"The rich and densely populated city of Antwerp could be described with good reason as the metropolis of the world." Spanish nobleman Juan Cristóbal Calvete de Estrella wrote that flattering assessment in the 1550s, but it remains a pretty accurate description of cosmopolitan Antwerp. In Calvete de Estrella's day the city on the east side of the Scheldt river rivaled Paris and London as Europe's banking, commercial, and cultural hub. It was the jewel in the crown of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, a Spaniard whose Protestant Northern European subjects didn't much like a religiously intolerant Catholic ruling this part of the continent, then called the Spanish Netherlands.
Still hugely prosperous and spectacularly cultured, Antwerp is now a city in the kingdom of Belgium rather than the duchy of Brabant. But some things never change: The Belgians are still arguing about who should govern them, with the wealthy Flemish-speaking north wishing to sever all ties to the poorer French-speaking south and set up its own country. Antwerp, however, seems distant from the political fray, content in its position as a worldly creative dynamo. Once upon a time it was Brueghel, Rubens, and Van Dyck who brought the city's sophisticated reputation to the attention of envious European courts. Today it is fashion designers like Dries Van Noten and antiques dealers like Axel Vervoordt who are Antwerp's ablest ambassadors. The city continues to represent the epitome of what Europe does best and Belgium seems to do even better, providing refined specializations of beer, chocolate, fashion, and interior design. Home to almost half a million people, this centuries-old spot is the spiritual capital of just about everything that makes life more beautiful.
Europe's second-busiest port and the fourth largest in the world, Antwerp and its fortunes have always been linked to the Scheldt. The city's golden age began in the late 15th century, after nearby Bruges was cut off from sea trade by the silting up of its river, and began to dim a century later when the Dutch—finally liberated from Spanish domination—blockaded the Scheldt and effectively shut down Antwerp's port economy in favor of Amsterdam. Later it was battered by German forces in both world wars and mightily bombed. "It has the scars of history, which give it an edge, an authenticity," says American decorator , an admirer of Antwerp's spirited juxtapositions. The red-light district is a block or two away from the finest antiques shops, he notes, modish coffee shops are tucked into concrete warehouses, and the streets are quirkily harmonious, with curlicued Art Nouveau mansions nestling next to stolid Baroque townhouses and finely tailored modernist apartment buildings.
"The city unfolds with surprises from one square to the next," says U.S. interior designer , another spellbound visitor. "Everything about Antwerp is inspiring, from the window displays of a shop to the tablescapes arranged by an antiques dealer. And what you see is unique to the place," she adds, "which is a nice thing in a world of global brands."
Laid out like a fan, Antwerp radiates from the cobblestoned historic center by the river, a spot dominated by the 387-foot spire of the Cathedral of Our Lady, completed in 1521 and the tallest Gothic church in the Low Countries. Nearby is the Grote Markt, or old town square; framed by breathtakingly elaborate guild-hall façades, the former main marketplace is now mostly populated by vendors selling Stella Artois to tourists in the shadow of city hall. Less-trafficked visions of historic Antwerp, however, can be experienced in the array of engaging house museums. Their quiet rooms, elegant furniture, and Old Master paintings illustrate how wealthy art patrons and artists lived in centuries past. One of the finest is Rubens House, the regal palazzo and studio of painter Peter Paul Rubens, Antwerp's most famous son. He created the home and its lovely garden in the early 1600s after an eight-year sojourn in Italy.
But to many, Antwerp is now synonymous with edgy clothes, thanks to the so-called Antwerp Six, fashion-school classmates who shook up the 1980s by promoting minimalist apparel in moody colors. and are the most notable of this group of Royal Academy of Fine Arts alumni. It's not all sartorial severity though. Couturier Edouard Vermeulen—he heads the historic Brussels company and dresses high-profile young royals like Mathilde of Belgium and Máxima of the Netherlands—has a ready-to-wear boutique on Schuttershofstraat stocked with alluringly feminine garb. Younger hometown stars include (her shop is on Nationalestraat) and , a cutting-edge menswear designer who also is creative director of Jil Sander (his clothes are carried at Louis on Lombaardenstraat). If the price tags on the brand-name goods give you pause, there is always the popular resale shop Labels Inc., which does a brisk business in attire by Belgium's finest.
