Unassuming Mechelen is short on visitors but packed with charm and history. Home of the primate of Belgium and the country’s ecclesiastical capital, this characterful city is an easy day trip from either Brussels or Antwerp.
Not sure if you should visit Mechelen? Let’s take a closer look at why it deserves a place on your Belgium bucket list.
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Where is Mechelen in Belgium?
Mechelen is in the Flanders region of Belgium, halfway between Antwerp and Brussels.
Why You Should Visit Mechelen
1. Mechelen has a rich history
Many of the city’s key attractions tell of Mechelen’s history.
The city’s Christian heritage is thanks to St Rumbold, a hugely popular Irish evangelist with converted the local heathens in the seventh century. He came a cropper when he crossed a local stonemason who proceeded to chop him up.
When Rumbold’s remains were dug up they showed no signs of decay. This was enough to build a shrine in his honour, to which pilgrims flocked.
Mechelen was one of the most powerful cities of Flanders from the 13th Century until the death of Margaret of Austria in 1530. Under her governorship, Mechelen flourished, attracting scholars and artists from across Flanders.
The scar on Mechelen’s history came in the 20th Century when it was used as a transit centre for the deportation of Jews from occupied Belgium during World War II.
2. It has beautiful medieval architecture
Although political power shifted to Brussels in the 16th Century, many of Mechelen’s medieval buildings survived the industrial boom of the 19th Century. You will find a superb cluster of these buildings lining the Grote Markt, the city’s beating heart.
The tower of St. Rumbold’s Cathedral (Sint-Rumboldskathedraal) dominates this cityscape with the Stadhuis (town hall) occupying prime real estate on the eastern side of the square. Thrown into the mix are Renaissance buildings and elaborate 18th Century Rococo-style structures, many of which have typical gabled Belgian roofs.
3. To visit St. Rumbold’s Cathedral and tower
Let’s take a closer look at that cathedral, which is one of the things to see in Mechelen. St. Rumbold’s Cathedral has been the seat of the Arcbishopship since 1559 and houses relics of the saint.
St Rumbold’s majestic bell tower is one of the UNESCO-listed Belfries of Belgium and France.
With its soaring, canopied pinnacles, it is the highest Gothic tower in Belgium. Work began on this 97-metre tall tower in 1472 but was abandoned when the coffers ran dry.
Mechelen is famous for its carillons, bell-shaped musical instruments that originated in Flanders in the 15th Century. These are some of the most tuneful bells that I have come across, and ring across the city every 15 minutes.
You can climb the 538 steps to a skywalk at the top of the belfry for panoramic views of the city centre and its surroundings.
Step inside the cathedral to take a look at the extraordinarily carved oak pulpit. This depicts St Norbert being thrown from his horse, surrounded by creatures of the forest.
The south transept is home to the cathedral’s most distinguished painting. Anthony van Dyck’s Crucifixion depicts the shadowy, contorted bodies of two thieves on either side of a luminous Christ.
4. To explore the winding lanes of Mechelen’s beguinage
A beguinage is an architectural complex, laid out much like a small town, which was created to house beguines. These were lay sisterhoods of the Roman Catholic Church, founded in the 13th Century in the Low Countries.
Mechelen has two beguinages.
The Small Beguinage (Klein Begijnhof)was the first to be founded, with beguines living there from 1256.
Work started on Mechelen’s UNESCO-listed Large Beguinage (Groot Begijnhof) in 1595 when the original one outside the city walls was destroyed. A Baroque church and many convents line its peaceful, narrow streets.
5. To reflect on Belgium’s dark past
Don’t miss Kazerne Dossin when you visit Mechelen.
Belgium was occupied by the Germans between May 1940 and February 1945. The Nazis chose the Dossin Barracks in Mechelen as the transit point for those destined for the concentration camps of eastern Europe.
Between 1942 and 1944, 25,490 Jews and 353 Roma were deported from Mechelen, most of whom were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Only an estimated 1400 survived.
These desperate times are recalled over three floors at Kazerne Dossin.
As might be expected, there are some harrowing and thought-provoking exhibits on display. These include two extraordinary photo albums from the camps.
One of these belonged to SS Obersturmfuhrer Karl Hocker and shows German camp personnel having fun on their days off.
Contrast that with the album showing surviving images of the detainees.
There are two things that make Kazerne Dossin particularly compelling.
Through its documents and images, it attempts to make sense of the rise of antisemitism and the complicity of Belgium with the Nazis. It also draws parallels between human rights violations then and now.
When you leave the museum, walk across the street to the old barracks that were used as the internment centre. Although most of this property is now occupied by apartments, one wing has been left as a memorial.
6. There is a wonderful riverside walk
One of the best things to do in Mechelen is to head down to the River Dijle (Dyle in English), which flows through the city.
Just south of the Grote Markt is Haverwerf (Oats Wharf), which is home to more of Mechelen’s medieval architecture. The three houses overlooking Haverwerf near the bridge represent the evolution of dwellings in the 16th and 17th centuries.
From left to right there is Baroque, timber and finally Gothic with early Renaissance features.
