Fashion students don't normally change the course of an entire city, but in Antwerp, they did. Half a dozen alumni of its Royal Academy of Fine Arts (including Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester) set the fashion world on fire in 1988, and their hometown, hot little medieval-moored Antwerp, has never been the same since. The explosion breathed fantastically creative new life into this Dutch-speaking Belgian city of half a million that for too long had been overshadowed by bigger Amsterdam to the north, more politically important Brussels to the south, and quainter Bruges to the west.
That's not to say that Antwerp didn't already have a lot going for it. A gorgeously preserved narrow-alleyed old town has long been a living reminder of the city's days as a prominent international trading axis, with stunning major landmarks like its 16th century Cathedral of Our Lady. For centuries, Antwerp has also been a key player in the global diamond industry and an art capital, with such hometown greats as Peter Paul Rubens. And that's all to say nothing of its excellence in the output of traditional Belgian staples like beer, chocolate, and moules-frites (mussels and fries -- don't call them French).
But over the past two decades, Antwerp's rebirth as an avant-garde fashion capital has overflowed into nearly every aspect of its existence. The city's ingenious Designers Against AIDS project has found a way to use fashion for the greater good. Today's Royal Academy graduates no longer automatically flee the city for places like Paris or Milan, and their presence has helped infuse the city's cultural, culinary, shopping and nightlife scenes with an excitement unparalleled in northern Europe for a town of its size. Savvy civic developments -- like the architecturally striking MAS (Museum aan de Stroom), which is already turning the long-neglected docklands area (Eilandje) into one of the city's most exciting neighborhoods -- are capitalizing on the regeneration.
Another development is the new Red Star Line museum. Between 1873 and 1934 the Red Star Line’s ships ferried 2,6 million adventurers and fortune-seekers from Antwerp to New York. For many people the crossing started in the Red Star Line buildings. As of September 28th, you can experience in these buildings the fascinating tale of the passengers and discover the relationship with contemporary immigration stories.
The city's prime geographic placement on the road from Paris to Amsterdam, and just over the channel from London, also makes it a hip Euro travel no-brainer. As the longtime capital of Flanders (Belgium's Dutch-speaking northern half), Antwerp is also the launching point for smaller Flemish wonders like Ghent and Bruges, an hour (or less) away.
Antwerp is without doubt the "gay capital of Flanders" and also enjoys an international reputation as a gay destination. Annual events such as Antwerp Pride and Leather Pride are truly famous, so are the many monthly parties such as Studio 54 and Café de Love. Then there are the established night life values like the Red & Blue and D-Club and a whole bunch of smaller and larger (dance) cafés, saunas and fetish bars. Antwerp ranks high in the list of gay-friendly cities. This is due to its extensive gay movement – united in the Roze Huis [Pink House], the non-profit organization grouping more than 30 member associations. The city council is also deploying great efforts and, in collaboration with Antwerp Tourism & Conventions, is actively pursuing the niche market of gay tourism. Here are a few facts:
• On June 1, 2003 the law on gay marriage comes into force in Belgium. This makes Belgium the second country ever to allow same-sex couples to marry.
• Since May 18, 2006 same-sex couples are allowed to adopt children.
• The Eurogames are organized in Antwerp in 2007.
• In 2010, the IGLTA (International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association) holds its annual convention in Antwerp.
Remembering the First World War
This year marks the 100-year anniversary of the first global conflict and numerous Antwerp institutions are paying honor to those who perished, and remembering brave acts in Belgium that helped save lives. Many cultural events happen in early October, the time in 1914 when Belgian and Dutch armies built pontoon bridges across the Scheldt River, which helped soldiers and civilians flee from marauding armies. A temporary pontoon bridge will be recreated across the Scheldt to honor that history.
Also, many artists working during the days of the First World War will see their pieces shown at some of Antwerp's many museums. Contemporary artists are also expected to display new work influenced by the war's anniversary. Contact the Peace Center of Antwerp for more info: (antwerpen14-18.be)
Get the most out of your visit with the Antwerp City Card.
• 48 hours free access to museums and churches including the world famous Cathedral of Our Lady. Temporary exhibitions are included.
• A discount of at least 25% on attractions, sight seeing and bicycle rental.
• Free guide which describes all the venues and indicates them on a handy map.
• Exclusive offers on typical Antwerp and Belgian products such as chocolate and diamonds.
• 28 Euros
- CITY GUIDE: AntwerpWhere to shop, what to eat, get your drink on, and lay your headwe've tapped our network of local spies to curate the best options for the savvy gay traveler.
- MY CITY: Tim Van SteenbergenThe fashion star designs us an Antwerp itinerary.
- CULTURAL CALENDARSummer, winter, spring, or fallthere's always something going on in Antwerp. Book your ticket to the best events whenever your vacation days allow.
- SUGGESTED ITINERARIESWhether you're looking for museums to feed your mind, stores to fill your wardrobe, or planning ahead for a summer of Pride with a circuit of clubs and culinary delights, just follow our lead.
- TRAVEL TIPSPoint A to C and back again, getting to Antwerp -- and navigating within -- is a cinch. Here's how.
- MY CITY: Tanguy OttomerA fashion expert, personal shopper, and tour guide, maps out his favorite spots in Antwerp for fashion, food, drink, and fun.