Boutiques offering deluxe fashion, accessories, and jewels—and, of course, delectable Belgian chocolates—are concentrated in the warren of streets around the 19th-century Royal Theatre (a.k.a. Bourla Theatre, after its architect, Pierre Bruno Bourla). "Antwerp can be like a sweets shop," says Gert Voorjans, architect of the new Dries Van Noten boutiques in Paris and Dubai. "There are far too many things to tempt you." That includes diamonds. Around 85 percent of the world's uncut diamonds pass through Antwerp, where they are turned into faceted gems ready to be set, mostly by Orthodox Jewish craftsmen working in discreetly humdrum-looking shops.
Discretion is the byword of Antwerp's vaunted style, even in its gastronomy. Frustrated by the hoopla over his Michelin-starred establishment next to Hotel Matelote, chef Didier Garnich closed it and opened a casual food bar called Gin Fish in the same location. Surprisingly, this hot restaurant—Barbara Barry is a huge fan—is little more than a small gray room whose decor is best described as barely there. "This way, the food and the people you're sharing it with are what stand out," insists Garnich, as he quietly presents a dish of sautéed brill topped with briny wild lettuce to Boris Vervoordt, a high-profile scion of the antiques-and-interior-design empire. Vervoordt chimes in, "This is what we're about here—finding the best ingredients and then letting them stand on their own. It's all about the editing, and Antwerpers do it so well."
Count the thirty-something Vervoordt and his parents, May and Axel, among those masterful editors. In the realm of art and design few families have done more in practicing this philosophy of leaving well enough alone. In the 1970s the patriarch began restoring derelict 16th-century buildings in Antwerp's city center to house his collection of masterpiece antiques. In 2006 the Vervoordts opened a sprawling gallery called Kanaal in the nearby town of Wijnegem. In converting the latter site's 19th-century canal-side distillery into a source for astounding contemporary art and fantastic antiques, the clan has elevated the act of looking for a sofa to a near-religious experience. Seraphic Thai sculptures seem to float in the raw industrial rooms, and a gigantic red fiberglass dome by British artist Anish Kapoor, entitled At the Edge of the World, is suspended inside a circular brew house, one of the buildings on this striking property.
In the city itself, though, one of the most buzzed-about areas is the north end. Old docks and warehouses are being converted into trendy restaurants and cafés and loft apartments in an urban-renewal project similar to London's Docklands. Having received the benediction of Van Noten—the designer moved his offices and atelier to a rehabbed building here—hip restaurants and bars have begun to cluster along the bustling quays. Luxury residential towers are expected to rise here too, and on the civic drawing board is a dazzling new City Museum of Antwerp.
A far different environmental experience can be had in Zurenborg, a historic neighborhood not far from the diamond district. Here some of Belgium's giddiest architectural fantasies are given center stage, scores of grand private homes built in all manner of over-the-top styles in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And if you get weary walking streets lined with so much eye candy, take note: Two of the city's favorite eateries also can be found in this area. Owned by executive chef Julien Burlat and his wife, Sophie Verbeke, a onetime Van Noten stylist, the Michelin-starred Dome seats just 34 diners in a large and spectacularly beautiful circular pavilion that was built as a tearoom in 1893. Just across the street is the couple's casual eatery, Dome sur Mer, which specializes in seafood served in a stark interior decorated with large tanks of goldfish.
