One of the best things about working as a creative is the potential freedom it offers you to live and work in a huge range of cities worldwide.
But while moving to a major hub like London, New York and Amsterdam may be your first impulse, some of Europe’s smaller, more affordable cities may have much, if not more, to offer.
And Belgium’s second city is one of those “hidden gems” that could hold the key to a better quality of life. Or failing that, just a nice place to visit for a fun and inspiring city break.
Recently, I spent a week in Antwerp in the company of D.A.T.E. (Discover Antwerp Through Experience), an innovative project which each year brings together a group of creatives and writers to discover the city. Here’s what I learned...
One of the main fashion capitals of Europe, with a population of over half a million, and home to Europe’s second largest port and the famous Diamond District, Antwerp is a bustling place filled with lively bars, shops and restaurants, and a thriving music and arts scene.
But despite that, there are parts of the centre that feel calm, quiet and contemplative, with an abundance of space and light that’s a world away from some of the continent’s more touristy locations, and so refreshing for it.
The city is small enough to walk and cycle around, and significant numbers of people do. Which means that, while there are traffic snarl-ups here like everywhere else, much of the historic centre is a relative oasis of calm, much of the time.
The capital of Flanders, the Flemish speaking region of Belgium, and easily accessed by train by a multitude of nations, Antwerp is also one of the most cosmopolitan cities in northern Europe.
In the late-night bars here, you’ll hear Flemish, Dutch, French, English and German all intermingling, with locals seamlessly switching back and forth, often in mid-sentence. Much like in Amsterdam, then, you don’t have to learn a foreign language (or even speak in simplified and slowed down English) to make yourself understood here; a guilty pleasure for anyone hailing from the UK.
Antwerp is also blessed with cool street art, stunning Renaissance architecture and serene waterways, the latter dotted with warehouses that are currently being transformed into attractive new living and working spaces.
In short, this is a city with a strong sense of its past but also an eye on the present; it’s just been announced, for example, as one five European cities testing self-driving cars in 2019.
The agency scene
Antwerp has long been home to a thriving ecosystem of design agencies. These include full-service firms such as Made and Bubka, strategic branding agencies like We Make and Edmire Design, as well as others who are busily carving out their own niches.
Pinkeye Design, for example, is where graphic, interior and product designers collaborate, serving clients ranging from start-ups to multinationals. Lab 101, on the other hand, focuses solely on touchscreen interfaces, including games, apps, mobile and interactive installations. Elsewhere, MAXIMALdesign devotes its energies to innovative products, brand identities and commercial spaces, and Flink specialises in branding and packaging.
Take Kastaar, a design studio-cum-print shop that combines the best of analogue and digital techniques, and serves as a rescue home for vintage printing presses. Or there’s Faber Makerspace, an urban workshop offering both old and new production techniques, with a laser-cutter, a 3D printer and a silkscreen studio among the tools and machines available to creatives.
Some creative shops here tend towards the artistic, such Nynke Tynagel and Job Smeets of Studio Job, who are working to redefine the applied arts through highly expressive, one-off or limited-edition works. Others are looking to the mass market, such as W.R. Yuma, which is endeavouring to save the oceans from plastics pollution by 3D-printing sunglasses made from recycled car dashboards.
Usefully, the City of Antwerp is working to funnel all of these creative energies via StartupVillage, where entrepreneurs can rent affordable space in the centre of town, nearby all the other incubators, accelerators and research institutions that gather here.
Need to get some work done? Antwerp is full of cool and funky co-working spaces, with new ones opening all the time.
Cheapest and most central is Startbloc, opposite the KBC Tower, where hot desks start at just €10 a day. Opt for one of the monthly packages, from €95/month, and you can get your own registered office into the bargain.
Also centrally located (just five minutes walk from Berchem station), there’s House of APE, which aims to be not just a co-working space but a real community. “We have a dream to become the most enthusiastic community of passionate people, building adventures all over Flanders and the Netherlands,” they say. Open from 0830 to 1830, hot desks here start at €20 a day.
In the north of the city, Plasatron is another great co-working workspace that aims to provide an alternative to the loneliness of a home office and the noise of a coffee bar. There are 30 desks available in this 200m2 space, with hot desks starting at €25/day.
Alternatively, if you’re looking for a longer-term space in beautiful surroundings, then head to Fosbury & Sons. Designed by Belgian studio Going East and located in the modernist Watt Tower, there’s a beautiful flow to this elegant space, which is inspired by New York’s High Line. Aimed at city’s entrepreneurs, freelancers and digital nomads, guest packages range from one-month lobby access right up to rooms for 15 people.
Where to eat
Food-wise, Antwerp has plenty more to offer than just fries and mayonnaise. There’s a wide variety of hip and youthful eateries where the emphasis is on innovative varieties of wholesome food.
There are many funky lunch-bars here, and one of the best is Coffeelabs, which offers fresh soups, open tartines, salads, quiches, cakes, cookies and energy bars, all homemade. Part of the Idealabs hub, you’ll find yourself surrounded by creatives, designers and developers all exchanging ideas about building something cool.
If, however, you’re with a group who can’t agree on what kind of lunch they want, head to Super Mercado. This former postal building in the city centre has been tastefully transformed into a festive food market, where you’ll find everything from Asian bubble waffles to truffle mozzarella pizza.
