Mechelen is a small city wedged between Antwerp and Brussels. A hodgepodge of pastel-colored guild houses intersected by plentiful waterways and cobblestoned mews; brimming with trendy eateries & old-fashioned bars spilling out into storybook squares. It’s safe to say there are plenty of things to do and see in Mechelen.
The city of Mechelen has somehow managed to stay off the mainstream tourism radar, overshadowed by the starlets of Belgium: Bruges, Brussels, and Antwerp. Yet in recent years, thanks to a visionary mayor the city underwent a true revival and is slowly carving out its place as a major tourist attraction in Belgium.
Travelers embarking on a Mechelen city trip will be treated to a rare glimpse into the elusive Flemish culture as the city has managed to remain beautifully authentic and unapologetically Flemish at heart.
It is the city I called home for many years, and as such it holds a very special place in my heart. Let me take you on a journey and show you exactly what to do in Mechelen.
Mechelen city trip: A quick guide
Short on time but still want to plan the perfect trip to Mechelen? Below you will find all the practical information you need to have a pretty awesome trip!
- GETTING AROUND IN MECHELEN: The city is very small and can be traversed in 45 min on foot. If you want to get outside of the city consider renting a bike for as little as €4. Find out where to pick up your bike.
- BIKING AROUND MECHELEN: Biking in and around Mechelen on the many beautiful paths surrounding the city is great fun (weather permitting). Consider hiring a local guide to take show you the best-hidden spots.
- BEST VALUE FOR MONEY TOUR: A self-guided treasure hunt through all the highlights of Mechelen. Solve riddles and puzzles, learn about the history of the city in a fun and interactive way. Check rates and availability.
- RECOMMENDED HOTEL: Martin’s Patershof A former church now converted into a boutique hotel located in the heart of the city, a mere 10 minutes from the Grote Markt. Have breakfast in the old naive of the church and sleep in rooms with stained glass windows! Check rates and availability
16 CASTLE HOTELS IN BELGIUM
A memorable stay is waiting for you in one of Belgium’s castle hotels. A seamless blend of history and relaxation in enchanting surroundings.
14 things to do in Mechelen
The city of Mechelen has more than its fair share of things to do, ranging from ordering a Gouden Carolus (the locally brewed beer) at a 19th-century historic bar, to climbing up the unfinished spire of the Sint Romboutstoren (Saint Rumbold’s Cathedral) and spotting the Atomium (weather permitting that is). It also happens to be the perfect day trip from Brussels by train!
As there is a lot of ground to cover, the various Mechelen attractions have been split into three categories. Things to do for first-time visitors, what to do in Mechelen with kids, and attractions that offer a welcome respite from the rain (just in case, Belgian weather can be quite unpredictable) all of these and more are found below!
Mechelen to do for a first-time visit
1. Learn about the Maneblussers legend
First things first, time to learn why the inhabitants of Mechelen are called Maneblussers (extinguishers of the moon), and moon-shaped cookies & chocolates can be found in many stores around the city.
Legend has it that one faithful night in the late 17th century a local walks out of a bar. He looks up at the sky and panics “Oh, oh the Church is on fire!” he yells at the top of his lungs. Locals open their windows and sleepily peak out at the Sint Romboutstoren which is covered in a red haze.
Word spreads through town like wildfire (pun intended) and soon everyone is up and atom carrying buckets of water. As the first local reaches the top, he discovers there is no fire it was merely the full moon shrouded in a pink haze of clouds.
Since then, locals have been mockingly called extinguishers of the moon (Maneblussers).
Tip: Try the locally brewed Maneblusser beer at any bar in the city
2. Explore the medieval beguinage of Mechelen
Welcome to the most quaint part of the city – think European fairytale! This is one of my personal highlights of all the things to do in Mechelen. The beguinage is characterized by small houses and cobblestone streets (The merits of wearing sneakers will become painfully clear, trust me).
The neighborhood is dotted with religious iconography, a reminder of the religious nature of this part of town. These little houses were once the homes of beguines, religious women who chose to live together in a community but for some reason never decided to take the religious vows (e.g. to become nuns).
