Lifestyle & Culture

Quick Trips: Dining and elegance put Antwerp on our A-List of always-amazing cities

ANTWERP CIRCA 1900

(Editor’s note: This follow-up post on Antwerp is part of the Quick Trip series we believe better reflects the expat lifestyle in Europe where we are in and out of cities on business and pleasure. See our original post here with our first impressions and more info about the city’s makeover.)

In our first Quick Trip post about Antwerp, we recommended visiting with the caveat that expats wait till the nearly city-wide makeover was over. Leien Boulevard was missing through the middle of the main business district and you couldn’t drive down De Leien District (also called “The Boulevard”), the series of streets connecting north Antwerp with south, between the Violierstraat and the Maria Theresialei.

Well, on our most recent trip, work looks close to completion, and we had little trouble getting into the center of the city at rush hour. (See more on Antwerp’s urban renewal project here.)

As we’ve posted in this series, there are cities that must be explored (Paris, Berlin and Rome). But there are also smaller cities where you can have a terrific adventure in a few hours.

After multiple visits since 2017 for dining, shopping and Christmas markets, Antwerp has become one of our A-List destinations along with Düsseldorf and Maastricht – cities where we always have a fabulous adventure and where’s there’s always something new and exciting to discover.

A special night to remember in Antwerp

We just got back from dinner in Antwerp courtesy of colleague Nancy Wellendorff Church and her friend Matt Fields and it was quite an evening.

First, we discovered a shopping area we’d missed along Huidevettersstraat shopping street which includes a Gucci store.

CHERYL, LEFT, AND NANCY CHECKING OUT THE VIOGNIER AT HUIS DE COLVENIER

Second, we discovered an incredible restaurant we would never have found without Matt’s friend tipping him off. Huis de Colvenier at Sint-Antoniusstraat 8, is on a side street only a couple of blocks from the Hilton.

I’m no gourmand, but our party – Nancy, Matt and my wife and Dispatches co-CEO Cheryl – came away super-impressed by the experience.

The multi-story Beaux Arts building is memorable and fun, a warren of seating areas and extensive wine cellars (yes, plural), which themselves had cozy seating and wine tasting areas. I got lost … and that was before we sampled the wine.

CHEF PATRICK VISITS WITH, FROM LEFT, MATT, NANCY AND CHERYL

The main dinning room was a nice balance of bright modern paintings and subdued colors and fabrics – an elegant yet casual feel only Europeans know how to pull off without making it look formulaic. Yes, we had several waiters: water waiters, wine waters and the owner himself, Chef Patrick van Herck, who came out and made a fuss over us and who actually took our orders, describing what was on the menu for the evening.

Our evening started with Champagne and s’amuse bouche in the wine cellar by candle light. Dinner included bouillabaisse, duck and venison. And then the wines! For me, it was astounding to look around and see display cases full of of 1973 Pétrus and Chateau La Tour. Tragically, they weren’t in our budget.

While Colvenier seems to be a bit of a destination (there were two large groups including a going-away party for a local arts group), we also saw guests who were clearly regulars and dressed down for a weeknight dinner.

Which is incredible because dinner for four ran us north of 400 euros including stellar wines, with most of the entrées about 35 euros.

There’s also a 4-star hotel which we didn’t get to see, but looks cozy online.

ANTWERP HAS A WOW FACTOR

Ah, but we didn’t come here to tell you just about one restaurant. This is a town with multiple destinations, and I came away this week wondering if we shouldn’t elevate this major port city it to Big Trip status.

Our daughter Lale came here last year with her friends from International School Eindhoven for their graduation trip. They see the city through young eyes and they went for days without ever getting bored.

For adults, this is a city with a real “wow” factor, from multiple elegant shopping districts including the stores of the city’s famous Antwerp Six fashion designers including Dries van Noten to elegant dining.

Like so many European cities, this is a great place to be rich. But even if you’re just ordinary folks like us, Antwerp offers soooo many experiences.

And the truth is, after six visits in three years, we’ve only begun to know Antwerp.

Dining and drinking – 9 out of 10

As with every European city, food is an art and dining is an experience. BUT, Antwerp has something a lot of other cities don’t … an authentic Chinatown – the only one in Belgium – on Van Wesenbekestraat right on the edge of the square bordered by the zoo and central train station.

I went back to my written-on-the-run notes where I had scribbled ecstatic entries such as “fried quail with pepper and salt!”; “smoked duck and ribs!”; “Go back to Lung Wah restaurant!” and “grocery after grocery with bags all in Mandarin!” So many exclamation marks, so little time.

We returned at Christmas, then again at New Year’s, eating in Chinatown both times. Fang’s and the China Star both have fabulous food and pages and pages of offerings ranging from a few euros for appetizers to 25 euros-plus for Beijing duck and other delicacies. A huge lunch – at least eight dishes in toto – for four with beer at Fang’s came to 60 euros! If you want atmosphere, go with China Star. If you want to eat where the local eats, Fang’s only has a few tables.

