In October 2017 I had a family weekend planned. A couple of years ago we visited Barcelona, but this year we decided to stay nearby. We chose the city of Mechelen, one of the few cities in Belgium I had not yet visited. On a Friday afternoon we took the train to the ‘city of the Maneblussers’. We arrived in the late afternoon and checked in at the conveniently located hotel Elisabeth. Curious how we spent our weekend in Mechelen? I will give you with 10 tips on what to do in Mechelen.
1: skywalk up on the St. Rumbold’s tower
You have to suffer through some intense muscle pain the next day, but the climbing of the St. Rumbold’s tower is an activity you cannot miss in Mechelen. This thirteenth century tower is the symbol of Mechelen. The tower is close to100 meter high and it actually should have been much higher. Unfortunately, the money to finish it was missing. During the climbing of 538 tower steps you come across six floors. On each floor you could make a stop to catch your breath and to admire the tower rooms. The higher you get, the bigger the church clocks will get. On the top of the tower there is an amazing skywalk. This is a glass platform from where you have a 360 degree view over the old city center of Mechelen. Beautiful!
According to legend, the city of Mechelen has an interesting story that is linked to the St. Rumbold’s cathedral. The story goes like this: on a foggy night in1687 a local from Mechelen walked across the Grand Market and thought the St. Rumbold’s tower was on fire. People came running to put out the fire to discover that the tower was not actually on fire. The moon behind the clouds created an orange shade that looked like fire. What was actually put out was the moon. This story gave the people of Mechelen its well-known nickname: city of the Moon Extinguishers (‘Maneblusser’).
2: around the grand Market square
In the mood for coffee, beer or a bite? The best place to do this at the ‘Grote Markt’ (Grand Market Square). This historical square is the meeting spot of Mechelen and you will find several cafes and restaurants surrounding it. The square is also surrounded by beautiful old merchant houses in various building styles. The true eye catcher of the square is the city hall. This building consists of three parts that take up the entire east side of the city. From left to right you see the Palace of the Great Council, the Belfort and the Cloth hall. My favorite was the palace. I loved the Gothic building style, it reminded me of the town hall in Leuven.
3: street art with ‘Mechelen Muurt’
Something that simply cannot miss in this list is street art. The city center of Mechelen has ten big and small wall paintings. They were made during the art project ‘Mechelen Muurt’ in 2015 initiated by artist Gijs Vanhee. Today you can download a map or get a map at the local tourist office (Hallestraat 2) to see all the works in the city. It is an activity that does not take up much of your time. Within a maximum of 2 hours you could manage to see them all. The most beautiful works can be found in the Lekkernijstraatje, De Langhestraat and Schutterhofstraat. My favorite was the mural of an underwater dog of the artist Smates. Loved the eyes!
4: look at the facades on the Haverwerf
You can find the most colorful houses of Mechelen at the Haverwerf (Oats Wharf). This street used to be the place where the oats came from the river on to the land and was sold. Today three unique houses mark this spot: Paradise (corner house), the Devils (middle green house) and Saint Joseph (left house). Take notice of the details of these houses. In the middle you could actually see the devils on the house.
Close to the Haverwerf you can visit the ‘Vismarkt’ (Fish Market). This is a little square where they used to trade fish after the fish smell was banned from the nearby IJzerenleen. Today the square is filled with restaurants and terraces. The Vismarkt is also the place where the Dijlepad (Path on the Dyle) starts, a wooden walking path over the water from the Vismarkt to the Kruidentuin (Herbal Garden).
5: walking through the beguinages
A lot of Belgian cities have one: a ‘Begijnhof’ (Beguinage). This is a courtyard closed off by houses where there used to live women who devoted their lives to God. These were no nuns, but women who cut themselves off from society. A lot of these women lost their husbands in the medieval crusades. They chose a life in the Beguinage, because the church would take care of them. A unique element of the beguinages of Mechelen was that the women brew their own beer. The water was too polluted, so that is why the women drank beer. There are two beguinages in Mechelen and in the Grand Beguinage there is still a big brewery called the Anker, housed in the old farmacy. The sick got a ration consisting of beer. Today the Anker is the main brewery of the city beer brands ‘Maneblusser’ and ‘Gouden Carolus (Golden Carolus).
