The small city of Mechelen, located in between the two largest cities of Belgium, Brussels, and Antwerp, can really be considered a (still) hidden gem. As most of the tourists flock to either Bruges, Ghent, Brussels or Antwerp, everyone seems to overlook the smaller Mechelen. It makes me wonder why, because Mechelen has it all: the cute cobblestone streets, medieval architecture, romantic canals running through the city… all the ingredients for a lovely city trip!
And besides all the history & the romantic setting, the independent boutiques and many hip brunch bars might also lure you in! Have I made you curious to honor this city with a visit? I hope so! Go off the beaten path and discover this city that’s still unknown to most tourists. This means only authentic experiences!
Which experiences exactly? That I will explain below. Let’s visit Mechelen!
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What to see in Mechelen
Start your visit at the tourist office
Yes, this is no joke. After years of traveling, I discovered that the best way to explore a new destination is by starting at the tourist office. In Mechelen specifically, I want you to get 2 things at the tourist office that will make your visit unforgettable: the brochures ‘In the footsteps of Margareta’ and ‘Sense-sations’.
‘In the footsteps of Margareta’ is a brochure with 3 self-guided walking tours in them so you get to see all the historic hotspots of the city. It is based on the historical figure Margareta of Austria who governed the region and resided in Mechelen in the 15th century. You can download the brochure online for free or buy them for €3,5 at the tourist office.
‘Sense-sations’ is a brochure that gives you vouchers for tastings of local delicacies and discounts on the top activities of the city. You can buy this brochure for €6 at the tourist office and in return, you get invaluable experiences! This way I tasted apple cake with Carolus beer at Sava, had a cheese tasting at Schockaert, and so much more. The perfect introduction to Mechelen!
Climb the Saint-Rumbold’s tower
In the heart of the city, next to the tourist office, you’ll find Saint-Rumbold’s Cathedral with its majestic tower. Visiting the cathedral (which you can do for free) is quite nice, but the real highlight is its tower! This tower is a symbol of Mechelen and holds the greatest heritage of the city: its carillon. The carillon of Mechelen is famous worldwide and by climbing the tower you get to know everything about it. You can even see it being played which is a very interesting experience!
Not sure if this is your field of interest? Well, then you should still consider climbing the tower for the skywalk on top of it. When you’re lucky enough to witness a clear sky, you can see the cities of Brussels and Antwerp in the distance. Talking about a stunning view right? 😉 An entry ticket to go up the St. Rumbold’s tower costs €8.
Stroll around the great & small beguinage
As with many other historic cities in Belgium, Mechelen has a large beguinage where hundreds of years ago a flourishing community of beguines used to live (more than 1500 to be precise)! The community started during the 13th century and reached its peak during the 15th century.
Today, this is just another part of the city, but a very cute one though! The houses from the beguinage are now inhabited by people like you and me. I would consider it a prime location to live since strolling through these streets is utterly charming.
Try to find the house where one of the former Paupes went to the toilet during a visit to Mechelen. Since then, the house is being visited by pilgrims because they think the toilet water has healing powers. 😉
Also pass by the church of the beguinage and some of the many small alleys such as the Jesus Gate and the garden of Oh!. These are the cutest spots to be found in this area!
Visit a museum
Mechelen has a few high-quality museums that you can’t miss. These are also the perfect escape if the Belgian weather doesn’t allow a stroll through the city.
- Hof van Busleyden: this museum gives you more info about the history of Mechelen. The current expo is about all of Mechelen’s historic hidden gems. You get to know painters, artists and century-long traditions! Note that the main exhibition is currently closed because of renovations, but you can still visit this temporary exhibition!
- Kazerne Dossin: if you’re interested in learning more about the holocaust during World War II then this is the number 1 museum in Belgium you should visit. Warning: this is not a happy topic.
- Kunstuur Mechelen: shows 29 top artworks from Belgium from 1850 to 1950. Several famous Belgians talk about their affiliation with the artwork and what it means to them.
Go on a boat tour
During the warmer months of the year, it is possible to go on a boat tour on the Dijle, the river passes through the city. From my experience, seeing a city from the water is a whole new experience and I would recommend it to everyone. The boats sail from March till October and cost €9.
Insider tip: If you’re on a budget or visiting outside the warmer season, then I have a little hack for you. Every Saturday, there is a boat sailing from the outskirts to the city center, the so-called ‘Shopping Shuttle’. People can park their cars at the periphery of the city and then take the shuttle boat into the center. Genius right?! The best part is that it’s completely free.
Visit Brewery Het Anker
The last brewery standing in the city is called Het Anker. This family brewery has been making the local beer Gouden Carolus for the past 5 generations next to the Great Beguinage. The legacy of the brewery dates back to the 15th century when beer was brewed for the beguines and the people they cared for.
Today this place is more than a brewery. In the brewery’s 3-star hotel, you can spend the night in a unique location. During the day, you can reserve a spot on one of the guided tours with, of course, a beer tasting afterward. Not necessary to get all that extra information? Then have a beer and lunch at the brewery’s brasserie!
Tip: my favorite Gouden Carolus? The whiskey-infused one. 😉
Walk on water
Literally! The city of Mechelen has constructed a wooden path that is floating on the river Dijle. Between Havenwerf and the botanic garden, you can literally stroll on the water. I can’t think of a more romantic activity! On your way, admire the beautiful historic buildings and briges.
Note that with slippery weather, the path might be closed to pedestrians.
