The people of Lier are often called Schapekoppen (sheep heads), which is a 14th-century insult turned into a point of pride.
The story goes that at the start of the 14th century John II, Duke of Brabant wanted to thank Lier for its help in his fight against the City of Mechelen.
He gave Lier’s people the choice of a university or livestock market, and when they chose the latter he responded, “Oh, those wretched sheep heads”. Lier is endowed with two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, in the crisscrossing alleys of the 13th-century beguinage, and the 14th-century belfry attached to the historic town hall.
One esteemed Lier native was the astronomer and master clockmaker Louis Zimmer (1888-1970), whose centenary clock and astronomical clock on Zimmerplein could keep you mesmerised for hours.
1. Begijnhof Lier
Lier’s old religious community for widows and unmarried women dates back to the first half of the 13th century.
The residents were beguines, who had taken vows of obedience and purity, but not poverty.
These women led independent lives, and those who needed income made a living through weaving, embroidery or lace-making.
Begijnhof Lier is one of 13 UNESCO-listed Flemish beguinages, and is made up of 162 houses on 11 little alleys.
You’ll enter the neighbourhood via Begijnhofstraat, passing under a grand Baroque blue-black limestone gate (1690), capped an image of Saint Begga from 1770. For the most part, today’s houses were reconstructed in the 17th and 18th centuries, while the last beguine departed in 1984. At the heart of Begijnhof Lier is a church, also from the 1600s and 1700s, and touring the alleys you’ll also happen upon an infirmary (now apartments) and a former school for novices.
Lier’s historic town hall is a lot older than the 18th-century Rococo facade makes its seem.
The building was erected as a cloth hall in 1367 when Lier’s cloth trade was at its peak.
From 1418 it was used exclusively as a town hall, and by the 1730s was in need of a facelift, which was given by Rococo architect Jan Pieter van Baurscheidt de Jonge (1699-1768). You’ll be able to go inside as Lier’s tourist information office is found in the former council chamber.
Note the oak spiral staircase, and the wonderful painted canvas on the ceiling, depicting angels, virtues and vices and relocated here from the Bishop’s Palace in Antwerp.
Although now integrated into the town hall, the UNESCO-listed belfry on the north side was built independently in 1369 and is an emblem of Lier’s freedom and independence.
In Medieval times it contained the city’s arsenal, as well as documents denoting Lier’s privileges.
Today’s carillon with 23 bells was added in 1971 and chimes every 15 minutes.
3. Zimmer Tower
Louis Zimmer, the Lier-born astronomer and clockmaker to the King of Belgium created the Jubelklok (Jubilee or Centenary Clock), which he donated to the city in 1928 to celebrate 100 years of Belgian independence.
This staggering timepiece has an outer ring of faces showing, amongst other things, the phases of the moon, the solar cycle, the week, the month, the tides, the epact and equation of time.
At 12:00 the clock displays the dates 1830-1930, as well as the Belgian and Lier coats of arms, Belgium’s first three kings and the six mayors of Lier following independence.
There are also four automatons representing the four stages of life.
This astounding clock was installed on the wall of what had been the Cornerlius tower, dating back to the 15th century and belonging to Lier’s Medieval inner ramparts.
The tower was declared a protected monument in 1980.
In 1960 a pavilion popped up next to the Zimmer Tower on the square.
This was built to house another of Zimmer’s masterpieces, an enormous astronomical clock produced for the Brussels World Exhibition in 1935. The Astronomical Clock is almost five metres tall and weighs more than 2,000 kilos.
It comes with 93 dials, one of which is one of the world’s slowest revolving mechanical hands, making a revolution once every 25,800 years.
Albert Einstein personally praised Zimmer when he saw the clock at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
The museum expands on concepts like time and space, and also holds an array of Zimmer’s smaller timepieces as well as an exhibition of the tools he used to build these wonders.
5. Stadsmuseum Lier
Opening in 1892 Lier’s city museum has a strong collection of painting from the region dating between the 1500s and 1900s.
The museum opened on the back of a sizeable bequest and was bolstered by another in the 1930s.
The location chosen was an 18th-century townhouse given a neo-Gothic facelift in the late-19th century.
The most valuable works of fine art and decorative arts are on display in the opulent Salon, with painting by Peter Paul Rubens, Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Frans Floris and an early work by Murillo that was only identified in 2009. Elsewhere you can view historic perspectives of Lier through landscapes and maps, see the city’s many historical crafts, learn about the religious communities once charged with education and healthcare, and discover the figures who have helped put Lier on the map.
One riveting piece of natural history is the intact skeleton of a mammoth, the first to be discovered in Western Europe, excavated in 1860 at the current site of the city hall.
Lier’s eye-catching Brabantine Gothic church was built in phases over almost 200 years from the 1370s.
One momentous event to take place here in that time was the consecration of marriage between Philip I of Castile (the first Habsburg monarch in Spain) and Joanna of Castile in 1496. For the occasion a set of five stained glass windows was produced for the choir, still in situ and unique in the region.
These windows are part of a larger inventory of original Gothic and Renaissance stained glass, almost unheard of for a Belgian church.
Also take a look at the magnificent Colibrant triptych (1516) by Goswin van der Weyden, the early-Baroque pulpit (1640-42) and the intricately moulded 16th-century rood screen separating the choir from the nave.
Another treasure is the large silver reliquary for Saint Gummarus, which is brought out and paraded around Lier on the feast of Saint Gummarus (first Sunday after 10 October).
7. Gevangenenpoort (Prison Gate)
The last remaining gate from Lier’s Medieval inner ramparts is the Prison Gate, put up in 1375. From the 1500s all the way up to 1930, this structure served as a prison, hence the name.