The first house is known as Sint-Jozef, named after its relief of St Joseph with the Child Jesus.
The corner house is called Het Paradijske (The Paradise). Above its windows are reliefs depicting earthly paradise and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
De Duiveltjes, or The Little Devils, is sandwiched between these two buildings. Thanks to its beautiful wooden façade depicting the story of The Prodigal Son, it used to be called De Verloren Zoon. It takes its current name from the little devils which act as pillars.
From Haverwerf, a pontoon walkway – the Dijle Path – extends southeast along the river as far as the city’s Botanic Garden. It’s a rewarding way to explore more of Mechelen’s history, taking you under Hoogbrug (the city’s oldest bridge) to Zoutwerf (salt port). As its name suggests, this is where boats carrying their precious cargoes of salt conducted their business.
7. To join a Het Anker brewery tour
One thing that Belgium is not short of is an excellent beer, and one of the best is brewed in Mechelen. Gouden Carolus has won numerous awards worldwide and is made at the Het Anker brewery.
See how the magic happens on a visit to the Het Anker brewery. This 90-minute tour includes tasting two of their Gouden Carolus beers and a small present.
Make your reservation here.
8. Mechelen has fabulous street art
Do you like street art? If so, this is another excellent reason to visit Mechelen.
In 2014, local artist Gijs Vanhee invited nine street artists to decorate the centre of Mechelen with an original work of art. You can take a self-guided walking tour of Mechelen’s street art by following this map.
9. Mechelen has the best city mascot ever
Don’t leave town without taking a look at the bronze sculpture in the corner of the Grote Markt. This is Opsinjjoke, Mechelen’s mascot and he is carried in the town’s annual Ommegang or religious procession.
Opsinjjoke symbolises drunkards and womanisers and is tossed in the air by way of punishment. Let that be a lesson.
10. Mechelen is much quieter than the Belgian tourist honeypots
One of the best reasons for visiting Mechelen is that despite its charm and attractions, it is not yet firmly on many tourists’ radars. Consequently, the city attracts a fraction of the visitors descending on the tourist honeypots of Bruges and Brussels.
This is a blessing. If you have ever visited Brussels’ Grand Place on a Saturday afternoon or tried to slalom your way past people in one of Bruges’ chocolate shops, you will know what I mean.
11. Visiting Mechelen is easy from other Belgian cities (& even London!)
Last but not least, Mechelen is a super easy day trip from Antwerp or Brussels. From either city, it’s a 20-minute train journey.
With frequent onward connections in Brussels, you could even visit Mechelen as a day trip from London.
Other Things to Do in Mechelen, Belgium
Visit Museum Hof van Busleyden
Occupying an attractive 17th Century Renaissance pile built for the wealthy Busleyden family, Museum Hof van Busleyden is Mechelen’s main museum. Its permanent collection focuses on Flanders’ Golden Age under the rule of the Court of Burgundy.
In normal times, this would be a principal Mechelen attraction. However, at the time of my visit in April 2022, the museum was undergoing extensive renovation. Although the museum remains open, the permanent collection is not accessible.
This work is due for completion in Autumn 2023.
Address: Frederik de Merodestraat 65, Mechelen
Take a tour of the Winter Garden
This Art Nouveau gem was the Winter Garden of the Ursuline nuns. By all accounts, it is a magnificent building and well worth visiting.
However, it is only open on Saturdays and you need to book ahead to reserve your place on one of the guided tours.
Address: Bosstraat 9, 2861 OLV Waver
Visit the Toy Museum Mechelen
This is one for you if you are visiting Mechelen with kids (or wish to nurture your inner child). The collection at the Toy Museum Mechelen is one of the biggest in Europe.
The museum is closed on Wednesdays.
Address: Nekkerspoelstraat 2, Mechelen
Plan Your Visit to Mechelen, Belgium
How to take a day trip to Mechelen from Brussels or Antwerp
Frequent trains travel between Mechelen and Brussels or Antwerp. The journey time is around 20 minutes.
Mechelen’s train station is an easy 15-minute walk to the Grote Markt in its historical centre.
Where to stay in Mechelen
Whilst you can hit the highlights of Mechelen in one day, staying overnight will allow you to soak in the charm of this city.
Here are a few mid-range accommodation choices that I would consider.
Located in an Art Nouveau House, this highly-rated accommodation is slap-bang in the centre of Mechelen. There’s even a rooftop treehouse sitting room.
>>> CLICK HERE TO BOOK A ROOM
This bed & breakfast has attracted stellar reviews and offers a lovely garden and lounge.
>>> CLICK HERE TO BOOK A ROOM
>>> None of these take your fancy? Explore other great hotels in Mechelen here.
Is Mechelen Worth Visiting?
Mechelen is one of Belgium’s underrated treasures. This attractive city with a population of around 90,000 punches way above its weight when it comes to attractions.
It is home to two UNESCO-listed sites, including a charming beguinage, it has an excellent brewery and first-rate bars and restaurants. Furthermore, when I visited, the locals could not have been more friendly or more helpful.