Back in October my friend Becky and I spent three brilliant days exploring Antwerp on our annual girls’ getaway, and I’ve finally got around to putting together a travel guide!
I’d long wanted to visit Belgium’s second city, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. It’s often dubbed ‘Europe’s capital of cool’ thanks to its fashion industry, and it’s now developing burgeoning interior-design, culinary and art scenes to match. In many respects, it reminded me of Bristol – a historic trading port that’s home to a revamped harbour area and a contemporary creative buzz. It also has a similar vibe: industrious and innovative, yet somehow laid-back and unpretentious at the same time. But what makes Antwerp unique is the way old and new mingle together seamlessly. Elaborate 16th-century stepped gables sit side by side with Art Nouveau curves and Modernist cubes, creating an intriguing jumble of styles that instantly drew me in. I was also struck by how leafy the city is, and I don’t just mean that it has lots of trees. Almost every other façade seems to be entwined in climbing vines, lending a certain charm even to the plainer streets.
There’s a lot to see and do, so read on for my pick of the best restaurants, hotels, bars, galleries, cafes and more. But first, a tip: be aware that shops in Antwerp are closed on Sunday, most museums are shut on Monday, and some restaurants and boutiques are only open from Wednesday or Thursday to Saturday. So, it’s worth checking opening hours in advance and doing a bit of planning to make the most of your time.
August, Jules Bordetstraat 5, Groen Kwartier
The first hotel project from renowned Belgian architect Vincent Van Duysen, August is located in Antwerp’s ‘Green Quarter’ – an up-and-coming neighbourhood constructed around a 19th-century military hospital. It’s where we stayed and I absolutely loved the way the building – a former Augustinian convent – has been transformed, with minimalist design alongside the original tiled floors, red-brick walls and timber ceilings. The 44 rooms are the epitome of pared-back luxury, and the restaurant (see below) is excellent; there’s also a small spa with a natural outdoor pool that you can book for private sessions. But the star feature is undoubtedly the beautiful bar, set under soaring arches in what was once the nuns’ chapel.
Hotel Julien, Korte Nieuwstraat 24, city centre
The older sibling of August, Hotel Julien sits near the cathedral and was Antwerp’s very first boutique hotel when it opened its doors in 2004. It occupies a pair of converted 16th-century townhouses linked by a leafy courtyard, with 22 rooms, a fire-lit lounge-bar, a spa and a rooftop terrace. The decor throughout is simple yet sophisticated, offsetting exposed beams with iconic mid-century modern furniture, marble bathrooms and occasional splashes of colour in cushions and throws.
Hotel Riga, Korte Koepoortstraat 4, city centre
Also set in the old town, Hotel Riga takes its name from former owner Marcel Riga, who opened a luggage shop in the building in 1938. Converted in 2018, it now houses 12 rooms and two restaurants (the relaxed Bar Riga for drinks and Italian food, and the more upscale In De Balans for gourmet five- and six-course dinners). Design-wise, expect sleek white walls, understated brass lamps and ochre curtains alongside quirky touches such as suitcase-print carpets, an old advertising board behind reception and a model astronaut on a shelf.
Studio Penelope, Troyentenhoflaan 52, Berchem
Studio Penelope is the brainchild of interior designers Iris Smarnakis and Vincent Perbal, who converted the garage of their Art Deco home into a two-person hideaway encompassing a sleeping area, a bathroom, a lounge, an office, a kitchen and an outdoor terrace. It’s part boutique apartment, part B&B, combining the privacy of a rental with the services of a hotel (concierge, complimentary minibar, breakfast on request). Best of all, the decor is stunning, with tactile materials, contemporary furniture and lighting (much of it for sale), and an uplifting palette of peaches, pinks and blues.
