Mechelen is one of the cosiest cities in Flanders, and thus by definition a top contender for an interesting Belgian city trip. Trot Op! took off on a discovery tour, tried to look beyond just the main attractions and returned with nine travel tips for your next holiday weekend.
If you found yourself in Mechelen about thirty years ago, you were either the RSC Anderlecht manager trying to buy the whole local football team, or a commuter on his way to Brussels who could just make out the name of the train station while whizzing by. Mechelen wasn’t exactly a tourist hotspot back in the day, but luckily times do change. Throughout the past twenty years the whole city got an incredible upgrade. The main sights were given a thorough face-lift, abandoned buildings were repurposed, Mayor Bart Somers’ hair got ironed on regular intervals, and a lot of green space and water was added to the old town. Mechelen underwent a metamorphosis almost unheard of in Belgium, and is now a versatile destination able to compete with the other Flemish art cities Antwerp, Ghent, Leuven and Bruges. It felt like the perfect place for my next city trip, so I booked one this summer. It would have made quite a short article if I hadn’t.
What to do in Mechelen: 9 tips for a surprising city trip
Mechelen is more than just a cosy provincial town. It was already important in the middle ages. As the official seat of the archbishop since God knows when, the centre is filled to the brim with beautiful churches, beguinages and refuges. Under Margaretha of Austria – who was born in Brussels by the way, the lying harlot – Mechelen actually became the capital of what was then called the Netherlands. They only held on to this title for 23 years, but at least it happened. It doesn’t take a genius to see there is quite some history to discover in Mechelen, but it doesn’t end there. Once you’ve seen the main sights, there are lots of smaller spots to seek out. Spots you’d walk right past if you hadn’t read this – sometimes called incredible, mainly by me – very blog. Don’t worry though: I looked all of them up for you, free of charge. You’re welcome. ♥
1. Look at the Atomium from Saint-Rumbold’s Cathedral
Did you know you can climb the tower of Mechelen’s Saint-Rumbold’s Cathedral? You’ll have to get up more than five hundred narrow stairs though, so not being morbidly obese or on death’s doorstep might be a good idea. On your way up, you’ll be able to marvel at the tower bells, and if you’re lucky you might even see the carillon player at work – Mechelen is home to the biggest carillon school on the planet. If you’re extremely lucky, you might even be allowed to play a tune yourself. This is how I made the whole town enjoy my soul-shattering version of Beethoven’s fifth on an event in February – for which I give my sincere apologies. Once you make it to the top, you’ll enjoy a marvelous view over the city from a glass skywalk. On sunny days you can look all the way to Brussels and spot the Atomium gleaming in the distance. Or you can look north and enjoy the – objectively of course way prettier – cathedral of my hometown Antwerp. I believe another round of apologies is due. 😉
2. T’Ile Malines: a well hidden summer bar
T’Ile Malines is my favourite discovery in Mechelen and lies hidden behind an industrial area at the point where the river Dijle splits to flow around the city. It’s a summer bar located in an old lockkeeper’s house, and despite the industrial backdrop it’s completely surrounded by nature. This season they’re doing everything they can to stay infection free, which is why everyone is chilling in beach chairs outside. You can sip cocktails here among the reeds and the chirping crickets, on a colourfully lit fairy tale location far away from the rest of this mad mad world, while the sound of the flowing water lulls you to sleep. Lovely place to end your day: remember it for the hopefully corona-free summer of 2021. www.tilemalines.be
3. Kazerne Dossin and Hof van Busleyden: two top museums
Mechelen’s two best museums are found in two of its most eye-catching buildings. Hof van Busleyden is a beautiful city palace, showcasing the local history through an interactive tour and a rich art collection. Kazerne Dossin is housed in an imposing grey cube, and tells the heartrending story of the thousands of Jews, Roma and Sinti who were transported to the German death camps from here. In meticulous detail and through all possible audiovisual means, the museum explains how hate grows, explodes and eventually kills. It’s very disturbing to see how much the language of those days – the museum is full of shocking historical newspaper clippings and pamphlets – resembles the terms bubbling up from certain political circles today. Both are must visits for every city trip to Mechelen.
