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  • Carli Philips

Antwerp: Grand Designs

Behind its old-world splendour, the Belgian city of Antwerp is a hotbed of creativity, its art, fashion and food scenes mixing world-class talent with local flair. By Carli Philips.

Antwerpen-Centraal, built between 1895 and 1905, is admiringly referred to as “Railway Cathedral”.

While Brussels and Antwerp are less than an hour apart, it’s the former that draws more visitors and tends to garner more attention. Antwerp, however, shouldn’t be underestimated. Long known as the diamond capital of the world, Antwerp may be Belgium’s second city, but it lays claim to having the second-largest container port in Europe. Behind its old-world mansions and unassuming temperament, Antwerp is entering a dynamic new era — a cultural renaissance of sorts, spearheaded by a brave community of creatives throwing caution to the wind. 

Small and walkable, the city centre is a web of village-like streets lined with an amalgam of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and medieval architecture. Tucked within its maze of narrow cobblestoned roads and secret courtyards is a slew of experimental fashion, design, culinary and hospitality ventures worth exploring. 

Trains from Paris and London arrive at Antwerpen-Centraal, a breathtaking must-see itself. The gargantuan station — known by locals as Middenstatie or “Railway Cathedral” — is an eclectic masterpiece, reaching 75 metres at its highest point. 

Antwerp was put on the fashion map in the 1980s with the “Antwerp Six”, a phenomenally groundbreaking gang of graduate designers (Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk Van Saene, Walter Van Beirendonck, Dirk Bikkembergs and Marina Yee) from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, who laid the foundations for intellectual, avant-garde garment design.

Serax co-founder Axel Van Den Bossche (left) and designer Marie Michielssen. Photography courtesy of Serax.

Antwerp continues to take its place in the global fashion consciousness seriously, as evidenced by MoMu, an unmissable fashion museum and library (it houses more than 38,000 archival pieces) that reopened in 2021 after a major renovation. With a focus on Belgian designers, it stages two temporary exhibitions per year along with a range of smaller shows and installations.

MoMu showcases Belgium’s formidable fashion heritage. Photography by Gianni Camilleri/Woodmonkey

Just a few minutes away is the truly extraordinary Dries Van Noten flagship in the historic Het Modepaleis building — worth a stop by even if just to look. For boutique shopping, there’s a concentration of excellent shops across the pedestrian arcades, alleys and small streets around Steenhouwersvest, Nationalestraat, Schuttershofstraat, Huidevettersstraat and Kammenstraat. It’s also the perfect place to people-watch the effortlessly cool locals sporting their unique, pared-back version of Belgian chic. Larger European chain stores can be found in the Meir zone, but for something more cutting-edge (and expensive), hit womenswear retailer Step By Step and the family-owned Verso (set in a vast restored 16th-century mansion) for fashion-forward accessories, apparel, perfume and sneakers by the likes of Valentino, Lanvin, Prada and Miu Miu.

The unmissable Graanmarkt 13 is a high-end, ahead-of-its-time concept store at the intersection of fashion, interiors and beauty (there’s also a wonderful restaurant, along with apartment accommodation). Here, the fabulous edit brings together both emerging designers and more established brands in addition to beautiful reissues of lighting by the legendary 1960s–’70s Belgian designer Christophe Gevers. The store is an official stockist of the local label Bernadette, which offers a print-heavy ready-to-wear collection of feminine apparel loved by celebrities and Antwerp’s It girls. 

The Matriks store. Photography by Wim Hadermann.

Pieces from Midnight Flowers, a tableware collection by Serax in collaboration with the Italian house Marni. Photography courtesy of Serax.

Spread over 400 square metres, Matriks is a lifestyle and interiors store with a well-curated offering of homewares by Flemish, Scandinavian and Italian brands. It stocks a large range of Serax, Axel Van Den Bossche’s tableware brand that collaborates with big names such as Marni and Kelly Wearstler. Even if you don’t have cash to splash, the St Vincents showroom is still worth visiting. The design store-cum-gallery sells contemporary and collectable furniture in addition to hosting exhibitions in a handsome 1700s printing house.

When it comes to accommodation, there’s no going past the hidden gem Hotel Julien. It opened more than 20 years ago (not that you’d know it) and occupies prime position in a quiet street, just steps from the historic part of town. Comprising two converted 16th-century apartment buildings, it has retained its original heritage features and sky-high ceilings. Rooms are typically Belgian, with neutral linens, natural textures and a warm yet minimalist aesthetic. The hotel’s cosy common area is outfitted with a collection of midcentury furniture that creates the perfect spot for a nightcap, perhaps by the roaring fireplace, even if you’re not a paying guest. 

