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Discover Het Eilandje, Antwerp’s little island
Het Eilandje, or the Little Island, is a former port lying to the north of Antwerp. As maritime industry has shifted out towards the city limits, gentrification has transformed this once-gritty zone into a dynamic tourist quarter combining architectural attractions, high-profile museums and an armada of bars and restaurants. Antwerp is around an hour’s drive or train ride from Brussels. From Centraal station, ’t Eilandje is 15 minutes away via bus 17 or trams 1 and 24. Another option is hiring a bike via Antwerp Velo.
The striking Museum aan de Stroom (Mas) became a banner of ’t Eilandje’s regeneration when it opened in 2011. Displays chart Antwerp’s maritime past and place in the world, while the roof terrace (free to visit) has superb views.
The neighbouring Bonaparte and Willem docks, lined with pleasure boats, were built on Napoleon’s orders near the end of the French occupation, his hope being to turn the port into a ‘pistol aimed at the heart of England’.
Head north from here, passing vintage cranes, and a 10-minute walk leads to the Red Star Line Museum. Opened in 2013, it’s dedicated to the eponymous transatlantic shipping company, which carried two million passengers (including Einstein) to the US and Canada from 1873 to 1934. Audio testimonies from former passengers – many of them Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe – are particularly evocative.
Antwerp’s newest, much-Instagrammed architectural icon is the Port House, designed by starchitect Zaha Hadid’s office. Featuring a diamond-like extension that seems to hover over the Port Authority’s brick HQ, it can be visited on 90-minute tours (Dutch only) run by the tourist office.
Eat and sleep
Launched by TV presenter Hans Otten and Viki Geunes, chef of the Michelin-starred ’t Zilte restaurant at Mas, U Eat & Sleep is a vibrant, metro-chic boutique hotel right on the marina. Rooms are compact but smart, and the food excels (especially breakfast, which is one of the best in town and ideally taken on the terrace).
Eilandje abounds in appealing cafes, bars and restaurants of all stripes. New arrival Fiskeskur, the sibling of a trendy fish bar in the Zuid district, occupies an old customs building on the Scheldt and delivers prime daily catch in a casual environment.
For superior pizza try the Brooklyn-style Otomat, where the dough draws on Duvel brewer’s yeast for added kick. At the other end of the scale, Het Pomphuis combines high-end brasserie fare and a magnificent setting in a former pumping station at the northernmost reaches of ’t Eilandje.
Take to the water
One of the most fun ways to take in historic Antwerp as well as the Eilandje quarter is Jan Plezier’s Pancake Boat, which departs from Londenbrug, between Mas and the Red Star Line Museum. Running from March until October, 90-minute tours include unlimited pancakes and take place every first and third Sunday of the month.
This article first appeared in ING Expat Time