Just an 11 minute train direct from Brussels airport and a 20 minute train on through to Antwerp makes Mechelen super easy to reach.The city is compact and most of its main attractions are within walking distance, for those who prefer to see a city sat down, there’s the boat trip going from Vismarkt.
Once the Catholic capital of Belgium, Mechelen has more churches than most. Each one complete with a legend or tale.
St Rumbold’s Cathedral is the biggest. Home to a 100 metre bell tower that was intended to be 167 metres tall, its bells ring out every seven and a half minutes and it’s part of the furniture here: “You only really realise they’re there, when they’re not – something feels strange but you can’t put your finger on it,” a local tour guide explains.
That’s because once a year for a week, the bells fall silent to be cleaned. It’s quite a climb to the top, 537 steps to be precise, but the views are worth it, you can see from Antwerp all the way to Brussels’ famous Atomium.
Perhaps considered Mechelen’s Heydey, the Burgundian era is well represented in the new museum, Hof Van Busleyden. Set in a Renaissance palace, we can learn about the city that was once the the capital of the Burgundian Netherlands.
In this era the city was established as a front runner in the world of craft. Even today, tapestries are sent from all over the world to be lovingly restored.
Mechelen doesn’t shy away from its dark history either. The Kazerne Dossin stands firmly amongst the old buildings of Mechelen and does a harrowing but important job. Many Jews and Romanies where sent to Auschwitz from a transit camp here. The wall of faces has stayed with me since the visit, many spots left vacant, waiting for relatives to fill in the gaps.
Mechelen may have a vast, and awesome past but it’s not afraid of the future. You’ll find Mechelen Murrt dotted around the city: impressive street art installations that add splashes of colour in even the most residential of places. A truly inclusive city both socially and architecturally, examples of modern architecture are seen nestled in between traditional buildings.
In the afternoon light, glass facades shine bight while the pinky hues of the traditional fish merchants’ houses glow amicably.
For a dining experience oozing cosmopolitan cool, visitors should head to Cosma. An edgy concept, diners eat amongst pieces of statement art and home wares (all for sale) and are advised to order one key ingredient each for their main and then share tasty side dishes between them.
Many of the cafés are open from morning to night and there’s plenty of good coffee, high percentage booze, including the local beer brewed in the city and hearty dishes on offer.
Where there was once 100 breweries, there remains only one: Het Anker. It creates the most popular beer in Mechelen, which is fondly named Maneblusser (Moon extinguisher). The 9% beer is a real staple in the city and its story of is one that’s told often. The city once mistook the red light of the moon for a fire in St Rumbold’s tower – what followed was a city wide effort to create a water chain up the tower to put the fire out – turns out it was literally just the moon.
Look out for local treats including cheese and chocolate made from the famous local beer.
If you want to catch Mechelen at its best, head there for a weekend. Walking around the city on a Saturday is a truly metropolitan experience, food and flower markets swell over the many pedestrian-only areas, while cafés full of locals watch cyclists navigate the buzzing squares.
bmi flies from Newcastle to Brussels twice daily (excluding Saturdays) with fares from just £86 one way. All fares are inclusive of 23kg hold luggage, allocated seating and complimentary in-flight drinks and snacks. www.flybmi.com
Visit www.visitflanders.com to plan your trip.
Hotel Vé Mecure Is an old refurbished fish smoking factory and cigarette factory rolled into one. They’ve taken inspiration from it’s great history and created a trendy and comfortable hotel with superb breakfast and drinking offerings. Visit www.hotelve.com/en/
Once internationally acclaimed, the school and convent complex of the Ursuline nuns was built in the early 1900s and still functions as a school today . These nuns were very good at marketing and built a winter garden in order to impress the student’s visitors.
This school feels incredibly ‘Harry Potter’ you’ll be amazed at the beautiful architecture, as you quietly sneak past the remaining nun’s headquarters towards a glorious chapel and then head to an impressive taxidermy collection at the end.
Book a tour in advance, this place is way too cool and under-the-radar for you to just turn up. Visit toerisme.mechelen.be/ursuline-winter-garden