Hotel Pilar, Antwerp.

Perched on one of Antwerp’s coolest corners, this Hemingway-inspired pad is perfect for imbibing the Belgian city’s delights, including the Royal Museum of Fine Arts – just reopened across the plaats.

Hotel Pilar Antwerp
Hotel Pilar Antwerp

There’s no room for average in sophisticated Antwerp. The Belgian port city is home to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts – one of the oldest of its kind in all of Europe, founded in 1663 – that gave rise to 80’s fashion legends, the ‘Antwerp Six’. The city’s other fame claims stretch back even further, the world’s diamond capital since the 1400’s and a centre of art since the 1500’s, as well as being the hometown of both Rubens and Van Dyck. More recently, maestros of architecture and interior design have carved out their own genres of greatness, including Gert Voorjans, Vincent Van Duysen and Axel Vervoordt. A universe rather than a genre in the case of Vervoordt, whose brand of earthy, pared-back chic is one of the most mimicked of the 21st century. Not bad for a such a compact city with a population two-thirds the size of Adelaide.

Perched on a sunny corner of Leopold De Waelplaats in the arty het Zuid neighbourhood, Hotel Pilar stands her ground – subtly, as is the Antwerp way, with a cool and eclectic spirit that’s minimalist one moment and exuberant the next. The building, a striking residential block from the 1880’s, has just three upper floors although each is piano-nobile tall and crowned with a weighty cornice, giving the facade a towering presence. Mirrored windows, many of which are arched, punctuate the stark-white exterior like the details of an Escher drawing, affording wonderful views from Pilar’s 17 guest rooms, across the square to the Royal Museum of Fine Arts.

It’s a timely vantage point as the museum has just reopened after an 11-year, €100 million renovation. Galleries brimming with Flemish masterworks by Jan van Eyck and Pieter Brueghel the Elder, alongside Rubens and Van Dyck, are presented in tandem with a white-cube ‘new museum’ contained within the walls of the grand and columned pile. In their newly arranged home, they rub shoulders with the work of the Belgian modernist, James Ensor, homegrown contemporary star Luc Tuymans and the surrealist, René Magritte. The mix of old masters and modern makes sense: according to the museum’s general director, Carmen Willems, almost 70% of its 8400-piece collection is made up of modern art.

The Museum of Contemporary Art is also just three blocks from the hotel, as is the source of all of Antwerp’s greatness, the River Scheldt, with its direct access to the North Sea. Back in the 15th century, the river’s docks accounted for a whopping 40% of world trade. The city was wealthy before, an important merchant hub since the 12th century, and has been wealthy since, reflected in its rich tapestry of architecture, from Gothic to Renaissance and Art Nouveau, even the futuristic forms of Zaha Hadid. Much of which is on show along the 18-minute walk from Pilar to Grote Markt, the town’s resplendent main square, and the never-completed 16th-century cathedral. Best of all, though, is the Zuid neighbourhood itself, close but not too close to the main sights and home to cool bars and restaurants such as Lewis and Le John. Yes, it’s home to the major museums but Zuid’s spirit is local: you may in fact be the only non-Antwerpenaar enjoying a drink on Pilar’s terrace at the end of the day.

Hotel Pilar Antwerp
Hotel Pilar Antwerp

Hotel Pilar was founded in 2017 by interior architect Sam Peeters and self-described food lover, Chirstophe Ysewen, who had been looking for a venture to unite their talents. They took inspiration from Ernest Hemingway: Pilar was the name of the writer’s beloved fishing boat as well as one of the characters in his 1940 novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls. Peeters and Ysewyn felt it was the perfect name for their new venture as Hemingway explored “many parts of the world” aboard Pilar – also top of the list of names for a baby girl, “if they should ever have one.”

Pilar’s heart is the colourful Foodbar, which occupies the ground floor and spills out onto the plaats. Days begins with a hearty northern breakfast of croissants, boiled eggs and smoked salmon, maple syrup-doused mini pancakes and/or a Bloody Mary. Hemingway’s Spanish-loving spirit appears in the afternoon with the arrival of pulpo, croquetas and Secreto 07 Rubia Gallega, amongst a creative take on more traditional Belgian and French fare.

“Hotel guests, Antwerp residents and people from beyond the city’s boundaries come at any time of day to assuage their hunger,” says Ysewen. “There is space for true classics such as French creuse oysters, gravadlax – our version is marinated in beetroot – and croque monsieur à la Parisienne; but also for surprising dishes such as miso hummus and a ceviche of sea bass. All are made with love using seasonal produce from local suppliers. On the drinks side there is everything from great coffee (in partnership with Antwerp-based coffee roasting house Caffenation) to homemade lemonade, delicious cocktails and a particularly fine selection of wine.” The menu changes seasonally – or at the whim of Chirstophe’s latest culinary passion.

Peeters’ flair for creating cool and atmospheric spaces is evident across the ground floor, where Foodbar is flanked by a small but slick reception area on one side and the Pilar shop on the other. The shop, co-curated by the pair’s mothers, stocks ceramics, a mix of the products used in the rooms, a wall-mounted desk and other pieces designed by Contekst Interior Architects (the firm co-owned by Peeters) and a “wall of art” showcasing “new finds at very reasonable prices.” 

However it is upstairs, in the design of Pilar’s 17 guest rooms, that Peeters’ talents shine. He has that typical Northern subtlety to stand back and allow the space to do the talking, where high ceilings and an abundance of natural light make for a luxury that has nothing to do with stars.

There are five room categories, each with a different temperament: ‘Classic’ (25m2), ‘Gold’ (35m2), ‘Eco’ (30m2), ‘Grande’ (40m2) and the ‘Junior Suite with Terrace’ (45m2). Timber floors, formed-concrete ceilings and the rough-plastered brickwork of Pilar’s walls are softened by a vintage desk here, a Marcel Breuer cantilever chair there, alongside large and comfortable beds dressed in grey, emerald green or electric blue blankets, depending on the room type. Not to mention great lighting; rarely are LED strips used in such a successful way. Rooms are light on unnecessary distraction, too, with bathtubs, heavenly Le Labo toiletries, espresso machines and not much else. My Eco room was everything I wanted my first Antwerp abode to be – a minimalist play of great lines and rough surfaces. Even the tub in the middle of the room was sunken into the timber floor – one less thing to take away from the room’s meditation of texture and light.

People often say it doesn’t matter where you stay as you’re never in the room, to which I nod politely while making a mental note not to travel with that person – or at least not let them book the hotel. I wasn’t much in my room in Antwerp, there for work and wanting experience as much of the town as I could in between. And at the same time, there are more luxurious digs in the Dutch-speaking capital of Flanders. But for me, Pilar hit that sweet spot between style, originality, comfort and cost, being away and at the same time, feeling at home, making my short stay in the city all the richer for it.

The 16th-century Florentine writer and merchant, Ludovico Guicciardini, described Antwerp as ‘the loveliest city in the world’. He even left Florence, the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, to set up home there.  A day or two into my stay – discovering cool and quirky haunts and endlessly pretty streetscapes – I found myself entertaining similar fantasies: a light-filled apartment with high ceilings in the style of Pilar.

Hotel Pilar Antwerp