The quiet, serene Flemish city of Mechelen is the perfect destination for art, culture and food lovers seeking a secret, under-the-radar haven that is genuinely unspoilt, where there is no need to compete with crowds of tourists when visiting museums or while taking a precious, solitary moment to contemplate a centuries-old religious painting in a secluded corner of an ancient church.
The city has a glorious past stretching back through the Renaissance to Age of Enlightenment, and it is a pleasure to stroll through its cobbled backstreets tracking down a medieval Beguinage, or wander along the banks of the winding Dyle river, stopping to listen to the magical peal of carillon bells. This is a contemporary Art City too, with avant-garde galleries showcasing the local creative scene, and notable pioneering urban initiatives converting historic buildings into modern museums, art and film centres, always with a lively bar or restaurant as this is also somewhere where the locals really know how to enjoy themselves, and entertain travellers that head here off the beaten track.
St Rumbold’s Tower & Cathedral
No matter where you are walking through Mechelen, there is always the statuesque tower of Saint Rumbolt’s cathedral, defining the city as it majestically rises up above the skyline.
The soaring vaulted interiors of the cathedral boast a significant collection of old masters, particularly Lucas Faydherbe’s Baroque high altar, paintings by Anthony van Dyck and a curious, enigmatic Black Madonna.
Before leaving, though, most visitors head for the narrow, steep winding staircase that slowly climbs its way up to the top of the Unesco World Heritage tower. The reward is an unparalleled view from the 97 metre high skywalk over Mechelen and the surrounding countryside and often the chance to hear the chimes of Saint Rumbold’s famous carillon bells. Just be aware there is no lift, only 524 stairs each way, fortunately with plenty of stages for stop offs.
During the Nazi occupation of Mechelen during World War Two, the Dossin military barracks were converted into a transit camp for the deportation of Jews, gypsies and homosexuals to concentration camps.
Today, the barracks are the site of an holocaust memorial, while across the road stands a monumental museum and documentation centre inaugurated in 2012. A stark, austere concrete pentagon, this landmark building addresses not just historical persecution during World War Two in Belgium and Northern France with an intense and educative exhibition of their permanent collection, but also holds temporary shows dedicated to human rights abuses across the globe.
A tour through the four floors is an emotional experience, especially when you witness the reactions of the many visiting school groups, but you end the visit with a unique eye-witness view of what life was like in this wartime era. The visit ends with panoramic views from the open rooftop terrace, a perfect moment for quiet personal reflection.
In the age of immersive art exhibitions, virtual and enhanced reality guides, the creators of Mechelen’s Het Kunstuur – The Culture Hour – have succeeded in coming up with a new, highly original idea.
This small, intimate gallery has a regularly-changing programme presenting temporary exhibitions that feature just 20 paintings. The aim is to publicise and promote local Flemish artists, and the visitor is asked to join an obligatory hour long tour. At first everything begins as in a normal museum with everyone putting on an audio guide, but as the group passes from salon to salon, at some point the lights go out, artworks are individually illuminated, and the voiceover explaining each artwork, usually a well-known Flemish personality, suddenly comes to life as a speaking, moving computer-generated avatar.
After the experience most people adjourn right opposite to Het Kunstuur’s funky cafe.
To get a feeling for the glory days of Mechelen’s proud history, take a tour of the museum housed in this splendid red-brick palace. It dates back to the 15th century, when the city was immensely wealthy through the cloth trade and the official capital of the Low Countries, ruled by the Dukes of Burgundy, and encompassing parts of modern Belgium, Luxembourg and Holland. The palace once welcomed princes, emperors, and Renaissance intellectuals like Erasmus and Sir Thomas More. Today the building is dedicated to the history of the city. Much of the permanent collection will only be on show towards the end of 2023 when a huge renovation programme is completed, but until the summer, don’t miss the temporary Hidden Gems exhibition.
The palace basement has been emptied to create an open space venue filled with 100 objects illustrating 700 years of Mechelen history – medieval religious paintings, traditional carnival giants, contemporary sculptures, 20th century artworks.
In another example of how this city creatively uses its urban heritage architecture, the municipal library is housed in a beautifully restored Baroque monastery.
Het Predikheren refers to the Preachers monastic movement, another name for the Dominican Order, who built a church here in the mid 17th century. The religious complex was closed down during the French Revolution, then used as both a military hospital and troop barracks before being abandoned for 50n years before its present transformation into a contemporary library and cultural hub. Right from the day the doors opened, Het Predikheren has taken a unique place in the town’s life that extends far beyond its collection of books.
This is a vibrant meeting place that attracts curious travellers as well as locals, with a casual bar and cafe that extends out into a cloistered terrace alongside a gourmet restaurant, while the space also hosts art exhibitions, dance and music performances.
De Vleeshalle Foodmarket
A majestic bulls head marks the entrance to Mechelen’s historic 1881 Meat Hall. Though no longer a butcher’s market, the immense building has today is reborn as a vibrant emporium for cosmopolitan food stalls that has become a firm favourite with locals for a tasty, reasonably-priced lunch. Be sure to arrive at midday as the comfy sofas and chairs surrounding the stalls fill up quickly each day.
Hardly surprising when you can choose from local specialities – oysters, shrimp croquettes, and of course frites – to chefs cooking exotic dishes from Mexico, the Mediterranean, Morocco, South Africa, and even homebaked Irish pies. For drinks, choose from from barista coffee, fruit smoothies, Belgian craft ales and organic wines. After your meal, take the staircase up above the bustling ground floor to discover sustainable boutiques and cool coworking spaces.
