Het Eilandje, or “The Little Island,” is essentially Antwerp’s prime gentrification example. In the past decade, the harbor area has gone from scruffy maritime wasteland to foodie haven and museum central. Ask any local what prompted the change, and they’ll most likely point you to the MAS, a remarkable sandstone-colored construction by Dutch firm Neutelings Riedijk Architects. Its seemingly endless wavy windows, sea-themed exhibits, and the water basin in which it sits radiate an ocean-loving vibe that’s essential to Antwerp’s identity. From the laying of its first stone in 2006, savvy undertakings such as espresso bar Broer Bretel and pumping station-turned-restaurant Het Pomphuis saw the hidden potential of the docklands region and became huge players in its revival. Today, the district boasts waterfront cafés, lofts and another successful museum, The Red Star Line, dedicated to the eponymous Antwerp cruiser company and the millions of emigrants it carried overseas.
Borgerhout doesn’t enjoy the best rep in the press and is admittedly a bit rough around the edges, but underneath the surface bubbles a bunch of creative energy. The district behind the Central Station has a little bit of everything: Turkish and Moroccan immigrants, young boho writers, fresh-faced families, and co-housing fans—they all feel their unpolished home is something special. Cultural and social pillar bar none is De Roma, a classic cinema from 1928 rescued by enthusiastic local volunteers. The abandoned pitch factory known as Pekfabriek is a constant source of impromptu underground dance parties for those in the know; concert hub Trix attracts alternative acts from across the globe, and young music festival Borgerwood bathes the neighborhood in local indie and electronic talent. For a taste of the terrific energy during the day, head to lively square Krugerplein, where vintage décor bars provide comfort and a place for creatives to blow off steam.
Bagging the prize for most fashionable every time before Het Eilandje’s transformation came along was Het Zuid. Next door to Sint-Andries, this trendy district thrives on art galleries and museums during the day and magnetic restaurants and bars at night. Its layout of wide avenues and stately townhouses have inspired Antwerpenaars to give it the nickname “Petit Paris.”
Not so much a neighborhood as it is one colorful street visible from Central Station, Antwerp’s Chinatown (the only official one in Belgium) first attracts attention with its bright-red, house-high pagoda archway at the entrance. Even with its tiny stature, the approximately 250-meter-long (820 feet) Van Wesenbekestraat holds a surprising smattering of solid Asian eateries. Steaming bowls of noodle soup, wonton dumplings made the proper traditional way and democratically priced fortune cookies await. Just don’t get scared off by some of the establishments’ plain or shabby looks; unremarkable-seeming canteens such as Ting Kee Mie and Bai Wei offer some of the best Peking Duck and other Asian cuisine classics in town.
The image that pops in most travelers’ minds when thinking of Zurenborg is the Cogels-Osylei. However, the avenue lined with extravagant turn-of-the-century villas in a rainbow of architectural styles isn’t what has captured locals’ hearts about the the hip district southeast of Antwerp’s city core, although its general prettiness doesn’t hurt. Homey squares Draakplaats and Dageraadplaats with their terraced bars, string lights, and yummy restaurants are a big reason for the cozy atmosphere that lives in this residential neighborhood. They easily pull in locals from the other side of town for laid-back nights or sunny afternoons with friends. Other than that, hipsters on cargo bikes riding through picturesque streets—more specifically the Guldenvliesstraat, General Capiaumontstraat, and Waterloostraat—pretty much sums it up.
History books have described Sint-Andries as “de Parochie van Miserie” (the Parish of Misery), and the neighborhood has, indeed, known rough times. The streets around the Gothic St. Andrew’s Church used to house a lot of Antwerp’s dockworkers and blue collar folks. It functioned almost like a small town on its own within the city core, the sharing of hardships and gossip in such a place included. Nowadays, vintage shopping artery Kloosterstraat has started attracting more visitors while holding onto Sint-Andries’ village feel. The charming streets’ characterful cafés and furniture stores are starting to spill over into other parts of the area, while the summertime Markt van Morgen market showcases objects by local designers and a killer espresso-cum-food caravan.