Nestled halfway between the larger, more well-trodden Belgium cities of Brussels and Antwerp is Mechelen, a small and picturesque city that is big on charm and history. Whilst it is frequently overlooked, especially by interrailers who often pass through the city on their travels, there are so many reasons to visit Mechelen.
As one of Flanders’ prominent cities of historical art, Mechelen is thriving with culture, quaint shops, and picturesque squares. So whether you fancy lounging back in a square with a cheap beer in hand or hurrying around all of the must-visit tourist attractions, this one-stop guide shares the 11 best things to do in Mechelen.
How to Get to Mechelen
Depending on where you are based in the world, Mechelen is easily accessible by either plane, train or bus. If you are flying into Belgium, the nearest airport to Mechelen is Brussels Airport. You can then get to Mechelen from there by train or bus. A train ticket costs approximately 7€ and will have you whizzing along to Mechelen Central Station in just eleven minutes! The bus journey, on the other hand, takes between 45 and 50 minutes but costs only 3€.
Another great option when coming from the UK is travelling to Mechelen via the Eurostar, which is what I did. Tickets can be extremely cheap, especially off-season, making the Eurostar an attractive option for budget travellers. It’s also the more eco-friendly alternative which is always great! The train will take you directly from London St Pancras to Brussels Train Station, where you can then get a further half-hour train to Mechelen.
How to Get Around Mechelen
One of the best things about Mechelen is that once you are there you don’t have to spend a single penny on transport! Mechelen is a small city meaning you can get by on foot. Whilst everywhere on this list of things to do in Mechelen is within short walking distance of each other, use Google Maps to avoid getting lost.
However, perhaps one of my favourite things about visiting Mechelen was getting lost. With my earphones in and some good tunes playing, I found myself wandering down some of the most beautiful little side streets, discovering a more authentic side to Mechelen.
Where to Stay in Mechelen
In Mechelen, I was lucky enough to stay at the ever-so-gorgeous Hotel Elisabeth for two nights. This simple, yet stylish hotel is located within 200m walking distance of the central Grote Markt. This makes it the perfect base for all the many things to do in Mechelen!
A former hospital dating from the inter-war period, Hotel Elisabeth has since transformed into the four-star hotel you see today. There is a beautifully light breakfast room which overlooks a lovely courtyard with olive trees. You’ll also find a modern seating and library area downstairs, ideal for work or relaxation.
Ranging from Classic to Executive, there is a room at Hotel Elisabeth to suit practically every budget. The standard rooms are cosy and contemporary and come complete with all necessary amenities, whilst the larger rooms accommodate a large kitchen and living room, great for longer stays and business trips. All rooms come with a spacious private bathroom with either a walk-in shower or bath. Prices range anywhere from a cheap 55€ to 95€ a night.
Where to Eat in Mechelen
Het Anker Brewery
If you eat or drink anywhere in Mechelen, make it Het Anker Brewery. This popular attraction, loved by locals and tourists alike, is one of the oldest breweries in the city and currently the only active one. Located in the heart of the large beguinage (more on that later!), the brewery restaurant makes for a great place to get up close and personal with Mechelen’s liquid gold.
Not only that but the food is nothing short of fantastic too. I went for the most classic option on the menu: a beef Flemish stew with fries and chicory salad. And let me tell you, it was frankly one of the most filling meals I’ve ever had. Anticipate huge scrumptious, hearty portions that will have you rolling into bed afterwards. Or maybe it’s just the copious amounts of beer you will inevitably consume that have that effect… Either or!
While Het Anker delivers on the beer and Flemish delicacies, my favourite place to eat in Mechelen is undeniably Cosma Foodhouse. Blending a mix of flavours to deliver on a “Belgian-Mediterranean fusion”, the deli-style food sharing of this restaurant cannot go amiss. With an intimate indoor terrace in the back of the food house, Cosma is ideal for all-year-round dining.
