The under-visited Belgian city of Mechelen is a historic gem with world-class museums, award-winning beer and canal-side charm. Here’s our pick of the best things to do in Mechelen.


Flemish art, cosy brown bars, silky chocolate. Just a few of the things Belgium has given the world. The unassuming star with them all and more is Mechelen.

Boasting the world’s favourite dark beer, Belgium’s most important cathedral and state-of-the-art museums, it’s surprising Mechelen has remained somewhat of a secret on the well-worn trails connecting Brussels, Bruges and Antwerp.

And it’s a good thing too. While the canal-side streets don’t have the Instagram-gleam of Mechelen’s neighbours, they do have something equally as appealing: quiet authenticity. These are real streets, with real brown bars. The beer is from one of the local breweries still operating in town.

Tiny in scale but punching well above its weight, Mechelen has a confident style that seems to be continually reinventing itself. Old disused buildings have been re-purposed with a modern, useful edge and it’s friendly and fun people embrace and build on its eventful past.

So, from colourful street art to world-class museums; lofty vistas to embarrassing tales of history, here are our best things to do in Mechelen.

1 / CLIMB ST RUMBOLD’S TOWER FOR MECHELEN VIEWS

Throughout its history, St Rumbold’s Cathedral has weathered every storm thrown at it. In the 16th century, religious conflicts saw precious items plundered mercilessly like the machinations of a messy divorce. During the 17th century, Calvinist rule stripped the building of any hints of its Catholic roots. Later, in the 20th century, the Second World War left deep scars that were only erased by a massive fire 30 years later.

But today St Rumbold’s stands tall and proud. Just not as tall as it should have. The original plans included a dramatic 130m tower soaring into the heavens. Sadly the plans were never completed, so the current 97m tower was left with an unusual flat roof.

Foiled plans aside, a climb up the 538 steps is one of the most exhilarating things to do in Mechelen. On the way up, catch a breath at the Crane Chamber. It houses a massive human-powered wheel which was used to haul stones and wood up for the construction of the tower. A little further is the Carillon Chamber. Here, the 49 bells can be heard ringing melodically whenever the carillonneur is at his keyboard.

But the real highlight is the skywalk. The views from the modern glass structure provide the perfect vantage point to take in the scenic old town of this delightful city.


St Rumbold’s Cathedral / 8:30 – 17:30 | Price: Free | Tower: 13:00 – 17:00 Mon-Sun; 10:00 – 17:00 Sat | Price: €8.

2 / WANDER IN AWE THROUGH THE HOF VAN BUSLEYDEN MUSEUM

Archduchess Margaret of Austria had a successful royal career. She was Duchess of Savoy, Princess of Asturia and regent of the Low Countries. Under her watch, Mechelen became a flourishing renaissance capital and a hotbed of intellectual progress.

In the early 16th century influential thinkers flocked to Margaret’s capital, including humanist Hiëronymus van Busleyden, who built himself a palatial Renaissance residence – Hof van Busleyden. His new palace was the centre of influence in the Low Countries, regularly visited by important minds of his time including Thomas More and the kid who would later become Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor.

This new world of Renaissance Europe that Margaret and Hiëronymus helped flourish comes to life in the Hof van Busleyden Museum – an excellent exhibition in a beautiful space.

Discover treasures and master craftmanship; understand leading renaissance talents and embrace evocative tributes to the arts and sciences. Experience one of the most enlightened periods of our history in an engaging and contemporary exhibition.


Museum Hof van Busleyden Museum / 10:00 – 17:00 Fri-Tue; 10:00 – 22:00 Thu; Closed Wed | Price: €12

3 / THE MECHELEN MOON EXTINGUISHERS AND THEIR AMBER LEGACY

It’s the wee hours of January 27, 1687.

An inn on Grote Markt is buzzing with winter hubbub. The chatter of 17th-century politics fills the congenial space. Belgium beer is flowing freely.

With creamy foam still stuck to his nose, a Mechelenian looks up from his beer and sees the unfinished tower of St Rumbold’s through the mist, enveloped in flames. With lightning reflexes, the town swings into action. It may not be complete, but they are going to save their tower.

With co-ordination defying their Monday night drinking session, the town creates a chain of water buckets across the Grote Markt to the cathedral. Their enthusiasm diminishes rapidly when they realise the flames are nothing more than the moon shimmering through the mist.

During a tour of the Het Anker Brewery, you can try a Maneblusser – the beer named in honour of the town’s “Moon Extinguishers.” Learn about the carefully selected ingredients that go into each bottle of golden perfection. Or sample a Gouden Carolus – voted as the best dark beer in the world – and explore the vintage equipment that makes these bubbly dreams a reality.


Het Anker Brewery Tour / 11:00 every day, plus additional tours Thu-Sun | Price: €9 including the tour and 2 beers | Location: Guido Gezellelaan 49 | Bookings: on their website

4 / UNDERSTAND THE IMPACT OF THE HOLOCAUST ON MECHELEN AT KAZERNE DOSSIN

After the German invasion on 10 May 1940, the Belgian state of law collapsed. The sentiment swiftly moved from defeatism to enthusiasm – proactively identifying Jews for deportation by the Nazis.