Hotel Pilar, Leopold de Waelplaats 34, Zuid
The creation of architect Sam Peeters and hospitality expert Christophe Ysewyn, Hotel Pilar is located in the fashionable Zuid area and, like the neighbourhood itself, it’s stylishly eclectic. The 17 rooms range from understated neutral spaces to quirkier options sporting gold walls or mirrored cubes; there are also several suites, some with window seats, others with freestanding bathtubs and private terraces. Downstairs, the Food Bar is a popular spot for breakfast, coffee, light bites, lunch and dinner, and in summer tables spill on to the square outside.
Eat & drink at:
Barchel, Van Bréestraat 6 (city centre) & Jos Smolderenstraat 15 (Zuid)
Bright, airy and relaxed, Barchel makes healthy breakfast, brunch and lunch dishes with fresh ingredients and a few Middle Eastern and Mexican-inspired flavours. There are branches in the city centre and Zuid – we visited the former, where we tucked into flatbread with spiced feta and avocado, and halloumi and grilled vegetables on toast.
Bakker Aldo, Lange Leemstraat 388, Groen Kwartier
Head to this little sourdough bakery on the edge of the Green Quarter for delicious breads, pastries and cinnamon buns to take away.
August, Jules Bordetstraat 5, Groen Kwartier
August’s restaurant is worth a visit even if you’re not staying at the hotel itself. Overseen by chef Nick Bril of Michelin-starred The Jane nearby, it serves four- and five-course set menus centred around seasonal Belgian ingredients. The food is delicious, the atmosphere is sophisticated yet relaxed, and the setting – a lofty brick-clad space that once formed part of the convent’s cloister – is beautiful. Make sure you leave enough time for an aperitif in the stunning bar beforehand.
Standard, Regine Beerplein, Groen Kwartier
This informal indoor-outdoor pizzeria is part of PAKT, a cluster of restaurants and cafes in an old industrial site just around the corner from August. I loved the sourdough bases and organic toppings, and there are a few other options such as nachos and chicken salads. If you can’t get a table, order a takeaway to enjoy in the park nearby.
Caffènation, Lamorinièrestraat 161 (Groen Kwartier) & Mechelsesteenweg 16 (city centre)
Speciality coffee roaster Caffènation is an excellent bet for a caffeine fix, serving up single-origin beans and inventive blends alongside a small but tempting selection of pastries and other sweet treats. There are two locations, including one at PAKT.
Rush Rush, Lange Altaarstraat 29, Zurenborg
Opened by former Caffènation barista Simon Derutter and his girlfriend Nanigui Patel, Rush Rush is another great coffee spot. It occupies the ground floor of a beautiful Art Nouveau building and offers top-notch brews alongside a short food menu (my recommendation: toast with ‘old cheese’ and pickles).
Copper, Belegstraat 80, Zuid
Set behind a turquoise-tiled façade, Copper has great coffee, a tasty menu of breakfast, brunch and lunch dishes, and a simple yet cosy interior with bare plaster walls and bench seats.
Kolonel Coffee, Montignystraat 51 (Zuid) & Ankerrui 15 (Eilandje)
Another excellent Zuid pitstop is Kolonel, which serves up coffee, tea, homemade lemonade, breakfast and lunch. The decor is beautifully understated, with rustic wood against crisp white walls – and, unlike many similar places, you can book ahead to guarantee a table. There’s also a second branch, Kolonel & Reede, near Museum aan de Stroom in Eilandje.
Graanmarkt 13, Graanmarkt, city centre
Attached to the concept store of the same name (more on that below), this wonderful restaurant from chef Jan Keuppens focuses squarely on seasonality and sustainability. There’s a terrace for drop-in drinks and light bites, plus a dining room and courtyard for lunch and dinner where you’ll need to book ahead. Expect a daily-changing selection of meat, fish and vegetable dishes, many made with herbs and honey from Graanmarkt 13’s own rooftop garden.
