ANTWERP, Belgium — Brussels may claim to be the capital of Europe, but you’ll need to travel a bit further north to find the continent’s capital of cool.
Antwerp can outdo London for edgy fashion, compete with Berlin for avant garde art, rival Prague for medieval charm, match Amsterdam’s raunchy side and challenge Paris for trendy eateries.
The great North Sea port took off as a hip destination in the late 1980s, when the city’s Fine Arts Academy produced a golden generation of young designers who took the fashion world by storm.
The success of Dirk Bikkembergs, Dries Van Noten, and other members of the “Antwerp Six” sparked a cultural renaissance in the city, which was already a treasure-trove of historic monuments but perhaps a tad dull for visitors who were not fans of gemstones or busty Madonnas.
Antwerp’s churches and museums are still lined with paintings of voluptuous ladies by Peter Paul Rubens and the glittering jewelers’ neighborhood continues to host the world’s biggest center for diamond dealing, but these days the city’s main draw is its ever-expanding fashion scene. Explore the city for a day to see how that scene has rubbed off on the city’s neighborhoods.
The old port area, or Eilandje, is dominated by the city’s newest landmark, the 60-meter-high red-stone-and-corrugated-glass tower of the Museum Aan de Stroom, scheduled to open early next year as a museum dedicated to the maritime heritage of Europe’s second-largest seaport.
One lingering reminder of Antwerp’s seafaring vocation lies between the Eilandje and the medieval alleys of the old town center, the red light district of the Schipperskwartier (or Skippers’ Quarter). Antwerp is even on the cutting edge of bordello design, with the neon-lit display windows integrated into the Villa Tinto, a government-regulated brothel created in 2006 by the Belgian artist Arne Quinze.
Schipperskwartier is an eclectic mix of hip cafes and dusty antique shops. Facing the lacy late-Gothic splendors of Sint-Paulus’ Church, built in 1571, is Toys4Boys, which caters discreetly to the city’s gay bondage crowd. Around the corner, dishes of the day in the chic Restaurant Boris include North Sea brill with spring-onion puree, and goose liver accompanied by forest mushrooms and Sirop de Liege — a thick, sweet apple and pear reduction from eastern Belgium.
Nationalestraat remains the main artery running through the heart of the Antwerp fashion scene. It begins with the flagship store of Dries Van Noten, housed in the former Modepaleis department store from 1880. From there, it passes the ModeMuseum, which until Feb. 13 is showcasing the work of London’s hatter-to-the-stars Stephen Jones. Further on, the street hosts cult stores such as Denmark’s Bitte Kai Rand, Dutch apparel and furniture outlet Sissy-Boy, and Sien, which features younger European designers. Among the boutiques are quirky shops like Van Hecke’s waffle house, established in 1905.
Nationalestraat leads into the Zuid (the South), Antwerp’s trendiest neighborhood for more than a decade. Its attractions include the groundbreaking MuHKA contemporary art museum and the iconic store of Ann Demeulemeester, one of the original Antwerp Six. The in-crowd takes their espresso in the delightfully retro Entrepot du Congo cafe or sips martinis perfumed with lime and basil at Josephine’s restaurant and cocktail bar. At the Your concept store you can sip on cava, get a hairdo, have your jeans customized and stock up on designer labels. After that, you might wish to head to the Zuiderpershuis World Culture Center, a restored 19th-century power plant that last month featured Haitian theater, Spanish flamenco and an exhibition of Congolese comic strips.
Antwerp’s grandest street is the Meir, a broad avenue that cuts through the city from City Hall to the soaring tower of the 14th-century cathedral. It’s packed with grand buildings, mostly housing well-known international brands. The street has been given a new lease of life by the recent opening of the Stadsfeestzaal, a grand turn-of-the-century ballroom converted into a fancy shopping mall; the renovation of the Inno department store, Belgium’s answer to Macy’s; and Het Paleis op de Meir — once the Belgian royal family’s Antwerp residence, the 18th-century palace now houses the devilish delights of Dominique Persoone, the Belgian “shock-olate” maker. Her creations combine the finest Costa Rican chocolate with filings such as black olives with sun-dried tomato chutney, cola with almonds and wine vinegar with pine nuts.
Kammenstraat is the street for skater-punks. Foodies flock to Korte Gasthuisstraat for Goosens’ raisin-bread; smelly cubes of Herve cheese at Vervloet, or smoked eel at the fishmonger Van Bladel. The lanes around the Bourla theater showcase more luxurious labels such as Ralph Lauren and Louis Vuitton, as well as Belgian classics like Coccodrillo shoes, Delvaux handbags, Marcolini chocolate and Natan, couturier to the royal family.
Before you leave, don’t forget to order a bolleke — a goblet of the locally brewed De Koninck beer — in an old town staminee (pub) like ‘t Oud Arsenaal, Den Engel or De 7 Schaken.