Belgium's most fashion-forward and trendy city, Antwerp lies in the Flanders region of northern Belgium near the Netherlands border, and is Europe's second-busiest port. During the city's 16th-century Golden Age, Antwerp was the second-largest city in Northern Europe. Today, with a population of nearly 500,000 and an abundance of fashionable boutiques, restaurants, hotels, and gay cafes, the city has developed a reputation as one of Europe's hippest gay destinations.
Grote Markt (Great Market), with the Statue of Brabo
The focal point of Antwerp, the Grote Markt (Great Market) is an open pedestrian square anchored by the famed statue of Brabo, and a mix of civic buildings, open-air cafes, and ornate guildhouses, From this vantage point, near the northwest corner of the square, you see the statue in the foreground, and the iconic Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal (Cathedral of Our Lady) towering over everything in the distance. Behind where I shot this photo is the city's Town Hall, famous for its Renaissance design.
Leonidas Chocolates, on Hoogstraat at the Grote Markt
One of Belgium's leading producers of chocolates, Leonidas (Hoogstraat 2-4) has branches throughout the country and in several other nations around the world. Although there are arguably finer and more unusual chocolatiers in Antwerp, Leonidas is a reliably superb chocolate maker with very attractive prices, and this location on the edge of Grote Markt is especially convenient.
Boekhandel 't Verschil, gay bookstore and cafe
One of Europe's most attractive and popular GLBT bookstores, Boekhandel 't Verschil lies along one of Antwerp's main north-south thoroughfares (at Minderbroedersrui 33), just a few blocks east-northeast of the Grote Markt square. Inside the well-lighted, attractive space you'll find a huge selection of gay and lesbian titles (mostly in Flemish and Dutch, but a number of titles in English, too), from novels and travel guides to erotic fiction and gay nude photo books. There's also a small cafe, with tables along the sidewalk when the weather warms up. The owners of 't Verschil also operate De Onderkant, a sexy gay-underwear and sex-toys shop, directly across the street.
De Onderkant, gay underwear and adult boutique
Run by the same team who operates the popular Boekhandel 't Verschil (gay bookstore and cafe) across the street, De Onderkant (Minderbroedersrui 42) is Antwerp's most popular gay underwear, sex toy, and swimwear boutique. Much more above-board and attractive inside than the handful of gay erotic shops near the railroad station, De Onderkant strikes the perfect balance between risque and classy, and carries a great selection of sexy briefs, swim suits, and club gear, plus dildos, gay porn DVDs, bondage accoutrements, and condoms.
Red & Blue gay disco (and a discussion of other gay clubs and saunas)
Red & Blue (Lange Schipperskapelstraat 11) is not only the city's largest gay and lesbian disco, but the biggest one on Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. The spacious building a 10-minute walk north of Grote Markt has a variety of large events, including a men's party on Saturday nights, which begins at 11 pm and pulses into the wee hours, usually wrapping up around 7 in the morning. This is the major see-and-be-seen, rump-shaking gay-male party in the region, and one of the best in Northern Europe. The club also hosts a slew of annual circuit parties, including Circuit in mid-March, Club Flesh in late March, Toolroom Knights in late May, Navigaytion in late June (during the city's big Gay Pride blowout), and an anniversary party in mid-November (to celebrate the club's opening in 1997).
On Sunday nights, twice monthly, Red & Blue hosts one of the region's hottest lesbian parties - these events rotate and are known alternately as Cafe de Love and Cafe deluxe, and you can learn more at their website (www.cafedelove.com).
The city also has some very popular gay saunas, including 't Herenhuis (de Lescluzestraat 63) and Kouros Sauna (Botermelkbaan 50). And you'll find a bit of the city's seedier and cruisier nightlife scene along van Schoonhovenstraat, just across Astridpleintk from Central Station. There are several gay bars and sex shops along this street otherwise known as Rue de Vaseline (Vaseline Alley).
Que Pasa cafe and gay bar, near 't Verschil
Centrally located Que Pasa cafe (Lange Koepoorstraat 1) bills itself a gay Latin bar and cafe, and it is indeed a delightfully vibrant and friendly place with some fun drag parties, great mojitos, and fun music - you just may not see any Latino guys in here. It's very cozy and inviting though, and Que Pasa has some of the best drag shows in town (as pictured here).
Cafe Confituur, a gay-popular eatery and coffeehouse
Cafe Confituur (Minderbroedersrui 38), a dapper cafe with pressed-tin walls and hardwood floors. This is one of the most gay-popular spots in town for a cup of coffee or a light meal (breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served), and it's along a main street just across the street from the gay bookstore, 't Verschil. Everything is presented just so, including the cup of strong coffee pictured here.