’s largest collection of the Belgian Surrealist’s.
PALAIS DE JUSTICE – This hilltop complex of law courts was the world’s biggest building when it was constructed (1866-83). The main lobby, beneath a giant dome and watched over by forbidding statues, is open to visitors but receives far fewer than it deserves. Behind the building a terrace offers wide panoramas over Brussels and a free glass elevator leads down to the Marolles.
COMIC-STRIP MURALS – Belgium’s vibrant comic-strip culture (Herge and Tintin came from this neck of the woods) is writ large on the streets of Brussels where dozens of comic-strip murals enliven alleys and thoroughfares throughout the old city centre. The tourist office on Grand Place has a ‘comic strip trail’ pamphlet showing the locations of more than 50 murals with commentary.
PLACE DU JEU DE BALLE FLEA MARKET – This chaotic flea market, established in 1919, and spilling over with brocante (bric-a-brac), is a favourite with local shoppers. Haggling for a bargain here is a quintessential experience in Brussels’ once resolutely working-class Marolles quarter. It’s at its liveliest on weekends – get your elbows out – but the best bargains are to be had early mornings midweek.
BREWERY TOUR – Brasserie Cantillon is Brussels’ last operating lambic brewery (the beer is produced by spontaneous fermentation), and an atmospheric brewery- museum where much of the 19th-century equipment is still used. Take a self-guided tour, including the barrel rooms where the beers mature for up to three years in chestnut casks. The entry fee includes a glass of one of Cantillon’s brews.
MAISON ANTOINE – Maison Antoine is a classic little fritkot (takeaway chip kiosk) in the EU quarter, with a reputation for some of Brussels’ best frites. Such is its popularity, that cafes on the surrounding square (including beautifully wrought iron-fronted L’Autobus) allow frites eaters to sit and snack so long as they buy a drink.
CARE DU MIDI MARKET – This Sunday market is said to be the biggest in Europe and it’s a good place for cheap eats. Its sprawl of colourful stalls has an international flavour, with exotic North African and Mediterranean spices, cheeses, meats, and food stands selling bites such as Moroccan crepes. Come early and you’re likely to see clubbers emerging from a long night out.
DE ULTIEME HALLUCINATIE – at this Schaerbeek bar, you’ll get to spend some time ogling a magnificent Art Nouveau timewarp. It is located in a classic townhouse refitted with Art Nouveau interiors in 1904 that have barely changed. The salon has original lamps, brass radiator covers and stained glass.
TRANSPORT – The most direct flight is on Qatar Airways via Doha from Singapore or Kuala Lumpur; the airport is 20 minutes from the city centre. The airport is serviced by bus and train; Airport City Express trains run to the city’s three major train stations. Brussels has an integrated bus-tram-metro system and tickets are cheaper if you buy before boarding (single US$2.10). Unlimited one-day passes cost US$7.50.
WHERE TO STAY – The design-driven Pantone Hotel is located in central St-Gilles, and is modern, stylish and surprisingly affordable. Some of the larger rooms come with a balcony or terrace.
Housed in a 17th-century Pantone Hotel is designed with a scheme of contrasting colours mansion, The Captaincy Guesthouse is an idiosyncratic, boutique hostel, which features an especially lovely double room and en suite four-bed female dorm.
Chambres d’Hotes du Vaudeville is a classy b&b with an incredible location. Larger front rooms have claw-foot bathtubs and street views; back rooms are quieter.
Anyone who’s ever dreamt of Harry Potter-style levitating tables or flying carpets will love the idea of Dinner in the Sky, where diners tuck into a meal at a dining table hovering 150 feet above the ground. The concept originated in Brussels about a decade ago, with mechanical cranes hoisting up a large platform with a dining table upon it. For entertainment, there’s the view—the city’s skyline spread out in front, with important landmarks like the Grand Place or Brussels’ famous Atomium, glittering in the distance.
The 22 guests are strapped into their chairs and award-winning chefs serve them from their station in the middle of the table. The concept has rapidly grown popular, with daredevil diners signing up for Dinner in the Sky at over 40 destinations around the world, including Malaysia, Mexico, Dubai, South Africa, and India. The venues are the main draw, but the food is also special, with signature recipes created by renowned chefs like Heston Blumenthal and Pierre Gagnaire. Try to avoid getting into a fight with a fellow diner or eating something you’re allergic to—it’s a long way to the ground.
In a country barely the size of New Jersey, the breadth of Belgium’s beer brewing tradition is astonishing—a rough count proclaims that hundreds of breweries produce 300 varieties within its borders, but more ambitious estimates approach 1,000. Many are local beers that are not found outside of Belgium, or of their towns of origin.
