A Belgian stay of Rubenesque proportions, Botanic Sanctuary Antwerp may have been a humble monastery for spiritual healing in the 13th century, but now it’s an avowed hedonist. It has everything. And, that’s no hyperbole – you want dinosaur skeletons? You got it. A spa with curatives of all kinds from herbal saunas to skin peels, to acupuncture to measuring your electromagnetic fields? No problemo. A quartet of restaurants, each with its own Michelin-recognised chef? Yup. A butler, an apothecary peddling traditional lotions and perfumes, a 15th-century church for parties, secret whisky club, even work meetings where you can bond by making a music video or learning how to graffiti – it’s got ‘em all. And, wabi-sabi rooms for when you’ve exhausted all the above, some with mini spas. In a city of diamonds, this sanctuary’s brilliance shines.
108, including 34 suites, some with spa facilities.
11am, but flexible, subject to availability. Earliest check-in, 3pm.
Double rooms from £281.38 (€325), including tax at 6 per cent. Please note the hotel charges an additional local city tax of €2.97 per person per night on check-out.
Some rates include a generous buffet breakfast with local treats (hello, waffles), smoothie shots, cheeses and charcuterie, pastries and even champagne (à la carte available too). If breakfast isn't included in your rates, you can enjoy it for €45.
There are six Comfort and Deluxe rooms suitable for guests with mobility issues.
At the hotel
Spa with various saunas, steam room, ice fountain, Kneipp walk, whirlpool and experience showers; state-of-the-art gym; beauty salon; gallery and natural-history museum filled with art and curios; apothecary and ‘Beautique’; botanic gardens; whisky tasting room; wine cellar; 15th-century chapel; charged laundry and dry-cleaning services; charged bike hire; free high-speed WiFi. In rooms: Smart TV and Bluetooth soundbar, free high-speed WiFi, iPad loaded with hotel services and city guide, Segafredo coffee-making kit, local Café Couture tea and kettle, umbrella, bathrobes and slippers, Saint Charles bath products, B’eau Botanic water, air-conditioning. The spa suites have a wellness area with a whirlpool, sauna, treatment table and Technogym stationary bike with classes to stream; a wine-climate cabinet and air-purification system; Evidens de Beauté products; and two free laundry and dry-cleaning items a room, each day, valet parking and shoeshine service on request.
Our favourite rooms
Wabi-sabi, the Japanese design principle accepting of aesthetic imperfections, is the inspiration behind the design used in rooms and suites here. Having said that, none of the rooms or suites seems to have any visible flaws – rather there are scuffed-plaster walls in restful hues, aged wooden beams, monochromatic marbles and gently rumpled soft linens (from De Witte Lietaer), contrasted with modern artworks and simple, Scandi-esque furnishings of the sort Antwerp excels in. Of the rooms, we like the Deluxe with a terrace for its serene private outdoor space. Of the upper categories, the Spa & Healthness Suite or Diamond Spa Suite will do very nicely, thank you. Each has a wellness area with a Jacuzzi, sauna, treatment table and Peloton, plus a special air-purifying system; and when you’ve reached peak health, there’s a climate-controlled wine cabinet to raid.
The 18-metre pool is a very peaceful part of the sprawling spa complex, set in a building that resembles a chic barn with vaulted ceilings and lots of light. Take a few soothing laps pre- or post-treatment then sip an infused water on one of the surrounding loungers.