In 1728 the Gothic structure was overhauled with a new Classical design, with a rounded arch on the north side and triangular pediments above.
But on the outer southern side on Zimmerplein the portal has kept its original Gothic pointed arch.
In the niches over the portal are images of Saint Roch and Saint Margaret.
A couple of minutes on foot, up from Sint-Gummaruskerk is a former lock house on the Binnennete, the closed stretch of the Kleine Nete river that runs through Lier.
Dating to the 16th century, it’s an interesting piece of the city’s old water management system.
In case of flooding the lock would close, and the Kleine Nete would be diverted via a channel away from Lier to the Grote Nete, another tributary of the Neter River.
The Spuihuis has the alternating bands of brick and stone typical for Renaissance architecture, and after being restored is now rented out for events and is home to Lier’s Sociëteit van de Schaepshoofden, which organises major cultural events around the city.
Another monument to appreciate on Grote Markt is this fine crow-stepped building just to the side of the Stadhuis.
The Vleeshuis is the old guild house for Lier’s butchers and has been here since 1418. Over time it has housed Lier’s cloth hall, court of justice and the city prison.
The facade has changed many times down the years, and the current neo-Gothic design is recent, coming just after the First World War.
The Vleeshuis is now used as exhibition space, but there are compelling little details if you know where to look.
The lions flanking the steps once belonged to the Stadhuis next door.
On the paving in front there’s a small plaque marking the site of the “Verloren Kost”, a vaulted Medieval well discovered when the square was renovated in 2012. In the same work a bricked-up entrance to the cellars of the Vleeshuis was uncovered some way below the modern surface of Grote Markt.
10. Kinderboerderij ‘t Struisvogelnest
Outside the city to the south is a classic children’s farm, with friendly farmyard animals and playgrounds.
Kinderboerderij ‘t Struisvogelnest is unusual in that it stays open all year, and in the paddocks are some animals you might expect and others you won’t.
There are goats, chickens, cows, sheep, donkeys, horses and rabbits, but also emus, ostriches, alpaca and a rare woolly pig.
Added to these are an apiary and an insect hotel.
Wee ones can also have fun on slides, bouncy castles and pedal castles, and if grown-ups need some time out there’s a comfy terrace.
Partly on the site of a 19th-century pleasure garden, Lier’s verdant city park is within walking distance from the centre, divided by the Binnenete and bordered to the south by the Nete’s main stream.
First off, you could use the Stadspark as the first step on a 4.2-kilometre walk around the city along the former course of the Lier’s 15th-century outer wall (Lierse Stadsvesten). But back in the park there are also lots of family-oriented things to, from an adventure playground to mini-golf to a storytelling house and picnic meadow with a shelter.
The Stadspark also has a tennis court, and a pond with little footbridges, a little coffee shop and a cafeteria.
12. LAGO Lier De Waterperels
Also near the centre of Lier is a swimming centre that goes well beyond a typical municipal pool.
LAGO Lier De Waterperels has a training pool with lanes for proper swimmers, but also comes with a subtropical area for families, with slides, shallow pools for little one, a wave pool and 100 metres of river rapids.
For parents in need of relaxation the centre has a sauna, steam room and a “warm lagoon” heated to 34°C and open to people aged 10 and up.
The Rest-eau-café has healthy options for all ages, and when summer comes along you’ve got a big outdoor pool, a splash pad, slides and a spacious grassy area for sunbathing.
The village of Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-Waver, 15 minutes south of Lier, is known for the Sint-Ursula-Instituut, an Ursuline monastery and Catholic school complex founded in 1841. By the end of the 19th century the Ursuline Institute had garnered an international reputation, with around a quarter of its students originating from overseas.
An array of palatial new buildings went up at this time in a variety of styles.
The most extraordinary of these is the Art Nouveau winter garden (Wintertuin) from 1900, designed as a reception area for people visiting the resident girls.
It comprises two half windows and a barrel vault, and these are glazed with sumptuous stained glass by the Brussels glass painter Raphaël Évaldre.
Guided tours take place every Sunday of the year, apart from between mid December and mid-January, and on Easter Sunday.
The tour will also take in some other beautiful locations around the school and monastery, like the church, oratory, school museum, “piano gallery” and many more.
14. Fort van Lier
Lier is on the outer ring of the Antwerp Forts, part of the Belgian National Redoubt.
This was a large-scale and sophisticated network of fortifications built nationwide in the 19th and early 20th century.
Antwerp was key to the plan, as the last entrenchment for the defence of the country and the port through which supplies and reinforcement from allies could arrive.
Fort van Lier was built from 1877 to 1890 and has a trapezoidal plan with a moat up to 50 metres wide.
In September/October 1914 the fort took four days of heavy shelling by the Germans before its garrison was withdrawn.
Now the casemates and tunnels are used by Lier’s shooting club, but you can walk the banks of the moat and cross the bridge to the inner enclosure.
15. Fort van Kessel
The next fort in that same system fell to the Germans on 4 October after being bombarded by the feared Big Bertha siege howitzer.
Fort van Kessel is north-east of Lier, and as with its neighbour it has been left to nature.
Between April and October you’ll be able to take a guided tour around the tunnels to view the gun emplacements, magazines and troop quarters, as well as the destruction wreaked by those howitzers in the First World War.
You can do this by reservation by the municipality of Nijlen, or pick one of the fort’s summer open days.
In the intervening years Fort van Kessel has become a wintering haven for hundreds of bats each year, from eight different species.