One of my favourite weekend destinations is Belgium and I’m visiting towns in Flanders quite often. Flemish art, cozy feeling many of those places have and Belgian chocolates or fruit beers are just some of the things I like there the most.
I’ve recently discovered a new Flemish gem – a town of Mechelen. I’ve spent a weekend there with my family and have decided to create this weekend travel guide with things to do in Mechelen (with some child friendly tips).
Useful tips before your visit to Mechelen
Although I’ve spent a weekend in Mechelen, you can definitely add a few more days to it. There’s so much to do and see there, you won’t have a problem with finding activities to do in Mechelen. Town is still quite undiscovered by large groups of tourists, so you can explore it in a slower pace. Because of that and many child friendly restaurants and activities, I’ve also find it to be so lovely to visit with kids.
How to get to Mechelen
Located right between Antwerp and Brussels, Mechelen is easily reachable from both of those cities. The closest airport is Brussels Airport, so you can also fly there and catch a train to Mechelen then.
*By train: Mechelen is well connected by train, and it’s quite easy to travel to it with one. There is a direct train to it from Amsterdam (you can check the schedule on a link here). If you’re travelling from London or Paris, you can use Eurostar or Thalys to Brussels and catch a local train to Mechelen then.
*By car: We went there by car and it took us a bit more then two hours from Amsterdam. There is a highway the whole way long, so it’s quick and easy to travel that way. There are also many public garages in a city center where you can leave your car and forget about it until you’re going back home.
How to get around Mechelen
Mechelen is a home to around 80,000 people and a rather small town. It’s best to explore it on foot and stroll around it’s cobbled streets while finding out some secret corners and stumbling on beautiful historical buildings.
*TIP: Although those cobbled streets are lovely, they could be a pain if you’ll have a suitcase with wheels on it. I would definitely recommend you to have a backpack, instead of a suitcase. Also, if you’re going to visit with a baby or a toddler who’s in a stroller, I would take a baby carrier instead.
Mechelen is kids friendly
Although many cities praise themselves to be kids friendly, Mechelen is definitely one of the most child friendly places I’ve ever been to. Each museum we visited had a really nice children program and activities. You’re going to find Rommy, a blue character made after the St. Rombold’s Tower in front the child friendly restaurants and cafes. There are booklets with child friendly activities in Mechelen at the Tourist Office as well, so I would definitely start a trip with paying a visit to it.
*TIP: Mechelen’s Tourist Office is at the address: Vleeshouwersstraat 6.
Weekend in Mechelen
Saturday at Mechelen
We’ve left our house around 8:30 in a morning while it was still dark outside. It’s something I’m never going to get use to in the Netherlands, those short Winter days. However, we drove on highway and came to Mechelen around 11 AM. After leaving our car in a garage for the rest of the weekend, we headed to our hotel.
We stayed at the Novotel Hotel that’s right in a city center, which was a perfect location for exploring Christmas markets. Their stalls and an ice skating rink were right in front of it and it has put us immediately at the Christmas spirit.
*Child friendly TIP: I’m a big fun of Novotel hotels, because they always have a great location, specious rooms and are so child friendly. There was a small play area for kids at a lobby of our hotel and even an Xbox with Kinect Sensor (of course, Karlo and Marijan played a tennis match there).
Saturday brunch at Mechelen
I started to like brunches so much in the last few years, that I don’t remember when was the last time I had a proper weekend lunch. We started our visit at Sister Bean, a cute little restaurants with a buffet brunch. We ate a delicious shrimp salad, bruschettas and one of the best cheesecakes I’ve ever had.
*TIP: Well, this is a tip for all the restaurants in Mechelen. Belgian food is big and people like to eat outside. That’s why it’s recommendable to book a table in advance. We had tables booked both for our lunch and dinner and there won’t be a chance we would get a table if we would just walk in.
Climbing St. Rumbold’s Tower
After a delicious brunch we were ready to explore the city. And what’s better then getting a panoramic view of it first. To do that we had to climb all the 514 steps of St. Rumbold’s Tower. Although really impressive and visible from all over the city, St. Rumbold’s Tower is actually unfinished and by its original plans it would be even higher. Despite that it’s a UNESCO heritage site.
Mechelen is famous for its carillon school and a lovely place to hear it and see some of the very old bells is in the tower itself. I also loved seeing the stonemasons’ signs while we were climbing. It really makes you wonder how did they made such an impressive building back in the 15th Century.
Once at the top of it we had a lovely panoramic view on Mechelen. They say that during the clear day you can see all the way to Brussels. We weren’t that lucky, but the view was still worth climbing all those stars.
*Child friendly TIP: We’ve climbed the tower with our 4-year-old and it was quite doable. There are 6 rooms your can visit on your way to the top and in each one of them you can learn a bit of the tower’s history. There is a large yellow statue of the town’s mascot Opsinjoorke in front the Cathedral on which kids can play and climb. A few steps away is a small playground, too.
Market Square & Town Hall
After climbing all the way to the top of the tower, we continued to explore down town Mechelen. We were strolling around the cobbled streets and felt like we stepped into some passed times. Once at the Market Square, we’ve looked to all the different gables on the houses. It’s so funny how many different animals we could find on them. A cat, a pig, a deer, all of them were there. Could it be that back in a time, you wouldn’t go to a friend that lived at a Market Square no. 5, but instead at the Market Square in a house with a pig on it?
As in many Flemish cities, a Town Hall is just stunning. It’s almost like they were competing who will have the most beautiful one.