Much has been made of the centuries-old tradition of unique, excellent ales and beers brewed by the Trappist monks: of the six Trappist breweries in the world, five are in Belgium (the sixth is over the border, in Holland). The breweries are generally not open to the public, but the monks’ elixirs can be enjoyed at countless bars and taverns throughout Brussels and the countryside (and more and more frequently abroad).
In the forested hills of the Ardennes region (where the Battle of the Bulge was waged) is the famed Abbaye d’Orval. Its ruins date to the arrival of the Cistercians (from which the even stricter order of the Trappists broke off in the 17th century) in 1110; other buildings date to the 17th century. A community of monks carefully tend their beautiful grounds, medicinal herb garden, and dispensary, where the famous Orval beer is sold along with bread and cheese. Talk about heavenly picnics.
For the antithesis in accommodations, one of Belgium’s top-ranked country restaurants and prettiest inns, the Auberge du Moulin Hideux, is just 16 miles away.
Nestled in a beautiful setting of wooded hills that come right down to the converted stone gristmill, this rural inn is the very study of country chic. Miles of beautiful walking trails through leafy hardwood forests promise the chance to work off the meals that attract longtime loyalists who travel from Brussels, Paris, and beyond.
If Mary’s handmade chocolates are the finest in a country that claims to make the world’s best, does that make Mary’s the best anywhere? One nibble and you’ll join fourth-generation devotees, including the royal court, who think so.
With its blue velvet decor and Louis XVI furniture, this elegant shop looks like a refined jewelry store, and with royally rich bonbons beginning at $35 per kilogram we’re in the same financial ballpark. All those artistic chocolate gems are made on the premises, including the famous Belgian pralines, seventy different kinds filled with everything from caramel to delicate liqueurs.
It’s enough to convert even the most chocolate resistant.
Belgium’s excellent local pommes frites are not French fries at all— a grievous misnomer, as this universally known and loved side order is Belgian in origin. Although indulged at any time of day, smothered with a healthy dollop of mayonnaise and wrapped in a cardboard cone, they are also the perfect compliment to Belgium’s other much- heralded specialty, moules (mussels), a combination as beloved and ubiquitous as the American burger and fries.
The well-known Leon de Bruxelles (until recently known as Chez Leon) is the quintessential mussels-and-fries joint. Having secured its fame over 100 years as it slowly expanded into a row of eight old houses and looking every bit the tourist trap, this venerable, old-fashioned restaurant is a warren of rooms filled with mussels-devouring Bruxellois.
The frites—twice fried and light as a feather—have long been known as the best in town. The blue-shelled mussels are prepared fourteen different ways, although there are other regional specialties on the menu such as eel in green sauce (anguilles au vert) made with sorrel, chervil, and parsley.
Few great urban squares make the impact you’ll find upon entering Brussel’s gigantic one-of-a-kind Grand Place (Grote Markt). Louis XIV of France bombarded the entire city center in the 17th century, destroying more than wooden buildings; what you see today is damage-turned-triumph. Most art historians agree with Jean Cocteau, who called it “a splendid stage.” The ornate Baroque facades of the powerful (and competitive) guild houses and the Gothic Hotel de Ville that dates to 1402.The only building to have survived the 1695 destruction, are the highlights.
The heart of town since the 13th century, something’s always going on: this is the incomparable setting for the Flower Carpet (Tapis de Fleurs), August 14 to 16 in even years only. The design each year is unique, a highly classified secret until the begonias from the flower-growing district near Ghent are deposited to create an ephemeral carpet 80 by 250 feet. For a nominal fee, it can be viewed from the best vantage point: the second-floor balcony of the Town Hall. The square is equally captivating during the Ommegang pageant, the annual medieval pageant the first Tuesday and Thursday in July that reenacts a sumptuous 1549 procession honoring the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.
In a building that once housed the butcher’s guild, the renowned restaurant La Maison du Cygne is exquisite, with ancient wood paneling, gorgeous chandeliers, and original paintings by Pieter Brueghel the Younger and Arciboldo. The recently renovated Hotel Amigo, right behind the Town Hall, is the hotel of choice for its Grand Place proximity and unerring old-world hospitality.
The irony of the informal name chosen for this top-drawer restaurant (“Just Like Home”) makes you wonder how master chef and owner Pierre Wynants dines at home, because dinner at his revered restaurant (if you’ve remembered to book three months in advance) is an extraordinary event.
The occasion is even more rarefied for those who manage to get a reservation for the table d’hote in the kitchen, while all others repair to the bistro-size fifty-seat dining room whose Art Nouveau decor is an homage to the city’s pioneer architect Victor Horta. Through- the-roof prices and polished service that impresses even the most discerning clients is daily fare here. Wynants’s signature fillet of North Sea sole with a white wine mousseline of tiny shrimp approaches perfection.