The Coolest European Cities You Don’t Know, Part I

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We’ve been plenty busy in 2017, museum-hopping in Paris, flirting in Rome and clubbing in the Berlin Kreuzberg underground. But cultivated Europhiles that we are, we’re always feeling the call of some of our less-trodden, yet still favorite cities on the Continent.

Nothing beckons us to Europa quite like the turning of autumn, with its exhilaratingly crisp evenings, stylishly scarfed locals, and those transcendently evocative fragrances that fill the air of each city (the latter a particular treat for those forced to breath the noxious fumes of New York and LA every day).

Part I of our sojourn takes us to fashionable Antwerp (Belgium) and sophisticated Maastricht (The Netherlands). Take note, if you’ve yet to fall for the charms of the Benelux, a couple of days in each city will cure you of that straight away.

 

Antwerp

Clockwise from top left, The Jane Restaurant; Antwerp architecture; Hotel Julien; MoMu

 

If fashion has held a central place in your life and you haven’t yet been to Antwerp, you should readily acknowledge a slight tinge of embarrassment. From the Antwerp Six on to today’s new guard of Belgian design, the exalted Royal Academy of Fine Arts continues to turn out some of the most astonishing talent, whose creations can be found in the vanguard boutiques in and around Nationalestraat – where you’ll also stumble upon the hallowed flagships of the likes of Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester. Nearby, as well, is the MoMu, the city’s incomparable fashion museum, which as of December 10 will host Olivier Theyskens, She Walks in Beauty. (Between boutiques, stop in for a de rigueur lunch at Verso Cafe, within the concept shop of the same name.)

Antwerp is also a place of staggering physical beauty, with its gothic-looking Flemish Renaissance cityscape and majestic harbor. The latter is now home to industrial-chic restaurants like Het Pomphuis (in a grandiose former pump house) and the sleek, Michelin-starred ‘t Zilte, on the top floor of the MAS (Museum aan de Stroom).

And speaking of vanguard, the thought-provoking M HKA museum, and independent galleries such as Valerie Traan, Stella Lohaus and Annie Gentils are central to Antwerp’s thriving contemporary art scene. If it’s architecture that sets you atingle, plan a leisurely stroll along the Cogels Osylei, a street in the Zurenborg district where art nouveau, neo-Renaissance, neo-gothic and Tudor-revival styles (amongst others) all come together in a strange but elegant sort of harmony.

Antwerp nightlife, it must be said, is totally bonkers. Start with a glamorous dinner at The Jane, fitted into a stunning 19th Century former chapel; the 13-course prix-fixe menu is €140, but the upstairs bar has much more agreeable prices, and seats you closer to God. Continue on to the extravagant scenes at over-the-top dance clubs like Red & Blue, Publik and Cafe D’Anvers. Expect a significant degree of mind-altering.

Stay

Hotel Julien is a smart, mostly-minimalist guesthouse with an intimate subterranean spa; Hotel Banks is a stylish sleep amidst the best fashion shopping; De Witte Lelie is the joining of three 17th Century townhouses into a place of utterly ethereal beauty (and favored by notable fashion designers).

 

Maastricht

Clockwise from top left, Kruisherenhotel; River Meuse; Stijl boutique; Maastricht streets

 

Famous as the place where in 1992 the modern European Union and the euro were born (the anti-Brexit, if you will), Maastricht is actually a seductive mix of international college town and exquisitely cosmopolitan city. And seriously, nearly everyone seems to have a bloody great sense of style here. With its right and left banks straddling the majestic Meuse River, the ethereal setting might easily have you thinking it can’t possibly all be real.

Wedged almost covertly between Belgium and Germany (Cologne is just 70 km away), history and modernity play very well together in this comely Southern Dutch town. Roman cathedrals bookend narrow 17th Century streets, which are abuzz with urbane cafes, indie fashion boutiques and intimate contemporary art galleries. And to be sure, one of the vigorously recommended activities is just…walking around.

Remarkably, for a relatively small city, Maastricht packs in rather a lot of Michelin stars. Tout a Fait, Beluga loves you, Toine Hermsen, Au Coin des Bons Enfants and the glorious Chateau Neercanne, just outside the center, all boast at least one – and chefs can be wildly experimental. But there are also more bars per capita than even Amsterdam – so a jenever (gin) soaked night on the tiles requires little planning. Still, make sure to hit The Lab for perception-altering cocktails, and Complex for bleeding-edge dance music.

Culture vultures should make time for the architecture and design gallery Bureau Europa, as well as the Bonnefantenmuseum, with its fascinating mix of Italian and Flemish Renaissance and baroque works, and brilliantly curated – Richard Serra, Sol Lewitt, Neo Rauch, Gilbert & George – contemporary collection.

Stay

The Kruisherenhotel (a member of Design Hotels) might literally be the most spectacular hotel in the known universe, fitted as it is into an awe-inspiring, 15th Century former monastery and cathedral; the Beaumont, right on the buzzy Stationsstraat, has minimalist rooms and the chic Harry’s restaurant; Hotel Dis is an artistic 7-room guesthouse with its own gallery.