48 hours in Mechelen: an outsider full of stories

2 days
Central Square (Grote markt) - Mechelen

An iconic tower, the stories of the lush Burgundian times, valuable history lessons, fun for the little ones and delicious examples of our famous beer culture. Mechelen is a brilliant outsider that deserves your visit. You'll see.

Day 1

A historic climbing tour

Saint Rumbold's Cathedral

If you think of Flemish cities, you soon think of bustling Brussels or fashionable Antwerp. But right between those two metropolises, you'll find another gem: Mechelen. This cosy art city is great in its modesty and well worth discovering. A visit to this city starts, as it should, on the Grote Markt. There you stand immediately in the shadow of the imposing St. Rumbold's Cathedral. The construction of this icon began in the 13th century. Today, it still towers proudly over the city. With its spectacular flying buttresses and unfinished flat tower, the structure exudes a certain mystery.

You can also explore this close by. Pluck up your courage and work your way up to the top. During this climb, you will catch your breath in the six tower rooms, where 500 years of history reveals itself to you. At the end of this climb there is a huge reward: the skywalk with an enchanting view that extends even to Brussels and Antwerp. A good place to take a deep breath and let the wind play in your hair. Another plus: the descent costs less energy than the climb! Let’s move on!

Beauty, splendour and grandeur

Museum Hof van Busleyden

Once we feel the ground floor under our feet again, a short walk leads us to a handful of new highlights. First and foremost, there are the many houses on the Grote Markt, from 16th century Renaissance to 18th century Rococo. A little further on you will find the town hall, this Gothic building was later expanded with baroque elements. Once we have taken in the centuries-old splendour of the Grote Markt, the journey leads to the St John’s Church.

This 15th century Gothic church is a shining example of magnificence. Not surprisingly. When the church was built, this parish was one of the richest in the country.  This resulted in some impressive treasures. The unique design of the churchwarden’s pews is a first example. They were designed to suit the church's wealthy donors. This allowed them to attend church services as comfortably as possible. Wealth is also reflected in artistic opulence. The altar of the St John’s Church is dominated by The Adoration of the Magi by Pieter Paul Rubens. This baroque masterpiece was initially part of a triptych, tailor-made for this church. The other two parts disappeared from Mechelen during the French Revolution and unfortunately never returned. Although the church also has some more gems, such as the Announcement of the Birth, from Rubens’ studio, and The Four Evangelists by Jacob Jordaens.

In addition to churches and the cathedral, in Mechelen you will also constantly encounter palaces, spacious mansions and residences. One of the most beautiful examples is the Hof van Busleyden, a beautiful Renaissance city palace. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Mechelen was the capital of the Burgundian Netherlands. In that period, the world opened up. The Renaissance dawned, everything changed, ‘man’ took centre stage. Today, this magnificent city palace tells all these stories and ideas. It recounts the exciting history of the Burgundians and reveals their many (art) treasures and stories. And there are plenty of them. Hieronymus van Busleyden — the lawyer, patron and humanist who could call this place his home — received the greatest people of the time here. Philosopher Thomas More, known for his masterpiece Utopia, was one of the family here. Theologian and writer Desiderius Erasmus also made an appearance.

The Hof van Busleyden fires an impressive salvo of ideas, artworks and stories at you. After this visit, it is high time for a late lunch, to sit back for a bit. Immediately after that, we resume our tour with a nod to Erasmus, whom we got to know a little at Van Busleyden. His most famous work is called Praise of Folly. And our next stop also pays tribute to what is mad and insane: The Mad Art Collection. This museum displays a collection of satirical paintings with metaphors depicting supposedly reprehensible behaviour and the accompanying punishment.

Sacred silence and a good glass

Large Beguinage - Groot begijnhof © Piet De Kersgieter

After this witty interlude, we seek some peace and quiet. After a mini-walk through the lively city centre, we arrive in an oasis of sacred silence: the Great Beguinage. From the 16th century on, this was the home base of the Beguines, a group of unmarried women who devoted their lives to God. They lived together in a beguinage, a small city in the middle of a city. These are characterised by meandering lanes, cobblestone alleys and picturesque houses. Thanks to its typical Flemish character and its distinctive architecture, the Great Beguinage has a place on the UNESCO list of world heritage sites. Here it feels like a walk through the ages. And that's best done in silence. These protected monuments are still inhabited today. And today’s residents appreciate the peace and quiet too.

Flanders is a treasure trove full of heritage, that is obvious. But that goes far beyond churches and cathedrals, belfries and artworks. We can also include our famous Belgian beer in this category, the suds that the whole world envy us for. In this respect, Mechelen is also doing its bit, thanks to Brouwerij Het Anker, which enjoys fame with its Gouden Carolus. Het Anker was founded in 1471 and is one of the oldest breweries in Belgium. Today you will find that iconic beer house just a stone's throw from the Great Beguinage.