The unique restaurant sees you building your own meal rather than having it ready-made for you. Great for larger groups and those who love to pick and choose from lots of things! This makes it a little pricier but boy oh boy, is it well worth every penny. I was first greeted with a scrumptious selection of spicy nuts and grains as an appetiser. Then I settled down with a glass of wine ready to devour my Tagliata di Manzo and vegetable fries. Deeeeeeee-licious!
11 Best Things to Do in Mechelen
1. Soak up the sights at Grote Markt
Looking for classic Flemish and Belgian cuisine? Oh, and colourful buildings too? Then you should probably head to Grote Markt. It is an unmissable sight; seriously, you will find yourself walking through this square approximately 27 times during your stay. Home to both St. Rumbold’s Cathedral and the City Hall, it deserves its top place on this list of things to do in Mechelen.
A great place to sit back and people watch, Grote Markt is perfect for mornings or afternoons enjoyed slowly. There are restaurants, brasseries and taverns here, all housed in beautifully decorated old guildhalls and mansions. Be sure to visit the markets, which offer a combination of local produce, gadgets and clothing with an international feel.
2. Learn more about Mechelen at Museum Hof van Busleyden
Opening hours: 10 am – 5 pm Friday to Tuesday, closed Wednesday, 10 am – 10 pm Thursday
Fancy learning more about Mechelen during the Burgundian era? Well, you’ve certainly come to the right place! Taking you on an interactive journey to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Museum Hof van Busleyden will show you how the city is still influenced by its magnificent past.
Set inside the most majestic Renaissance palace, the museum offers a variety of themed spaces. From lively and bustling rooms to more private and quieter places, it all explores this crucial cultural and political period in the history of Mechelen and the Netherlands. Top tip: explore the intriguing enclosed gardens which are eerie yet beautiful.
3. Take a stroll down IJzerenleen
Set just off Grote Markt, you will probably find yourself taking a stroll down IJzerenleen without even realising it. This long street leads off the main square to many of the main tourist attractions in Mechelen. Known by locals as Mechelen’s Champs Elysées, IJzerenleen boasts some of the finest architecture in the city! Coupled with a whole host of lovely shops and eateries, IJzerenleen is a must-visit street in Mechelen.
4. Explore the beguinage
Founded around the time of the crusades, these small towns-within-a-town played host to women and children whose husbands and fathers did not return home from the war. Rather than join a convent, many women decided to form their own communities and become self-sufficient with their own bakeries, breweries, hospices and churches. The main difference with convents was that the beguines did not take the life-long vows of poverty, obedience and chastity.
There are two beguinages you can visit in Mechelen: the small beguinage and the large beguinage. Because of its typical Flemish character and unique architecture, the large beguinage was declared a UNESCO world heritage site, along with the beguinages in 12 other Flemish cities. The large beguinage is located near Het Anker Brewery, while you can find the small beguinage in the heart of the city. Both are equally picturesque!
5. Have a chilled drink at Vismarkt
A trendy alternative to the famous Grote Markt, Vismarkt appeals to younger crowds. It was once the fish market but is now by far the most dynamic area in the city. With a whole host of nonchalant pubs, cute cafes, stylish lounge bars and trendy restaurants to choose from, Vismarkt will be your go-to spot for lounging back with a chilled drink. Sitting on the Dijle river, it is also a great spot to jump onboard a relaxing boat ride through the city.
6. Climb St Rumbold’s Tower to the Skywalk
Price: 8€ for adults, 3€ for children and young adults (4-26 yrs)
Proudly soaring above the city, St. Rumbold’s Tower is the symbol of Mechelen and a great compass for navigating your way through the city. It is most well-known for its flat-topped unfinished tower and for once housing the world’s largest clock, even surpassing Big Ben’s! Whilst it looks nothing short of beautiful from the ground, the best way to experience the tower is to climb the 538 steps of this 97m giant. Offering not only stunning 360° panoramic views of the city but also a peek behind the scenes of a gothic bell tower, climbing the tower is one of the best things to do in Mechelen.
