I travelled to Belgium recently, for God only knows what time, and regardless if I went there for sumptuous food, stunning architecture or Northern beaches, this snug European temple never failed to deliver. It’s a curiosity as a whole. Two nations so very, very different that it’s hard to believe that they live in the same country. Northern, Dutch speaking, Flemish and South French speaking- Walloons. They have one of those love-hate relationships, but it seems to work. Walloons have prettiest villages, best food and still a bit entitled behavior compared to Flemish who have biggest cities, most of the capital and best museums and art scene.
If you happen to plan your first visit, I would recommend blocking at least 3 days in your calendar and starting with Antwerp, followed by Gent and end the mini tour with Brugge.
The reason I purposely left out the capital Brussels, I have to be honest, unless you are on business trip, I can not find a soft spot for this city built around EU institutions. As the matter of fact, most people who end up visiting Brussels before lavish neighbor cities and towns, go into anaphalactic shock, once they realize that something so overwhelmingly beautiful can exist only 40 minutes from formal Brussels.
STAY at ‘AU LIT, JEROME!’
For home away from home, a gorgeous lofty B&B created in a town house with fire places filled with old books and antique furniture for extra character, will do the part. Reasonably priced and breakfast is served in your room overlooking the garden. Little pampering can do no harm!
De Witte Lelie
If you are not afraid to brake the bank, than stylish designer hotel situated in the center of the city is just what the doctor ordered. Contemporary design and service will spoil you to death. Book well in advance, to be on the safe side.
SHOP @ Dries van Noten
A little retail therapy is an absolute MUST! After all, it’s not for nothing that the city is referred to as fashion’s ‘Garden of Eden’. Some of the biggest names in the industry have been brought up by Royal Academy of Anwerp… Dries van Noten (one of the famous Antwerp Six), Raf Simons (former creative director of Dior), DvF… am just throwing few names in the mix that you will love, want, need!
How many places do you know that officially have a diamond street? Well, now you do! The city has been the diamond center for the last 570 years, so make sure not to miss if you are a self-respected glitterati and if you do decide to shop, well it is a proven fact that you will get best deal for your money. Mazel tov!
‘My mom always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.’ Forrest Gump
There are over 100 different chocolate stores in town, so you are spoiled with choice. When you walk in, you will be most likely offered a small decadent piece to taste. Leave worrying about the waste line for later and indulge as much as possible. My 3 favorite stops are: Leonidas (try their signature white praline), Chofleur (cutest little something to grab and bring back home for your loved ones) and The Chocolate Line.
Stop by the statue of the little ‘Rascal’ (literally translation from Flemish). He was kidnapped few times from this original spot, but since 2008 remains firm on it’s place showing his bare bottom to passers by.
Cathedral of Our Lady
It took 170 years to complete this Gothic masterpiece and ever since it has been a landmark to all the level country around. I read about it first when I was a kid in a wonderful book ‘A Dog of Flanders’, written by English author, who tells a hearth braking story about an orphan boy Nello and his dog Patrasche. The story is set in Antwerp, but I will not spoil the plot for you, in case you haven’t read it yet. It was/is particularly popular in Japan and thousands of tourists pilgrimage to the city and the Cathedral admiring the same sites little Nello loved and admired- gigantic pillars supporting rib vault above your head, large stained glass windows and opulent works of art of Flemish masters including Peter Paul Rubens.
If you consider yourself an art lover, then Ruben’s huise will be high on your priority list. The Flemish baroque master lived and created here and you can witness his dynamic, flamboyant pieces that will leave you speechless. But, be careful about the opening hours. The museum is closed on Mondays and the last admition is at 4:30 pm on the other week days.
MAS (Museum aan de Stroom) is another point of your interest. 10 stories high, 5700m2 of exhibition space, 650000 visitors a year, 470000 museum pieces….that is MAS in a nutshell.
Imagine Grand Central Station in New York, but grand-er! This lavish landmark is not to be missed, so make sure to take a de-tour from your path, in case you did not arrive here by the train. I don’t know what it is about stations that makes them so magical?! Is it anticipation of the journey or excitement of meeting somebody, but the romance is in the air and this one does not lack of it. Take a picture from every angle because later you’ll be sad that you haven’t.
WALKS – River bank
Best, take a stroll at sunset or early in the morning down river bank. Find a calm spot for the breakfast or brunch on one of the many terraces and savoir the moment.
This hidden gem is a little bit of the beaten tourist tracks. A string of the most striking houses and courtyards oozing charm and character. Apparently, the whole of Antwerp used to be built in this style, but after the War, developers came and took down everything they could get their hands on. Lucky, these withstood the test of time.
