Before I went to Antwerp, I knew two things: 1) Antwerp is a European fashion capital, 2) my attire (old jeans and sneakers) would not be up to local standards. No matter, I told myself. Comfy kicks are more important than haute couture when you want to eat, drink and explore, right?

Thus, I disembarked in Antwerp’s Central Station—among the world’s most glamorous—in well-worn Sauconys. I quickly made my tourist status even more obvious by snapping a dozen photos on my iPhone. I wasn’t the only one taking pictures, however. There was a fashion shoot in progress as we arrived. Hello, Antwerp!

Thankfully, just three minutes away there was a very Belgian solution to fitting in with the locals: An old-timey beer bar. At Bier Central (De Keyserlei 25I), I sat on a barrel, devoured some frites and ordered from their encyclopedia of a menu—over 300 beers, each served, Belgian style, in its matching glass.

Like most tourists in Belgium, chocolate was high on my “to do” list and I’d heard that Antwerp was the place for something really special. I made a beeline for The Chocolate Line (Paleis Op de Meir 50), a jewel of a shop set in a former palace of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. I joined the crowd to ogle proprietor Dominique Persoone’s truffles in flavors that ranged from the familiar—orange, raspberry and coffee—to the avant-garde—soy sauce, rice vinegar and sansho peppers (with popping candy), Havana tobacco, and marijuana.

Fueled on sweets (and whatever else was in those truffles), I did the tourist thing again and wandered to the Grote Markt, Antwerp’s historic square with its 16th century Stadhuis. Smaller than Brussels’s Grand Place, the Grote Markt is equally charming and less packed with people—something you will appreciate if you’ve fought the crowds in Brussels.

From the Grote Markt, my sneakers and I trekked another 15 minutes to the MAS (Museum at the Stream, Hanzestedenplaats 1), an architectural treat. With galleries of historic and contemporary art stacked vertically, the museum is a tower of stone and glass boxes. Friends recommended taking the escalators to the top for views of the city, port and river—or for a meal at the rooftop modernist restaurant, ‘t Zilte, which has two Michelin stars. But if you’re hungry for something more casual and less expensive, it’s hard to resist the concept—if not the name—of the nearby Belgian comfort food chain Balls & Glory at Felix Pakhuis (Godefriduskaai 30), which serves up fancy stuffed meatballs in a stylish setting. 

Later, I headed to the swanky but welcoming Skybar Antwerp at Lindner Hotel & City Lounge (Lange Kievitstraat 125), open seasonally, July 1-August 31, on the roof of the Lindner Hotel, where a young professional crowd enjoys contemporary food alongside excellent cocktails—and another fantastic view of the city. I requested a custom cocktail made with Elixir D’Anvers, an herbal liquor with a bright yellow color and a strong anise flavor that has been distilled in Antwerp since 1863. (It was delicious, and I made sure to pack a bottle of Elixir in my suitcase.) With whichever of Skybar’s terrific cocktails you order, don’t miss their fun and tasty “finger food,” an assortment of nibbles on skewers served like grown-up lollypops.

I was staying at the home of friends in a nearby town, so I didn’t need a hotel, but if I did, I’d swoon to stay at Hotel Julien (Korte Nieuwstraat 24), a boutique hotel with modern rooms in historic buildings—and a spa in its 16th-century cellars. (Wouldn’t that feel good on hard-working feet?)

After a night on the town, a trip to the Coffee Labs (Lange Klarenstraat 19) for a morning brew or a fresh juice (try the fennel, apple and parsley) was just what I needed. Once suitably caffeinated, The Rubens House and Gardens (Wapper 9-11), the 17th-century home of the Flemish painter, Peter Paul Rubens, was just a short walk.