As the houses are small, locals will gather outside during the summer to converse and escape the heat. There is a wonderful community spirit, that can be felt while walking through the little alleys. Don’t be shy and say “hi” when crossing a local, who knows they might strike up a conversation and tell you a little more about their home.
Tip: Don’t miss the Acht-Zalighedenstraat, Krommestraat, Twaalf-Apostelenstraat.
3. Climb the Sint Romboutstoren
The Sint Romboutstoren can practically be seen from every corner of the city, it towers over every building in the historical center and serves as a welcome beacon guiding lost travelers on their Mechelen city trip.
Originally the design of the tower was very different, mirroring the layout of the Cathedral of our Lady in Antwerp. During construction, the cities’ coffers were emptied and the conical spire was never added to the tower as there simply were no funds.
The top of the Sint Romboutstoren can be reached by walking up a winding staircase made up of 500-something steps. The last flight of stairs will take you all the way to the top of the tower and onto the glass walkway. The view is one of the most beautiful things to see in Mechelen: 360-degree views.
Tip: Every Saturday during the weekly market the city carrilionist will sit in the Sint Romboutstoren and play the bells. Listen closely and you might recognize some popular tunes
Entrance fee to climb the tower: €8 ($9) a person
Opening hours: Sunday to Friday: 13.00 PM – 18.00 PM; Saturday: 10.00 AM – 18.00 PM
Note: Climbing the tower is not suitable for those suffering from claustrophobia
4. Wander over to De Haverwerf
Paris has it’s Rue Crémieux, London has Notting Hill, and Mechelen has the Haverwerf. The three beautifully colored houses date all the way back to the 16th century and have stood the test of time remarkably well.
The little houses are respectively called – from left to right- Saint Joseph, The Devil and Paradise. Notice how there is a bench placed right in front of this colorful trinity of architectural delight. Sit yourself down and take in all the intricate carvings covering the façades.
5. Grote Markt Mechelen & Ijzerleen – Gable house hunting
An iconic feature of European cities is the urban planning – a large main square with little streets running to and from the square. History has taught us that the function of the square was to hold the daily open-air markets. It stands to reason that the buildings around the central square were amongst the most intricately built, one had a reputation to uphold!
The city of Mechelen is no different, the central square has some of the city’s most majestic buildings and is very much a must on your Mechelen to-do list
The Saint Rumbolds Cathedral towers over the square with its impressive spire.
Turn your back to the tower and look at the exquisite buildings across the square. City Hall of Mechelen consists of two buildings: On the left, you will see the Palace of the Great Council and on the right, you will see the old Cloth Hall with the unfinished belfry. Lack of funds was, once again, the driving factor for the unfinished building. The belfry is a UNESCO world heritage site.
Take a left from the city square and wander past the statue of Margaret of Austria, and the tourism office of Mechelen (located in Het Schepenhuis) and walk onto the Ijzerenleen. The real magic of this street lies not at eye height, but about 3 stories up – you got it, the gabled rooves!
Get to know the city: Looking to get a bit more insight into the history of these gabled houses? The city of Mechelen has a team of really passionate and dedicated tour guides who love sharing their knowledge. Below are a few affordable tour options.
6. Have a picnic at one of the local parks in Mechelen
The beauty of Mechelen is the abundance of green spaces within the city, or within walking distance from the center of town. The green spaces are well maintained and a popular spot to hang out for locals.
In springtime, the blossoms on the trees tend to burst open carrying a beautiful floral fragrance through the air. On a hot summer’s day, there is nothing better to do in Mechelen than enjoy a relaxing break in the park.
- Tivoli Park: A little bit more outside of town, this park contains a small animal farm and its very own castle.
- Kruidtuin: The park is located smack in the center of town. During the week you can catch kids from the nearby high school chilling out.
- Vrijbroek Park: This is the largest park, and has 2 small lakes, a rose garden, a wildflower garden, a bar/restaurant (that serves pretty good mussels) and a dog park.
- The Silent Garden: One of the newest green areas to open to the public. The silent garden is located in the gardens of the Archiepiscopal Palais. It is a little oasis of tranquillity that offers beautiful views of the Saint Rumboldstower. Be sure to check the opening hours as it is only open on selective days for a few hours a time.
