On my first trip to Belgium, I spent most of my time in Brussels. This is hardly surprising, since it is: a) the capital and by a fair degree the country’s largest city; b) an easy place to navigate in English, even back in the 1990s; and c) accessible by train directly from the airport.
My hotel was near the magnificent Grand-Place, a square that still astounds me with its beauty every time I enter. I visited the Manneken Pis and, like almost every first-time tourist, was entirely underwhelmed. I dined at In ‘t Spinnekopke, which back then was the place to go for exemplary cuisine à la bière. And I paid homage at Brasserie Cantillon.
I liked Brussels, and still do. It’s a dirty, grimy, architecturally dismal city in parts, but a spectacular metropolis crafted in Art Deco and Art Nouveau design in others. And today, thanks to the addition of breweries like Brasserie de la Senne, restaurants such as Nüetnigenough, and beer bars like the Moeder Lambic Fontainas, it is a more laudable beer destination than it has been for many a decade, perhaps ever.
But Brussels is not what I dream about when I think about jetting off to Belgium. No, that would be Antwerp.
More compact and less international than Belgium’s first city, the country’s largest working port is an easily walkable gem for beer tourists, with a compact, maze-like old city and an easy thoroughfare, the Meir, connecting the gorgeous old-but-rehabilitated train station with downtown. For off-drinking hours, there is the Rubenshuis, the Red Star Line Museum, and MoMu, the unexpectedly fascinating fashion museum (among several other galleries and museums), plus some of the most stylish shopping this side of Milan.
But wait, did I just write “off-drinking hours”? In Antwerp, if you’re up to it, there is really no such thing.
I recall one trip where a late dinner devolved into a pub crawl with the chef-owner that lasted until sunrise. Another trip ended very late one night at an artisanal cocktail bar that also happened to be a speakeasy—as in an illegal operation, rather than one of the faux speakeasy places currently proliferating across North America. In yet another, my first beer was delivered alongside my morning coffee.
These are the sorts of things that happen in Antwerp if you let them. And even when they do not, there is more than enough in the city to occupy the visiting beer aficionado.
Start your explorations not in the old city or even at one of the famous beer bars like the Kulminator or Waagstuk—more about them a little later—but instead at the local bars not far from Rubenhuis, the Oud Arsenaal. One of my favorite bars in the entire world, the Arsenaal is the picture of an old brown bar, nicotine-stained and covered in old beer signs and shards of Art Nouveau. The beer selection is small at about 60 bottles and a few taps, but outstanding enough that there is guaranteed to be something of interest.
From there, visit one of the city’s newest and best beer bars, Antwaerps Bierhuyske or Gollem, the latter a Belgian outpost of the Amsterdam original. Both are within spitting distance of the Grote Markt, where you will find the side-by-side cafes, Engel and Bengel, either of which will serve up a true Antwerpen experience alongside adequate beer.
Having now a good sense of the city, it’s time to go be a beer tourist at the newly opened Antwerp City Brewery attraction located in the De Koninck brewery. It’s a fun and oft-times clever self-guided tour that takes you through the histories of both city and brewery, while throwing in the obligatory “this is how beer is made” stuff along the way. The cost is 12 euros, which is admittedly a bit on the steep side, but at least comes with a beer at the end.
Returning to drinking, you’ll want to pay at least a quick visit to Paters Vaetje beside the cathedral, although bear in mind that it’s the sort of place where minutes quickly turn into hours, and then make your way to De Groote Witte Arend for a traditional Flemish meal, enjoyed with a beer selected from a pretty damn good list, of course.
And now we come to the question of the classic beer bars, the Kulminator and Waagstuk. The former, legendary for its telephone book-sized list of vintage beers, requires a considerable amount of patience—half-hour waits for a chosen beer aren’t unusual—and, increasingly, a fat wallet. The latter, a bit off the beaten track, is far better for service and price, but lacks the intimacy and allure of a newer and, frankly, more beer-focused destination like the Bierhuyske.
Whatever you do, though, end your night at De Vagant, a bar with a handful of decent beers, but more importantly a laundry list of Belgian genevers. If you’re not familiar with this antecedent of modern gin, it’s the perfect place to learn. And if you already know and like the stuff, well, you’ll be spoilt for choice, perhaps even into the wee hours of the morning.