Alongside Bruges and Amsterdam, Antwerp is the ideal place for
a short break. The architecture in Belgium’s second-largest city is impressive, its charming cobbled streets and hidden alleyways are the stuff of fairy tales and there’s everything you’d want close by – culture, food, fashion and shopping.
My friend and I took the Eurostar from St Pancras International to Brussels Midi – a very comfortable two-hour journey – and, as we had booked standard premier seats, were offered multiple cups of tea and coffee and
a light meal. It set us off to a good start.
The onward train to Antwerp is only 45 minutes and, after marvelling at the splendour of Central Station – rated by Newsweek magazine as the world’s fourth most beautiful train station – it was just a short walk across to the Radisson Blu Astrid Hotel. Having recently completed an extensive £8million refurbishment across the entire four-star hotel, with new bedrooms and two restaurants, it makes for a truly relaxing stay.
Our room, a junior suite, was modern, bright and spacious – big enough to fit a sofa and armchair that provided a spot of calm next to the large window overlooking Astrid Square. The inclusion of free Wi-Fi, films on demand, a daily English newspaper, and the use of a Nespresso machine were very welcome. The hotel also has a health club, which includes a heated indoor pool and spa services.
We made the most of our afternoon arrival to first explore the city’s famous diamond district – a mere stone’s throw away (pun intended). Around 85 percent of the world’s uncut diamonds are traded here and
a large proportion of Antwerp’s Jews are said to still be involved in the sector. In any case, many of the shops around the Central Station are Jewish-owned, and the surrounding streets are home to large numbers
of Chasidim and kosher shops.
One trader advised us to visit what he said was the city’s best kosher bakery, Kleinblatt. Alongside its breads and pastries, it is also famous for its pralines, party cakes, ice cream and pasta.
After a quick wander around Chinatown, we headed back for dinner to the hotel’s sleek Made In Antwerp bar and restaurant, where we were impeccably looked after.
In keeping with the restaurant’s emphasis on local produce, we were offered Belgian Havn gin flavoured with rhubarb, cinnamon pearls and star anise alongside our starter – a generous plate of hot smoked salmon salad.
The salmon was fluffy, melting in the mouth, and came with candied beetroot and mixed leaves. Even the butter was beautifully presented, topped with crunchy lotus root crisps.
My steamed trout was delivered in neat rolls with a beurre blanc sauce, while my friend said her Belgian Blue steak – served with romanesco, courgettes and chips – was the best she’d had in a long time.
Our dessert – éclair with vanilla-mokka cream and the classically Belgian dame blanche was beautifully rounded off with a glass (or two) of a Pineau des Charentes.
The following day, we explored the historic part of the medieval city. Antwerp’s symbol is a hand, thanks to the legend about a giant whose hand was cut off and thrown into the river.
The tale’s hero is depicted in the Grote Markt’s baroque Brabo Fountain, situated in front of the magnificent town hall, and hand-shaped biscuits and chocolates are sold throughout the city.
Walking into the beautiful Café Impérial for lunch, on Meir (the main shopping street, where grand 18th and 19th century buildings house European chain stores), we felt transported back in time. A former royal palace in which Napoleon once lived, complete with impressive chandeliers and ornate gilded ceiling curlicues, the prices somehow remained affordable.
Its pretty courtyard would be ideal in summer and is next door to the Chocolate Line store, where you can watch confectionary being made.
For art lovers, there are many museums to explore. Rubenshuis, the former home and studio of Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens, is now dedicated to his work, but also contains pieces by his peers and contemporaries. Other museums display his works, as well as those
of additional 16th and 17th century artists.
There are, of course, many more sites of interest, including the majestic and gothic Cathedral of Our Lady; Antwerp Zoo, which is home to 5,000 animals of 950 different species; and you can also view gems at DIVA, the diamond museum, which opened in May.
But we were happiest soaking up the atmosphere by meandering through the cobbled streets near the Vlaeykensgang, an alley dating back from 1591 that was originally inhabited by shoemakers and the poor.
These enchanting paths that
are close to the cathedral have undergone careful renovation and now house chocolate box-pretty antique shops, galleries and trendy restaurants. We ate a delicious meal at bistro ’T Hofke, after gingerly descending the steep steps into its cellar room.
It’s a huge cliché to say our weekend in Antwerp was too short and that we’d like to return – but it would also be true.
Alex’s travel tips
Eurostar offers fares to Antwerp from £34.50 one way with an any Belgian station ticket (based on a return journey) (eurostar.com). Radisson Blu Astrid Hotel Antwerpen offers rooms from £166 based on two people sharing a standard double room on a B&B basis (radissonblu.com/en/astridhotel-antwerp; + 32 (3) 2031234).