There is something about port cities that gives them a raw and edgy sense. Rats, prostitutes, tattooed sailors, cranes and containers, cocaine trade, abandoned industries – over the course of centuries many harbour cities have been the backdrop of organised crime and shady businesses. Up until recently few people would think to include the port area of any large city into their travel itinerary, but cities like Rotterdam, Liverpool and Hamburg have been on the rise recently, and Belgium’s biggest port city Antwerp is no exception. Its fringe areas, away from the charm of the historic city center, are hot and happening – and this blog post is here to help you understand how to make the best of your time in two of the upcoming neighbourhoods of Antwerp: ‘t Eilandje and Het Zuid. I myself had not been to Antwerp in over 10 years, so I took a southbound train to find out that the city has changed, and that what once was shady, dubious and dilapidated is now sizzling hot and hipsterlicious.
Just north of Antwerp’s historic city center you will find this maritime neighbourhood whose name translates to ‘the little island’. In the past this area was made up of docks and canals, and it was known as a highly impoverished area of the city. Today it is a rather gentrified and very desirable area, with newly built modern apartment buildings intermingling with the area’s industrial remnants of its past. In summer, the many bars’ terraces wash out onto the streets, and more and more hotspots keep popping up here.
The highlight of ‘t Eilandje is the eye-catching MAS, short for Museum aan de Stroom, Dutch for Museum by the River. This 10-floor museum is the biggest in the city, and hosts a large variety of permanent and temporary exhibitions with a focus on the history of Antwerp’s port and its related trade relations – and if art and history don’t float your boat, the structure’s architectural beauty should be enough to lure you over. Its red brick frame is large and bulky, yet the large glass panels in its facade give the building a fragile and playful look. Take the free escalator ride to the rooftop terrace for a phenomenal view over Antwerp’s historic center and, on the other side, the promising construction projects of ‘t Eilandje.
Another architectural highlight in this area is the Port House, a phenomenal piece of architecture designed by Zaha Hadid. Architecture lovers can take one of the guided tours on offer to explore this fascinating building from the inside.
My partner and I visited ‘t Eilandje on a Sunday in February when the neighbourhood was a little bit deserted but could well imagine how lively it’ll be on a long summer’s eve when the cafes and bars go all out with their terraces and this formerly impoverished dockland turns into Antwerp’s place to be for those Belgians who appreciate a good pint of beer in the sun (and there are few Belgian’s who don’t).
Another upcoming neighbourhood is Het Zuid, or ‘The South’, situated – unsurprisingly – south of the city center. While making your way over from north to south, build in a stop on your itinerary at the Sint-Annatunnel, a pedestrian tunnel that stretches for 572 metres under the Schelde river. The walk to the other side of the water is rewarded with great views of the city from the opposite riverbank, but the real attraction of this tunnel are its authentic wooden escalators. At the time of opening in 1933, these were a unique and very modern feat, and nowadays they are still unique as one of the few remaining still functioning wooden escalators in Europe. While you let yourself be transported more than 30 metres below the surface of the city, the smell of wood and lubricating oils will awaken a sense of nostalgia – although for the people of Antwerp, descending into the tunnel is mostly just a practical activity; they use the tunnel to quickly move from one part of the city to the other, either on foot or by bicycle. The countless tiles that cover the walls of the tunnel are cleaned by hand every 5 weeks, and it may surprise you that inside the tunnel you actually have the best quality cell phone reception in all of the city!
After admiring the view from the other side of the water, there is not much to do on this riverbank so quickly walk your way back to the east exit of the tunnel where you will find the Kloosterstraat, your entrance to all the good things that Het Zuid has to offer: welcome to this pleasant residential neighbourhood with its myriad of boutique shops, cocktail bars and restaurants. The Kloosterstraat is known for its large number of antique and furniture design stores, but you will also find small alternative designer clothes shops and a couple of nice places to stop for a meal or a drink.
At the end of the street, when you have entered Het Zuid proper, you will find Wasbar (Graaf van Egmondstraat 5), a nice place for brunch or a coffee, which can be consumed while you wait for your laundry to finish because this stylish bar doubles as a laundromat. A little bit further down the road, you’ll have plenty of choice of places to go for a drink or a bite. Some of this area’s hotspots: Fiskebar (Marnixplaats 11), an ecological fish restaurant; Coffee & Vinyl (Volkstraat 45) which is a record shop, coffee bar and art gallery all in one; and Vitrin (Marnixstraat 14), where the pretty people of Antwerp gather on late afternoons to sip on cocktails while they sit in the Scandinavia-inspired wooden interior.
If the cocktails carry you well into the night, consider making your bed at the nearby Mañana Mañana, a small scale and recently opened guesthouse with four very stylish and hipster-proof rooms. High ceilings, lots of light, and a beautiful large bathroom with wooden floors complete the picture. The young couple who own the place are still working on the final touches of their downstairs breakfast bar; perhaps by the time you visit it will be open and ready to host you for your morning coffee.
