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.