The name Schockaert is synonymous with cheese in Mechelen. Founded more that a century ago by the great grandfather of Sophie and Ann Schockaert, the flagship cheesemongers of these two sisters occupies the ground floor of an ancient merchants house right on Mechelen’s main shopping drag, IJzerenleen, and stocks a tempting array of some 220 different cheeses. Originally this was a classic dairy, selling eggs and milk, delivering around town on a horse and cart, but today, they also stock traditional Flemish charcuterie.
Most of the cheeses are organic, and the Schockaert’s have long-standing relationships with many farmers in the surrounding region. Two local specialities not to be missed are Brouwerskaas, where a Mechelen-brewed beer is added to the milk curd, and Mechelier, a cows cheese whose skin is rubbed with a potent Trippel ale.
Saturday Grote Markt
Every Saturday morning you will find Mechelen townsfolk passing through its bustling weekly market on the Grote Markt, the city’s landmark square lined with elaborate medieval and Baroque mansions, a towering Gothic cathedral in the background, one side taken up entirely by the palatial 16th century town hall and belfry. The market stalls are piled high with a cornucopia of locally-farmed products like endives, sprouts asparagus, and at poultry stands be sure to look out for the Mechelse Koekoek, the famous Mechelen chicken known as a ‘cuckoo’ for its distinctive black and white feathers that you will find on gastronomic restaurant menus all over Flanders. And the Grote Markt is surrounded by lively bars, the perfect place to grab a sunny pavement table try a glass of the signature Gouden Carolus beer made at the local Het Anker brewery.
Traditional towpaths run along the bank of a waterway, used in the past by horses to pull cargo barges, transformed today into bike and hiking paths.
But visitors to Mechelen always get a surprise the first time they see the River Dyle’s futuristic towpath as it literally floats above the water. For the perfect green experience, start out with a walk through the 19th century Kruidtuin, originally the Botanical Gardens, today a verdant public park of lakes and flower gardens, an outdoor venue for a big summer music festival.
From the park cross the Fontein Bridge onto the floating ramp that follows the river into the town centre. Dipping under the ancient Hoog bridge and past a juxtaposition of contemporary and historical buildings, cross over the pedestrian Lamot Bridge into what was once the old fish market and then enjoy a drink on the waterside terrace of the town’s most genuine Brown Cafe, De Gouden Vis.
Out of Town
Either put on your walking boots for a 4 kilometre hike or hire a bike at Mechelen’s train station to follow the picturesque towpath along the bank of the Vaart waterway as far as the sleepy rural hamlet of Battel.
You can’t miss a sign for the unique Batteliek craft brewery, housed in what was once the local church. All the Batteliek ales, fruit juices and craft gin are made right here, and while the decor follows a fun, surreal Monty Pythonesque theme, state-of-the-art vats are massed at the end, and the kitchen serves up a tasty mix of pizzas and burgers, cheesecake and brownies.
Open barely a year, they have created 15 different beers, with 7 on tap, and enthusiasts can sign up to a brewing workshop while more ambitious gypsy brewers are allowed in to create their own small-batch recipes. While locals love the classic Belgian pilsner, don’t miss more brews like an unusual pastry stout or a coffee porter.
Food & drink
A newcomer on Mechelen’s entertainment scene, the Lux complex opened in October 2021 in an opulent colonnaded 1831 mansion.
Today there is the arthouse Cinema Lumière on the ground floor, while up above is Lux 28, a cool bar that has the feel of a private club, a secret address for local cinema-lovers, occasionally discovered by curious tourists. Apart from serving craft beers, wine and cocktails, accompanied by sharing tapas, this is also a venue devoted to exhibitions by local artists, with plans to host small concerts
The Chick is a wining and dining venue that surprises from start to finish. Hidden away in a 16th centre building adjacent to the iconic St Rumbold’s tower, this is a restaurant with no written menu and enthusiastic foodies place their faith in the chef as the kitchen prepares only surprise set menus.
The creative cuisine uses local produce like Namur escargots, North Sea hake and plump lobster cooked in a savoury risotto, complemented by a wide-ranging cosmopolitan wine list. A steep flight of steps heads down to a cosy vaulted wine bar, while cheeses are aged in an ancient medieval cellar.
Mechelen’s venerable independent brewery offers a beer tour for visitors, a discreet hotel to stay in, tastings of its ales and the whiskey it distills on the premises.
And to sample classics of local cuisine there is also the cosy brasserie restaurant, which proposes both dishes cooked with Het Anker’s beers, a beer pairing menu, and both bread and cheeses that are made with beer! Not to be missed are the Flemish beef stew braised in Gouden Carolus Classic beer served with frites and ‘chicons’, braised endives, or Mechelen’s famous ‘Coucou’ chicken, in a creamy sauce with asparagus and potato croquettes.
Hidden away on a quiet backstreet just off the Dyle river stands a towering red-brick neo-Gothic church, where surprisingly taxis stop to drop-off savvy travellers who are checking into the most unique place to stay in Mechelen. Now made over a luxury boutique hotel, guests can choose a comfortable room in their modern annexe or splash out on one of the sumptuous suites in the main church building, complete with stained glass windows, carved stone pillars and arched vaults. The biggest surprise comes when you enter the majestic breakfast hall with its opulent altarpiece and religious paintings.