6: eating ‘holy’ burgers at Il Cardinale
Worked up an appetite with all that walking? Head over to Il Cardinale. They serve delicious burgers and fries. There is not only a menu for the carnivores, they also have options for vegetarians. Oh My God, The Godfather and You Must Be Nuts (veg), the burgers all have an ecclesiastical touch. The church theme is also reflected in the interior. There is for instance a wall of 69 Maria statues and there is hymn singing in the bathrooms.
7: look up in the IJzerenleen
The Haverwerf has the most beautiful houses, but the most beautiful street of Mechelen is the IJzerenleen. This street is often compared to the Champs Elysees in Paris. I think this comparison is bit farfetched, but I do think it is a beautiful place. The street is flanked by a row of fifteenth and sixteenth century houses. At the crossing of the Grote Markt and the IJzerenleen you can find the oldest house of the street. This is the thirteenth century ‘Schepenhuis’ (Ship house), the first brick city hall of Belgium. Because of the devastating First World War there are almost no original facades left. They are all reconstructed. Still, I think they are beautiful.
8: culinary tasting in the ‘Oude Vleeshalle’ (from 2018)
A vegetarian in a former meat factory? Yes, that is what happened when I was visiting Mechelen and stepped inside the Oude Vleeshalle (Old Meat Factory). Though this factory is not used anymore for meat production. This nineteenth century factory is going to reopen in 2018 as a brand new food market. As a foretaste last month (October 2017) the second edition of the pop up Mercado was organized. Local restaurant owners took up a stand and served dishes for a couple of euros. Moroccan dishes, Indonesian snacks and Spanish tapas. I especially liked the industrial details of this factory. The high ceiling, the way the light fell in and the balconies. I am very curious how this food market will look like in 2018.
9: Seeing the palaces of power women
The history of Mechelen holds a special place for power women. One of these power women was Margaret of Austria. In the sixteenth century she was regent of the Netherlands and built a new palace in Mechelen (Court of Savoye). Today this palace is used as the Court of Justice and it not open for public due to the current terror threat level. Right across this palace there is another palace: the Palace of Margaret of York. Widow of Charles the Bold and stepmother to Mary of Burgundy (mother of Margaret of Austria). She taught Mary everything about governing. Also this palace has a new function these days: City Theater. A couple of streets further there is another palace that belongs to a man, sir Jeroen van Busleyden. He built himself the Court of Busleyden. Today this palace is closed for public, because it is being reconstructed into a brand new museum opening in 2018.
10: Play and be a kid again
Mechelen does not only have street art brightening up its walls, it also has some remarkable statues. They are called ‘play incentives’ for children. The city is trying to brand itself as a kid-friendly destination. For instance, next to the Saint Rumbold’s tower you can find the yellow giant ‘Opsinjoorke’, a fictional figure from the folklore of the city of Mechelen. It symbolises a drunk that beats his wife. To punish him the neighbours threw him up in the air on a big cloth. This is atradition that is still repeated every year in Mechelen with a wooden doll. Not far from this giant there are wooden mannequins with the movable parts. The incentives are not only fun for children to play with, also fun for adults.
Got any time left after these 10 tips? These are some other things you could do:
- Kazerne Dossin: a former military base that has been used from 1942 to 1944 as a transit camp in the Second World War. More than 25.000 jews waited for their forced transit to Auschwitz or other deadly camps. In 2012 a museum and documentation center opened at this spot to inform visitors about the Holocaust in Belgium.
- Wintertuin Ursulinen: this is located outside of Mechelen (30 minutes by car). Near the village of Sint-Katelijne-Wave you can visit a beautiful Winter Garden (indoor garden) in Art Nouveau style. It is part of the former monastery of the sisters of Ursulinen.
Would you like to visit Mechelen?