With only two days in Antwerp, a city known for shopping, art history, and diamonds, I hit the ground running. After dropping my bags at my hotel, I found my way to the Vogelmarkt. That may translate to "bird market," but birds aren't the only thing you can purchase -- though there are many -- at this block-long street fair held each weekend and on holidays. An array of cheap plastic toys, live chickens, vibrant flowers, hamsters, jewelry, and silly T-shirts are all on display at this lively marketplace. A few blocks away lies the Rubenshuis (Rubenshuis.be), the former home, now a museum, of one of Antwerp's most famous native sons, Baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens.
Since I was in Antwerp on a public holiday, most of the shops were closed -- a shame, since I was dead-set on buying a new shirt or pair of jeans from an upstart designer or a weird little boutique off the beaten path. In Antwerp's case, the beaten path is Meir, a street where you'll find a few high-end shops and familiar chain clothiers. Antwerp's burgeoning fashion scene is comprised of little shops lining the streets surrounding the ModeMuseum, or MoMu (MoMu.be), which connect up toward Meir. MoMu is home to the fashion department of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp, where the Antwerp Six -- Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, Dirk Van Saene, Walter Van Beirendonck, Marina Yee, and Dirk Bikkembergs -- got their start. The museum is the epicenter of Antwerp's independent fashion scene, and it's worth a visit for fashion novices and experts alike.
My writerly side plotted a course toward the Plantin-Moretus museum (MuseumPlantinMoretus.be), where the two oldest printing presses in the world reside. I only had a short time to marvel at how the arduous process of typesetting tiny pieces of lead to make a single printed page has evolved into hashtags and tweets published for the world to see as fast as one can conjure a decent thought -- and often faster.
A visit to a Belgian city would be incomplete without a visit to one of its centuries-old squares. Grote Markt is the home to the Cathedral of Our Lady, a stunning Gothic cathedral, older than any other in the Low Countries. This long-standing cathedral is stunning, and its 403-foot-tall tower, topped by a 49-bell carillon, just won't be ignored. The square itself and the surrounding area are great for a glass of De Koninck, the local beer of note, or checking out the fountain in front of city hall that tells the mythical legend of Antwerp's history. It's a tourist spot, but excellent for people watching.
As I headed toward the city's newest architectural point of pride, the MAS, or Museum Aan de Stroom (MAS.be/mas-en), I was completely lost, despite the good advice to take the major streets instead of the tiny, twisty, curvy ones that remain from the 15th century. An English-ish-speaking guy with a map pointed me in the right direction, and I eventually climbed my way to the top of the MAS, which is ripe for self portraits with the landscape of the city or the Schelde river in the background. Each floor of this nine-story museum explores a different aspect of Antwerp's and Belgium's history, art, and language.
After an entire day traversing Antwerp on foot, I was nearly crawling by the time I reached Sjalot & Schanul (SjalotenSchanul.be). Thank goodness the lesbian co-owners of this cozy little restaurant had an open table. Rewarded with a glass of wine, I glanced toward the homey looking kitchen, where the food was being made with heaps of love. Located a block away from the tourist-heavy Grote Markt, Sjalot & Schanul is clearly the place to take your partner for a quiet night out. After I filled my belly with a sumptuous steak, roasted potatoes, and sauteed vegetables, then guzzled down what I'm pretty sure was the best house wine I've ever had, I left Sjalot & Schanul with a content smile, ready to wander the streets for another hour or two.
EAT Wedged in between the hectic Grote Markt and Handschoenmarkt, chic eatery Brasserie Appelmans (pictured, above) takes advantage of seasonal produce. This is the perfect refuge for lunch amid all of the tourist traps. BrasserieAppelmans.be
Beautifully intimate, Felix Pakhuis was once the city records building but now churns out simple yet adventurous fate. FelixPakhuis.nu
STAY Right across from the beautiful Central Station in the city center, Radisson Blu Astrid provides comfort, quiet, and an easily accessible location. RadissonBlu.com/AstridHotel-Antwerp
PLAY Het Roze Huis is a hub of activity for the local LGBT community, acting as the local advocacy organization, but it also has a bar downstairs, providing a casual meeting place for getting a drink or organizing events. HetRozeHuis.be