About 50km north of Brussels, ANTWERP, Belgium's second city, lays claim to being the effective capital of Flemish Belgium, boosting its credentials with an animated cultural scene, a burgeoning fashion industry and a spirited nightlife. The city fans out carelessly from the east bank of the Scheldt, its centre a rough polygon formed and framed by its enclosing boulevards and the river. Recent efforts to clean and smarten the centre have been tremendously successful, revealing scores of beautiful buildings previously camouflaged by the accumulated grime. On the surface it's not a wealthy city, and it's rarely neat and tidy, but it is a hectic and immediately likeable place, with a dense concentration of things to see, not least some fine churches, including a simply wonderful cathedral, and a varied selection of excellent museums.
East of the centre lies the main shopping street, Meir, whose hotchpotch of old and new buildings rolls past the Rubenshuis, one-time home and studio of Rubens, before proceeding on to the cathedral-like Centraal Station and the diamond district – the city has long been at the heart of the international diamond trade. South of the centre lies Het Zuid, a long neglected but now resurgent residential district whose wide boulevards, with their long vistas and geometrical roundabouts, were laid out at the end of the nineteenth century. The highlight here is the substantial collection of Belgian art in the Museum voor Schone Kunsten (Fine Art Museum), with the invigorating Middelheim Open-Air Sculpture Museum beckoning beyond. Added to this historical and cultural stew is an excellent café, restaurant and bar scene – enough to keep anyone busy for a few days, if not more.