7. Hunt down the coolest street art in Mechelen
A couple of years ago, the city of Mechelen decided to commission a handful of artists to bring a splash of color to the city in the form of murals. The various murals are dotted across the city and make for a cool walk called “Mechelen Muurt”. Strap on our walking shoes, download the map, and start your treasure hunt for murals and absolute must-do when visiting Mechelen
What to do in Mechelen when it rains?
Rain is sadly a very recurrent theme in Belgium as such there is a chance your city trip to Mechelen might be conducted under the pouring rain. Not to worry though as with many Belgian cities, the city has learned to adapt to the climate and offers plenty of indoor activities.
8. Visit a local brewery: Het Anker Mechelen
When you think of Belgium, chances are high that the word “beer” pops into your mind. Mechelen has one of the oldest (working) breweries in the country, dating back to 1471. The brewery Het Anker in Mechelen does a great 1,5h tour and you finish off by trying 2 varieties of Gouden Carolus.
On-site there is also an excellent brasserie (restaurant) serving a variety of traditional Belgian dishes, made with their locally brewed beer.
Address: Guido Gezellelaan 49, 2800 Mechelen
Entrance Fee: Starts at €11 ($12) for a tour (purchase tickets online)
9. Grab a drink in a 17th-century cloister
The Predikheren site dates back to the 17th century and was once a cloister and a church built by the predikheren religious order. The cloister has been beautifully renovated and contains the city library, a restaurant (Tinèl), and a bar serving up the best coffee in town.
Push open the doors to the library and make your way inside, turn left and follow the signs for Bar Bib if you want to grab a drink or ask at the reception of the library to visit the library itself.
Address: Goswin de Stassartstraat 88, 2800 Mechelen
Opening hours: Official Website (in Dutch)
Good to know: The bar is also great for a quick lunch (vegan options available)
10. Make the trek to the Wintertuin Mechelen – a must-do on your city trip Mechelen
The Winter Garden is a UNESCO classified heritage site located 10 kilometers outside of Mechelen. The magnificent Art-Nouveau style Winter Garden was built in the early 20th century at the height of the architectural movement. The ceiling is made up of stained glass, which when hit by the sun sends a kaleidoscope of colors throughout the entire space.
The Winter Garden can only be visited with a guided tour which also includes a tour of the former convent in which the Winter Garden is housed. The Neo-Gothic convent was built as a school for affluent children which quickly becomes clear when visiting the ornate Piano and other hidden gems inside.
These days the former convent is a school that can be freely attended by members of any social standing. In fact, yours truly spent 6 years here yet somehow never quite appreciated as one of the most beautiful places in Belgium at the time.
Address: Bosstraat 9, O.L.V Waver
Entrance Fee: €12 ($15) for a 2-hour tour of the Wintergarden and the convent.
Timing: The tour is run every Sunday at 14.30 and is held in English, Dutch or French.
Getting There: Rent a bike or direct bus from Mechelen Station (line 561 leaving from platform 20) to Sint-Katelijne Waver (stop Onze-Lieve-Vrouwe-Bosstraat).
Check timetables and purchase tickets online
11. Frequent the many typical bars in Mechelen
Nothing better to do in Mechelen on a rainy day than hang out at one of the many, many typical bars within the city. The oldest bar – Hanekeef – dates back to the 19th century and is still serving loyal customers today.
Café Zapoi has an extensive list of Belgian beers and a great laid-back atmosphere. If you are looking for a bit more upscale bars then check out The Cellar or the Unwined wine bar close to the Grote Markt.
The newest kid on the block I discovered in spring 2022 is a bubble tea bar called Matsu. Ironically I was trying to escape the rain when I found it.
Things to do in Mechelen with children
Visiting Mechelen with a gaggle of kids and not sure where to start? The seven activities mentioned in the first section of this article are all child friendly, although clambering up the Sint Romboutstoren might be challenging for children under the age of 8.
The three activities below might be good to keep in mind if the kids are looking for something a bit more interactive and tailored towards keeping them entertained.
