A local’s guide to Antwerp, Belgium: high art, gritty graffiti and great coffee

From Rubens and van Eyck to cutting edge street murals and fashion, art is at the heart of the Flemish city, says local guide Tim Marschang. The beer and cocktails are decent too

Food

Antwerp runs on coffee and my favourite haunt is Tartoer, a tucked-away coffee shop near Grote Markt in the old town. It has great homemade cakes and vintage Vespa memorabilia. My other favourite is Coffeebar Zulma in my home neighbourhood of Merksem – it serves the best chocolate cake in Antwerp.

Antwerp Vespar cafe spot

The Little Island district offers good-value, all-day dining with views across the harbour to the landmark Museum aan de Stroom. Bar Paniek is an old warehouse on the waterside, with an arty vibe, while Otomat Pizza has a uniquely Belgian take on pizza, with unusual toppings and local beers.

Inspiration

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

It coincides with this month’s (8 October 2022) reopening of MoMu, the Fashion Museum, with a new gallery to house its permanent collection, plus bimonthly Saturday fashion walks.

MoMu’s new gallery houses its permanent collection.
An exhibition at MoMu. Photograph: Matthias De Boeck

Antwerp has a classical tradition, but I love its street art. If Rubens were working today, he would be creating art on 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 lead walks around the northern district of Merksem, a huge open-air art museum available to all. That’s the new creative spirit of Antwerp.

Neighbourhood

Berchem is just 10 minutes south by train from Central Station but relatively undiscovered. It combines art nouveau architecture with reasonably priced places to eat around Dageraadplaats, such as Zeezicht.

My walks around this part of town always end at the Summer Factory, which has more than 4,000 square metres of murals. The series of streets, built around a creative arts centre and cafe-bar, feature work by artists from across the world as part of an annual street-art festival. It’s remade each year and each mural now has a QR code, linking to the artist’s profile. It’s rumoured the whole area could be knocked down to make way for housing, so see it while you can.

Museum aan de Stroom
Museum aan de Stroom. Photograph: Sergey Dzyuba/Alamy

Green space

In the city centre, I like walking through Munthof, one of the city’s original street-art spaces. It used to be a gritty district, but has now been gentrified. Graffiti started as the art of rebellion here in the 1990s, but the new scene is more about quality.

My favourite green space is Park Spoor Noord, reclaimed railway land transformed into a public space between the port and the regenerated Little Island district, 15 minutes by tram from the city centre.

Nightlife

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

For beers in the old town, my pick is Paters Vaetje. It’s what we call a proper “brown cafe”, a spot lost in time with old furniture and a huge selection of beers. My other favourite is Quotes Antwerp for small plates and cocktails – I’ve got a thing for their Moscow mule.

Any big night out finishes at Frituur No 1, the old town’s stalwart snack bar. It’s a meeting place for all walks of life, open until 4am and serves my go-to favourite: currywurst and fries.

Stay

The A-Stay Hotel (doubles from €125 B&B), near Central Station, features huge murals of exotic animals by local artist Charlotte De Cock, taking inspiration from nearby Antwerp Zoo.

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

Contributor

Interview by David Atkinson

The GuardianTramp

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