Once you’ve managed to successfully climb Everest – uhh sorry, I mean the tower – you will be rewarded with breathtaking views all the way across to the Brussels’ Atomium and Antwerp Cathedral. But don’t rush up too quickly! On your way up, you will get a chance to see the bells, carillon and clock-mechanism from up close. While the clock is no longer there, the Carillion still chimes every 15 minutes, with another, smaller chime sounding every 7.5 minutes. They serve as a solid reminder of just how long it is taking you to get up those steps!
7. Wander along the Dylepath
Fancy a stroll around Mechelen? Well, the best way to see the city from a unique perspective is from the Dylepath! Stretching all the way from the Haverwerf to the city’s Botanical Garden, the Dylepath makes for a lovely, relaxing walk along Mechelen’s historic waterways. The path allows you to get a different look at Mechelen’s architecture: from the back!
8. Get snap happy at Haverwerf
As someone really into photography, visiting Haverwerf is for sure one of my favourite things to do in Mechelen. A perfect spot to get a little snap happy, Haverwerf looks nothing short of picturesque, no matter what the weather decides to do.
However, it’s not just the famous trio of 16th and 17th-century houses that will catch your eye. Whilst St. Joseph, The Little Devil and Little Paradise undeniably stand out, the surrounding area of Haverwerf boasts a plethora of stunning architecture.
9. Marvel at Mechelen’s creative talent on the Mechelen Muurt walk
I’m sure you didn’t expect to see modern street art in such a quaint historic city but here we are! The Mechelen Muurt project was started by local artist, Gijs Vanhee, in 2013. He wanted to brighten up the streets of Mechelen and therefore invited three local, three national and three international artists to do just that.
Armed with pencils, paint and spray cans, the artists took to the walls of Mechelen to unleash their creative talent on the city. Now you can follow in their footsteps to discover 10 huge murals hidden throughout Mechelen.
10. Follow in the footsteps of Margaret & Burgundian Sense-Sations
Pick up the handy brochure of ‘In the footsteps of Margareta’ from Mechelen Tourist Office and get ready to walk! This self-guided walking tour leads to highlights from the fifteenth century when Mechelen came under the rule of the Dukes of Burgundy. There are three circular walks of different lengths to choose from, depending on your interest, time available and where you might have already visited.
Don’t worry though because during your long walk you will be rewarded with some delicious Belgium delicacies! To make the walk just that little bit more interesting, pick up the Mechelen Sense-sations voucher booklet at the same time. For just 4.50€ you can eat and drink your way through the city for free. From beer-based cheese to artisan chocolate, a whole cornucopia of Mechelen flavours awaits you. Top tip: the booklet also comes with some discount codes off popular attractions such as St Rumbold’s Tower’s Skywalk, so don’t forget to use them.
11. Take a tour of the Winter Garden of the Ursuline Nuns
Opening hours: Tours run every Sunday at 2:30 pm until 4:30 pm from March to November
Last but by no means least we have the Winter Garden of the Ursuline Nuns. Located a 20-minute drive out of the city, the School of the Ursuline Nuns was founded at the end of the nineteenth century by a local pastor who wanted young girls to have free education too. The motto of the sisters who ran the school was thus to give free education to everyone.
Over time, however, they made it a boarding school in order to make it financially viable. The school saw pupils attend from not only all over Flanders but the whole of Belgium and Europe too. There were also many girls from Russia, Panama and Canada. Unfortunately, the school was a very easy target during the First World War which led to it being bombed. After the war, the complex was rebuilt in marble and other luxurious materials!
A two-hour English group tour is hosted at the complex every Sunday from March to November and I would highly recommend it. Our tour guide was a teacher at the school for 28 years, teaching English and Dutch, so she had plenty of inside information to share with us. The main appeal for visitors is the art-nouveau architecture, especially that found in the Winter Garden itself.
So there you have it! The 11 best things to do in Mechelen, Belgium. Have you ever visited the city? What did you think? If I’ve left off any great things to do in Mechelen, be sure to leave them in the comments below. Any excuse to visit Mechelen again, eh?