high art, gritty graffiti and great coffee

Food

Antwerp feeds on coffee and my favorite haunt is Tartoer, a hidden café near the Grote Markt in the old town. It has excellent homemade cakes and vintage Vespa memorabilia. My other favorite is Coffeebar Zulma in my hometown of Merksem – it serves the best chocolate cake in Antwerp.

The Little Island neighborhood offers good-value all-day dining with views across the harbor to the landmark Aan de Stroom museum. Bar Paniek is an old warehouse by the sea, with an artistic vibe, while Otomat Pizza has uniquely Belgian pizza, with unusual toppings and local beers.

Inspiration

The reopening of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts this fall is huge for the city, bringing the Flemish masters back to the people after 11 years of closure for renovations. You’ll find classical artwork by Rubens and Jan van Eyck along with more modern works – the redesigned galleries arranged thematically rather than chronologically – plus a new wing dedicated to Ostend artist James Ensor.

It coincides with the reopening of this month (8 October 2022) of the MoMu, the Museum of Fashion, with a new gallery that will host its permanent collection, in addition to the bi-monthly fashion shows on Saturday.

Antwerp has a classic tradition, but I love its street art. If Rubens worked today, he would create art for the streets. We now have more than 400 examples of murals and graffiti around the city and new urban art stars like Zenith and Roa are Antwerp’s answers to Banksy. I take walks in the northern district of Merksem, a huge open-air art museum available to all. This is the new creative spirit of Antwerp.

Quarter

Berchem is only 10 minutes south by train from the central station, but is relatively undiscovered. Combine art nouveau architecture with reasonably priced places to eat around Dageraadplaats, such as Zeezicht.

Related: I took the train to Antwerp, Belgium: here is my guide to the city

My walks in this part of the city always end at the Summer Factory, which has more than 4,000 square meters of murals. The series of streets, built around a creative arts center and café-bar, features works by artists from around the world as part of an annual street art festival. It is redone every year and each mural now has a QR code, which links to the artist’s profile. Rumor has it the whole area could be demolished to make way for housing, so watch it while you can.

Aan de Stroom museum. Photograph: Sergey Dzyuba / Alamy

Green space

In the center, I like to walk around Munthof, one of the original street art spaces in the city. It used to be a gritty neighborhood, but has now been gentrified. Graffiti originated as an art of rebellion here in the 1990s, but the new scene is more about quality.

My favorite green space is Park Spoor Noord, a reclaimed railway land converted into a public space between the harbor and the regenerated neighborhood of Little Island, 15 minutes by tram from the city center.

Nightlife

'Brown Cafe' Paters Vaetje.

‘Brown Cafe’ Paters Vaetje. Photograph: Greg Balfour Evans / Alamy

For beers in the old town, my choice is Paters Vaetje. It is what we call a real “brown cafe”, a place lost in time with old furniture and a large selection of beers. My other favorite is Quotes Antwerp for small plates and cocktails – I have a soft spot for their Moscow Mule.

Every great night out ends at Frituur n. 1, the faithful snack bar of the old town. It’s a meeting place for all walks of life, open until 4am and serves my favorite: currywurst and fries.

To remain

The A-Stay Hotel (double from € 125 B&B), near the central station, features huge murals of exotic animals by local artist Charlotte De Cock, inspired by the nearby Antwerp Zoo.

Yust (doubles from € 114 room only), near De Koninck Brewery in Berchem, is a boutique with family rooms and female-only dorms, among other options.
Tim leads the Antwerp street art tours on Sundays, priced at € 20pp; visitantwerpen.be is a good source of further information

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