The spa here is so incredible that there’s a small chance you could turn up DOA and leave feeling peachy. Well, the therapists aren’t quite that good, but in the 1,000-square-metre space, where all aspects of health outside-in are considered, there’s a solution to many ills. The sanctum builds on monastic design with sustainable spaces designed by star spa-chitect Heinz Schletterer, and encompasses three saunas (two clothing-optional), a thermal circuit, ice fountain, Kneipp walk, experience showers with botanical infusions, a Jacuzzi, steam room, herb and vitamin bar, beauty salon, pool, health-conscious bistro and relaxation room with cocoons. And, in 10 treatment rooms (two for couples), magic happens using age-old phytotherapy, herbalism and naturopathy handed down from the monks; combined traditional Chinese and European practices (acupuncture, tui na, osteopathy); Evidens de Beauté facials that lift, detox, nurture and add radiance; Jetpeel’s needle-free skin-smoothing; Skin Vitals’ deep cleanses, peels and microdermabrasion; massages and flotation; the 3 Cure Method’s custom rituals according to your morphological typology; electromagnetic-wave monitoring; blood analysis; contouring and lymphatic drainage; and purifying wraps and herbal scrubs, plus Chrono Repair Homme’s pampering for men. The club gym is equally thorough, filled with Technogym’s most expensive and effective toys (Omnia 3 pull-up bar, Ercolina Rehabilitation cable-training station…) compatible with the Mywellness app, an InBody scanning system and personal trainers. And, just in case, there are Pilates, yoga and mindfulness sessions and a house nutritionist.
Dripping with diamonds and home to a prestigious fashion school and houses, in readiness for Antwerp tip your jewellery box into your suitcase and build your wardrobe with pieces by the ‘Antwerp six’ (Martin Margiela, Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester, Walter Van Beirendonck, Dirk Bikkembergs, Marina Yee and Dirk Van Saene). But, leave some room, because the hotel has two shops: Beautique (at St Joris Port) sells candles, bathrobes and other mementoes. And the Saint Charles Apothecary has existed since monastic times, when medicines for the Sint Elisabeth hospital were made from the garden’s botanics, has been restored to its charming vintage state and has all-natural remedies, lotions and fragrances made to time-old recipes sold in attractive amber- and violet-glass bottles.
A butler can tend to you, hold a wedding of party in the exquisite 15th-century chapel onsite or arrange a business meeting where you’ll team-build over music-video making, African drumming, graffiti or etiiquette classes, falconry and laughter yoga.
Kinderen are most welcome. Most rooms fit a baby cot or extra bed (€50 a night for each bed or cot) and some have two bedrooms; the hotel has kit for all eventualities, activity backpacks and babysitters on call.
All ages will be well looked after here.
All rooms sleep a baby, but for larger families the two-bedroom Grande Suite is probably the best fit. Or the Spa & Healthness Suite which has a pack and play.
Onsite, activities are skewed towards adults, but the dinosaur fossils at Granada Gallery and the roamable gardens might appeal. Antwerp itself is very child-friendly though – the zoo and Stadspark are close by, Park Spoor Noord has playgrounds and skateparks, Plopsa Station is an indoor playspace themed around Belgian comic-book characters (yes, the Smurfs make an appearance) and there’s a giant ferris wheel. And, if you think the clothes for grown-ups are incredible here, wait till you see the dinkier versions. For an extra charge, you can get a backpack filled with fun things at the hotel.
Little ones can use the pool from 10am to 6pm.
Across the board you’ll manage to feed any fussers throughout your stay.
The hotel will happily arrange a babysitter (for an extra charge).
You probably don’t need to pack anything – the hotel is remarkably well prepared, with the Botanic Baby Bundle that includes a changing table and mat, nappy storage bin, nappy bags, a bath toy with water thermometer, thermometer, owl night-light, bottle-warmer, bottles, bottle brush, hooded towels, kettle, baby blanket, bathrobe, bed guard, bath, plastic cups, step stool, baby wipes, nappies, baby shampoo and baby lotion.
Efforts have been made to preserve the 13th-century monastery’s buildings, staying sensitive to the style with its wabi-sabi-inspired rooms and incorporating and preserving original features. The 15th-century chapel has been kept in wonderful shape, the 16th-century apothecary has been restored, and the more modern spa has been built using sustainable materials (wood, stone and glass). The former monks’ holistic-therapy skills haven’t been lost either – many of their natural and herbal remedies are still adhered to. In the Granada gallery, the gemstones on display were excavated from the hotel’s own sustainable and ecologically responsible mines, and they have their own team of palaeontologists and gemologists to source artefacts. And, as is de rigueur these days, the hotel’s four restaurants all source ingredients locally where possible.