A few doors up is Sapphire House, a glam boutique hotel with two plant-based eateries — WILDn and PLANTn — both of which utilise lots of fermented and pickled ingredients.

Seasonal dishes at August curated by chef Nick Bril. Photography by Robert Rieger.

August’s bar is housed within a former nuns’ chapel. Photography by Robert Rieger.

 Everyone is talking about August, a stylish new hotel, restaurant, bar, wellness space, shop and gardens in the pedestrian-only luxury development of Het Groen Kwartier. Transformed by renowned Belgian architect Vincent Van Duysen on the site of a large 19th-century former military hospital complex, it’s now a pristine combination of five buildings. Nearby, stroll along the renowned Cogels Osylei and the surrounding “Golden Triangle” of streets to see exemplary Art Nouveau structures. 

With such a rich history in the arts, Antwerp has no shortage of galleries and museums. FoMu is the city’s main photography museum, with kid-friendly activities such as a photobooth. There are two cinemas, a schedule of artist talks and stellar exhibitions including an upcoming showcase of the iconic self-portrait photographer Cindy Sherman. 

FoMu, the city’s foremost museum of photography. Photography by Woodmonkey.

For something different, step back in time at the UNESCO-protected Plantin-Moretus museum, the original residence and workshop of Antwerp’s largest publishing dynasty. Marvel at the historical manuscripts, original prints, books and tools, including the oldest surviving printing presses in the world. And even if classic art isn’t your thing, it’s worth visiting KMSKA: Royal Museum of Fine Arts, which has an outstanding collection of visual arts from the Southern Netherlands. Last year, a renovation saw the debut of new, ultra-modern rooms where, in the ultimate juxtaposition, works by Flemish masters now hang in a minimalist setting.

The courtyard garden at Museum Plantin-Moretus was planted to a late-16th-century model. Photography by Jeroen Broeckx.

The museum exhibits original lead type fonts alongside the world’s oldest printing presses. Photography by Jeroen Broeckx.

Just outside Antwerp, on the banks of the Albert Canal, is Kanaal, often described as a “city in the countryside”. Dreamt up by visionary Belgian designer Axel Vervoordt, the adaptive reuse complex (formerly a distillery) comprises a mix of cultural, commercial and residential communities set among garden spaces. The converted silos and red-brick warehouses are also home to a plethora of creative endeavours, with workshops, exhibition spaces, an auditorium and an arts centre. The gallery offers more than a dozen exhibitions per year and is home to permanent pieces such as American light and space artist James Turrell’s stunning “Red Shift”.

The only touristy food you should try is Antwerpse Handjes (Antwerp Hands), the famous traditional cookies in the shape of hands. The best ones are from Philip’s Biscuits, an artisanal bakery that wraps its goods like little pieces of art. There are many versions of the folklore, but legend has it there was a giant who demanded tolls from ships wanting to enter the port, so a brave Roman hero chopped off his hand and threw it into the river. The phrase “hand werpen” comes from the Dutch for “hand throwing”, and, hence, Antwerpen. 

For more sweet treats, Domestic’s famous high tea is a must. The modern bakery and patisserie also specialises in moreish, crunchy artisanal breads. Follow the scent of baking dough to Goossens, one of the oldest and best bakeries in Antwerp. It’s famous for its raisin bread, but you really can’t go wrong with anything on offer here. When it comes to coffee, there’s no lack of choice, with specialty micro-roasters Andy and Rush Rush both a sure bet. The charming Tinsel is a great brunch spot, popular with locals for its sweet vegan goodies and menu featuring produce sourced from surrounding suppliers.

In the former chapel of a military hospital, The Jane, designed by Studio Piet Boon, is a fine-dining-meets-rock’n’roll restaurant that serves up a mostly fish-based tasting menu within view of an open kitchen. At roughly $430 per person, a four-hour sitting here makes dinner an elaborate affair. For pan-Asian cuisine, Camino offers an ever-changing menu featuring delicious rice bowls for lunch and shared dishes with natural wines for dinner. Michelin-starred Dôme is a favourite of fine-dining foodies, with classic French dishes delivered in a neo-Flemish Renaissance building. Don’t leave without trying the famous chocolate tart. It’s a sweet surprise — much like Antwerp itself.  

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our tenth edition, Page 154 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “Grand Designs”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.  


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