The top of the new Museum Aan de Stroom in the dockyards gives one a comprehensive view of Antwerp. The medieval cathedrals and guild houses merge with Flemish rooftops and commercial buildings along the Scheldt, the river that brought the world to this city in the mid-15th century. This is an unconventional city that pushes Golden Age icons up against modern design and, as a result, buzzes with life. Where else would you find a Gothic church with a Madonna dressed in couture?
If Belgium’s cities were movie stars, Brussels would be Helen Mirren, sophisticated and classically beautiful, Bruges would be Angelina Jolie, gorgeous but
overexposed, and Antwerp would be Rooney Mara, an old soul reborn as edgy cool.
Take, for example, the dockyard area, the city’s once disreputable neighbourhood. Rough areas still exist, but the Eilandje district is benefiting from the Museum Aan de Stroom (MAS), which opened last year. The contrasts give off an energy. The shrinking but still vibrant red-light district nearby boasts Belgium’s largest bordello, but a few streets away is the Felix Pakhuis, a restored warehouse that houses the national archives and a high-design restaurant. The Royal Ballet of Flanders has relocated here, but you’ll also find Badboot, a swimming pool and terrace that adds a party feel.
The most distinctive (and controversial) change will come from the new Port Authority building. Architect Zaha Hadid is designing a towering, diamond addition – vaguely ship-like – to the classical lines of the original.
On a chilly, rainy Saturday, I walked the Rijnkaai riverside promenade and toured the site of the Red Star Line Museum, slated to open in September. The shipping company’s warehouses are being restored and converted into a multimedia museum that will tell the stories of millions who streamed through Antwerp on their way to the New World. (A funnel-shaped tower, echoing the outline of an ocean liner, is almost complete.) Further on, I lingered in the Het Pomphuis, a bistro set in a former dock-side pumping station. The soaring glass roof invites guest to take their time and enjoy the view.
Just a 20-minute walk away is a different world: the Meir. The pedestrian shopping street boasts the highest rents of any in Belgium. At one end is the Central Station, an architectural jewel that locals call the Cathedral of the Railway, where I met a friend for coffee in the Royal Café. After, we walked up De Keyserlei and schlepped the length of the Meir.
We stopped at Paleis op de Meir for sinful indulgence at the Chocolate Line, Antwerp headquarters of Dominique Persoone, a self-described “shock-o-latier.” We enjoyed chocolate infused with bacon, passion fruit and lime and vodka. Customers can also try out a device for sniffing cocoa that Persoone designed for a rock-star friend, or savour a treat flavoured with marijuana.
The Meir is lined with international stores, but a wander along some of the intersecting streets such as Hopland, Schuttershofstraat and Huidevetterstraat, and toward the Graanmarkt, to take you to the concept stores that make Antwerp shopping such an adventure. Graanmarkt 13 is one of the newest. In addition to a selection of finely curated fashion, decor items and a gallery, the shop is home to a popular restaurant run by newcomer chef Seppe Nobels. His dishes are gorgeously plated, with locally sourced ingredients. It’s white-linen dining with polished cement floors, natural colours and a lean elegance. Along Kloosterstraat you’ll find Yours, which features brands such as Vivienne Westwood and Marc Jacobs, and Ra, a store with lots of buzz featuring high-end fashion, books and an exhibition space.
Wander through Nationalestraat – one of the pivotal couture destinations in Europe – and you’ll mix with shoppers clad in casually elegant garb and great boots. At Maison Anne Heyden, dresses were displayed like artifacts. At Dries Van Noten’s, the windows blazed with Far East themed colours. And at Champers & Theo, an emporium/café that is a brilliant intersection of shoes and food, chatty shoppers shared drinks and waffles.