A while ago I took my mom to Mechelen, a city here in Belgium, for a day. As it had been a while since I’d last been there, I do as I often do: I drafted up an itinerary with the most important things to do in Mechelen. Then I thought it would be a shame not to share the list with you guys. I mean, you could easily use it to plan your own day trip to Mechelen, right?
So here goes.
Things to do in Mechelen
1. Visit the Grand Place with City Hall
Mechelen’s city hall consists of the Palace of the Grand Council and a cloth hall with an unfinished belfry. The belfry was never finished because it depended on money coming in through the cloth industry, which started to struggle in the 14th century. The belfry was given a temporary roof only in the 16th century, a temporary roof which is currently still there. That didn’t prevent it from becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with a bunch of other Belgian belfries, though.
By the way, Mechelen is the only city with two UNESCO World Heritage belfries: the belfry of city hall and the Saint Rumbold’s Tower, which I’ll mention later.
Another fun fact: the Grand Council never resided in the Palace of the Grand Council as there was not enough money to finish the building when construction started in the 16th century. It took 400 years for the Palace to be completed according to the original plans. The interior of city hall can be visited, but only if you take a historical tour of the city with a guide.
2. Have a drink on the Vismarkt
The Vismarkt or “Fish Market” is where – indeed – fish trade used to happen. Nowadays you can still find a few fish shops on this market square by the water, but it’s mostly the place to go when you want to have a drink or a light meal. There are brown bars and trendy cafes, but mom and I opted to have brunch at the cute coffee, brunch and lunch spot Sister Bean.
3. Visit Kazerne Dossin
This is the only place on my list that we didn’t actually visit because the weather was simply too nice that day and also because I wanted to keep things jolly. It is definitely worth a mention, though.
Kazerne Dossin is a museum and memorial site that not only commemorates the time this army casern was occupied by the Germans and used as a detention and deportation camp, but also reflects on themes such as racism, exclusion, human rights and mass violence.
Through a historic perspective on the situation in Belgium in the 1940’s, the global discrimination of Jews and Gypsies and the organized extermination of a whole population, a link is made with contemporary human right issues.
4. Go shopping on the Bruul, but look up as well
The Bruul is Mechelen’s main shopping street. You’ll find some independent boutiques here as well as chain stores like H&M. Mechelen isn’t as known for great shopping as, for example, Antwerp, but to compensate the Bruul does have some nice architecture as well, regardless of the stores there.
The beautiful building of the world renown Carillon School (number 52), for example, which you can visit in a group after making a reservation. The school was founded in 1922 and was the first of its kind. It still attracts students from all over the world.
5. Picnic at the Botanical Garden
The Botanical Garden is the biggest park in the historical center of Mechelen. The first version of the park was designed in 1862 by Louis Fuchs, a landscape architect who designed several city parks in Belgium.
The Botanical Garden underwent significant changes and restorations based on those original designs throughout the years, but the expansion of the school bordering the garden, among other things, means a lot has changed as well. Locals come here for a walk, to picnic or to play with their kids.
6. Walk along the Melaan and the Dyle Path
Mechelen is located by the river Dyle and in recent years it underwent some serious renovations that, among other things, gave the river a more prominent and pleasant role in the cityscape. There’s a Dyle Path that runs along and over the river from the Haverwerf to the Botanical Garden, which allows you to get a different look at the houses in the city: from the back!
And then there’s also the small water run Melaan, which also goes accompanied by a path you can walk along.
7. Dive into the past at the Haverwerf
The Haverwerf is named after the activities that used to take place there. “Haver” in Dutch is oatmeal and it used to be a synonym for grain. Before, boats transporting grain had to stop at the Haverwerf for at least three days to offer their goods for sale. Whatever wasn’t sold in the city, the grain boats could take with them again and sell elsewhere.
Today, the Haverwerf showcases some beautiful 16th and 17th-century houses and you can spot some pleasure boats there as well.
8. Stroll through the Small, the Big Beguinage and the Garden Oh!
Both the Small and the Big Beguinage date back to the 13th century, but the Small Beguinage was founded first. It became so popular that the number of beguines outgrew the beguinage and so the Big Beguinage was built. The beguines who were fit enough moved there, while the older and physically challenged beguines stayed in the Small Beguinage. The last beguines in Mechelen died in the 1980’s.
The Big Beguinage is part of the Belgian beguinages that together are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It comprises the Conventstraat, Fonteinstraatje, Hoviusstraat, Krankenstraat, Nonnenstraat, Jezuspoort, Moreelstraat, Sint-Alexiusstraat, Krommestraat, the cemetery of the beguinage, the Sint-Beggastraat, Twaalf-Apostelenstraat, Acht-Zalighedenstraat and the Cellebroedersstraat.
Especially the Hoviusstraat is nice, with an old content, houses with beautiful doors and icons here and there.
The Garden Oh! is a little public park located right next to the Small Beguinage. It’s a lovely spot to have a picnic or to sit down with a book.
9. Walk through the Klapgat after you’ve visited St John’s Church
The Saint John’s Church dates back to the 15th century when it was built on the spot where there used to be a chapel. The church has a rich interior, including a painting by Peter Paul Rubens.
The Klapgat is Mechelen’s most famous alley. This is where churchgoers used to get together after the service to talk or “klap” – “to talk” in Flemish dialect.
10. Have a coffee in one of the many fun coffee shops
I already mentioned Sister Bean, but Mechelen has several cute little coffee shops that make great stops to refuel your energy level. Gamine is just one example and a place I checked out myself.
11. Climb up the St Rumbolds Tower
The Saint Rumbold’s Tower is the symbol of Mechelen and another UNESCO World Heritage Site, but it’s also unfinished. The construction works that started in 1452, were never finished. The tower used to hold the city’s most important documents and also served as a belfry, with the clocks both indicating the time and approaching dangers.
The belfry used to boast the world’s biggest tower clock, even bigger than the clock adorning Big Ben in London. That clock is gone now, but the Saint Rumbold’s Tower still plays a melody every fifteen minutes and a single sound right in between, at seven and a half minutes. You can visit the tower and get a great view over Mechelen from the skywalk.
By the way, there’s a famous legend attached to the Saint Rumbold’s Tower. The legend goes that on the night of January 27-28, 1687, there was a full moon and low hanging clouds. When a man left the bar late at night, he saw a glow coming from the tower and smoke rising up from it. He thought the tower was on fire and so he alerted everyone. It wasn’t until the entire city had carried buckets of water up the stairs of the tower that they realized the glow had come from the moon shining through the windows of the tower, making it look like it was on fire and as if the clouds were smoke. The people of Mechelen tried to cover up that they’d actually tried to extinguish the moon, but the story spread and until this day they’re called the “Maneblussers” or “Moon Extinguishers”.
Not on my list, but maybe on yours?
12. Brewery Het Anker
Founded in 1369, brewery Het Anker is one of the oldest breweries in Belgium. Its Carolus beer has won several rewards and is still brewed at the same spot. Individual visitors can join a tour every day of the week, except on Mondays.
Where to stay in Mechelen
If you’re looking for an apartment rather than a hotel, I recommend checking airbnb. Sign up through my link and get a discount on your first stay!
Download your walk through Mechelen
Download my easy-to-follow printable itinerary through Mechelen, including background information and delicious stops along the way.
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