Temple to chocolates, diamonds and high fashion (Published in the July issue of Jet Wings International…)
Antwerp has been positioned by Flanders Tourism as the “so cool it’s hot” city. And rightly so. Visitors to Belgium largely ignore this town, which is overshadowed by the more picturesque Bruges and Ghent. The next time though, be sure to make a pit stop at Antwerp, to take in its wealth of heritage, art and most importantly, shopping options.
Unlike some other European cities like Paris and Rome, Antwerp is understated and reveals its charms rather slowly. However it is definitely a city for the lover of all things sensuous. So make up your own chocolates, diamonds and fashion tour and get going. Your best bet would be to stroll along Meir, Antwerp’s main shopping street and follow it up with a splash at the diamond district. End your exploration at Antwerpen Centraal, regularly counted among the most beautiful railway stations in the world.
Here is our guide to the best shopping in Antwerp.
In Antwerp, as in the rest of Flanders, they cleverly programme their desserts to wink at you from shop windows. Really. Here you are, walking innocently on a cobble-stoned street or a leafy boulevard and the next minute, you are drawn into the vortex of the Bermuda triangle of a chocolate shop. It is futile to resist.
Chocolate lovers (and that means all of us) will be spoilt for choice in this elegant European city that offers some of the best-loved brands in the world. Pick up some “chocolate diamonds” from the true artist, chocolatier Burie, and if you are in the city around Easter, Christmas or Valentine’s Day, drop by the store just to stare at his stunning chocolate sculptures displayed on the windows.
Find something quirky to take away at self-styled shock-o-latier Dominique Persoone’s The Chocolate Line. Whether it is chocolate with a hint of cola or bacon, chocolate flavoured lipstick or a unique sniffer that sends some fine and heady chocolate powder up your nose, Persoone has it all in the renovated Royal Palace in the Meir shopping district.
And definitely don’t leave Antwerp without buying some of the famous Antwerpse Handje – chocolates in the shape of hands – from Elisa Pralines. Recognized by the European Union as a ‘guaranteed traditional specialty,’ these chocolates celebrate the myth of an evil giant defeated by a local hero.
Although Antwerp is known for its high quality diamonds, it is best to look for certification from the Diamond High Council before you splurge on these sparklers. Take a walk along the ‘diamond square mile’ at Appelmansstraat and Vestingstraat close to the train station for your pick of shops with their glittering window arrays.
Diamond Land is Antwerp’s largest jewellery store and known for its reliable quality and reasonable prices. The store offers short guided tours of the workshop where visitors (and potential shoppers) can watch artisans at work.
Another recommended seller is J. Katz, who has been around for a few decades and is a founding member of the Antwerp Diamond Jewellers Association. For antique jewellery, the best source is Adelin owned by Salomon Wijnberg, whose vintage diamonds are praised as poetry in stone.
Also pay a visit to the Diamond Pavilion at the MAS museum, set up by the Diamond Museum Province Antwerp and the Antwerp World Diamond Centre. This exhibition explains the journey of the diamond from its original rough state to the smooth and gleaming precious stone. There is also a small shopping area here for last minute diamond souvenir hunters.
Antwerp’s fashion scene is dominated by the celebrated Antwerp Six, a group of avant-garde designers who took the world by storm after their display at the London fashion fair in 1988. Graduates of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (which shot to fame on their success), the designers now have their own labels.
For elegant minimalistic styles in shades of white and black, head to Ann Demeulemeester’s shop, striking in its stark white spaces. Others from this band of six include Dries Van Noten who comes from a family of tailors, and Walter Van Beirendonck whose work is known for its unusual colour combinations. Also visit the Coccodrillo, exclusive shoe boutique of Geert Bruloot, acknowledged as the mastermind behind the promotion of the Antwerp Six.
And to get a true sense of Antwerp’s dedication to fashion and design, make your way to the ModeNatie building – literal meaning Fashion Nation. Along with the Flanders Fashion Institute and the MOMU (Museum of Fashion), it also houses the boutique of the popular Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto, said to look more like a museum than a store.
In Antwerp, also shop for:
– Olive oils (Tuscany herbs and Virgin oil with white truffle come highly recommended) and exotic vinegars (try the asparagus and tomato flavours) at the fabulous Oil and Vinegar shop with branches in several countries.
– Tintin memorabilia at Mekanik Strip comics store at Sint-Jacobsmarkt, or indulge your inner child with a set of Tintin covered packs of chocolate from NeuHaus.