Frites Atelier, Korte Gasthuisstraat 32, city centre
Founded by Dutch chef Sergio Herman, this tiny little place puts a twist on traditional Belgian frites by pairing them with unusual toppings such as basil and parmesan, Indonesian peanut sauce and kimchi, truffle and cheese. There are now several branches across Belgium, and they’re ideal for a quick lunch. You can eat in or take away.
The Cork, Lange Koepoortstraat 17, city centre
We came across this lovely wine bar by chance and couldn’t resist stopping for a chilled glass of white in the autumn sunshine. There’s a fantastic wine list, as well as snacks and tapas-style small plates, with tables inside and out. The staff really know their stuff and can advise if you’re stuck for choice.
Other Antwerp places that I didn’t get chance to try in person but which I’ve heard great things about include Native, Le John and Osaka, plus Food Bar, In De Balans and Bar Riga mentioned under ‘Stay at’.
See, do & explore:
The historic centre
It’s worth spending a couple of hours on a gentle wander around the city’s historic heart, taking in the gilded splendour of the Grote Markt (market square), the soaring spire of the Gothic cathedral and turreted castle Het Steen (there’s not really anything to see inside, but it’s fairytale-pretty with a nice view over the river).
The city centre is also home to the 17th-century mansion of Flemish painter Pieter Paul Rubens, but since our visit it’s closed for a years-long renovation so I haven’t listed it here.
Vlaeykensgang, city centre
A stroll along this winding alley, accessed via an easy-to-miss doorway on Oude Koornmarkt, takes you straight back to medieval Antwerp. There are narrow archways, time-worn cobbles and crooked houses festooned with flowers, plus a lovely vine-shaded cafe terrace part way along.
Museum aan de Stroom (MAS), Hanzestedenplaats 1, Eilandje
Eilandje, Antwerp’s former port area, has been transformed in recent years and star of the show is MAS. Formed from a stack of red-brick cubes interspersed with sections of undulating glass, it has nine floors of permanent and temporary exhibitions exploring themes from the city and beyond (the one dedicated to Antwerp’s trading history is particularly fascinating). The view from the terrace at the top is spectacular, too.
Red Star Line Museum, Montevideostraat 3, Eilandje
Also located in Eilandje, in the terminal of defunct shipping company the Red Star Line, this museum tells the stories of the hundreds of thousands of emigrants who passed through Antwerp on the way to a new life in North America. As someone whose own ancestors journeyed across the Atlantic to Canada in the 1800s, I found it especially poignant – and I was moved to tears by a video installation created to make visitors think about migration past and present. The building is topped with a modern white tower designed to resemble the chimney of a steamship, and the entry ticket includes access to the viewing deck.
(Tip: you’ll need to pick up a booklet from reception for translations of some of the captions as you go around, which wasn’t made clear at the start.)
MoMu (Mode Museum), Nationalestraat 28, city centre
Newly reopened after a lengthy refurb, the fashion museum houses a large collection of work by contemporary Belgian designers. There are also immersive exhibitions delving into topics such as sustainability, material innovation, and the impact of fashion on psychology and identity.
Museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp (M HKA), Leuvenstraat 32, Zuid
Also recently reopened following an extensive renovation by Belgian designer Axel Vervoordt and Japanese architect Tatsuro Miki, the M HKA has a permanent collection of works by Belgian and international artists from the 1960s onwards. There are also various temporary installations.
Cogels Osylei, Zurenborg
Stretching from Berchem station to Draakplaats, this cobbled avenue is lined with elaborate mansions built between 1894 and 1908. Each one is different, and you’ll spy everything from curvaceous Art Nouveau ironwork to Neo Gothic towers. Adding to the atmosphere are the trams which rumble down the centre of the street, and the leafy flower-filled gardens in front of the houses. Rush Rush (see above) is located just beyond the northern end and makes a handy place for coffee before or afterwards.
FOMU, Waalsekaai 47, Zuid
The photography museum has an ever-changing roster of exhibitions covering historical themes as well as contemporary artists. When we visited it was hosting Recaptioning Congo, exploring Belgium’s dark colonial past through the contrasting lenses of European and African photographers.
