They say the best trends take a while to catch on and that’s certainly true of Antwerp, one of Europe’s best-kept secrets. Unlike so many design and cultural hotspots, Belgium’s second-largest city remains refreshingly under the radar, largely unaffected by the chatter of online commentary that can often disrupt the spontaneity and excitement of visiting somewhere for the very first time.
It hasn’t always been this way, however. During the 16th century, Antwerp was one of Europe’s most prominent cities. It was home to artist Peter Paul Rubens, a hub for both the architects and consumers of art, design and culture, and at the centre of the world’s diamond industry, which formed the backbone of the city’s commerce. This backdrop sets the scene today for a modern city full of medieval charm, its narrow winding lanes and cobbled streets leading the way to a playground for lovers of design, fashion and food.
All about accessories
Jewellery brand Wouters & Hendrix, a stalwart of the city’s creative scene, was established in 1984 by Katrin Wouters and Karen Hendrix. The duo have spent 30 years cultivating a design DNA that has evolved from base metals to gold and sterling silver. Pieces are executed in an abstract, eclectic fashion and include collaborations with the likes of Dries Van Noten, Paul Smith and Burberry. ‘Our goal is to fill the gap between classic jewellery and the cheap supermarket-kitsch kind,’ they say. ‘We aim to occupy the niche between innovative jewellery design and goldsmithery.’ The brand embodies the notion that creativity has an indefinable appeal – an approach which feels authentic to Antwerp.
Also flying the flag for accessories in Antwerp is Coccodrillo, a boutique whose brand portfolio reads like a who’s who of shoe design. The store features designers such as Ann Demeulemeester, AF Vandevorst, Church’s, Prada and Tabitha Simmons. Its muted, refined and neutral interior contrasts beautifully with customers’ excitement at finding so many cutting-edge designers under one roof.
Those looking for further style inspiration should head to the area surrounding Lombardenvest, one of Antwerp’s leading shopping streets, which is dotted with little boutiques. International favourites APC and Scotch & Soda are interspersed with independent Belgian brands such as Ganterie Boon, a leather specialist shop established in 1884 that still retains its 19th-century frontage. Nearby, Step by Step stocks leading contemporary fashion including Alexander Wang, Vanessa Bruno and Isabel Marant.
Antwerp may have become synonymous with innovation but it’s no stranger to vintage style. Viar is a spacious interiors emporium that stocks an impressive selection of goods, from furniture and clothing to cars and artwork, across a range of different eras. It is centrally located on Kloosterstraat, where you could easily while away an afternoon perusing the host of antique and vintage stores. Antwerp native Regula Ysewijn is a writer, photographer and fan of the city’s vintage stores. ‘The numbers are declining but those that remain like to offer a unique style: a mix between designer vintage and no-name brands. Turn a corner and you’ll find a street entirely devoted to vintage Chanel and Dior!’ she explains.
Bakes and cakes
Antwerp’s renowned chocolate shops are a pleasure to behold – and sample – but there is a lot more to the city’s cuisine than cocoa. Food enthusiasts should start at Goossens, one of the oldest bakeries in the city, where the aroma of freshly baked bread fills a space only large enough to accommodate three or four customers at a time. From Goossens, head to Caffènation on Mechelsesteenweg, a speciality coffee roaster where you can work, swot up on single-origin beans or simply take in the relaxed café-culture vibe.
For Ysewijn, Antwerp’s ethnic quarter, close to the station, offers the most excitement. ‘You can enjoy a Lebanese flatbread and explore the many Moroccan shops selling brightly coloured dresses and headscarves. Or visit the Chinese district – the place to find a bowl of hand-pulled noodles and the kind of vegetables and fruits you won’t see anywhere else.’
As the daylight begins to fade, climb to the top of the striking nine-storey Museum aan de Stroom – museum on the river, otherwise known as MAS – on the edge of town. It overlooks the port and offers a bird’s-eye view of the of city that is particularly impressive as the sun sets into the sea. End your day at the Gollem beer bar in Suikerrui and sample Oud Beersel’s Oude Kriek, an artisanal brew made from cherries and matured in oak barrels to produce a fruity sourness reminiscent of Champagne. Beer that tastes like Champagne? That’s the kind of paradox which befits Antwerp perfectly – the transformation of something commonplace into something great.