Antwerp: Where to eat, drink, shop and what to see
Tradition and innovation meet in Antwerp, Belgium’s second most populous city after Brussels. Driven by its port and diamond district, the Flemish mini metropolis has the ambition of becoming a cultural hub that encompasses fashion, food and art. We travelled to Antwerp equipped with cameras, forks and credit cards to experience first-hand what it has to offer, and we put together a list of the places to see, restaurants and bars to try and shops to check out.
What to see
A great place to start exploring the old town is Grote Markt, the main square, which is surrounded by 16th century buildings. From there, the Cathedral of Our Lady is just a couple of minutes’ walk. This gothic Catholic church features three Rubens masterpieces and a tower higher than 100 metres. The Flemish painter is a symbol of the city, and his former home, Rubenshuis, has now become a museum featuring works by the artist as well as his contemporaries van Dyck, van Haecht and Brueghel the Elder. More Flemish masterpieces can be found at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in the southern district of Zuid, with contemporary art on display nearby – literally five minutes away – at the M HKA (Museum of Contemporary Art).
The city centre is rich with historic churches. St James’s, where Rubens is buried, juxtaposes baroque interiors with late gothic exteriors; St Paul’s is another celebration of the same architectural blend, and is home to paintings of van Dyck, Jordaens and Rubens; last but not least, St Charles Borromeo’s is the ultimate baroque church and “quintessentially Rubens”. Sadly, the artist’s 39 ceiling paintings were lost in a fire, but the façade still features several contributions from the master. For a quiet, peaceful walk there’s also the picturesque botanical garden with 2,000 plants.
Finally, there are three more must-see places just 15 minutes on public transport from the city centre: the Palace of Justice (designed by legendary British architect Richard Rogers), the majestic, futuristic Port House (conceived by the late Zaha Hadid) and the 19th century zoo, one of the world’s oldest.
Where to eat
The food scene in Antwerp is particularly impressive, with a remarkable concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants and new openings. We’ve put together the places that we think should be visited.
The Jane: An avant-garde outpost
The former chapel of a military hospital, Nick Bril’s restaurant is all about having a unique experience that transcends the table, making aesthetics and sound the pillars of a culinary journey. Expect daring pairings and exotic ingredients that will keep you enticed for hours. Despite their young age, the young front-of-house team are incredibly prepared, incessantly striving for excellence.
InVINcible: The place you’d like to have in your city
Invincible is one of those restaurants you’d love to have in your own city. We walked in at past 10pm and they still served us a fantastic meal. Chef Kenny Burssens has a produce-first approach to dining, for both food and wine, and diners sit at the counter to enjoy the fruits of his talent. The menu offers classic local dishes – with a twist – as well as simple yet delicious steak.
Fiera: The comfortable, no-frills restaurant
While it’s absolutely wonderful to be challenged by bold flavour combinations, modern techniques and endless tasting menus, sometimes you just want to sit comfortably and relax, drinking good wine and enjoying simple food. Fiera does this perfectly, within the beautifully restored old handelsbeurs (trade fair).
Frites Atelier: For state-of-the-art fries
Everyone knows Belgians are famous for their fries, so how has a Dutchman, Sergio Herman, come to build a palace for fried potatoes? Even though the celebrity chef comes from the neighbouring Netherlands, he has practically been adopted by the Antwerpers, who are sometimes not even aware of his nationality. Despite this “controversy”, Herman took an 18-month, quasi-scientific path to the cooking of potatoes, and the result is a luxury boutique serving perfectly fried fries.
The London: An ever-changing journey
Tommy Cavaliere, the former sous chef of three-Michelin-starred Zilte, and manager Thalissa Kraus lead this modern restaurant by the docks. A few years back, the couple decided to take some time off work and embark on a global tour, from Australia to Thailand, Argentina to Mexico. Their aim was to eat – and sometimes work – at as many restaurants from the World’s 50 Best list as possible. The result of their experiences is a menu that changes every few weeks, focusing on the cuisine of a country they have explored together. There is also a more traditional a la carte focused on Belgian food.
