It’s not the obvious choice for a fashionable city break, but Belgium’s second city has a style of its own, says Nick McAvaney.
As a man who avoids buying clothes until his jeans are almost threadbare, my sense of fashion could (at best) be described as inept. I know vintage handbags can be a serious investment and Jimmy Choo is a shoemaker. But that’s about it.
So as my train rolls into Antwerp, Belgium’s second city and one of Europe’s biggest fashion and design hubs, I begin to wish I’d invested a bit more time and effort in my wardrobe. Fortunately, the city’s sense of style extends way beyond clothing. In terms of architecture – and attitude – Antwerp, I soon discover, is seriously cool.
The journey there takes three hours from London via Brussels on the Eurostar, so it’s within relatively easy, hassle-free reach.
I disembark at the striking Antwerp Central Station, rated as one of the most beautiful train stations in the world for its striking stone and marble interior. Although originally built in the late 19th century, it’s a mishmash of architectural styles.
“It’s got a few influences,” our cycle tour guide, Nicolas de Belder, from Cyclant tells me, as we tour around the city on two wheels. “Antwerp is very eclectic,” he continues, giving me a brief history of the city that’s home to around 500,000 inhabitants.
An important trading centre for sugar in the 1500s, it’s now best known for its diamond and chemical industries. It’s also one of the busiest ports in Europe and more important to Germany than Hamburg – or so Nicolas claims.
I’ve learned so much in my brief time in the city already, but Nicolas’s lessons extend beyond economics and design, to encompass how to take a bike on an escalator.
There are few bridges in Antwerp, making tunnels underneath the river Scheldt the best crossing points. Many are accessed via escalators, and city cyclists learn from a young age that the correct way to carry a bike on these moving stairways is to lock the front wheel against a step, creating a T shape.
I pop out on the river’s left bank, a far quieter part of the city with spectacular views across to the old town and Antwerp’s port. Rising high above the building tops is the spire of the Gothic Cathedral of Our Lady. The tower was never finished, only reaching a third of its intended height.
In a country as flat as Belgium, anything tall is a major attraction, and Antwerp’s cathedral is no exception. It’s possible to climb the tower’s 500 steps on a guided tour every Wednesday from April until September.
The viewing platform atop the Museum aan de Stroom (MAS), is far more accessible. The building is a prime example of contemporary architecture and reflects the city’s trading history and modern industrial focus. Its design was lost on the young lovers in front of me who are looking for a secluded corner and deciding to leave them in peace, I join my friends in Bar Burbure, a copper-chromed bar which reminds me of 1930s New York. The tipples of choice here are locally-distilled bio gins.
Fresh ingredients such as pear, lavender and tangerines form the basis of the drinks, with no added sugar.
Beer, however, is ubiquitous in Belgium, so I’m happy to be heading to De Koninck brewery.
It has been pumping out a fine selection of liquid amber since 1833, and the site has evolved to include a butcher, cheesemonger, bakery, chocolate shop and even a cycling store. Many of the shops also collaborate together. Jitsk Chocolates, for example, pairs products with the beer produced in the factory.
I tour the factory on an interactive journey through De Koninck’s history. Of course, it ends in a bar where I sample four of its products.
“Eleven AM is the best time for beer tasting,” our bartender explains. “It’s when the taste buds are their most receptive after an overnight rest.”
Whether that’s true or not, I cannot deny the smooth taste of the beer on tap, nor fail to marvel at the amazing selection. Antwerp’s beer industry (like everywhere in Belgium) thrives on innovation. It dates back to a time when the city’s water quality was so poor, beer was the cleaner and healthier option.
Innovation is driving the industry forward, as more and more brewers share production facilities.
Back in the city centre, walking off my liquid lunch, I stroll along Schuttershofstraat, where Chanel and Burberry sit alongside local designer stores Natan and Coccodrillo.
Many of the city’s artists and designers hail from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Each year hundreds apply to develop their craft, but only 60 students are taken and only 10 will graduate.
I laugh when I overhear a tour guide declare locals would “rather not eat than have bad shoes” but she wasn’t joking.
Perhaps I don’t fully appreciate the city’s concept stores and trend-setting designs, but what I’ve discovered in Antwerp is style, innovation and imagination to boot.
Next time though, I must bring a personal shopper to help plan my wardrobe. And an extra suitcase too.
Nick McAvaney was a guest of Eurostar (03432 186186, eurostar.com) which operates up to 11 daily services from London St Pancras International to Brussels.
Tickets to any Belgium station start from £34.50 one-way.