A firm favourite with creatives is Bar Botaniek at De Serre, located in a renewed government building in the heart of Startup Village. This restaurant is beautifully designed, with a lovely modernist interior and a large garden terrace, and all dishes are prepared with fresh, local products with the lowest possible carbon footprint.
If it’s vegan or vegetarian you’re after, check out Wild, a cool cafe with vintage furniture that often hosts live music on Friday nights. Meanwhile, another great restaurant focused on organics is Native Food Bistro, which states “our dishes do not follow demand but rather what nature can offer us”.
Finally, don’t leave Antwerp without trying the traditional Arabian buffet at Bizanaat. It offers an extensive culinary exploration of the Arab world, including Libya, Iran, Iraq, Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon and Syria, all in suitably sumptuous surroundings.
Where to drink coffee
Like most of Europe, cafe culture lies at the heart and soul of Antwerp. Among of the hippest spots is Coffee & Vinyl, where you can indulge your caffeine obsession surrounded by retro bric-a-brac, as well as having a vinyl rummage.
Vying with the latter for top hipster hotspot is St. Vincent, a multi-story café, boutique and exhibition space that does fab coffee and cakes too. Or there’s Me & My Monkey, a father and son place which does marvellous improvisations like spicy chocolate cappuccino.
If you want somewhere to work while you sip, Kolonel Koffie, a speciality coffee bar and micro-roastery in the south of the city, is another good option. Or if you're seeking some spectacular pancakes with your coffee, you’ll need to visit Tinsel, a relaxed little place with friendly staff and a lovely vibe.
Where to drink beer
Known for its busy bars, which tend to open late, Antwerp is a great place for a night out, especially if you like your music.
If jazz is your thing then you can’t miss visiting De Muze, where bands can be heard daily between the months of September and June, with free entry. Along similar lines, Cabron has weekly live music performances ranging from jazz to Latin beats, as well as occasional DJs.
Meanwhile, Cafe Baron is the place to enjoy a funk and soul soundtrack to your imbibing, describing itself as, “A place where music matters and everybody knows your name”. Or if you’re looking for something on the quirky side, there’s Wasbar, a hip retro venue that serves as both a bar and a laundromat; very popular with students and young creatives.
Alternatively, if it's cocktails you're after, it has to be Dogma Cocktails, where they’re serious about their mixology, and drinks are served in industrial surroundings “soaked in sex & rock ‘n’ roll”.
Maybe you just want an honest-to-decent traditional ‘proper pub’ (what the Belgians call a ‘brown house’?). Then check out Pater Vaetje, which overlooks the cathedral and has a huge selection of beers, Chatleroi, a favourite among bar hoppers, and Dansing Chocola (great for sitting upstairs and people-watching).
Finally, if you’re seriously into your beer (and that's as good a reason to visit Antwerp as any), then where better to head than the sleek and modern Beerlovers Bar, which has 12 draught beers, all chosen for their high quality, and a great bottle selection too. Don’t miss out on the artisanal chocolate plate, either.
Five touristy things you must do
Antwerp’s reputation as a modern fashion began with the "Antwerp Six", a group of students who graduated from the Fine Arts Academy in the 1980s. To get up to speed, head to the city’s fashion museum MoMu. There’s no permanent display here, but a varied programme that focuses on different themes and topics. Even if you’re not interested in fashion, if you work in any kind of creative discipline, you’ll find a lot to inspire you here.
The best way to view the city of Antwerp from above is from the top of the MAS Museum, and the roof itself is free to enter. But you should check out the museum too, as it does do things a little differently.
In most museums across the world, exhibits are grouped by region or period, (eg, Egypt, 3000-2000BC), but you don’t get a lot of context or story to the artefacts. MAS, in contrast, groups them in a way that tells a broader tale about humanity on each floor: such as ‘life and death’, ‘gods and mankind’. A great way to spend a morning or an afternoon, and also worth a trip just to look at the innovative design of the waterside building.
For more inspiration, head to the FoMu photo museum. Alongside the permanent collection are frequently changing photography exhibitions, which included a breathtaking Alex Soth show during my visit. There’s also a great cinema inside that only shows old classic films.
Another impressive slice of Antwerp architecture is the Museum of Modern Art, which was redeveloped from old grain storage space, with a slightly crazed combination of curved walls and columns. Hosting a permanent collection of contemporary art from Belgian and global artists, an arthouse cinema and a constant succession of new exhibitions, often tending towards the provocative, there’s much to see and be inspired by inside too.
If you want someone else to show you the sights, ask for Erik Anken on Walks & Talks for a most excellent walking tour around Antwerp.
Finally, all that culture can make you pretty thirsty, and you can’t visit Belgium without checking out the beers. So why not go the whole hog and visit the De Koninck Brewery? There’s a great brewery tour on offer, and (design geek alert) the beautifully designed signage is reason enough to visit. Best to go on a weekday if you can, so you can see the factory working. Then at the end, you get to try three of the beers. Sweet.
For the latest events, exhibitions, gigs and other happenings in Amsterdam, keep an eye on This Is Antwerp, a community resource designed for young travellers, approved by locals.
My thanks to graphic designer Sarah Horn for her help and advice with this article, along with all those involved with D.A.T.E, including Mark Vekemans, Jasper Kuylen, Astrid De Graef, Nadia Kara and Marie Lemaître. You can learn more about the Discover Antwerp Through Experience program here.