12. Visit Technopolis
Technopolis is an interactive science museum. Learn the science behind practically everything: The human body, the brain, human evolution, and how various mechanical instruments work (car, train,..). With the help of VR and AI, kids can pretend to be a stuntman, learn how to fly a place and so much more.
Address: Technologielaan 1, 2800 Mechelen (2.3 km from the station of Mechelen)
Entrance fee: Adults €19,5 ($21)
Opening hours: Tuesday to Sunday 09:30 AM – 17:00 PM
13. Take in a movie at Cinema Lumière
Cinema Lumière is located right in the heart of Mechelen, a mere 2-minute walk from the Grote Markt. It was opened in 2021 after many years of renovation. The location itself is small and the selection of movies is limited but perfect for visitors who are in Mechelen without a car and want to catch a movie.
Address: Frederik de Merodestraat 28, 2800 Mechelen
What is playing: Official Website
14. Spend an afternoon at the Toy Museum
The Toy Museum is an impressive collection of toys, supposedly the largest in all of Europe.
Find out what children were playing with a hundred years ago and compare it to toys of kids in the 21st century.
Kids can play traditional games and relive historical moments in Belgian history.
Address: Nekkerspoelstraat 21, 2800 Mechelen
Entrance Fee: Adults €10 ($11); Kids €7.5 ($8)
Opening Hours: Tuesday – Sunday 10:00 AM to 17:00 PM
Map of things to do and see in Mechelen
Find all the described things to do and see in Mechelen on the map below. Or if you want a closer look check out this interactive Google Map. The blue pins are the activities, while the red pins are the hotels.
Where to stay during your city trip to Mechelen
The best area to stay in and around the historical center. It ensures you are within walking distance of all major landmarks and have ample choice when it comes to bars and restaurants.
THE CITY BREWERY: Anker Brouwery Hotel
Stay in the city’s very own brewery!
The brewery hotel is a 3-star accommodation with comfortable rooms and a great breakfast selection. It is located just around the corner from the beautiful Beguinage and a 15 min walk from the Grote Markt.
THE CITIES FORMER PUBLIC POOL: Van der Valk Hotel
Located in what was formerly the public pool of Mechelen. The historical building was beautifully renovated, here and there elements of the original purpose of the building (the pool!) are on display. This 4-star hotel is just outside the ring of Mechelen a 15 min walk from the Grote Markt
Where to eat during your holiday in Mechelen
If there is one thing that is not missing in Mechelen it is places to grab a bite. In fact, there are so many options I jotted them down into two separate guides depending on if you are looking to eat lunch or dinner.
Check out my detailed guide for places to have dinner in Mechelen and places to go for lunch in Mechelen.
- Largest selection of food: De Vleeshalle foodmarket
- The best terrace: Merad (Turkish food) or Ronda (Moroccan food)
- Best brunch: Gra (indulgent) or Kind Coconut (healthy)
How to get to Mechelen
After many years of works, the city of Mechelen finally opened up a new set of roads/underground bridged and biking paths in 2023. While this is great for soft mobility (pedestrians, bikers) it has caused a bit of havoc when it comes to parking and driving into the city.
TRAIN: I strongly recommend you leave the car at home and hop on the train. The Central Train Station (Mechelen, not to be confused with the smaller Mechelen Nekkerspoel) is a comfortable 10-minute walk to the Grote Markt (Main Square).
CAR: If you do want to take the car, look into the option of parking on the outskirts of the city and taking the free shopping shuttle. Find all the information and timetables on the official website.
BIKE: Mechelen is well connected to both Antwerp and Brussels via the “Fiets-o-strade” or bicycle highway that connects the three cities. Find the exact route here (Dutch only).
Is a city trip to Mechelen worth it?
I might be biased because I lived in the city for over 10 years, but my answer is a very resounding YES. The city has undergone a massive transformation and continues to invest heavily in infrastructure for tourists and locals alike.
It is safe, easy to navigate, and a treasure trove for photographers with plenty of cobblestoned alleys, colorful medieval houses, and the ever-watchful Saint Rumbolds Cathedral.
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