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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.

Right on the edge of this district, tucked away behind narrow streets, is the late Gothic Sint Andrieskerk. In between weddings, I slipped quietly into this busy church and saw its famous carved pulpit and appraised the centuries-old statue of the Virgin Mary, whose controversial dress was designed by Ann Demeulemeester in 2001. It didn't strike me as sacreligious – there are echoes of the New World in the feathers and beads – but rather, somehow, respectful.

While the dining scene in Antwerp is varied and excellent, it tends to be either classic or campy. I loved the Antwerp stew, served with a bolleke of De Koninck beer, at Appelman's Brasserie near the old cathedral. I was especially charmed by Villa Villekulla, the Pippi Longstocking dining experience that is staged in the Ra Kitchen on Friday nights. The three-course meal is served in a room that has bunk beds, mismatched chairs and tables and overstuffed sofas. The food was good – but the light-hearted atmosphere was the highlight.

End your Antwerp evening with a flight of flavoured jenevers, the potent Belgian liquor similar to gin, in a pub such as De Vagant. And, of course, indulge in chocolate. It is always a good day if it ends with Belgian chocolate.

Where to Shop

Dries Van Noten's Het Modepaleis This well-known designer is one of the Antwerp Six, who helped establish the city as a fashion and design centre. His elegant shop on Nationalestraat has his latest designs. Expensive, yes, but this is investment dressing. The designer is set to open a new atelier in the Eilandje District. Nationalestraat 16;

Philip's Biscuits You see hands everywhere: It's the symbol of Antwerp. At Philip's Biscuits, you can get a bag of the delicious butter biscuit version of the hand, as well as their famous spekuloos cookies, honey cakes and gingerbread. Korte Gasthuisstraat 11,

Graanmarkt 13 This concept store has decor objects, clothing, shoes and fine art pieces, as well as a good restaurant on the lower level. Graanmarkt 13,

Gunther Watte A chocolate and coffee shop in the Fashion District, this is a chic little place for excellent coffee or tea, single-source artisanal chocolate and decadent cakes and cookies. Steenhouwersvest 30;

Filippa K The Scandinavian fashion house specializes in urban elegance for men and women. Steenhouwersvest 65;

Maison Anna Heylen Heylen's shop is worth visiting just to enjoy the visuals. She specializes in small series and made-to-measure couture. Lombardenstraat 16;

What to See

Cathedral of Our Lady This ancient Gothic cathedral is the anchor for the old part of Antwerp. It contains important paintings from Rubens – look especially at The Raising of the Cross and The Descent from the Cross to see how the artist's style changed after he visited Italy. Groenplaats 21;

Central Station You can't really classify the style of architecture of this railway cathedral, but it is awesomely beautiful. Have coffee in the Royal Café or just stand under the vast dome and watch the pedestrian traffic. Koning Astridplein

Rubens House Museum This beautiful museum gives a glimpse into the life and times of the great painter. The house and galleries are very attractive, but the formal garden may well be the best part. Wapperplein 9;

Plantin-Moretus Museum The former home of two printers, the Plantin-Moretus affords a look at the intellectual life of 16th-century Belgium. Ancient books, art, an architecturally special mansion and a walled garden make this an enjoyable visit. Vrijdagmarkt 22;

St Andrew's Church (Sint Andries Kerk) This small church is a hidden gem. It is home to the statue of the Virgin Mary of the Brotherhood of Succour and Victory that was dressed by designer Ann Demeulemeester, and of the 1821 carved pulpit depicting Jesus calling the fishermen to follow him. Sint-Andriesstraat 5

MAS The new Museum aan de Stroom (Museum by the River) combines the collections of four different museums, with each floor housing a different theme, including On Trade and Shipping and Of Men and Gods. The top floor provides excellent views of the city and is open until 11:30 on summer evenings and can be visited without an admission fee. Hanzestedenplaats 1;

Fashion Museum, Provence of Antwerp It's a small museum, well-curated and intimate. Current works showing are by new designer Manon Kundig, who took her inspiration from the bowerbird, a strange creature that courts the female by building compositions using bits of things he collects – something that Kundig labels "l'art du hazard." It's wild and colourful. Nationalestraat 28,

Antwerp Zoo It's one of the oldest zoos in the world, established in 1843, and sits in the centre of the city, right next to Central Station. Visit to see the animals, of course, but also to enjoy the splendid architecture. Koningin Astridplein 26;

The Diamond District There's a diamond museum, jewellery stores and good deli places for lunch. How romantic to pick out your engagement diamond and watch it being cut and mounted in a setting of your choice. Try Diamond Land on Appelmansstraat.

Where to Eat

Grand Café Horta Exceptional for the art nouveau architecture, this busy café is right in the middle of the shopping district. Hopland2;

Appelmanns BrasserieThis typical Belgian restaurant is in a 19th-century building next to the Cathedral and specializes in Belgian dishes. There is also an absinth bar. Papenstraatje 1;

Ra Kitchen The ultracool store Ra also has a restaurant that hosts a sort of themed dinner party on Friday nights called Villa Villekulla, named after Pippi Longstocking's fictional home. The comfortable and eclectic decor contributes to a sort of sophisticated, deconstructed dining experience. While the style and dishes change regularly, the food is generally made from local ingredients. Kloosterstraat 13,

Flamant Dining here is a little like having dinner in a friend's dining room, albeit a friend with great taste. The restaurant is on the second floor, above the Flamant Concept shop, and serves elegant international style dishes. Lange Gasthuisstraat 12;

T'Zilte This double Michelin-starred restaurant is in the new MAS. Chef Vikki Geunes presides over the kitchen turning out classic haute cuisine. Reservations are hard to come by, so make your plans in advance. Hanzestedenplaats 1;

DelRey Chocolate Lounge Situated in the middle of the Diamond District, DelRey's is the right spot for drinking chocolate. You can also indulge in its specialty handmade chocolates, including chocolate hands, or handjes. Appelmansstraat 5;

Café de Duifkens The Duifkins is an authentic Antwerp brown café, often frequented by the actors who are performing at one of the three nearby theatres. Enjoy a Belgian beer in a bolleke , the bowl-shaped traditional Antwerp beer glass. On Sundays there is a fresh market that specializes in live birds in the Graanmarkt. Graanmarkt 5

De Vagant A jenever bar, small and cozy, where a flight of different flavoured jenevers will introduce you to the joys of this strong traditional Belgian liquor. The passion fruit is nice, but don't miss the chocolate, raspberry or lavender. If you find a flavour you love, the café has a shop a few steps away where you can buy a bottle to take home. Reyndersstraat 25;

Where to Stay

Radisson Blu It’s a modern and well-run hotel with the added advantage of having a magnificent view of Astridplein and the Central Station. Koningin Astridplein 7;

Hotel de Witte Lelie Antwerp Housed in a 17th-century building near the Fashion District, this small boutique hotel is popular with the couture establishment. There are 11 rooms and suites, contemporary in style, but with deep windows and high ceilings. Keizerstraat 16-18,

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The writer travelled courtesy of Visit Flanders.

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