48 Hours in Mechelen: a small city full of art and history
Mechelen may be a lesser known gem, but it also has just as much to offer as the larger art cities in Flanders. The incredible wealth that brought Mechelen to life is easy to see in St. John’s Church and the incredible Hof Van Busleyden palace, while the ravages of Second World War are addressed at the Kazerne Dossin Museum and the Breendonk Fortress. At the same time, the fun of the Toy Museum and the spectacular Winter Gardens of the Ursuline Nuns serve in making the city a genuinely diverse artistic experience for any visitor. The only question is: where should you start? Our guide to 48 hours in Mechelen lets you see as many highlights as possible in such a short time.
The iconic, the mysterious and artistic: the Grote Markt and its surrounds
As soon as you see the Grote Markt in the centre of Mechelen, you’ll know why it’s the perfect place to start your 48-hour visit. The open plain is bursting with life and movement. St. Rumbold’s Tower and Cathedral dominates the square. With spectacular flying buttresses, a revised choir structure and an incomplete, flat-topped tower, the cathedral is as iconic as it is mysterious. There’s uncertainty about St. Rumbold himself – who may or may not be buried under the cathedral – stories about enormous community efforts to extinguish ‘fires’ that were really just reflections of moonlight on clouds, and a stained-glass window depicting a Black Madonna with a white face. The interior includes paintings by Anthony van Dyck, sculptures by Lucas Faydherbe and Michiel Vervoort. Make sure you visit the tower-top Skywalk, with views extending as far as Antwerp and Brussels.
There’s also a lot to see at St. John’s Church. And no wonder: the church was built in one of the richest parishes in Belgium, resulting in unusual but impressive treasures that begin with the unique design of the pews. They were designed to honour rich sponsors and keep them comfortable while worshipping at the church. You’ll also want to see the fascinating array of art treasures on display. The altar is dominated by a Baroque tryptic—the middle panel of which is the beautiful Adoration of the Wise Men by Peter Paul Rubens.
Two very different museums
As well as churches and cathedrals, as you make your way around Mechelen, you’ll find yourself face to face with numerous palaces, enormous town houses and mansions. One of these was famous for the immaculate banquets held there by owner Hiëronymous Busleyden in the 16th century. Now home to the Hof van Busleyden Museum, this is slated to be to experience the Burgundian court culture in contemporary Mechelen. The upcoming opening of the museum (June 15, 2018) has already raised massive interest with the announcement of the exhibition: titled Call for Justice, it highlights the interplay between art, law and the concept of justice and injustice in Mechelen in the mid-fifteenth to mid-seventeenth centuries.
In the Second World War, 25,484 Jews and 352 Roma people were deported from the Kazerne Docks. The Kazerne Dossin Museum uses their experiences as a springboard into a discussion of human rights. It looks at everything from the increase in mass violence that led to the genocide to the apparent support of authorities that allowed it, all while questioning the motivations behind the persecution. It encourages us all to avoid the rise of similar situations in our own lifetimes.
The Anker, a beguinage and the Art of Madness
If you’re in the mood for something beer-related, follow the ring road, around to Het Anker. This brewery produces plenty of delicious beverages to whet your whistle. We recommend starting with the Gouden Carolus. This range of beers includes the dark Gouden Carolus Classic and the Gouden Carolus Tripel. They were voted the World’s Best Dark Ale and the Best Tripel beer in the world at the World Beer Awards. As such, it’s no wonder this brewery is the pride of Mechelen. After your tour of the facilities, you’ll be treated to a tasting session and a discount in case you want to take a bottle or two home.
Conveniently, the brewery is located right in the centre of the Groot Begijnhof. An intrinsically Flemish concept, a beguinage is a closed community where Beguines once lived, worked and prayed. Beguines are unmarried or widowed women who dedicate themselves to God without retiring from the world around them. When you head through the external doors, you’ll find yourself in a courtyard surrounded by a series of architecturally distinctive homes, churches, courtyards and gardens. It’s an incredibly quiet and peaceful community, especially considering it’s located in the middle of the city.