1238 is probably the most romantic of the eateries due to its floral tableaux. But a seat at Hertog Jan’s table is a coveted prize and puts you front and centre for engaging food shenanigans.
Get out of the habit and into something beautifully structured.
The hotel’s dining offerings reflect Antwerp’s culinary excellence. Most likely because they’ve nabbed five of Belgium’s top chefs to helm their four eateries. 1238, named for the year the hotel was built, is the baby of Wouter Van Tichelen, formerly of De Koopvaardij, who dreams up dishes such as Zeeland flat oysters with buckwheat, apple and bergamot sorbet, horseradish flan and curry oil; nori-crusted Pyrenean lamb with herbed gnocchi, kohlrabi purée and basil and candied-lemon gravy; and pineapple pain de sucre with pomegranate and calamansi. Meals are served in a garden-facing conservatory hung with wisteria and trailing greenery and lush with potted plants. Bar Bulot by Hertog Jan (with culinary whizz kids Gert De Mangeleer and Joachim Boudens taking the reins here), started life as a French brasserie pop-up in Bruges and became a destination restaurant. This outpost offers the same simple elegant Flemish and French dishes, such as eel with green herbs, oysters, prawn croquettes or steak tartare. Hertog Jan is a more exclusive experience altogether, offering a three-hour omakase menu that must be booked in advance (note, allergies and intolerances can’t be catered for) that’s compiled with pickings from its own greenhouse, herb and flower beds, and hives. A signature dish is garden tomatoes with fresh cheese, chilled tomato gravy, cardamom and marigold, but there’ll be surprises along the way. And Fine Fleur, which has been dressed in modern yet historically sympathetic style by Dennis T’Jampers, is a more casual eatery overseen by Jacob Jan Boerma and Thomas Diepersloot. Expect the likes of Icelandic langoustines with pumpkin and kaffir lime or cod with Jerusalem artichoke and macadamia nuts. But wait, there’s more – each Sunday, a decadent brunch with champagne, lobster, oysters and more is served in the cellars from 12 noon to 4pm, and the spa has a healthy bistro. When the restaurant's are closed, a four-course meal can be arranged in the hotel's private dining room.
Henry’s Bar is named for 19th-century botanist Henri-Ferdinand van Heurck, who was at his happiest when green-fingered. And so, there are towering potted plants and dainty tabletop flowers all around, but also a touch of the Don Drapers in the marble bar, rich wood accents, velvet seating and general clubby feel. Cocktails are conceived by drinks aficionado Jurgen Lijcops, and top wines are ferried up from the cellar; on Wednesdays live jazz plays. Keep it hush-hush but there’s a bar here that’s even more select…The Unprecedented is a whisky-tasting lounge to which only invited Botanic guests and the members of the Scotch whisky investors’ club will be admitted. It’s definitely not for dilettantes – the aqua vitaes here are very rare and getting on in years, so much so that some can only be found here.
1238 opens Tues to Sat from 12 noon–2pm and 6.30pm–9.30pm. Bar Bulot is closed the same days, opening 12 noon–4.30pm, serving dinner from 7pm. Fine Fleur opens from Weds to Sat (12 noon–4.30pm) and for dinner Tues to Sat from 6.30pm.
Available round the clock; order in-room to feel as though Belgium’s most celebrated chefs are cooking exclusively for you.
Botanic Sanctuary Amsterdam occupies a 20,000-square-metre plot in and around the Botanic Gardens, in what was once a 13th-century monastery. It’s in the cultured Theaterbuurt neighbourhood of the Latin Quarter, close to Stadspark.
Antwerp International is very close to the hotel, just a 20-minute drive away (transfers are from €70 one-way), and Brussels is just 45-minutes (transfers from €110), so it’s easy to twin your city break – or even triple and quadruple it, as Ghent is just an hour away and Bruges two, with another international airport. If you want to double up your countries, fly into Eindhoven in the Netherlands (an hour’s drive) or Amsterdam Schiphol, a two-hour drive away, where the hotel will pick you up from €325. The city has a reputation for fashion and design, so if you want to arrive in a Porsche, the hotel can set it up.