Between 1942 and 1944, 25,484 Jews and 352 gypsies were processed at the Dossin Barracks in preparation for deportation to Auschwitz. These barracks are now a museum which tells the story surrounding the tragic events of the holocaust.

The Kazerne Dossin exhibition recounts in chronological order, the socio-economic and political factors framing the events around the Second World War. From the Treaty of Versailles which undermined the German economy through to long held anti-Semitic roots in the Catholic tradition, it’s a sombre look at how history has shaped this small city.

As discrimination didn’t end with the war, so too the museum follows the path of the small proportion of Jews who returned from the concentration camps. The Belgium government demanded unpaid land tax from those deported between 1942 to 1944 and legal proceedings were often required to reclaim confiscated property.

Kazerne Dossin exhibition looks broadly at what happens when the state begins to discriminate and confronts the holocaust in a brutally honest way. It’s a bleak but important exhibition.


Kazzern Dossin / 9:00-17:00 daily (closed Wed) | Price: €10 permanent exhibition; €9 temporary exhibition; €16 both | Location: Goswin de Stassartstraat 153

5 / AMBLE ALONG THE DYLE PATH FROM HAVENWERF TO THE BOTANICAL GARDENS

With so many interesting historical sights and interesting museums in Mechelen, it’s easy to forget one of the main sweeteners of this pint-sized Belgian treasure: it’s beautiful.

A stroll along the Dyle path is a great way to discover some interesting architecture. Peek at unique houses. Amble through the 13th century commercial hub. Enjoy a quiet stroll in this vibrant town.

Start at Haverwerf, the historic port where oats were unloaded and traded before making your way to the trio of colourful houses near the bridge. Reliefs on the corner house depict scenes of “Earthly Paradise.” The middle one carries images of the devil while the third celebrates the baby Jesus.

Continue along the floating wooden bridge towards the Botanical Gardens. Investigate the interesting mix of new and old houses taking up prime position along the river. Check out the 13th century Hoogbrug bridge. It’s equipped with battlements from its heyday when it served as part of the city’s defence.

Just past Hoogbrug, at Zoutwerf (established when the town acquired the right to stack salt) you’ll find the former guildhall of the fishmongers, In den Grooten Zalm. Its sumptuous Renaissance façade, rich ornamentation and bold design demonstrates the wealth and influence of the fishmongers in the 14th century.

6 / DISCOVER HIDDEN RUBEN’S IN THE CHURCH OVER THE RIVER

While many of Mechelen’s sights are centred around the old town, Our Lady across the Dyle is well worth crossing the Dyle for. Built in the 14th and 15th centuries, it’s an imposing blend of gothic architecture with a modern patch-up.

The church was badly damaged by the German invasion in the First World War, then by allied bombing in the second. Renovations in the 1960s gave the church its current appearance. The stone structure escaped the fate of many buildings designed with minimal style in the 1960s and its contemporary stained glass windows, which was fitted into existing gothic openings, fills the nave with glittering light and a trendy splash of colour.

But, the main reason to visit Our Lady over the River is to witness the wealth and influence of the fishmongers from the 16th century. Fortunately, they decided to use their piles of cash to commission Peter Paul Ruben’s to create the Miraculous Draught of Fishes. It’s not our favourite of his masterpieces but standing in their revamped church on the wrong side of the river with a subtle display of where the power once stood in the city was one of our favourite things to do in Mechelen.


Church of Our Lady across the Dyle / 13:00 – 17:00 Mar to Nov; 13:00 – 16:00 Nov to Mar | Price: Free | Location: Onze-Lieve-Vrouwestraat

7 / VISIT THE LIVING ROOM OF MECHELEN AT THE PREDIKHEREN LIBRARY

Belgium has a reputation for re-purposing old buildings which previous generations had fallen out of love with and. The Predikheren library is one of the finest.

It started life as a Dominican monastery in 1650. But throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, it was mainly used for military purposes before being abandoned in 1975. Over the last few years, however, a new lease of life has been bestowed on this 17th-century building.

Today, it’s a bit hard to define what makes The Predikheren so special. Perhaps it’s the cool collaborative spaces with exposed elements from previous incarnations where the past hasn’t been fully erased. Or maybe it’s the effortless blending of art, culture and literature that makes you feel like you can come here to work the mind, or just hang out and relax.

Either way, it’s a building where previous imperfections are its greatest asset. Where the histories hidden in the exposed crumbling walls are only the start of the story.

So, bring a good book and take up a reading nook in the stunning attic. Find something that piques your interest in the double-level bookshelves. Unwind in a great new space in Mechelen.


Het Predikheren / 10:30 – 17:00 Wed & Fri; 10:30 – 19:30 Thu | Price: Free | Location: Goswin de Stassartstraat 88

8 / TAKE IN SOME BACKSTREETS ON A MUURT WALKING TOUR

Mechelen Muurt is a project by street artist Gijs Vanhee who invited 10 international artists to make their mark on the city walls. They’ve done so with a vibrant splash of colour that brightens up the back streets and creates a great walking tour outside the picturesque centre.