Night owls in search of postprandial excitement should head to Antwerp's south end. Laid out in the late 19th century, this neighborhood's orderly streets were meant to provide an antidote to the medieval jumble of the nearby old town. Today, however, its rows of prim and proper bourgeois townhouses have become restaurants, cafés, and jazz bars patronized by the city's young fashionable set. Several have been turned into swank bed-and-breakfasts. The south end also has a high density of first-rate art museums and galleries. At the head of the list is the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, an impressive neoclassical temple topped with massive bronze sculptures depicting horses in full gallop. Its lofty rooms are enriched by masterpieces by Van Eyck, Van der Weyden, Rubens, Van Dyck, and Jordaens; there's also a sprinkling of Van Goghs, Ensors, and Magrittes. For art lovers with more modern tastes, fulfillment can be found a few blocks away in the direction of the Scheldt. The Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp (MuHKA) is in a monumental grain-storage facility that has been modified into a repository of provocative paintings, videos, and more, and the nearby FotoMuseum showcases photography, from the medium's early days to its innovative present.
Linking the south and central sections of Antwerp is Kloosterstraat, a mile-long stretch of bustling cafés and brocanteurs, purveyors of vintage furniture and collectibles. Many of the offerings may not qualify as fine antiques, but they are the lifeblood of the international collecting trade. (If your pocketbook can handle it, big-ticket antiquaires can be found on tony Leopoldstraat.) Dealers drop in from as far away as the States, Australia, and Korea to pick through Kloosterstraat's varied wares. The street is at its liveliest on Sundays, when the contents of the shops spill into the street, flea-market style. Given the international focus, Ronald Teijink moved his store, Teijink, to this spot from the Netherlands eight years ago out of necessity. "Customers often didn't make it across the border to Holland," Teijink says. "They start buying in Paris and Brussels, and by the time they're done shopping in Antwerp the shipping container they're sending home is already full."
With so many treasures waiting around virtually every corner, it's no wonder that Rubens—the undisputed tastemaker of his era—declined to settle anywhere else. No offer could tempt him, though kings, popes, and grand dukes certainly tried, inviting the artist to reside at their glittering courts in Paris, Rome, Madrid, and London, even nearby Brussels. As Rubens wrote during a visit to London in 1629, nothing in the world beat that shining city on the east bank of the Scheldt: "Best of all, I should like to go home and remain there the rest of my life." Strolling through Antwerp today, it is easy to see why.
The country code is 32.
Grab a beer. Marvel at the 16th century guild houses—almost all are now pubs—lining the Grote Markt, the city's historic town square.
Rise and shine. On Sunday mornings, when the rest of the city sleeps, head to Kloosterstraat (), a mile-long stretch of antiques dealers that becomes a veritable street fair on weekends.
Live the life. A museum about printing presses, Plantin-Moretus Museum (Vrijdagmarkt 22-23, 3-221-14-50) also offers a glimpse into Antwerp's glorious golden age.
Zip through Zurenborg. The ebullient architectural eclecticism of this tony neighborhood is a heady reminder of Antwerp 's well-heeled past.
WHAT TO SEE
Diamond Museum, Koningin Astridplein19-23, 3-202-48-90; : An interactive look at the history of the world's favorite gem.
ModeMuseum, Nationalestraat 28, 3-470-27-70; : Known as MoMu, this fashion museum is attached to an academy that churns out star designers such as Dries Van Noten and Martin Margiela.
Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Leopold de Waelplaats, 3-238-78-09; : Masterpieces by Rubens and Van Dyck line silk-velvet walls at this palace of art. Lots of Ensors too.
Rubens House, Wapper 9-11, 3-201-15-55; : Artist Peter Paul Rubens built this impressive Italianate palace as his home and studio; it faces a ravishing square.
WHERE TO STAY
De Witte Lelie, Keizerstraat 16-18, 3-226-19-66; : A posh boutique hotel with spacious rooms and a bountiful breakfast spread.
Hotel Julien, Korte Nieuwstraat 24, 3-229-06-00; : Eleven rooms divided between two lovingly restored antique townhouses, a tranquil courtyard. Welcoming service.