And of course, we still have more Colvenier-quality spots to sample.

Museums/Zoos – 9 out of 10

Antwerp has one of the best zoos in Europe. We first visited back in 2004, and it was terrific. What was even better – one of the docents ended up giving us a private behind-the-scenes tour of the giraffe house. When we returned last month, the zoo was full of activity and people.

This is a 175-year-old city zoo – one of the oldest in the world – so it’s not as modern as the best in Europe, such as Basel and Tiergarten Schoenbrunn in Vienna. But it’s constantly updated, with lots of great attractions such as the new indoor butterfly garden.

Like every other European city, Antwerp has great museums and culture. One of the newest destinations in Antwerp is the Museum ann de Stroom, or MAS. This is new, sort of like the Louvre of Belgium.

The MAS:

• is 10-floors high with an observation deck on top
• has 5,700 m² (60,000 square feet) of exhibition space
• receives 650,000 visitors on an annual basis
• has 500,000 changing collection pieces

Ambiance/architecture – 9 out of 10

Though Antwerp, like Rotterdam, was bombed during World War II, it’s a lot more intact than Rotterdam. Well, it was until several simultaneous projects started in 2017 including the Ringland Project and the Oosterweel Link.

So, this is a city of the future … with better transportation circulation and the same interesting Belgian fin de siecle architecture.

Yet, if you love Belle-Époque/Beaux-Arts fin-de-siecle and Medieval buildings, this is your town.

The shopping streets go on forever, with two-story doors leading into quiet alcoves and courtyards. A lot of the best stores are in Beaux-Arts buildings, and the Palais op de Meir is an actual 350-year-old palace complex that now houses a brassiere, a boutique chocolatier/production facility, an events space and an interior-design store.

Then there’s the Old Town, with buildings dating back to the 13th century. You can talk about Brugge all you want, and it is beautiful. But this is a magnificent living city, not a museum.

Run-down areas around the edge and the Diamond District keep it from scoring a 10.

Shopping – 8 out of 10

Düsseldorf has its Königsallee Mile of Materialism and Paris has the Champ- Élysées. Antwerp doesn’t really have anything to compare. Though the Schuttershofstraat area in the Wilde Zee has top-end retailers.

Stadfeestzaal mall is pretty amazing. This urban mall has about 40 stores including an Urban Outfitters, which you don’t see every day in Europe. It also has Fait d’Anvers, above, a food arena if there ever was one … part restaurant, part wrap-around stage, and all under a golden dome. You almost have to see it to understand … which is why we included a snapshot.

General hanging out – 8 out of 10

Our experience is, people in Antwerp – and in Belgium as a whole – tend to be more reserved than where we live in the Netherlands. That said, we met a young 20-something Flemish couple who was defiantly slung up on big couches at the entrance to Café Impérial, this impossibly snooty restaurant and café with a beautiful courtyard that’s part of the Palais op de Meir complex.

We liked their style.

They told us they find Antwerp to be more fun than Brussels, more walkable and lively. They were not happy about multiple construction projects hitting all at one time, but felt it might be better to just get it over.

Work should wrap this year. “It seems like forever,” said the young woman.

Our Dutch friends say the Belgians are – despite being next door – the people least like them. More a Romance/French attitude, and Antwerp has a French insouciance.

Bonus – Antwerp Fashion

Antwerp is not just a diamond center and an important port. It’s also a fashion center. Back in the 1990s, The Antwerp Six came to redefine European fashion as not just a French and Italian thing. The most famous of the six is Dries Van Noten, who maintains an atelier in Antwerp.

Bonus Tips

• The central train station has a dozen interesting retail concepts including The Play Ground, a coffee shop where teens collect to play cards, board games and chess. Is there a rejection of the Digital Age brewing?

Park in the Indigo parking lot at the entrance to the main pedestrian area, then take the elevator up into the Hilton Antwerp Old Town.

THUMBS UP OR THUMBS DOWN?

Eight enthusiastic thumbs up. This is a city we can’t stop visiting.

Overall, Belgium gets a bum rap as Boring Belgium, an unremarkable destination compared to France. And maybe it is.

But Belgium is smack dab in the middle of Europe’s largest concentration of expats, from Amsterdam to Paris. We rate Antwerp, along with Ghent and Brugge, as among the most satisfying places to spend a day, a weekend or a week.

Finally, our highest recommendation – we could live here.

See more Quick Trips here including Düsseldorf, Prague and Maastricht.

About the author:

Terry Boyd is co-founder of Dispatches Media, based in Eindhoven, Netherlands. Boyd has been a military reporter, business reporter and an entrepreneur, founding Insider Louisville, a pure-play digital news platform, in 2010.

Boyd & Family are long-time expats and have lived in Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.

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