Earl’s ode to Antwerp

By Earl J. Wilkinson
Executive Director and CEO

For nearly three decades, I have intersected with Antwerp – officially for business, unofficially because I fell in love with the city. I want to share a few of my Antwerp experiences and point you in the right direction to get the most out of your visit for INMA Media Innovation Week. Consider it my personal travel guide to Antwerp.

First, the business.

INMA’s Europe Division managers have been based in Antwerp. This alone has made the city an INMA business magnet. Because of business, we have held International Board meetings, Europe Division board meetings, events, and private retreats in the city over the past 29 years.

Because of the Flemish media giants Mediahuis and DPG Media (and their previous incarnations), I learned at the feet of masters the extremes of a competitive market for quality and popular newspapers. I learned the artfulness of design, journalism, and marketing to upper-class and working-class readers. I learned about the calcification of reader loyalty and how it drills down to the family level – and how challenging it is to break generational consumer habits.

That these ambitious Flemish companies with whom I’ve intersected dozens of times turned out to be the two companies that ended up with the balance sheets and aspirations and competitive fire to expand beyond Belgium’s borders in a way no other European media company has done is … coincidental and amazing.

Second, the love.

What are the words that I would use to describe Antwerp? Authentic. Soulful. Artistic. Avant garde. Working class. Unpretentious. Approachable. Understated. Black is always the “new black.”

Your arrival in Antwerp may very well be the half-hour direct train from Brussels International Airport. You will be stunned upon arrival at Antwerpen-Centraal by the architectural marvel that is the 118-year-old terminal. Your shortest and cheapest route to the Antwerp Hilton is nine minutes by train (runs every eight minutes), while walking and taxi are both 18 minutes away.

A very short walk from the Antwerp Hilton – INMA’s conference hotel – is the city’s main square, the Grote Markt. You need to see the City Hall that dates to 1564 (a UNESCO World Heritage site). You need to see the row of beautiful Guild Halls typical of 16th and 17th century architecture – with the guilds projecting their power and wealth through their buildings. And, of course, there is the Grote Markt’s centerpiece, the Brabo Fountain dating to 1887 – and learn the backstory of Silvius Brabo.

Yet my Grote Markt eye drifts:

  • Den Engel: To the northwest corner where the dimly lit 120-year-old café, Den Engel, surely hosted talk of revolution or at least a good protest or two. I prefer the indoor night vibe. The café dates to 1903, while the building dates to the 14th century.
  • Piano bar: Go to the Antwerp Piano Bar where late night patrons enjoy one too many martinis over the persistent sounds of ivory keys.
  • Karaoke bar: Multiple karaoke bars compete for your inner Taylor Swift or Elton John into the wee hours of the morning. By “wee,” I mean 5:00 a.m. Bonaparte may the best known.
  • Irish Times, surely you jest: Go the Irish Times Pub because, well, the Irish Times are long-time INMA members and have absolutely nothing to do with the establishment. Ironic branding for a media guy? Am I that shallow?
  • Easily accessible restaurants: Pop into one of the seven walk-in restaurants along the southern part of Grote Markt, with plenty of outdoor seating for a casual evening of Flemish dining varietals.

Cathedral Of Our Lady is the North Star of Old Town Antwerp. Tip back too many De Koninck’s among the dozen of Belgian beer-rich bars surrounding the cathedral? Just look up, and she’ll point you in the right direction – including home to the Antwerp Hilton which is only two minutes away. Yet the cathedral is more than a map marker. This Gothic-style building dates to 1521, punctuated by Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens and paintings by multiple artists. It’s worth a visit – maybe a tour if you want a deep dive. The cathedral’s belfry is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Walk east of Grote Markt for hidden Antwerp (here’s a cool site that builds on this theme). Purposefully get lost down cobbled side streets and alleys where you will find under-stated and under-sized restaurants that redefine cozy and intimate. Serendipitously stumble on a preferred restaurant and take note: reservations are often required, so plan ahead. Wander north, yet be aware of your surroundings – you’ll either find one of Antwerp’s gorgeous harbours or its notorious Red Light District.

Take a stroll down the Meir, Antwerp’s most famous shopping street and a short walk from INMA’s conference hotel. As an American who has witnessed styles of shopping come and go, boutique shopping and window shopping remain the rage – punctuated by hidden cafes. Most of the big brands are on Meir, but the cool, eclectic boutique shops are on a parallel street: Schuttershofstraat.

