Situated between Brussels and Antwerp, Mechelen is arguably the hidden gem of Flanders. It’s a historic city, encircled by lakes and winding rivers and charming villages which still tell the story of the First World War. Whether you want to cycle its parks and green perimeter, kayak the river, sleep in a former church, or enjoy a spa in a former fish smokery, Mechelen combines a fascinating past with contemporary experiences for everyone.
1. Historic city centre trails
500 years ago Mechelen was the capital of the Netherlands. It was also the seat of Margareta of Austria’s court, drawing dozens of Burgandian nobles. Strolling the streets and squares, you’ll discover the traces of this prosperous period, from ostentatious guildhalls, to Burgandian palaces, to historic churches and timber facades. ‘In the footsteps of Margareta’ is a handy brochure outlining walks leading to highlights from the 15th century and the height of the Burgandian riches. There are 3 circular walks of different lengths to choose from. Why not make a weekend of it and combine your trip with a picnic in Vrijbroek Park and a visit to one of the charming surrounding villages?
2. Village charm
Battel, Heffen, Hombeek, Leest, Muizen and Walem – all these Mechelen villages can be accessed by walking and cycling routes enabling visitors to discover their treasures. The dykes and salt marshes around Battel offer unique flora and fauna, like the bluethroat, marsh marigolds and water forget-me-nots. And the Zennegat is an enchanting spot with picturesque houses and bridges spanning converging waterways. The countryside of Leest village is characterised by ancient farmhouses and fertile fields. Don’t miss the unusual horse dairy of De Beck. Yes, you read that right. Horse milk is rich in vitamins and minerals and is said to have healing properties.
3. The scent of summer
Vrijbroek Park is a 65-hectare green lung on the outskirts of Mechelen. Breathe the fragrant air of one of Europe’s most beautiful rose gardens, designed in 1934 and boasting over 1000 species of rose. Open every day, from 9 to 6 pm. Their brilliant calendar includes communal barbecues, guided tours, workshops and forest bathing, as well as ‘bat walks’ where you’ll discover more about the park’s nocturnal guardians.
Meanwhile the botanical gardens in the centre of Mechelen form the city’s largest public park. Located along the River Dyle, they host about 250 different herbs planted around a statue of the man known as the father of botany, Rembert Dodoens.
4. Urban escape
Kick bike an adventure trail using old photographs as your clues, or slink along the city waterways in a kayak. If you prefer to let a tiller do the work, take a boat trip and see the city from a new perspective, with historic buildings rubbing elbows with the new. Guide bikes are also available – you can sit back while someone else does the pedalling.
5. Het Anker Brewery
Visit the home of Gouden Carolus beers and learn all about the brewing process and quaff your thirst with a tasting. Het Anker is a fifth-generation family brewery, continuing the brewing tradition that supported the Large Beguinage, a 16th century hospital and refuge for poor women. Anker also produces award-winning whiskies and this is where they mature.
Open: Tuesday – Sunday, from 11 am – 5pm
6. Planckendael ZOO!
In the grounds of Planckendael Castle in the district of Muizen, you’ll travel around the globe, seeing Indian rhinos and elephants, African bonobos and Madagascan lemurs, Oceanic koalas… and a group of orangutans, joining the family this summer. Open 365 days a year, the daily programme kicks off with penguin feeding at 10.30 am.
7. Market garden secrets
Many of us sprang an interest in gardening during the pandemic, and in this wonderful volunteer-led open-air museum you’ll be let into the secrets and history of market gardening. Tenant farmers grew produce in the area from the early 1800s, on behalf of the Ursuline monastery nearby. Learn how they used earthen ridges to overcome challenging soil conditions, and went on to develop greenhouses, special tools, and species selection to feed hungry mouths. This is a hands-on kind of place, where you’re encouraged to walk, shout, smell and touch. Children are especially welcome, as the custodians of the future.
8. Where to stay
On the old fishmarket, you can stay in a 4* boutique hotel, Hotel Vé Mechelen, that was once the site of a fish smokery and cigar factory. Don’t worry – they’ve kept the charm of the old buildings but not the aroma! Their wellness facilities, which include 2 saunas, a hammam, a jacuzzi, are exclusive to guests in the mornings for a 9 euro fee per person. In the afternoons, private packages are available to anyone who wants to treat themselves.