4. Hidden and less hidden parks in Mechelen
Mechelen has so many pleasant city gardens and parks it makes this Antwerp resident teem with jealousy. Oh! Tuin, Sinte-Mettetuin, Kruidtuin, Rik Wouterstuin and the beautiful garden of the Archbishop’s Palace can all be found in the city centre just a few minutes away from each other. The huge Vrijbroekpark can be visited right outside the historic centre. Here you can enjoy a beautiful rose garden, a huge fishing pond and until 30 September a whole discovery tour focused on Alice in Wonderland. If you want to visit every park in Mechelen it will take you the whole day, and this is without even getting to the top notch Planckendael Zoo. Don’t like parks? Well, you can walk on the actual river as well via the wooden Dijlepad. Just don’t bring your car, like this absolute genius did. www.mechelen.be/parken-en-tuinen
5. Mechelen Muurt: walk past some impressive street art
Everyone who faithfully reads all of my pieces – as you, my most beloved fan, obviously do – knows that I can appreciate a little bit of street art once in a while. Belgium, you see, is full of ghastly buildings that would look way better with a colourful layer of paint on them. Mechelen agrees with this statement full-heartedly, and its Mechelen Muurt walk takes you past a whole bunch of beautiful artworks: from ten meter high swimming pitbulls to huge pelicans and psychedelic purple lions. There’s way more to discover than what is shown on the official website by the way, so keep your eyes open. Which is of course always a good idea when you’re out in public.
6. Mechelen’s Toy Museum: Nostalgia for mom and dad
These days all museums try to be as interactive as possible. Touch screens, audio guides, virtual reality: you name it. This is of course a good thing, but sometimes I miss the charming old-fashionedness of the museums I visited as a schoolboy. Luckily Mechelen offers exactly what I needed: a lovely archaic museum actually showcasing my entire childhood. The Mechelen Toy Museum is an absolute treasure trove where time stood still since 1985. Everyone between the ages of 30 and 40 will continuously yell “holy shit, I had this once!” when they come across obscure toys no one in the world has ever thought about since Bill Clinton took office. In theory this museum is meant for kids, but ignore that. It’s one big fat psychedelic nostalgia trip to your long-gone youth. So dump those little brats of yours in the cafeteria and quietly submerge yourself in the childlike innocence you thought you lost thirty years ago. “Why are you crying daddy?” www.speelgoedmuseum.be
7. De Vleeshalle: a food court done right
Up until somewhere last year, Antwerp had a nice food court of its own in the old post office at Groenplaats. Sadly, the city thought it a better idea to jam another discount supermarket in there – watch that one draw the tourist crowds – so we are currently back to square one. Mechelen did much better. Its old meat hall was turned from an event space into a wonderful and very popular food court like the ones you’ll find in Scandinavia. Here, you can get the whole world on your plate, and in the central bar you can order the local Belgian whisky from Brewery Het Anker. And if that one doesn’t wake you up, it’s time to see a doctor. www.devleeshalle.be
8. Het Predikheren: a library with standing
De Vleeshalle isn’t the only old building that was given a new purpose. Het Predikheren was originally a cloister, and then served as a shelter home for old paupers and a military barracks. The last fifty years though, it exclusively served as a guano-filled, crumbling dump full of bats, which quickly became the biggest urban sore in the whole city. Luckily things once again changed for the better. Last year, the new city library was opened in the now completely renovated building, and it is one of the most beautiful in the country. On the ground floor, all the original vaults and arches are still intact, and the attic where the children books are kept, is now an atmospheric place full of wooden beams. This must be one of the most magical places for a ten year old to start his first Harry Potter novel, short of actually having to move to Hogwarts. The library, Barbib and its restaurant Tinèlle can be visited freely.
9. Douaneplein: rock climbing, skating and clowning around
Lots of stuff is being repurposed outside the historic centre as well. A couple of years ago, Douaneplein was a sketchy part of town full of concrete and empty warehouses. Now it’s a great urban hub for young people and lovers of the more extreme sports. There’s a large skate park to enjoy outside, and in the hangars you can now find Klimkaffee: a hall for bouldering, or for just having a drink while you watch other people work a sweat. There’s a summer bar out in front, and if you really want to reach for the stars, you can register yourself in the nearby clown college and become an acrobat. Everything is possible in Mechelen. www.klimkaffee.be
“Mechelen underwent a metamorphosis almost unheard of in Belgium, and is now a versatile destination able to compete with the other Flemish art cities Antwerp, Ghent, Leuven and Bruges”
There you go: nine tips for a surprising city trip in Mechelen. Did I forget your favourite spot? Which city should I explore next? Do you like Saint-Rumbolds Tower better than my precious Antwerp Cathedral? Let it all out in the comments below.
Looking for some other Belgian destinations? Read my pieces on Leuven, The Zwin, Gaume, Spa, Liège and Charleroi. Want to go for a bigger trip? Check out my articles on Malawi, Aruba, New Delhi and Edinburgh.
What to do in Mechelen: practical info, special offers and hotels
I stayed in the elegant Hotel Elisabeth, which is very close to Kazerne Dossin and Het Predikheren. www.elisabeth-hotel.be
All the way through 2020, Mechelen gives you an extra something something when you spend the night. With the 1+1 promotion, anyone who books two nights in Mechelen will get the second night for free. The arrangement comes with the overnight stay, breakfast and a free Sense-sations package. This allows you to taste some local delicacies in certain shops. The package also gives you a discount for a couple of museums and attractions. Click here to book a hotel, and here for more info on the Sense-sations package.