Hotel Matelote, Haarstraat 11A, 3-201-88-00; : Nine slickly minimalist rooms tucked into a 16th-century building on a narrow lane near the Cathedral of Our Lady.
Hotel 't Sandt,Zand 13-19, 3-232-93-90; : A 15th-century soap factory made over into 29 inviting rooms, including the Victoria Suite, a duplex lodging decorated in crisp contemporary style.
Miauw Suites, Marnixplaats 14, 3-248-47-07; : Stylish apartments located in the heart of the chic south end, convenient to top museums and restaurants as well as cafés popular with the jeunesse dorée.
WHERE TO EAT
Arme Duivel, Duivelstraat 1, 3-232-26-98: Cozy but lively brasserie with delectable soups and crowd-pleasing classics such as steak tartare with perfect frites.
Arte, Suikerrui 24, 3-226-29-70: Where the young and fabulous gather for trendy Italian fare.
Chez Fred, Kloosterstraat 83, 3-257-14-71: A favorite of fashionistas, this rustic-minimal spot is known for hearty dishes like beef stew.
De Gulden Bock, Schuttershofstraat 11, 3-227-17-50: Shoppers head here to refuel on truffle-stuffed ravioli or gratin of codfish in béchamel.
Dome,Grote Hondstraat 2, 3-239-90-03: Julien Burlat's seasonal menus have earned him a Michelin star. Also check out the seafood-oriented sister bistro Dome sur Mer and its adjacent bakery, Domestic.
Gin Fish, Haarstraat 9, 3-231-32-07: Michelin-starred chef Didier Garnich crafts his daily four-course menu from the day's freshest catch.
Pazzo,Oude Leeuwenrui 12, 3-232-86-82; : Japanese- and Italian-accented wine bar and restaurant with views of gentrifying docks.
Sir Anthony Van Dijck, Vlaeykensgang Oude Koornmarkt 16, 3-231-61-70; : Located in a 16th-century mansion restored by Belgian tastemaker Axel Vervoordt, this special-occasion eatery offers dozens of memorable delicacies, including sea bass with pumpkin-and-tomato vinaigrette.
WHERE TO SHOP
Het Modepaleis, Nationalestraat 16, 3-470-251; : Designer Dries Van Noten's flagship is where clotheshorses from around the world come to gawk and shop.
Kasteel van 's-Gravenwezel, St. Jobsteenweg 64, 's-Gravenwezel, 3-658-14-70; : Antiques dealer Axel Vervoordt's castle east of Antwerp is a temple of style, with everything from Old Master paintings to Baroque tables to his coveted upholstery. The Kanaal outpost in Wijnegem is equally astounding.
't Koetshuis, Kloosterstraat 62, 3-248-33-42: Masses of vintage finds— furniture, silver, glass, prints—in a magical shop that resembles an overstuffed attic.
Labels Inc., Aalmoezenierstraat 4, 3-232-60-56; : A resale shop with top designer garb.
Natan, Schuttershofstraat 5, 3-225-17-72; : Look like a princess in prêt-à-porter by Edouard Vermeulen, a couturier known for dressing Northern Europe's glam young royals.
Stephan Badal,Lange Gasthuisstraat 5, 3-227-11-14; : Opulent gowns that are the antithesis of Antwerp minimalism.
Sweertvaegher, Groendalstraat 8, 3-226-36-91; : This favorite spot boasts irresistible old-school specialty chocolates such as handmade galleten fondants.
Teijink,Kloosterstraat 33, 49-520-52-40; : Snakeskin-covered tables, taxidermy, and furniture made of exotic woods are among this antique mecca's myriad treasures.
A World of Textures, Graaf van Egmontstraat 37, 3-232-96-47: Gorgeous handmade carpets and fascinating textiles from around the globe.
Wouters & Hendrix Jewelry, Lange Gasthuisstraat 13B, 3-232-47-55; : Semiprecious stones in sleek biomorphic settings that are best paired with restrained modern fashions.