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Beer is everywhere in Antwerp. Belgian beers are the most unique in the world. They are mostly ales (not lagers) and have a heavy, yeasty quality that is best experienced than explained. The most popular beer styles are abbey ales, dark ales (dubbel, quadruple, strong), tripels, and farmhouse ales. Pro tip: Avoid the tart saison-style beers; they are billed as good digestifs but they are not for the faint-of-stomachs.

To boot, the Flemish have elevated the art of drinking a beer – the context, the matching glasses to brands:

  • Billie’s: My favorite beer bar is Billie’s just outside the Cathedral Of Our Lady – compact, huge range hand-written on a chalkboard, knowledgeable bartenders. And trust me: There will be a different glass for each different beer you try.
  • Elfde Gebod: Or a stone’s throw away is Elfde Gebod (11th commandment in Dutch), another broad-menu culinary pub filled with angel and saint statues and the occasional sacrilegious joke.

Yet if you want the ultimate beer experience, take a nine-minute walk south of the Antwerp Hilton to Café Kulminator, or just “the Kulminator.” You will never find this place on your own. You will need a GPS because it sits in a quiet neighbourhood. When you walk inside, don’t be fooled by the disheveled look and smell of your grandparents’ home. This is owned by an older couple who clearly love beer and have assembled the biggest selection I’ve ever seen. The challenge is their gigantic book of beers is too big even for super-fans. But the experience and the beer selection are worth every minute. It’s cozy and very quiet. It’s also cash only.

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INMA promotes the fact that Antwerp has 12 Michelin star restaurants, which is reportedly the most per capita in any city in the world. Four of these restaurants are within stumbling distance of the Antwerp Hilton: Invincible, Sir Anthony Van Dijck, ’t Fornuis, and DIM Dining. It’s hard to imagine an “approachable” Michelin star restaurant in New York or London, but that is mostly the case in Antwerp. Approachable in style and budget.

Yet I can’t stress enough: Gastronomic creativity lurks around every corner in Old Town. Walk around, especially north of the Antwerp Hilton. Claim your spot in a tiny, mom-and-pop restaurant in a very old building that barely has a sign.

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I’ve had so many experiences in this city:

  • World Cup: Screamed with friends and family for Belgium in the World Cup in the Groenplaats (Green Square), which is immediately outside the Antwerp Hilton. They lost. Sorry, boys, but I did get a cool shirt and a Belgium-coloured wig out of the experience.
  • Theo eyeglasses: Bought so many eyeglasses from eclectic Theo that the Antwerp-based global company occasionally invites me to product launch parties – glasses designed to stand out amid the simplest backdrops. I am still called by name when I walk in.
  • Politics: Met the Belgian prime minister a few times and walked away wondering whether American politics isn’t a paragon of virtue vs. the Flanders-Wallonia stalemate.
  • Whiskey pairing: Had whiskey-pairing dinners at a restaurant outside of Old Town from an owner who travels to Scotland to hand-select the brown product.

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Finally, why did we select the Antwerp Hilton? In a word: practicality. It is, bang-on, the center of Antwerp and the center of Old Town. Everything you want – dining, beer, fashion, shopping – is within very short walking distance. We’ve done events here, it’s full-service, four stars, and it gets the job done for only €189 per night. Yet I would be remiss if I didn’t express my curiosity about the newly opened Botanic Sanctuary Hotel – five stars, three Michelin star restaurants under one roof, an ecological wonder, an 11-minute walk from the Antwerp Hilton, the city’s member of “Leading Hotels of the World,” and roughly double the price of the official hotel.

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I didn’t write this article from research on a Web site or Wikipedia. I’ve experienced every cobblestoned step. Every misstep. On this Media Innovation Week Web site, we call Antwerp a “hidden gem.” It’s a bon vivant to me. I love New York, Paris, and London, but I’ll spend a lifetime visiting those cities and never get a sense I know them. Antwerp gives so much, and you know the city (at least the Old Town) by the time you leave.

I’ve been lucky to have traveled the world many times over. Antwerp is one of my favourite cities. Curious if you will have the same experience as me.

About the author

Earl J. Wilkinson is executive director and CEO of the International News Media Association (INMA). When he’s not fawning over Antwerp, he’s based in Dallas, Texas, USA.





Questions? Contact INMA

Tom Corbett

Head of European Division
Antwerp, Belgium
Dutch, English
Tel.: +32 486 37 13 36

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