Seafood is a Belgian specialty and slurping raw oysters with a glass of Cava at the Saturday market (Oude Vaartplaats) was a perfect way to start lunch. The Saturday market, known as the “exotic” market, also features foods from around the globe. We nibbled on Middle Eastern olives and dried fruits and ate Portuguese pastries for dessert. Or, if you’re feeling fancy, Dome Sur Mer (Arendstraat 1, 2018) offers a luxurious seafood feast. While in the neighborhood, check out Dome Sur Mer’s sister business, Domestic (Steenbokstraat 37)—what many locals consider the best Belgian bakery in Antwerp.

I put a few more kilometers on my footwear in the fashion district (Kaamenstraat and Lombardenvest), which is rivaled only by New York City for people watching and window-shopping galore. (The most interesting outfit I spotted involved a skin-tight black suit in shiny fabric worn with what appeared to be a matching box for a hat.)

After much exploring, carbs were calling my name. A friend recommended the delectable fresh pasta at Pasta Hippo Vino (Pelgrimstraat 1-3), which also offers free tapas (from 4pm) in the wine bar. Also popular is the nearby Cocktails at Nine (Lijnwaadmkt 9), a relaxed and romantic cocktail bar in the heart of old town.

After I went to Antwerp, I knew two things: 1) Good, comfy shoes were the right choice, and 2) I’d be back for more.

Central Station

Bier Central
De Keyserlei 25I
Drinks starting at $8
Open 24 hours

The Chocolate Line by Dominique Persoone 
Paleis Op de Meir 50
$8 for 3.5 ounces ($36 per pound)
Tuesday to Saturday: 9:30 am to 6:30 pm
Sunday and Monday: 10:30 to 6:30 pm

Grote Markt
MAS (Museum at the Stream)
Hanzestedenplaats 1
$12 with discounts for children, students and seniors
Galleries open Tuesday to Sunday: 10 am to 5 pm. Open until 6 pm on weekends April to October

‘t Zilte
Hanzestedenplaats 5
Fixed price lunch $84 ($120 with wine pairings)
Fixed price dinner starts at $150
Monday: 7 pm to 9 pm
Tuesday to Friday: 12 noon to 2 pm and 7 pm to 9 pm
Closed Saturday and Sunday

Balls & Glory at Felix Pakhuis
Godefriduskaai 30
$15 for a meal
Monday to Saturday: 10 am to 9 pm.

Skybar Antwerp at Lindner Hotel & City Lounge
Lange Kievitstraat 125
$55 dollars for 4-course tasting menu
$10-18 cocktails
Monday to Sunday: 4 pm to midnight (July through August only)

Hotel Julien
Korte Nieuwstraat 24
Rooms start at $222

The Coffee Labs
Lange Klarenstraat 19
$15 for coffee and breakfast
Monday to Friday: 8 am to 6 pm
Saturday: 9:30 am to 6 pm

The Rubens House and Gardens
Wapper 9-11
$10 with discounts for seniors and children
Tuesday to Sunday: 10 am to 5 pm (closed holidays)

Saturday Market
Oude Vaartplaats
$15-20 for lunch and a drink
Saturday: 8 am to 4 pm (closed holidays)

Dome Sur Mer
Arendstraat 1
$75 for lunch with wine or cocktail
Monday to Friday: 12 pm to 2 pm and 6 pm to 11 pm
Saturday: 6 pm to 11 pm

Steenbokstraat 37
$2-8 for pastries and bread
Wednesday to Saturday: 7:30 am to 6 pm
Sunday: 7:30 am to 2 pm

Fashion district
Kaamenstraat and Lombardenvest

Pasta Hippp Vino
Pelgrimstraat 1-3
$22 for a la carte meal, $40 for menu of the month dinner with a glass of Cava
Monday-Friday: 11:30 am to 2:30 pm and 5:00 pm to 10:30 pm
Saturday: 11 am to 10:30 pm
Sunday: 5 pm to 10:30 pm

Cocktails at Nine
Lijnwaadmkt 9
$11-18 for cocktails
Wednesday: 6 pm to midnight
Thursday and Friday: 6 pm to 1 am
Saturday: 3 pm to 1 am
Sunday: 3 pm to midnight