We did not need to despair and go without breakfast as there was plenty of alternative choice in Het Zuid – there are many charming breakfast places such as Kloonies (Kloosterstraat 183 with various breakfast sets, or choose from the a la carte menu); Texas Coffee (Volkstraat 63 – they serve creative and colourful freakshakes here, basically piling up anything that looks remotely like a milkshake, icecream, or marshmellow and mixing them together); and Divers (Volkstraat 9, cold pressed juices and smoothie bowls in a bohemian setting). We opted for another much-visited hotspot in this area that was recommended to us by the owners of Mañana Mañana: Tinsel (Vlaamsekaai 40). This lunch and breakfast bar ticks all the hip boxes: Scandinavia meets Ibiza best describes its interior design, its menu contains an array of healthy and scrumptious breakfast items (we went for the toast with eggs parmesan and French toast with soy yoghurt, apple, roasted hazelnuts and maple syrup) and they serve up a perfect chai latte. Once you have selected your items of choice from the menu, you write them down on a little card that you then hand over at the cashier desk where you’ll be tempted to add on one of their home-made cakes which are on display at the counter.
After this great start of the day, explore more of Het Zuid by strolling its streets and popping into the many boutique stores, as you slowly make your way back to the city center. A nice street to take is the Volkstraat which transforms into the Nationalestraat as you approach the historic center. This is a good area for sustainable shopping: if you like your clothes to be ecological and fair-trade like I do, check out F.A.A.M. (stores with sustainable fashion for men, women and even children all on Nationalestraat); or you can go for vintage which is also pretty sustainable at Labels Inc (Nationalestraat 95) and Jutka & Riska (Nationalestraat 87). A great store to shop for gifts (or just cool items for yourself) is Mark (Kleine Markt 14) – especially great for lovers of all things cycling. Finish at Sultans (Hoogstraat 30), a coffee house that serves an all organic, vegan and ecological fare. Make sure to check out the vegan home-made cakes.
After spending two days exploring the upcoming neighbourhoods ‘t Eilandje and Het Zuid, we gradually rotated back to the city center. After all this hipster-infusion I wanted to check back with reality. Don’t get me wrong – I love chai lattes, succulents, Scandinavian furniture, vegan food, vinyl shops and gin tonics – but something somehow didn’t feel right. Years ago, most people would avoid fringe areas of port cities like Antwerp, Rotterdam and Liverpool because of what they had in common: shady dealings and an unfriendly atmosphere. Now that these neighbourhoods have undergone the effects of gentrification and have become popular and hip zones where you can hop from one hipster hotspot to your next flat white or kombucha, I wonder to what extent this is a purely positive development. Definitely, the soul of these neighbourhoods has become more agreeable and accessible, but the type of bars and shops you’ll find are of the cookie cutter type: while sitting on your vintage bar chair trying to read the menu of home-brewed craft beers by the faint light of bare light bulbs, you might as well find yourself in any other city – Rotterdam, Liverpool, Hamburg. The scenery is the same.
Exploring Antwerp’s upcoming neighbourhoods had been pleasing in a hedonistic kind of way, but just to reinforce the idea that we were actually in Belgium, we walked around the city center in an attempt to find something traditionally Belgian. We tried the Flemish fries at Frituur n°1 (Hoogstraat 1 – supposedly one of the best in the city, but I found the fries to be disappointing: bleak and soft, although the excellent mayonnaise alone was still worth it); we bought delicious Belgian waffles from the friendliest street vendor of Coffee Go (Meirbrug 1, take-away at the smallest waffleshop in town) and marvelled at the art and and 17th century interior of the Rubenshuis.
For our last dinner before taking the train back to Amsterdam we looked up a cozy artisanal restaurant that serves traditional Flemish fare – just the right place that would give us a sense of the real Antwerp, like it used to be when drug dealers and prostitutes still roamed the port quarters and when burger bars and acai bowls had never been heard of. But when we arrived at the posted address, we found that it had closed to be replaced by a very trendy-looking tapas restaurant. Damn hipsters.
Create your own Antwerp adventure
Antwerp is very easy to reach by train from Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and even London – and the train is the best way to arrive because the first thing you’ll see when stepping off the train is the beautiful art-nouveau Central Station.
Try to avoid visiting on Sundays, when most stores are closed (except every first Sunday of the month) and on Mondays, when museums and some shops and restaurants are closed.
Getting around the city by foot is easy; the city center is very compact and the upcoming neighbourhoods like Het Zuid and ‘t Eilandje are easily reached by foot from the center. Alternatively you can rent a bike from the shared bicycle scheme Velo, which has bikes up for grab at various locations around the city.