More in Antwerp
There are many other restaurants worthy of a mention; we haven’t had the opportunity try them all but we can rely on the judgement of our food-obsessed friends. Hertog Jan, which has made a comeback after closing in Bruges, opening at the brand new luxury hotel Sanctuary Botanic. Zilte, the only three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Antwerp, sitting at the top of a high-rise building. Kommilfoo, which offers unpretentious, light, contemporary French fine dining. Veranda, a young, vegetable-focused venture in the outskirts of the city, with an obsession for organic farming and natural wine. Maven, a meat temple in trendy Zuid, with an altar-like display of ageing full-length beef cuts. Bistrot du Nord, a staple of classic high-end Belgian cuisine. Mico & Jon, a progressive Asian (as they define it) eatery that serves dumplings and buns with natural wine and craft beer (Mico Cheung used to work as pastry chef for Robuchon in Hong Kong). Pristine, Sergio Herman’s Italian food-influenced casual chic restaurant right by the shopping area. Black Smoke, a BBQ restaurant with a strong Texan vibe, mixing smoky American barbecue aromas with local traditions.
Where to drink
In Antwerp, we found a lively bar scene, and two places really made an impression, offering concoctions worthy of London, Milan and New York.
Located in the hip Zuid neighbourhood in south Antwerp, Bar Burbure is a proper dark and moody bar, with fumoir vibes. They boast Spanish sherries, cigars and a great selection of liquors – from rare scotch to Chartreuse VEP. The real jewel of this establishment is their bartenders: their techniques and ability to take care of their guests, coming up with personalised cocktails on the spot, can’t fail to impress.
BelRoy Bijou and BelRoy’s MAS
Ben Belmans and Dieter Van Roy, whose names served for the portmanteau BelRoy, were pioneers of Antwerp’s cocktail scene. After the success of Bijou, in Zuid, the duo also opened a new location, MAS, near the docks. While the tipples on the menu are surely interesting, what surprised us the most were the incredible pre-mixed bottles: if you can get your hands on the Widow’s Kiss (Lemorton Calvados, Chartreuse Jaune, DOM Bénédictine and Angostura bitters), we certainly recommend it.
Atelier Paul Morel
The Atelier Paul Morel is not simply a bar, it’s a laboratory offering drinking experiences that do not necessarily involve the use of alcohol. We, in fact, tried a line of natural spirits called Bôtan, which are free from the intoxicating substance. With them, Morel fixed us a herbaceous, refreshing concoction that didn’t suffer from a lack of liquor. When it’s not open to the public, the atelier serves as a research lab for the mixologist and for his consultancy endeavours.
Where to shop
By “shopping”, of course, we mean for good food. Antwerp doesn’t disappoint in this department either, offering unique produce that originated only here.
Luc De Laet’s shop, at first glance, may not ring many bells, but international gourmands are likely to be familiar with his one-of-a-kind cured meat, Secreto 07, a rib-eye of Rubia Gallega, aged and dried for at least seven weeks with a secret mix of seven herbs. It rose to fame with Albert Adrià, who made good use of it at his restaurants in Barcelona. As well as this delicacy, the shop has a wonderful selection of meat, making it a go-to place for meat lovers.
Maître chocolatier Pierre Marcolini comes from Brussels, but he makes all of his produce of grand cru chocolate in Antwerp, at the atelier in the heart of Antwerp. Beautiful machinery is visible through the large windows, roasting cocoa beans, removing their shells and turning them into melted chocolate. The beans used for the grand crus come from all over the world, including an exclusive import from the Hainan islands of China.
De Koninck: Brewery, cheese and bakery
The brewery is at the heart of De Koninck, but the complex has a number of other shops, bars and restaurants. Only Cheese is an artisan cheese specialist and The Bakery is a French-style baker, selling bread – including sourdough – and pastries.
Filippo L’Astorina, the Editor
Photos: Filippo L’Astorina (except church)