From the top of St Rumbold’s Tower in Mechelen, gazing out at the distant skylines of Brussels and Antwerp, the whole of Belgium and its history seem to unfold before you and it’s easy to understand why this fiercely independent trading hub was once the capital of all the Low Countries.
A small but magnificent city of around 86,000 inhabitants, lying equidistant (about 25 km) from its now more famous neighbours, easily reachable by train and do-able on foot, it’s the perfect place for a cheeky and unusual summer getaway. Check out the brochure for ideas for your trip.
1. A beating historic heart
The historic heart of Mechelen features attractive squares surrounded by Dutch and stepped gabled buildings. The Grote Markt welcomes a thriving Saturday market and is lined with interesting shops and appealing cafés. Arrive early to nab the perfect spot for people-watching. On the day I was there, a parade of vintage cars – Alfa Romeo, Morgan, Porsche – were starting a rally. Usually though much of Mechelen’s centre is pedestrianised.
It’s impossible to miss the impressive 97-metre (318-foot) St Rumbold’s tower looming above. On a hot day, its bells chiming almost sleepily, the Cathedral provides a cool sanctuary. If you want to climb the tower, book a slot and a ticket – and brace yourself for the 514 steps that will take you up a spiral stone staircase past not one, but two gigantic carillons: an old one that still works but sounds out of tune, and a new one that can play anything it seems, including The Beatles. At the flat top, a steel and glass skywalk lets you pace the watchtower and look out across the surrounding city, countryside, villages and neighbouring metropoles.
Just around the corner, the now-pedestrianised IJzerenleen offers unrivalled views of the first stone Town Hall built in Flanders in 1374. A former fishmarket (can you spot the fish head sculptures?) this street is sometimes referred to as Mechelen’s Champs Elysées. A good spot for brunch here is Coffice, a co-working café with lively outdoor tables.
A short walk away you’ll find the 16th-century Vismarkt square, next to the River Dyle, perfect for a sundowner cocktail at the end of the day, overlooking the water and the Haverwerf wharf where an array of riverboats are prettily moored.
2. A boat trip on the Dyle
Cross the River Dyle on the new pedestrian bridge between the Haverwerf and the Vismarkt and you’ll find an impressive old brewery building turned conference centre. It’s right here that you can reserve and hop on a tour of the Dyle with friendly boat trippers Rederij Malinska – another great way to get to know the city, its intricate waterways and shady, reedy riverbanks.
Malinska’s narration covers the city’s past as a trading centre, as well as its present, and is both fascinating and unobtrusive. At 45 minutes, the tour, like the city, is perfectly formed. You’ll see former trading houses, as well as enviable riverside condos. Trips go as far as the sluice gates that keep the low neighbourhoods of the city from flooding and – in the other direction – the turning dock, overlooked by the Van der Valk hotel and one of the city’s best restaurants and pop-up summer bars. I had classic Belgian cheese and shrimp croquettes and a Piña Colada as the sun set – it was like joy in a glass.
3. Eyes up
Mechelen’s residents are known as moongazers, so in the true spirit of the city, keep your eyes up while you’re back on terra firma, and you’ll spy buildings adorned with street art murals, which have been conveniently curated into a tour. The Gift by street art pioneer Gijs Vanhee is one such that’s easily spottable just beyond the Vismarkt. You’ll also see a breathtaking trio of historic houses from three different centuries, with beautiful telltale facades.
4. Peaceful green spots and bike tours
Sinte Mette Garden is a pretty courtyard space with free open-air carillon concerts, not to mention the Botanical Garden, and Vrijbroek Park (described to me by a longtime Mechelen resident as the best park in Belgium).
In fact, charming green spaces are easily reachable all over the city (especially if you opt for an airy and informative bike tour with Mechelen experts and enthusiasts de fietsgids whom I can’t recommend highly enough). De fietsgids offer six ready-made tours of up to 15 kilometres, taking in Mechelen highlights, Het Anker brewery, parks, landmarks and history. Among our stops on the “Classics” tour, was an old mill house turned café on the Dyle, where stand-up paddleboarders drifted by with the summer breeze.
5. Moments of reflection
The Silent Garden at the Archbishop’s Palace, open 9-7pm at the weekends, is another wonderful place to find peace and tranquillity – which you may well need after a visit to the Holocaust Museum, a thoughtfully-designed bespoke building whose bricked-up windows facing the nearby barracks symbolise the lost futures of the thousands of people rounded up there and put on trains to Nazi concentration camps.
As well as addressing Nazi atrocities and human rights abuses, a temporary exhibition until December confronts the fate of gays and lesbians under Hitler’s Third Reich and beyond. One of the particularly moving aspects of the museum is its sharp focus on individual and personal stories – a resolute refusal to treat any one member of humankind as a subgroup.
This barracks neighbourhood of Mechelen, and indeed the whole city, has been transformed by forward-thinking urban and social planning, led by World Mayor Award winner Bart Somers who has been able to take a long-term view thanks to his 23-year-tenure.
Mechelen is a great place to visit because it’s a city village where the sun always shines, thanks to its people and its diversity.Bart Somers, World Mayor Award winner
6. Into the night
Mechelen absolutely buzzes on summer evenings and has an excellent events programme throughout the season.
For overnight stays in “Mechelen village” then, there’s a superb choice of hotels, guest houses and B&Bs. I stayed in Martin’s Patershof, just a stone’s throw from the centre. A converted former church, it cleverly retains many of its historic features, such as carved stone pillars, stained glass windows and a splendid altarpiece in the restaurant, combining them with all the luxuries and mod-cons you would expect from a 21st century hotel in a 19th century place of worship.