Gay Antwerp: The Queer and the Fashionable

Not just an outpost of bigger Belgian sibling Brussels, the port town of Antwerp is something special in its own right — a noticeably gay-friendly city of about a half-million people with more than a few trump cards up its sleeve to keep you stimulated, fed, inspired and on the prowl for several days, with easy train getaways to Ghent (van Eyck altarpiece) and olde-worlde beautiful Bruges a gleeful double bonus. It may have peaked as a European power in the 16th century, but this capital of Dutch-leaning Flanders in northern Belgium hasn't the feel of faded glory in the slightest. And there's more here than chocolates, diamonds, beers and Rubens, though it must be said that Antwerp's pick of fine chocolateries is conspicuous in its excellence, and great paintings by native baroque superstars Peter Paul Rubens (plus a clever simulation of his house) and Anthony van Dyck are alone worth a visit.

Considering its wholly manageable size — you never feel more than a 20-minute walk away from something exciting, interesting or beautiful — Antwerp has a cosmopolitan and tolerant air about it, marked by more than 175 nationalities, with Belgian/Flemish (Vlaams), Dutch, Moroccan, Turkish and Polish at the top of the list. Given its multicultural bent, food is a big (and very good) thing here. As is fashion. In the late 1980s Antwerp emerged as a key player in international clothing design thanks to certain celebrated alumni from its Royal Academy of Fine Arts, who collectively became known as the Antwerp Six, among them Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester (both with elegant flagship stores) and Walter Van Beirendonck. The ripple effect of the Six remains, and Antwerp's Zuid (South) and adjacent Sint-Andries neighbourhoods are dense with designers and shopping options, as is the boutique-rich and pricey Schuttershofstraat — a quaint but serious fahsion street that runs parallel to the more stately and mainstream (but still impressive) Meir, home to the big stores.

If all this weren't of sufficient gay appeal, the city has one of Europe's richest concentrations of art nouveau architecture. Take a tram ride to fairy-tale-like residential thoroughfare Cogels-Osylei (and side streets) in the architecturally eclectic belle époque area Zurenborg. The quaintly compact trams, by the way, appear to pop up in the most unlikely of places throughout the city. And speaking of rides, six-floor leather/fetish bar the Boots, opened in 1983, ranks among the best of its kind in the world, attracting men from across Belgium and neighbouring Netherlands, Germany and France, especially during the annual leather/fetish event Darklands (formerly Leather & Fetish Pride Belgium, and before that Belgium Leatherpride), staged in March (formerly February). Massively popular gay/lesbian dance mecca Cargo Club (formerly Red & Blue) also pulls in party people from across the borders. Antwerp has no shortage of buzzy gay and lesbian bars and cafés, but the former ghetto around Van Schoonhovenstraat (once known as Vaseline Street), just north of the Central Station, has been stripped of its gay badge, with just a few businesses holding their own in an area that's taken a bit of a turn for the darker.

In 2007 the city hosted the Eurogames — Europe's version of the Gay Games — and in 2010 welcomed the annual convention of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA). In 2013 Antwerp's LGBT star went supernova when it became the site of both the World Outgames and the Mr. Gay World competition.

Despite all there is on offer here, including one of the great Gothic cathedrals, Antwerp stops short of grandeur and never overstates its elegance or charm, of which it has plenty. And it's got just the right amount of rough. In short, the warm side of cool, the exciting side of dull, and somewhat of a best-kept non-secret. Strolling and cruising are easy pleasures, and the town's expansive and picture-perfect Historisch Centrum (historic center) has not gone the way of Disney.

You'll notice names starting with 't, which is short for 'het', which translates as 'the'. And Het Eilandje (The Island), the port area in the north, is the city's current frontier as far as gentrification and redevelopment go, signposted by the towering toy-like Museum aan de Stroom (MAS) by Neutelings Riedijk Architects. Many gays have set up shop around here, and sex-starved straight men come in droves to literally window-shop in the up-front and in-your-face offerings in the pedestrian passageways around the Schipperstraat. This is quite a sight, nearly to the level of camp appeal.

The airport is barely three miles from the city centre, but London visitors might consider taking a Eurostar train to Brussels — a creamy, comfy and sexy ride — followed by a 40-minute commuter journey to Antwerp, alighting at one of the world's magnificent train stations. This city comes strongly recommended.

Next Big Things: Darklands (formerly Leather & Fetish Pride Belgium) (Wednesday 4 to Monday 9 May 2022).

Restaurants to check out