Antwerp Central Station is a 15-minute drive from the hotel. Direct trains arrive here from major cities in Belgium and Paris and Amsterdam in just a couple hours. Alternatively, ride the Eurostar to Brussels.
Belgium is very road-trippable – Antwerp is at most a three-hour drive from Calais along a route which hits all the mediaeval sweet spots along the way. Once you’re in Antwerp, park up at the hotel (the hotel has plenty of spaces and a valet for €40 a night) and go it on foot. The city has drastically cut down on cars to become a Low-Emission Zone. You’ll need to register your vehicle and pay for a pass before driving into the centre.
The Dutch passion for biking has crossed the border, and there are scenic loops and cycle paths aplenty. And, with Belgium’s largely flat, well-maintained roads, you could potentially pedal in from further afield.
Worth getting out of bed for
Antwerp’s name either means ‘at the wharf’; or ‘to throw a hand’ derived from a legend about a giant named Antigoon who took hands as a toll for crossing the Scheldt River, until one day a young soldier called Brabo cut the giant’s hand off and saved the day (guess which story we prefer)… There’s even a statue commemorating the legend surrounded by step-gabled houses in the Grote Markt, so it must be true. This is actually Belgium’s second city, but it comes first in all the ways that count, as a crucible of fashion-designer legends, rabble of highly contrasted architectural styles, peddler of the sparkliest jewels, nightlife impresario and home of 16th-century Renaissance painter Pieter Paul Rubens – he’s kind of a big deal around here and largely the reason why Antwerp is one of Flanders’ five cities of art. Get acquainted at his former home, an as-it-was palazetto with masterpieces by yours truly and other luminaries, and the Royal Museum of Fine Art, whose collection fast-forwards to the 20th century. Once he’s Rube-d off on you, head to the Museum Mayer van den Bergh to see works by Antwerp’s other painterly sons (Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Jan Mabuse), and then photography museum FOMU and Galerie Gabriel Van de Weghe (4 Mechelsesteenweg), to see which Antwerpanaars and Antwerpses are currently beating a path to creative glory. Then, try not to bankrupt yourself on a serious shopping mission. Onsite and close to the hotel you’ll find very high-end jewellers and watch-makers, such as Carigi, Van Esser, Karolin Van Loon and Salima Thakker; and fine horologists at Heritage and Tensen. For cutting-edge wearables, start at Graanmarkt 13, a longstanding champion of indie brands, where each floor tells a different story. Pick up artfully ‘schlubby’ styles by Sofie d’Hoore and cashmere maxi-dresses (ideal for WFH-ers), KASSL Edition trenches and Pierre Culot ceramics. Then scope out the lewks at Vier skatewear (Raf Simon’s favourite), Arte for sleek tailoring, Renaissance for the very on-trend, and gorgeous Dries Van Noten store Modepaleis, a restored 19th-century department store. Or use Mode Museum’s guided walks as your stylist. For furnishings to make a room pop, try Espoo and St Vincents, both curated to a tee. By this point you’ll likely be broke, but you can enjoy Antwerp’s architecture for free. Roam about to see the spectacular stained glasses of Central Station, the Gothic cathedral, the curious old-new mix of Zaha Hadid’s Port House, the Lego-like Mas and the Baroque splendour of the City Hall, and get your Insta snap on Vlaeykensgang, which is lined with 16th-century townhouses. Then go underground for a surprisingly fascinating tour of De Ruien, Antwerp’s historic sewer system (wellies provided). When you come back into the light, enjoy the fresh air at Stadspark, wandering picturesque Rivierenhof, where gigs are held throughout the year, marvelling at Zurenborg’s bombastic houses and papping the panoramic skyline from the Left Bank of the Scheldt. And then Rubens pops up again in August with a namesake market where citizens dress in traditional costume and you could find a piece of art, street eats and stranger finds – a suit of armour perhaps? A more modern market and rooftop farm can be found at communal hub PAKT. Back at the hotel, there’s plenty to do with the enormous spa, shops, whisky tasting and gardens, and Granada Gallery which exhibits fossils, gems, meteorites and other treasures from the hotel’s own mines and sites.