Plantentuin (botanic garden), Leopoldstraat 24, city centre
Antwerp’s botanic garden is small compared to some, but it still makes a wonderful haven from the city bustle. There are shaded lawns, glass houses, fragrant herbs, towering cacti, meandering paths and a pool fed by a mini waterfall, together with a striking sculpture installation by artist Monique Donckers.
The garden is also home to Botanic Sanctuary, a five-star hotel housing several (very expensive) restaurants and a spa.
Valerie Traan Gallery, Reyndersstraat 12, city centre
Founded by Veerle Wenes and attached to her own home, this light-filled Modernist space hosts a programme of exhibitions bringing together art, architecture and everyday items. It also displays pieces from Wenes’ own design label valerie_objects, which encompasses already-iconic lighting, furniture and accessories by the likes of Muller Van Severen and Nendo. It was actually closed for a changeover when we visited, but I know it will be popular with readers of this blog so I had to include it!
Graanmarkt 13, Graanmarkt, city centre
Established by husband-and-wife team Ilse Cornelissens and Tim Van Geloven, Graanmarkt 13 sits in a historic white building that’s been beautifully reimagined by Vincent Van Duysen. There’s a wonderful range of fashion, home accessories and fragrance, together with curios picked up on their travels – I couldn’t resist treating myself to a gorgeous stone candleholder. And, with a drinks terrace out front and the in-house restaurant below, you could easily lose a few hours there!
Helder, Provinciestraat 100, city centre
This inspiring boutique stocks pieces created by founders Diana Keller and Brecht Bart as well as up-and-coming artists and designers around the world. You’ll find furniture, jewellery, skincare, and accessories that make ‘small but significant additions to your home’.
Espoo, Kloosterstraat 75 / 77, city centre
Nordic design is the main focus of this fantastic interiors and lifestyle shop, but it also encompasses items from Belgium, the Netherlands, Japan and elsewhere.
St Vincents, Kleine Markt 13, city centre
Once an abandoned printing workshop, St Vincents was transformed into a concept store, showroom and gallery by economist-lawyer duo Henri Delbarre and Geraldine Jackman. It showcases the work of established and emerging designers, artists and artisans, displayed against a backdrop of concrete floors, brick walls and exposed pipes. There’s also a coffee bar, should you wish to linger and soak up some inspiration.
MAGAZYN, Steenhouwersvest 34A, city centre
Opened by former art director Thomas Haarman, MAGAZYN stocks minimalist furniture and homeware. Every object chosen for the store is handcrafted, with an emphasis on natural fabrics, organic shapes, tactile materials and muted colours.
The August shop, Jules Bordetstraat 2, Groen Kwartier
Housed in a separate building opposite the main entrance, August’s shop has a small but beautifully curated selection of items found in the hotel itself, including bed linen, robes, toiletries, coffee-table books, ceramics and home fragrances.
Getting there & getting around:
Antwerp has frequent trains from elsewhere in Belgium, as well as some direct services from France and the Netherlands. The journey from Brussels Midi, where you can connect with the Eurostar from London and lines from Germany, takes under an hour, as does the train from Brussels Zaventem airport. The main station is Antwerp Centraal (make sure you look up as you arrive – the architecture is stunning), but Antwerp Berchem may be more convenient if you’re staying in the Green Quarter or Zurenborg.
Getting around Antwerp itself is quick and easy thanks to the comprehensive tram network. You can buy and validate tickets and day passes from the De Lijn app, which also covers other Belgian cities.
Images of Hotel Julien, Hotel Riga, Studio Penelope, Hotel Pillar, Graanmarkt 13, Kolonel Coffee, St Vincents, the Valerie Traan Gallery and August’s restaurant courtesy of the respective venues; all other photography (including all other images of August) by Abi Dare