Without using too much Hyperbole it is possible to call Mechelen Belgium’s most underrated city. It has one of the country’s most impressive cathedrals, lots of stunning churches and it is the seat of the country’s archbishop. Add in riverside walking, art galleries, good food and stunning Baroque houses and you have all the ingredients of a European classic.
It may not have the same allure as Bruges and it may not be as atmospheric as Brussels but it is also less crowded and far more affordable. If you have been to the above-mentioned cities and are willing to give another Belgian city a chance; you should head to Mechelen straight away.
Lets explore the best things to do in Mechelen:
1. Admire the St-Romboutskathedraal
The name of this cathedral is certainly a mouthful but don’t let that put you off.
Standing tall in the Grote Market, but visible throughout the entire city, the St-Romboutskathedraal stands just shy of 100 metres tall.
Summiting the tower involves climbing 500 steps and can take over half an hour even for those with good fitness levels.
The views from the top of well worth it however, just try to visit on a dry day as there is no shelter from the elements at the top.
2. Explore Begijnhof
Begijnhof may not be as impressive as it once was but it is still an attractive area of the city.
The baroque architecture, old breweries and even the streets themselves are charming in both appearance and atmosphere.
The icing on the cake is the Begijnhofkerk building which is a stunning example of baroque architecture and the finest building in the area.
3. Take cover in Fort Breendonk
This imposing looking military fortress was built in 1906 as a defensive fortification for the city of Antwerp in a town called Willebroek.
During the Second World War the fort became a Nazi concentration camp.
Nowadays, you can walk the dark corridors of the fort with a very informative audio guide and learn about the cruelty and punishment that took place within.
The fort is just West of Mechelen and can be reached on public transport.
4. Marvel at the Stadhuis
Equally as impressive as the St-Romboutskathedraal, the Stadhuis is a solid stone masterpiece that looks like a castle straight out of a fantasy novel.
If you look closely at its bizarre but intriguing design, you may well notice that it is actually three buildings that have been cleverly turned into one, namely a belfry, council hall and the old cloth hall.
You can find the Stadhuis opposite the St-Romboutskathedraal at the Grote-Markt.
5. Learn at the Technopolis
The Technopolis is a scientific museum which mixes fun and learning with a wide variety of temporary and permanent exhibitions.
Both adults and children will be entertained by the hands-on activities on offer here.
If you are visiting from Mechelen centre, the 282 bus travels from Mechelen Station to the museum every half an hour.
6. Play at the Speelgoedmuseum
Another museum that aims to please adults and children alike is the Speelgoedmuseum.
Children can entertain themselves with 7,000 square metres worth of toys, games and dolls whereas adults can familiarise themselves with the history of toys and even find some nostalgic items from their past.
You can find the museum near the city’s Nekkerspoel train station.
7. Visit Lady Hanswijk
The Onze-Lieve-Vrouw van Hanswijk (Basilica of Our Lady of Hanswijk in English) is as striking on the inside as it is out.
The exterior’s crowning piece is its dome while the highlight of the interior is the confessionals which were carved all the way back in the 17th Century.
Many people visit this church as a pilgrimage to see the Madonna statuette which is believed to be over 1000 years old.
8. See a world-famous tapestry workshop
Housed in the Tongerlo Refuge, the Royal Manufacturers de Wit are a world-renowned tapestry restoration and weaving workshop.
The Refuge is known as such because in medieval times, travelling clergymen would stay here when they needed to visit the Archbishop in Mechelen.
The building and the workshop within are both worth seeing.
9. Discover the fate of 25,500 Jews
During the Second World War the so-called Dossin Barracks, were used by the Nazis as a deportation centre and subsequently more than 25,000 Jews and around 300 Roma from the city and surrounding areas were sent to Auschwitz.
It is believed that around 1,000 survived.
At the barracks, which has been well preserved, you can learn about their story and pay your respects.
10. Go to court
Mechelen’s court house was used as a palace from the beginning of the 16th Century and was the home of Margaret of Austria.
The Courthouse has been adjusted many times during its long lifespan but arguably the best bit, its gardens, remain unspoiled.
The building itself is known as being the epicentre of the Renaissance movement in the Low Countries as the Courthouse was the first building in the area built in Renaissance style.
11. See some of Mechelen’s finest artwork
Housed in a charming castle, the Schepenhuis is a gallery highlighting some of the best artworks produced by artists born in and around Mechelen.
This art gallery also marks the start of IJzerenleen which has some fantastic looking Baroque buildings and houses.
Do your research before visiting the Schepenhuis however as, at the time of writing, the gallery housed here is under consideration and the uses of the building may well change.
12. Get quirky at the Het Zotte Kunstkabinet
The Het Zotte Kunstkabinet is an odd but fascinating little museum which is entirely based upon odd paintings dating from the 16th Century.
The museum takes its name from the subject matter of the paintings within which apparently, all show satirical-moralising.
Whether you understand or appreciate the paintings true meanings is irrelevant; the quirky folk and odd goings on can be appreciated by all.
The museum is open on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
13. Take a walk on the wild side at Planckendael
Planckendael is an impressive zoo which allows you to visit five continents in less than a day.
The clever layout of the routes within the zoo mean that it is hard to miss any of the animals or attractions.
Five differing routes start (and end) at the zoos entrance making it very easy to find each and every animal.
The stars of the show are definitely the Indian Elephants which have recently welcomed a baby into their group.
14. Stroll down Dijlepad
Dijlepad (or Dyle Path in English) is a superb waterside walkway which allows for walks along, and sometimes above, the city’s waterway.
The walkway, aside from being a pleasant experience in itself, offers a chance to see Mechelen from an entirely different perspective, allowing buildings to be seen and appreciated in a different light.
15. Visit the nun’s Winter Garden
The Winter Garden of the Ursuline Nuns allows visitors to enjoy the sights and smells of Spring throughout the year.
The stained-glass roof will capture your attention as it spreads the light over the garden in a variety of impressive patterns.
Entry to the garden costs ten euros and daily tours are available for those looking to learn more about this fascinating building.