To visit all 10 murals, pick up a map from the Visitor Information Centre or download it from Visit Mechelen. Being close together, it’s an easy 1-hour stroll to see them all and a great thing to do in Mechelen.

Floral Skull Ball (number 5) by London-based graphic designer is a bold splash of colour. The Freeway (6) by Sam Scarpulla is a monochrome abstract graphic. De Pelikaan (2) by classically trained Belgian artist Dzia is an amazingly detailed, huge colourful pelican. We just couldn’t take enough photos of each of them.

But, our favourite was actually not one of the original 10 on the Muurt street art map, but a new piece that crept in on De Langhestraat in between number 8 and number 9. Set in front of a vegetable patch on the side of and old house, it’s a giant lightbulb with Dali-esque surrealism contained within.

9 / DINE AT THE CONVERTED HIPSTER HANGOUT DE VLEESHALLE

Continuing the theme of repurposing old buildings that have lost their lustre, De Vleeshalle is another freshly cut diamond in Mechelen. De Vleeshalle was the old meat market since 1881. It spent years as an industrial wasteland and a brief period as the unemployment benefit office.

Today, De Vleeshalle is the coolest place to grab a bite to eat in a warehouse-style food market. There are 12 permanent stalls plus pop-ups. They serve everything from fresh and zesty Vietnamese pho at Bāmbū to Spanish delights with a twist at Tapas La Qia.

Bar & Brood, puts two of the world’s staples, bread and wine together. While Hunter’s Out of Ireland is good for anyone homesick for traditional Irish fish and chips.

You can also self-cater on your Mechelen getaway. Fresh, seasonal produce is available to cook yourself up a storm. Maybe some honey for the city beekeeper will go nicely with your creation.

While it’s organic natural eating at De Vleeshalle, the friendly people behind the stalls are taking dining into the technological age. It’s strictly card only and they even have an app where you can order at your table.


De Vleeshalle / 11:00 – 20:00 Tue-Thu; 11:00-22:00 Fri-Sat; 11:00-18:00 Sun; Closed Mon | Location: Huidevettersstraat 7

WHERE TO STAY IN MECHELEN

The historical centre of Mechelen is compact. Most accommodation options skirt close to the road that circles the old town. There are a couple of common hotel chains near the river, but you’re probably looking for something with a bit more character. Here are our suggestions.

BEER INSPIRED / HOTEL BROUWERIJ HET ANKER

For a quirky stay in a unique space in Mechelen it’s hard to go past the Het Anker Brewery. The rooms in the old building are modern and comfortable, and it’s a short 5 min walk to the main square.

QUIRKY STYLE / MARTIN’S PATERSHOF

With original features from its life as a former church, Martin’s Patershof is a stylish up-market choice in Mechelen. A hotel that serves breakfast with a glass of bubbles in an old church choir is always a good idea.

CLASSIC BUDGET / VALUE STAY RESIDENCE

For a quality economical stay close to the centre of Mechelen, try Value Stay Residence. While it does what it says on the tin, the rooms are clean and spacious.

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HOW TO GET TO MECHELEN

Mechelen is conveniently located just 30 km from Brussels and 27 km from Antwerp. There are excellent rail connections from both, making Mechelen a great option for a quick getaway.

BY AIR / The closest airport to Mechelen is Brussels International Airport which has daily flights from many European destinations. You can check flights here. A very convenient train service will whisk you from the airport to Mechelen in 11 minutes (€7). Check timetables at Belgian Train.

BY TRAIN / International high-speed trains connect Brussels to many destinations in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Check prices and timetables with Thalys. If you’re coming from London, Eurostar will get you to Brussels in 2 hours, where you can easily connect to Mechelen on the same ticket. From Brussels, it’s around 20 minutes by train to Mechelen.

BY CAR / Given the excellent train network in Belgium and the compact nature of Mechelen we wouldn’t recommend driving. However, a pre-booked taxi will cost around €40.

WHERE NEXT?

Firstly, if you found this article helpful, we’d love it if you could follow us on Instagram.

There’s plenty more to see in Flanders, so if you’re looking for options in the area, head over to Visit Flanders for some more information and inspiration. For some suggestions nearby, read our guide to Leuven.

Also, we’ve got a lot to say about coffee in Paris, covered the best parts of Sintra in one day, and discovered that Istanbul was our favourite city – read all our highlights.


THANKS / This article was produced in partnership with Visit Mechelen and Visit Flanders.

If you have any questions please leave them in the comments section below – we will always reply. To stay up to date with our travels, follow us on social and signup to our NEWSLETTER.

Our guide to the best things to do in Mechelen - a historic gem with world-class museums, award-winning beer and a thriving art scene. / Het Anker Mechelen tour / Gouden Carolus / #mechelen #flanders #belgium

Our guide to the best things to do in Mechelen - a historic gem with world-class museums, award-winning beer and a thriving art scene. / Het Anker Mechelen tour / Gouden Carolus / #mechelen #flanders #belgium

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