An Insta-perfect location: Haverwerf
This picture-perfect location in Mechelen is known for its three colorful houses alongside the river Dijle. If you look at the picture, you’ll immediately get why it’s such a wonderful spot. The three houses date back to the 16th and 17th century and are called Het Paradijske (‘Paradise’), De Duiveltjes (‘Devils’), and Sint-Jozef, named after the reliefs on the facades.
Centuries ago, Haverwerf used to be the place where ‘haver’, oats, were imported and traded. All ships transporting oats had to offer their load for sale in Mechelen for 3 days. Only what was left could then be transported elsewhere.
Go see original Rubens paintings
Mechelen counts a lot of beautifully renovated churches, but three of them are extra special. The St. Jans church (St. John), the Church of Our-Lady-Across-The-Dyle, and St. Rumbold’s Cathedral. Here you can admire original Rubens paintings. Pieter Paul Rubens is a Flemish baroque painter who lived in the 17th century. The paintings that hang in these churches are specifically made for them, plus the churches (and paintings) are free to visit!
Practically: most churches are open from 1 to 4 p.m. (winter) or 5 p.m. (summer)
Go shopping in independent boutiques
One of the things I loved the most about Mechelen is that it has a lot of smaller independent shops where you can wander around. Most of these shops are located in the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwe street. Definitely take a look at the vintage store My Ex Boyfriend or the sustainable shop Supergoods. At the end of the street, have a delicious cake at Kato Gateaux!
As I mentioned before, Mechelen is a place for foodies. There are several local delicacies you should try, which is best done through the ‘Sense-sations’ brochure I talked about previously. So what should you taste? Here are some delicacies you should try:
- Apple pie with Carolus beer – you can taste this pie at SAVA, but watch out, there’s literally beer poured over the cake!
- Maneblussers chocolate – this chocolate in the form of a moon refers to an urban legend of Mechelen. On a foggy night, the inhabitants once thought that the tower was burning and tried to extinguish the fire with all men available. However, when they got to the top they realized that it was the moon glowing that appeared like a fire. Thus, they had been extinguishing the moon, and from there comes the name Maneblussers. Back then, people used to laugh with it, but now the people of Mechelen wear the name with pride.
- St. Rumbold’s cookies – you can get these cookies in the form of the St. Rumbold’s tower, one of the most important monuments in Mechelen, at bakery Broodbroeders. They are delicious!
- Carolus beer – this beer is brewed at local brewery Het Anker on the border of the city center but you can taste the beer just about everywhere in the city! As mentioned, the whiskey-infused is my favorite one. 😉
- Schokaerts cheese – this family cheese shop on the Ijzerenleen is always filled with a queue of clients. And for a reason, their cheese is delicious! Ask for the local cheese with Carolus beer.
Where to eat?
I consider food a very important part of my trips, and I bet you do too! Luckily, Mechelen really is a city for foodies. Below I will suggest some tested and approved places to eat!
This is THE place to be if you’re looking for a delicious and varied lunch or dinner. De Vleeshalle is a former market hall built in 1881 and now functions as a Shop-Taste-Meet hall with food stands selling different kinds of cuisines and small shops. The food ranges from Vietnamese to potatoes and croquettes. You can check out all food stands online.
I personally tasted some Mexican food (really good), Vietnamese spring rolls (not super great), croquettes (order the special ones), and sweet potato fries (delicious!).
This restaurant is located on the market square of Mechelen. Unlike other centrally located restaurants that are often a bit touristy, this lovely place serves delicious tapas. With delicious I mean mouth-watering good food!
SAVA is also the place where I ate the apple cake with Carolus beer so definitely go ahead and order it! Come here for a delicious lunch or dinner. The specialty of the house is its broad selection of cava.
This cute lunch spot is very centrally located and serves the most delicious and healthy meals. Although you better not get seated near the door (it’s a bit cold there), you’ll definitely have to try their food!
I personally tasted the spinach & goat cheese pancakes and the toast with pumpkin spread. Both are highly recommended!
Of course, I received numerous other recommendations on Instagram for where to eat and have a drink. As I couldn’t try them all, I will list the rest of the recommendations below:
- Brasserie of brewery Het Anker – lunch only
- Borrel Babbel – the smallest café of Mechelen
- Baramoundo – cocktail bar
- Zorba – Greek restaurant
- De Fortuyne – restaurant
- The Neck – wine bar
- Kaffee Ine – coffee & cake
- Gouden Vis – popular bar, drinks only
- De Kuub – trendy bar
Where to stay?
During my weekend in Mechelen, I stayed in the fantastic Martin’s Patershof. This hotel is probably the most unique place to stay in the entire city. Why? Because it’s located in a former church! In the authentic part of the hotel, you can stay in a room with a glass-stained window and several other elements adapted to this unique environment. You can actually still feel that you’re sleeping in a church, which is a super special experience!
What else I liked about Martin’s Patershof:
- bar serving local beers & cheese
- very elaborate breakfast buffet including bubbles
- very friendly staff
- a bubble bath in my room! (I stayed in a “Great Plus” room)
Another special option is to stay in the hotel of the brewery Het Anker. Although I don’t have any personal experience staying there, it seems worth finding it out for yourself!
I’m confident all these tips will make sure that you’ll also have an amazing time exploring Mechelen! Don’t forget to stop by the Tourism Office to get all the extra info you want and start exploring! I have a feeling this is going to be a great trip! 😉
>> SPECIAL OFFER <<
When you book 2 nights in a hotel in Mechelen before February 28th, you get a voucher of €100 to spend in local businesses, restaurants and attractions. The perfect excuse to still quickly plan your city trip to Mechelen!