This medium-sized city, capital of Belgium’s Waasland region, has plenty going for it.
One plus point is the largest market square in the country, dating back more than 750 years and so big that hot air balloons take off from this space during a festival in September.
The 16th-century cartographer Gerardus Mercator was born just outside Sint-Niklaas, and you can discover how he changed the course of history at a museum preserving two of his priceless globes.
Sint-Niklaas was long renowned for its textile industry, so it makes sense that the city museum should be found in a former weaving mil.
This textile business was roaring in the interwar years, creating new neighbourhoods designed by some of the leading Art Deco architects of the day.
The city’s tourism office has created a self-guided Art Deco tour, almost five kilometres long, to help you see it all.
The oldest church of the city is slightly withdrawn from the east side of the vast Grote Markt square.
This five-aisled church with seven altars has been here since the first half of the 13th century, and has grown over the years with frequent building phases.
The Sint-Nicolaaskerk has also come through some difficult times, like in 1690 when a fire claimed the roof and tower.
Today’s interior is a blend of Baroque and neo-Gothic, and there’s no shortage of fittings and art to see inside.
Look for the Baroque pulpit from 1706 and the many liturgical pieces dating from the 1600s to the 1800s, including a splendid monstrance from 1635. Much newer is the 3,000-pipe organ, the largest in Waasland and installed in 1998.
2. Grote Markt
Belgium’s largest city square covers 3.19 hectares and has been here since the land was donated by Margaret II, Countess of Flanders in 1248. She stipulated that this space would forever serve “the common good”. Emperor Maximilian I granted a weekly market here in 1513, while in 1624 Margaret II’s gift deed was violated when a piece of the square was sold off to clear church debts.
The Grote Market was renovated in 2005 with an award-winning project, and as of 2020 efforts had been made to bring back some greenery to the paved square.
As well as the Stadhuis (City Hall), which we’ll talk about below, another sight to take in is the 17th-century Ciperage, a former court and prison now holding tourism department offices.
Also see Het Landhuis, with a 17th-century facade of alternating bands of stone and brick and a beautiful curving gable.
On the south side of the square stands the sculpture Het Woord, by Romanian-born artist Idel Ianchelevici as a tribute to the Sint-Niklaas poet and priest Anton van Wilderode (1918-1998).
The world-changing 16th-century cartographer and cosmographer Gerardus Mercator was born about ten kilometres south-east of Sint-Niklaas in Rupelmonde in 1512. Not only did Mercantor coin the term “atlas” in terms of cartography, the ingenious cylindrical projection for his world map of 1569 became the enduring standard system for navigation.
The Mercatormuseum shows off 16th-century globes and atlases from Waasland’s royal archaeological collection.
The showpieces are two globes produced by Mercator himself, one representing the earth (terrestrial) and the other the sky and space (celestial). These are the only Mercator globes to be found in Belgium, and were produced for a member of Emperor Charles V’s court.
The museum also gives you a detailed chronology of mapmaking, from the Babylonians, via Ptolemy and the Romans, all the way up to the 20th century.
4. De Witte Molen
To give you a sense of the age of this pre-industrial windmill, it was constructed on land belonging to the abbess of Roosenberg Abbey.
Dating to 1696, this was initially a flour mill and then later put to use making rapeseed oil.
The structure was damaged by a storm in 1983 and came through a renovation.
These days De Witte Molen is a working flour mill, run by volunteers and in operation roughly every other Sunday afternoon.
You can stop by for free on these days for explanations and demonstrations.
The miller’s house is a cafe-restaurant, while there’s a skate park and snooker/bridge club on the grounds.
5. Romain De Vidtspark
In the southern part of the old centre is a freewheeling English park surrounding the moated 16th-century Walburg Castle.
The castle today holds a bar-restaurant, with a terrace on the moat.
On Tuesday nights in July and August this monument is the venue for a series of summer concerts known as the “Parkies”. The park is named after the post-war mayor of Sint-Niklaas Romain De Vidts (1890-1962), and has paths that wend their way through lawns and lush woodland.
Look for the Kiosk, a highly ornate iron mid-19th-century bandstand that used to stand in the Grote Markt but was moved here to make way for a bus station.
6. Art Deco Architecture
The textile trade peaked in Sint-Niklaas during the interwar years, and this is reflected in the sumptuous Art Deco architecture that was commissioned in the city at the time.
Whole new neighbourhoods cropped up in the 20s and 30s, and some of the most creative designers of the day were given free rein.
To help you see it all, the Sint-Niklaas Tourism Office has plotted a 4.7-kilometre walking tour, and you can buy a map for it for €1. If you see only one thing, make it the lobby of the Broederschool, built for the Hieronymites (religious order) in 1932. This marvellous space abounds in multicoloured glass and textured marble, dominated by a stained glass image of Christ the King by artist Eugeen Yours.
This building is still a secondary school, but you can see the masterful interior on a guided tour through the Tourism Office.
On Belgium’s largest market square it’s impossible to ignore the exuberant Gothic Revival city hall on the west side.
The Stadhuis, inaugurated in 1878, is designed like a traditional Flemish town hall, with a belfry holding a 49-bell carillon.
The Stadhuis remains a functioning civic building and was given two discreet wings in the 20th century.
The intricately moulded facade, with dormers, turrets, ornate window dressings, is especially pretty when lit up after sunset.
Inside, a grand staircase leads up to the wedding chamber, and the walls sport colourful neo-Gothic murals relating the history of the city.
8. Salons voor Schone Kunsten
There’s a dual appeal to this gallery holding the city’s art collection.
First there’s the art itself, which is a comprehensive survey of art from the 16th to the 20th century.