Let’s face it, beer, frites, waffles and chocolate are all delicious and especially so in Belgium. But… dining here involves so much more. For example, it’s one of Europe’s smaller countries yet it holds 102 Michelin-starred restaurants, 48 of which are in Antwerp. Where to begin? Let’s go from the top: Zilte (which means ‘briny’, but don’t let that put you off) focuses on seafood, but its tasting menu – for which it has been justly lauded – mixes things up in magical ways with the likes of sweetbreads with crab, yuzu and truffle; oysters with verbena and algae; and pear with hand of Buddha, pecan and Szechuan pepper. The food will win your favour, but the view (an all-the-way-round city panorama) will win your heart. And, food really is religion at the Jane, which is set in the soaring belly of a renovated church lit by a starburst chandelier that fills the vaulted ceiling. Hallelujah-eliciting dishes include oysters with yuzu kosho, cherry ponzu, wasabi and seaweed oil; Norwegian scallops with three kinds of onion; and a dessert of cannabis sativa, sea buckthorn, milk, bee pollen, clover sorrel and hemp. Amen. Dôme is another that wins points on presentation with its setting in an art nouveau manor with beautiful brickwork, stuccoed ceilings and an intricately tiled floor. All eyes will be on the plates though, which will bear North Sea calamari and caviar, a deconstructed pissaladiere, and beef tartare served atop bite-size waffles. Of course, this starriness comes at a cost, but you can dine well for fewer Euros at eateries like Il Pastaio, where a lasagna or sacchettoni stuffed with pecorino and pear costs less than €10.
Follow the enticing scent of heaped spices to the Exotic Market (on Nieuwstad each Saturday), where there are pan-global treats (quesadillas, Turkish meze, prawn croquettes, cured sausage stuffed with blue cheese…) to snack on and cava to wash them down. For dessert, there’s just one answer: chocolate and lots of it. The Chocolate Line has some fantastical creations such as the Miss Piggy with praliné, bacon and quinoa; skull-shaped Deadly Delicious with violet nougatine, blueberry and raspberry; or the Chill Pill with grass, yuzu and green apple. And bring a Euro to Cafe Beveren (2 Vlasmarkt), which has a 1930s dance organ that still plays tunes when fed a coin.
Belgian monks were masters of botanicals, sure, but we’re a bit more grateful for their other notable skill: brewing craft beer. The stuff practically flows through the city streets so you won’t go thirsty, but De Koninck Brewery has earned a reputation for good reason. Their Special Belge and Triple d'Anvers are both the bollekes; ignore the bros debating flavour profiles and sessionable brews, sit in the huge copper kettle and sip. Meanwhile, wine lovers can drink their fill at Osaka. The name is a hangover from when it was a Japanese restaurant, so the list isn’t awash with sakes; rather a delectable selection of organic bottles. The minimal concrete, stone and metal interiors, with striking yellow Bruno Rey chairs, are rather tasty too. For cocktails, enjoy the jazz and juice at De Muze, a brick-lined club where bassists pluck and saxophonists toot under iron chandeliers and lavish murals. Prepare for choice paralysis, because there’s a selection of more than 200 gins, fruit gins and liqueurs.
First impressions mean a lot and my arrival into Antwerpen-Centraal, following a Eurostar from London St Pancras to Brussels where I change trains easily, has me hypnotised. I gaze up at the majestic dome, the iron-clad windows and back down to the marble floor. There may be scaffolding around the entrance hall, but it’s no surprise to later learn that the building, which has earned the name Spoorwegkathedraal meaning ‘railroad cathedral’, has become a destination in its own right.
But I have my own destination to turn to: Botanic Sanctuary, a former monastery that has recently opened and gained a worthy stamp of approval as Antwerp’s first five-star hotel… [READ THE FULL REVIEW]