You’re probably aware that museums and art collections are usually based around specific themes. Is there any reason why the theme couldn’t be madness? At the Mad Art Collection, you’ll find paintings that make satirical and moralising references to insanity. Artists include Hieronymus Bosch, Jan Verbeeck and Pieter Brueghel the Younger. Incidentally, the museum building is also the birthplace of Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
Now it’s time for something completely different. Make your way down to the Haverwerf, where you can enjoy a boat tour along the Dyle. This river played a vitally important role in the history of Mechelen; the city was once even known as Dijlestad—Dyle City. A boat tour is a wonderful way to view and learn about these historical sites. Alternatively, a relaxing walk along the riverbank is a great way to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere.
As you’re on the Dyle, the many different cafes, restaurants and bars at the riverside Vismarkt area make it the perfect destination for a bite to eat. The area buzzes with activity in the early evening –and it’s a top destination for a mini pub crawl and an opportunity to investigate those many, many Belgian beers!
Of course, there are other places to quench your appetite. Il Cardinale is known for its burgers, and its ability to combine great food with creativity. With its oddly religious theme and menu filled with dishes such as ‘You Must be Nuts’, ‘Holy Guacamole!’ and ‘Baby Jesus’, there’s a whimsical sense of oddball fun.
Further down the Keizerstraat, the d’Afspraak offers Belgian classics. The restaurant has an enormous variety of dishes on the menu and a nice, friendly atmosphere. A little further on, M-Eatery, the ‘m-eat hotspot’ is great for anyone who feels like tucking into a steak with fries.
If you’re thirstier than you are hungry, head to D’Hanekeef, the oldest bar in Mechelen. It’s still a friendly social hub with 50 beers on the menu.
Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Neo-Gothicism all in one
Let’s start your second day in Mechelen with one of our top recommendations: The Winter Gardens of the Ursuline Nuns (open for tours only on Sunday between March - October and every 3rd Sunday from November - February). Built in 1900 as part of a boarding school, the awe-inspiring and truly spectacular architecture of the greenhouse will first appear to be an outstanding example of Art Nouveau, but you’ll also notice Art Deco and Neo-Gothic elements upon closer inspection. The incredible stained-glass panels that form the roof depict a vast array of plants, while bathing the garden of ferns and flowers in spectacular light and colour.
Release your inner child
Now it’s time for something that will appeal to children, no matter how small or grown up they might be: the Planckendael Zoo. Watch the rhinoceros feeding, take a peek at the lions, let the parakeets land on your head and check out the underground caverns. Whatever you do, don’t miss the elephants swimming and playing in their specially designed habitat. They’re an absolute delight!
We keep the excitement bubbling over with a visit to one of the most wonderful artistic treasures in Mechelen: the Toy Museum. This is a must-see for a number of reasons. It takes a fascinating look at the way toys have developed over about the past 5,000 years, linking artistic and social developments. This culminates in an exhibit focusing on toys from the 20th century that’s guaranteed to lead you on a wonderful trip down memory lane. And, yes, there are plenty of toys available for kids – and their parents – to play with.
Alternatively, take a visit to Technopolis. The underlying concept of this museum is not just to make science interactive, fun and accessible, but to make it cool. How? By encouraging you to lift a car, broadcast whispers using a carefully shaped concrete dish and release your inner-Einstein at exhibits designed to appeal of people of all ages.
The clock is sure to be ticking down, but we have one more stop on your itinerary. Fort Breendonk is a former Nazi Concentration Camp. Its excellent state of preservation, the sobering history it teaches and the incredible, its uplifting and inspiring message of hope has made it a powerful memorial. It tells the stories of the 3,500 prisoners who passed through Breendonk, juxtaposing the torture and viciously cruel treatment they underwent with the role and importance of human rights in the world today. Thanks to the cautious and targeted approach to the subject matter, the memorial is suitable even for people of all ages; more than 40,000 school children visit every year. This is an undeniably important chapter in Mechlinian, Belgian and world history and one that most certainly shouldn’t be overlooked.
Story created on March 12, 2018