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Antwerp - sparkling Belgian city of style

Costa Rica

It's the `where do you go next by Eurostar?' destination. This stylish Belgian city of high towers and baroque buildings and grand squares down mazy medieval cobblestone streets, is a short trip beyond Brussels, well within weekend break range by train. The writer's Do not Miss list includes divas’ diamonds, high fashion shopping in something you might mistake for a Versailles ballroom, and the glories of the artist Rubens. And there is an additional bonus if you travel by Eurostar, to Brussels. Onward travel by rail to any destination in Belgium is free. (Photo by Gareth Huw Davies.)

Cathedral of the tracks.

St Pancras station is one of the wonders of travel. Can any building in Europe match it? Antwerp's Central Station comes close. More public transport cathedral than terminus, it has just been made over, and dug deeper. Trains now come and go on four different levels. Through high-speed trains from Paris to Amsterdam started running in 2008. I took the train from Brussels (40 mins) and admired the majestic iron and glass vault, newly restored, as I rose up through the station on a mountain-high escalator. Just keep going, through the ornate entrance hall and you exit on the main square, with trams and buses to all parts. (Buy tickets from a machine.) Hard by the station is the Diamond Quarter. Here they process half the world's cut stones. The Diamond Museum displays fabulous sparklers.

Fries up

Belgians claim they, and not the French, invented `French' fries, or frites. And one of the world’s first chip stalls may have been in Antwerp, opening in 1862. Whatever the truth, this city slows down the world’s favourite fast food to gourmet pace in several classy frites cafes. I paid homage to this waistline-unfriendly dish, smothered in mayo, in the clean, smart cafe Haute Friture, in the Zuid quarter (66 Vlaamsekaai), near the Fine Arts Museum (take the no 8 tram). The chips at Frituur No 1 (1, Hoogstraat) are also special. Among the city’s many good restaurants, I recommend Hungry Henrietta. Spare and stylish inside, with lots of black and brown, mirrors and polished concrete floor, it was full with locals on my visit, always a good sign. There’s a good choice from a lively brasserie-style menu. (19 Lombardenvest.)

Grand shopping

This is the rarest of shopping centres, the one you must visit even if you hate shopping. Stadsfeestzaal (City Festival Hall) opened in 2007, behind a grand entrance on the Meir, the main pedestrianised shopping boulevard. It was conceived out of catastrophe. The original 1906 hall burned down to its metal skeleton in 2000. But as a listed building, they had to rebuilt it exactly as it was. And it’s a triumph. The sweeping marble staircase, mosaic floor, gilded facades with gold-leaf stucco, under an enormous glass dome make it more Versailles ballroom than upscale shopping mall. Celebrate its restoration by raising a toast at the champagne bar in the central hall, under a 24 foot high glass of bubbly.

Take the wide view

For one of Europe's best views over a city river, I took the tram from Groenplaats one stop under the river. A few short steps and I stood on the west bank of the wide Scheldt. Antwerp sparkled in the sun across the river. This powerful view is dominated by the glorious tapering tower of the Cathedral of Our Lady, the tallest in this land of high churches. Close by is Europe's first skyscraper, the 300 ft high KBC Tower, built in 1934 in the Art Deco style of Chicago and New York. Latest star of the cityscape is the astonishing Law Courts, opened 2006 and designed by Sir Richard Rogers. Its six silver peaks recall old Scheldt sailing boats. I walked back into the city in the 500 yard long, dead straight, pedestrian tunnel -- bright and airy, spic and span.

Boutique to book

I arrived at this pleasant little boutique hotel, in the old center close to the Grote Markt and cathedral, direct from the station, on the number 12 tram. It stopped outside, filling most of the narrow street. The 11-room hotel, converted out of two houses around a courtyard, is an elegant mix of antiques and modern design – and free WiFi. The owner, an interior designer, cut down on expensive extras and concentrated on distinctive details – pale oak floors, beamed ceilings, and whitewashed furnishings. But reserve the drum roll for the wonderful wooden staircase. I took breakfast in a big wood-panelled dining room. They had music, which can sometimes intrude. But they were constantly changing genres, as if somebody's iPod was playing on random. When they are full, they send you to another boutique hotel, the De Witte Lelie.

Follow the fashion

The most dashing man in Antwerp is Peter Paul Rubens. He cuts a snappy pose in his self-portrait, in his own Rubens House just off the elegant Meir shopping boulevard. The works of this great artist complement the creativity of the city’s fashion designers in the shops in the adjoining Sint Andries district. You can easily combine the two, by tracking Rubens to the Royal Museum of Fine Arts where some of his most monumental works hang, then work back to the enormous cathedral, which contains four of his huge paintings. On the way you can't miss the many designer shops which mark Antwerp out as one of the style cities of Europe. It''s delicious window-shopping, although there are bargains if you hunt. Outlets include Ann Demeulemeester's -- she was one of the original six designers who launched Antwerp’s fashion revolution in the 1980s -- in a huge former sailors’ academy.

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