Grote Markt 19,
The French are rightfully convinced that you can tell a lot about a person from their choice of fragrance. You no longer have to go to France to have personalized scents. In the heart of the city you can find perfume house Infine. Their attention to detail and skill will help you create that special feeling and you might learn thing or two– how to dab it on your neck, wrists and knees, impress and seduce with the perfume.
The very first time I was preparing for the visit my Belgian expat friend told me: ‘it’s one of the few places were street sweeper will speak to you in English, it’s impossible to get lost because people are friendly and offer you help and yes …you will eat well for sure!’
Now that I think, he was right about everything! It’s impossible to have so-so meal. Even if you go to the butcher and buy one of the prepared sandwiches, you will smack you lips! I am not over doing it! If you think about it Belgian restaurants are in top 100 in the world, best fries- Belgian, best chocolate-Belgian, best pastry chef in the world Roger van Damme- Belgian…you can see where I am going!
Korte Gasthuisstraat 32
It’s one of the tastiest addresses in Antwerp! Fries can’t get any better than this. When you first bite into them, Chewbacca comes to mind with the crunchy sound and then your teeth all of the sudden sink into soft, almost buttery middle. The skin of the potato is kept for an extra earthy flavor. They have wide range of toppings to choose, but take my word and take Stovlees (beef braised in old brown beer and garnished with pickled mustard seeds and water crest). Interior design is equally captivating and it’s true testament to less is more!
Ellis Gourmet Burger
Leopold de Waekpaats 2
Nothing screams comfort food like a good, juicy burger. Ellis is my go to choice when I am in Antwerp or Brugge. Grilled paprika and tapenade go perfectly with juicy medium rare lamb patty, but what it makes ‘une piece de resistance’ is a spoon of an artisan cheese from raw sheep’s milk. YUM!
Recently they launched vegan burger using red beet patty, black beans and vegan tartar!
This is one of the newests concept store. The owners have combined their passion for vegetarian food and interior design, so you can have a nice brunch or lunch and at the same time shop almost everything you see in the store or simply get design advice.
Reginebeerplein 1 Bus 001
This is a new standard for pizza! For one – it’s a sourdough pizza! Meaning, it’s easier to digest and it contains lot less sugar, therefore it’s better for you and tastes absolutely delicious! For two- vegetables and herbs are grown literally above your head (on the roof top of the restaurant), so it’s sort of farm to table concept, which is very admirable! Truffelpecorino is my favorite -pumpkin sauce and black olives with salad and decadent cheese. Divine!
Not 50 meters from Standard restaurant is my culinary crush- the designer restaurant ‘The Jane’! The whole neighborhood around the restaurant used to be military barracks and warehouses. After being decommissioned, a bunch of innovative people started taking over and turning it into the ‘Meat Packing District’ of Antwerp. A Little chapel used to be part of the compound, that is until celebrity chef Sergio Herman started a restaurant in it in 2014. After three years of renovation, the establishment welcomed it’s first guests and in 8 short months earned it’s first Michelin star. A year later the second star was added and today it’s on the 74th place of the best restaurants in the world! Looong waiting list kept me from trying it so far, but in April 2018 I hope to write a post about it! Fingers crossed!
Korte Gasthuisstraat 31
Some food queues are worth conquering, especially if the end result is this yeasty goodness! Tiniest bakery with biggest costumer lines. The fact that it’s right across from Frites Atelier, means two birds with one stone.
There are so many ways to learn about the life and immerse yourself in the local scene. These are my favorite classics.
‘Bier of Wijn’ by famous wine journalist Alain Bloeykens and beer sommelier Luc de Raedemaeker. They showcased 26 typical Flemish dishes with the perfect wine and beer pairings.
‘Stadskookboek Antwerp’ by travel journalists Marlies Beckets and Marie Monsieur who will introduce you to the most creative chefs and culinary addresses in the city.
‘A dog of Flanders’ fairytale by Louisa de la Ramê.
“I learned much of this in Antwerp, where I stopped for an afternoon to see the cathedral and stayed on into the evening wandering among the many bars, which must be about the finest and most numerous in Europe: small, smoky places, as snug as Nigel Lawson’s waistcoat, full of dark panelling and dim yellowy light and always crowded with bright, happy-looking people having a good time. It is an easy city in which to strike up conversations because the people are so open and their English is nearly always perfect. I talked for an hour to two young street sweepers who had stopped for a drink on their way home.”
Bill Bryson, ‘Neither here nor there’
Cordon 7.5⭐ on IMBD
After a virus outbreak in the center of Antwerp the government decides to lock the people who might be affected by placing a wall around the center creating Cordon. If you liked American series ‘Contagion’ (a remake of the flemish original), this will fall right in your alley. It’s subtitled in English.