So this is an ideal introduction to our rich beer culture. You walk through the authentic brewing room with copper kettles and taste the different variants of Gouden Carolus. The most famous is without a doubt the Gouden Carolus Classic, which has already won many awards worldwide. A great location for an aperitif, before we go back to the centre.

Once we have returned there, we finish with an evening walk along the Dijle. You can do this via the Dijlepad, which leads you along and over the river. At dusk, you will discover the city from a different perspective. These last steps will give you more appetite, so you will be eager to find a place in one of the many restaurants in the centre. And of course there is also a pub for a nightcap after the meal. De Hanekeef is highly recommended in this regard. The oldest café in Mechelen has over 50 different beers on offer. That will keep you occupied until bedtime.

Day 2

On our first day in Mechelen, we dived with great conviction into a sea of heritage, history and stories. Day 2 will be no different. We start with peace and quiet, with a boat trip on the Dijle. While sailing across the Mechelen lifeline, you will learn more about the many special buildings on the banks and the history of this ancient city.


Dark pages

Kazerne Dossin - Museum & Memorial © Stijn Bollaert

And with that, the journey through the history books is not yet over. Unfortunately, these sometimes also contain dark pages. We learn more about this in Museum Kazerne Dossin. During World War II, this former army barracks was a transit camp for Jews and Roma on their way to the Nazi death camps. From there, 25,484 Jews and 352 Roma were deported. Because this horror should never be forgotten, Kazerne Dossin is today a museum, memorial and documentation centre on the Holocaust and human rights. This looks at both the horror of the past and contemporary human rights issues.

This isn't exactly a place you whistle through, but it tells an essential story. If you want to delve deeper into the topic, visit the Fort Breendonk. At the time, this place, which is just a stone’s throw from Mechelen, served as a so-called ‘transit camp’ for dissidents, resistance fighters, hostages and Jews. Today it is a memorial in recognition of the suffering of that time.

A different world

Winter Garden of the Ursuline nuns (Wintertuin Ursulinen) © Visit Mechelen - Koen Broos

To get a little respite from the impressive and gripping stories, we head to a completely different place. Half an hour later, by bus – and a short walk – we will be at the Winter Garden of the Ursuline nuns, a place of almost sacred beauty. Around 1900, the Ursulines monastic order put up this pearl of art nouveau, a state-of-the-art enterprise at the time. But its beauty is timeless. Golden-yellow rays of sunshine adorn the glass dome, making it always seem a little like spring above the impressive selection of plants, flowers and ferns. Anyone who enters this monumental complex enters a wonderful world.

Cut out for all ages

Animal Park Planckendael © Planckendael, Jonas Verhulst

Once the peace has returned, perhaps it is time to release the child within? Mechelen has a lot to offer in this regard. First and foremost, there is the Toy Museum, a world of imagination, wonder and nostalgia. The rich museum collection provides a glimpse into the toy culture of a bygone era.

Then you can choose from two child-sized excursions. The first is called Planckendael in Muizen, a suburb in the south of the city. In this zoo you will discover elephant Kai-Mook, feed the colourful Loriini parrots, admire the chattering storks, gaze with big eyes at the giraffes and antelopes, lemurs and ring-tailed lemurs, penguins and koalas... Planckendael is good for hours of animal fun.

Option two is called Technopolis, a swirling science and technology DIY centre. This place is all about wonder. Did you know that the universe is infinite? That solar rays can move something? That you can turn a plume of smoke into an ice block? The interactive setups and stunning experiments will totally revive your inner Einstein.

A Burgundian final stop

Palace of Margaret of Austria (Paleis Margareta van Oostenrijk) © Koen Broos

After an invigorating trip, we return to the city centre in Mechelen. Yesterday we met the Burgundians at the Museum Hof van Busleyden. We conclude our visit to Mechelen in the same atmosphere. To do so, we head to Hof van Savoye. This lush structure was the home port of Margaret of Austria, between 1507 and 1530 governor of the Habsburg Netherlands. Her residential palace is the first ever Renaissance building in the Low Countries. The beautiful facade is stunning, a walk through the charming garden completes the picture.

And so we knit a relaxing conclusion to two well-filled days. Of course, this is not enough to completely discover all the stories, history, assets and heritage of the city. But at least it's a great start. The rest is for next time.
See you then!

Info Point Mechelen

Ready to go!

Check our useful information for your trip to Flanders:
how to get here, how to get around, as well as some practicalities.

You may also like these itinerairies