The highlight is Nero by Peter Paul Rubens, but there are important pieces by other Baroque masters like Willem Heda, Lambert Lombard, Sebastiaen Vrancx and Joos de Momper.
The large salon features paintings from Belgian schools of the 20th century, as well as furniture and decorative arts, while the first floor is given over to works by artists from the Waasland.
What’s more, the collection is found in a palatial Eclectic townhouse ordered in the late-1920s by textile industrialist Edmond Meert.
When we wrote this list in early-2020 the museum was due to move to Huis Janssens on Zamanstraat later in the year.
Flanders is cycling heaven, on a vast network of paved paths, linked by nodes or junctions to help you plot your course.
In the Waasland alone there’s a whopping 720 kilometres of paths, on a flat, green landscape that could hardly be easier to traverse.
Two routes thought up by tourism office in Sint-Niklaas are the Nobelroute (50km), heading off into the countryside around the city, and the route Sint-Niklaas Erfgoed, leading you to various monuments in Sint-Niklaas and its boroughs.
The River Scheldt, tidal even 100 kilometres from its mouth, is highly picturesque and lies just 10 kilometres south of the city.
In 2019 the city published a new purchasable cycling map that directs you to some 40 local producers, for fresh fruit and vegetables, honey, chocolate, beer, pastries by master bakers, you name it.
10. SteM Zwijgershoek
Painting a picture of the cultural history of Sint-Niklaas and the Waasland, SteM Zwijgershoek is found in what used to be a weaving mill and dyeing house.
Where the museum differs from most is that you’ll be able to access the entire inventory, not just what’s on show in the galleries, at a unique open depot.
The permanent collection meanwhile is presented along three main threads: “Mens en Materie” (Man and Material), “Mens en Machine” (Man and Machine) and “Mens en zijn Lichaam” (Man and his Body), all accompanied by intriguing artefacts and historical detail.
Also here is a working textile workshop, bringing to life the history of the building and the city’s 19th and 20th-century industrial past.
11. Wissekerke Castle
As we see it today, this castle by the Scheldt is Gothic, dating mostly from the 19th and 20th centuries on a 15th-century core.
The history of the site goes back a lot further, to around the 900s when a system of fortifications was constructed on the Scheldt.
For some of its past this was a residence for the wealthy landowning family Vilain XIIII.
An important detail is the castle’s suspension bridge, built in 1824 and thought to be the oldest suspension bridge and oldest cast iron structure in Europe.
The bridge was restored in the early-2010s and has kept hold of all of its 200-year-old decoration and details.
Wissekerke Castle is open Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays (and Sundays in summer), for you to explore the opulent Empire-style interiors, and the 15th-century brick rib vaults in the basement.
There are two self-guided tours, one showing you the lifestyle of the noble Vilain XIIII family and the other lifting the lid on the lives and routine of the domestic staff.
12. Recreatiedomein De Ster
On a sunny summer’s day in Sint-Niklaas you can escape to this 100-hectare recreation area east of the city centre.
The lake at Recreatiedomein De Ster is man-made, having been excavated to build the A14 motorway in the 1960s.
The lake covers about 20 hectares and is ideal for swimming and boating.
On the shores are a beach, a pool, lawns and forest, as well as a whole raft of amenities for visitors.
You’ll find mini-golf, a big children’s playground, an inflatable aquapark, trampolines, a road train, a petting zoo, water slides, tennis courts, a restaurant and more.
Sober but impressive, this church was built in an Eclectic style with Byzantine, Romanesque Revival and neo-Gothic details on the north-west corner of Grote Markt.
The gilded statue of Madonna crowning the 50-metre tower is visible far and wide, but up close there’s no denying that the grey Brabant limestone facade is more than a little austere.
This belies the splendour of the interior, every surface of which is radiant with polychromy.
The 19th-century painter Godfried Guffens contributed many of these frescos, while the organ was the work of respected Brussels organ-maker Pierre Schyven.
The Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk was completed in 1848 after four years of construction and became a protected monument in 1973.
14. Waasland Shopping Center
If you can’t find what you’re looking for on Stationstraat, Sint-Niklaas’s long, narrow shopping street, you’re sure to find it at this sizeable mall south of the city centre.
The Waasland Shopping Center first opened in 1973 but was massively expanded in the 2000s to become the largest single-storey mall in the country, now counting more than 140 stores and services.
To name a small handful, you’ve got Desigual, Casa, H&M, HEMA, Levi’s, Guess, Yves Rocher and Zara.
The food and drink choices are also broad, whether you want a sandwich (Panos, Delifrance), a quick bite (Burger King, Fritkot & Sbarro) or a full-service restaurant (Caro’s, Brasserie Entree, The Black Sheep, Brasserie The Comic and more).
The 1944 liberation of Sint-Niklaas is celebrated with the most spectacular festival of its kind in Belgium.
Making full use of the open space of Grote Markt, the three-day Vredesfeesten are most famous for the dozens of hot-air balloons, of all sizes and descriptions, that are launched from the square.
Taking place over the first weekend of September, this is one of the five most important balloon festivals in the world, and is unique because it happens right in the middle of the city.
The event was instigated by former mayor Romain De Vidts after the Second World War and kicks off on the Friday evening when you can look up to see the balloons lighting up the night sky.
There are two launches each on Saturday and Sunday, with fireworks on the Saturday night and a mass on the Sunday at the Sint-Nicolaaskerk for war dead.
Also on the last day are solemn processions to war monuments and a colourful fun run through the city centre.
Throughout the weekend there’s six live music stages, market stalls and a fun fair with rides and amusements on Stationsplein.