1. Where to Stay
At the Floatel Diamond Princess (from $85), a fifties Norwegian mail boat moored near the edge of the Schipperskwartier (red-light district), you can party efficiently. The 42 refurbished cabins are wired, but you can meet the neighbors in the piano bar or the captain’s lounge turned library. Ask for a room toward the front of the ship; there’s a nightclub in the stern.
At the sixteenth-century Hotel Prinse (from $155) in the Stadswaag district, find a tranquil courtyard garden and a modern, light-filled lobby strewn with mod Fabiaan Van Severen furniture. In the Chris Mestdagh suite, find furniture, linens, and towels from one of Belgium’s leading designers.
The best views of Antwerp’s Gothic, UNESCO-listed Cathedral of Our Lady are from the upper floors of the Hotel ‘t Sandt (from $250) in the Oude Stad neighborhood. The Cathedral Penthouse Suite has a light-drenched room, an antique armoire, a Jacuzzi tub, a private terrace, and a giant distressed wooden cog leftover from the 30-suite hotel’s days as a soap factory.
2. Where to Eat
Lux offers one of the Flanders region’s best and most expensive dinners, but you can sample chef Bert Zaman’s food with the $30 prix fixe lunch and comped glass of wine. Housed in a former Polish Shipping Company’s warehouse in the gentrifying Docklands neighborhood, the grand space has Belgian marble and rich wood paneling, a design that kicked off Antwerp’s industrial-chic revival in 2003.
You can see the Muntplein, a dedicated street-art space, from the giant picture window of the casual, new Brasserie Populaire (Sint Paulusplaats 011-32-32-34-17-97 ). Gnaw on cheap, overstuffed Flemish sandwiches and pasta ($6–$13) while admiring the work of local graffiti artists like Apetown. There’s a terrace, too, but the spray-paint fumes can be a hazard.
Just east of a trendy strip of Pan-Asian lounges in Docklands is Muro Turks Eethuis, a relaxing and recently refurbished grill that whips up Anatolian specialties like ground-lamb-stuffed eggplant, chicken pitas, and crispy Turkish pizzas. The Turkish staff doesn’t speak much English, but they mix stiff drinks and are eager to please.
3. What to Do
Antwerp’s been cutting avant-garde fashion since the eighties when the Antwerp Six (including Dries Van Noten) hit the scene. Visit the ModeNatie Building to see it all at once. Collections at the Mode Museum range from sixteenth-century Belgian lace to Bernhard Willhelm’s inflammatory flag dresses. The newest addition to the complex (opened in fall 2007) is the surreal, 10,000-square-foot Yohji Yamamoto shop, filled with the Japanese designer’s trademark sculptural menswear and womenswear, handbags from his Y’s line, a new jewelry collection co-created by Mikimoto, and the debut women’s collection from his daughter Limi.
Multitask at Something Els Atelier & Café (Oude Beurs 58; 011-32-32-31-26-14), a leather workshop, bar, and store, where you can knock back a few Duvels at the bar while watching husband-and-wife team Christian and Els Van Doorn make one-of-a-kind leather and metalwork pieces. Their wallets, totes, and gloves are also carried down the street in the KAN Antwerpen showroom.
Paleis is the Urban Outfitters of Antwerp. The tidy, colorful shop is stocked with affordable, edgy streetwear (T-shirts, hoodies, jeans, and accessories), all designed by emerging European fashion labels like Jack & Jones, Vero Moda, and nümph.
4. Insider’s Tip
Though Antwerp’s “brown cafés”—smoke-stained salons historically haunted by the Flemish intelligentsia—are being replaced by fashion-y, upscale boîtes, a handful of dirty-ceilinged survivors remain. You can still gulp De Koninck from glass goblets alongside Tigra-smoking writers and musicians at the Billenkletser (Hoogstraat 22), where regulars sit at creaky wooden tables sampling 100 kinds of beer. Elsewhere, scruffy creatives pile into Den Hopsack, a dimly lit performance space/bar that carries on the brown-café tradition of late-night scholarly debate over the twang of live experimental-jazz sessions.
5. Oddball Day
Now a fashion hub, Antwerp’s roots are as a seedy port city. Visit Van Wesenbekestraat to see what happens when Chinatown intersects with a gay leather neighborhood. Try on precision-tattered streetwear at Kammenstraat’s Fish and Chips. On Sundays, sift through the bric-a-brac a few blocks west at the Sint-Jansvliet flea market, a tchotchke collector’s gold mine. Finish your day with a feast at De Peerdestal, where horse-meat steaks (illegal in the U.S.) are on the menu. Or pair a can of Juliper with a greasy cone of fries and curry at Frituur No. 1 (Hoogstraat 1; no phone), arguably the tastiest frites in town.
Ignore the PR and take advantage of the listings, resources, and printable PDF guide created by the Netherlands Board of Tourism at Cool Capitals .
Find a new picture of Antwerp, its art, architecture, and residents on the photoblog Everyday Antwerp .
Stay current on Flemish designers and shows at Design Flanders .
Maximize purchasing efficiency by searching the database at Antwerp Shopping .