Just one look at the new buildings going up and the number of old warehouses having new life breathed back into them is evidence that Belgium’s biggest port is rapidly reviving after generations of decline. Only three hours away by train from St Pancras, via Brussels. Here’s our pick of the unmissable sights.
The Rubens House, Wapper 9-11
The magnificent house and gardens where 17th-century Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens lived and worked are slap bang in the middle of town. The intimate, shadowy interiors have been authentically recreated — from the leathered embossed wall coverings to the portraits hanging on them. The exterior and gardens are lovely. Visit www.rubenshuis.be
The Cathedral of Our Lady, Handschoenmarkt
Free entry to this towering Gothic cathedral means there’s no excuse for not paying homage to Rubens’s triptych of The Descent from the Cross. It’s one of several monumental masterpieces here guaranteed to bring a tear to the eye. See www.dekathedraal.be
Antwerp Central train station
With its imposing, ornate façades and columns, it’s easy to see why Louis Delacenserie’s edifice, built around 1900, is considered one of the finest examples of European railway architecture. Assuming you’re coming or leaving by train from Brussels, allow yourself an extra 10 minutes to look up and gawp.
Red Star Line Museum, Montevideostraat 3
Set in the original hangar warehouse in Antwerp’s docklands, this new museum tells the story of how nearly two million emigrants arrived here from all over Europe between 1873 and 1934 to travel to the US in search of better lives. The displays are beautiful and their stories are movingly told. See www.redstarline.be
Museum aan de Stroom (MAS), Hanzestedenplaats 1
This modern museum, which opened in 2011 is a big design number in itself, built from Indian red sandstone and curved glass. There are changing exhibitions of interest on each of the 10 storeys, and the best panoramic views from the roof of the whole docks and city. See www.mas.be
- For more information, see www.flanders.co.uk, or visit www.antwerpen.be
SHOP, EAT AND SLEEP
The Recollection, Kloosterstraat 54
One of many must-visit design shops on this packed street. Pick up pieces by emerging Dutch and Belgian designers and Piet Hein Eek’s simple ceramics. Continue down Kloosterstraat to Woodstock Antiques, Viar, Dock’s, Loft Style and Paul Van Houtte before visiting Rewind for the softest recycled denim cushions and blankets, colourful bamboo homeware and neon-bright solid tallow candles (www.therecollection.com / www.rewinddesign.be).
This is a concept and gallery shop upstairs, with a restaurant downstairs. A treat for fans of fresh, foraged-style eating. Chef Seppe Nobels serves exquisite small plates of food garnished with herbs grown on the roof (www.graanmarkt13.be).
Balls & Glory, Felixpakhuis De Markt, Godefriduskaai 30
If you need some sustenance after MAS, pop into this grocery-cum-café for delicious homemade meatballs before walking through to the Felix Warehouse next door. The perfectly preserved 19th-century warehouse is partly unoccupied but houses the city archives (www.ballsnglory.be).
Hotel Julien, Korte Nieuwstraat, 24
This boutique hotel that was once an auction house is centrally located and hidden behind massive grey doors. Redesigned by interior designer Mouche van Hool, it’s a fusion of the original 16th-century building with Twenties-style Crittall windows, mid-century furniture and thoroughly modern conveniences. You won’t want to leave. Rooms from £140 (www.hotel-julien.com).
Return St Pancras-Brussels train fare costs from £79 and the trip takes just over two hours. Tickets can be used for onward travel to Antwerp, taking about 40 minutes (www.eurostar.com).