*TIP: There is a statue of a town mascot in front of the Town Hall. It’s called Opsinjoorke and it originates from the 17th Century wooden mascot that was pulled around the city during some major events.
Toy Museum in Mechelen
There was a Lego Exhibition organised at the Mechelen’s Toy Museum during our visit and it was one of the things we were really looking forward to. Toy Museum is a place with one of the biggest toy collections in Belgium and they are displaying them by different themes. After walking through the permanent exhibition, we’ve went to the 3rd floor where the Lego exhibition was. It was so cool seeing the first wooden Lego bricks and old commercials from the 1960s.
However, my favourite part was when I have seen the first Lego set my father brought me from the USA. Karlo started playing immediately at one of the Lego play stations. But, Marijan and I just got nostalgic seeing some Legos from our childhood. So, well, Lego exhibition is definitely something I wouldn’t miss when in Mechelen. Museum was open until 5 PM and we liked it so much that we’ve stayed there until the closing time.
*Child friendly TIP: There are often art workshops organised at the museum, so be sure to ask about them at the entrance. We’ve joined one and have created some nice Christmas cards there. You can also take a wooden suitcase and explore the museum while playing at some stations or doing a little tasks. There is a nice cafe at the ground floor with a large play area for kids, too.
Het Anker Brewery
Mechelen is one of those lovely small towns that are perfect for strolling around and exploring on foot. I really enjoyed those slow walks on which we would laugh and talk and enjoy in this lovely Belgian town. It has a feel of a historical town, but you’re going to find street art and some modern art installations, there as well. It’s something that gives a city such a great personality.
*TIP: If you would like to explore more of the street art there, you can follow the Mechelen Muurt Walk. Take a look at the link here for more info.
I’ve read there’s going to be a live Nativity scene at the courtyard of Het Anker Brewery organised during our visit, so that’s where we headed afterwards. There used to be many breweries at Mechelen, but today the oldest one that still exists is Het Anker. It’s famous for its dark and quite strong Gouden Carolus beer. There is a bar at the brewery where you can try it, too.
*TIP: We’ve got a tasting booklet ‘Sense-Sational Mechelen‘ at the Tourist Office. With it we had some beer tasting at Het Anker included, but also an apple pie and cheese with Gouden Carolus beer at some other places. So, if you would like to try this famous and really great local product, get yourself one of those booklets (the price of it is only 6 euros).
Dinner at De Cirque
I’ve probably mentioned that already, but food in Belgium is big. One of the things I love the most when travelling to Belgium is exploring its restaurants and local food. We had a great Saturday dinner at De Cirque Restaurant and it was delicious. I really liked how the restaurant had elegant and classy interior, fine dinning menu, but at the same time it was so child friendly. It’s spacious and there were some crayons and papers for kids to draw. Little details like that really makes Mechelen a great town to visit with kids.
Once again, if you’re planning on having a dinner somewhere, make a reservation in advance, to be sure you’re going to get a table.
Christmas Market at Vismarkt
Despite of shorter days, December is such a nice time to visit Mechelen because of the Christmas markets and many events organised in the city. After our dinner we stayed at Vismarkt and were exploring stalls at the Christmas market for some time.
However, it was already quite late and tired from all the walking and exploring, we have happily went back to our hotel. After Karlo went to bed, Marijan and I opened a bottle of wine, set next to a large window of our hotel room and have just enjoyed in watching busy streets of Mechelen. It was so nice to feel the city’s life and became a local for a night.
*Read more about the things to do during the Christmas time in Mechelen on a link here.
Sunday at Mechelen
I don’t know if it’s just me but waking up at a new city is always exciting and I never have any problem with getting up early (in contrast of getting up at my own bed). First things first, in our family meaner, it was a time for breakfast. Karlo was very happy finding out there is a chocolate milk in Belgium as well, and he treated himself with one with his breakfast. While enjoying in some delicious pastries and a coffee, the adult part of the family, made plans for a day.
We’ve decided to explore the city more and went to some local food shops, and then to visit Hof van Busleyden Museum, I was really looking forward to.
Mechelen sends you on a way & Food tasting
We’ve got a booklet from the Tourist Office with a map so we could take a child-friendly self-guided tour and explore the city more. We’ve made it our task to look for images of animals around the city. From the animals at the gables of houses at the Market Square, to some in Cathedral and the Large Beguinage. Karlo was leading our way, so it took us probably way more then planned, but we definitely had some fun on our way.
The first stop we did on our tour was at a wonderful Cheese Shop Schockaert. If I would have lived in Mechelen, I would definitely be a local customer there. As a part of our Sense-Sational Mechelen booklet, we’ve got coupons for some cheese with Gouden Carolus beer there. And we liked it so much that we’ve also bought a piece to bring home with us.
*Child friendly TIP: There is a table with some children books in a shop, where kids could sit and play while grown ups are getting lost among all those beautiful cheeses.
A few steps further was another lovely place, the Vanderbeek Bakery. It was so busy inside you could tell it’s one of the most popular bakeries in town. People were buying delicious bread for their Sunday lunch or some cookies for a dessert afterwards. While enjoying a wonderful smell of bread there, we were waiting patiently for some Belgian chocolates, of course.
Something I really liked in Mechelen are small details on buildings and at the street. Beautiful Art Noveau windows, coats of arms at the gables or little shells marking the path to Santiago de Compostela. So, be sure to look for them when exploring the city.
The city was so peaceful in the morning (well, beside the bakery and a cheese shop), that in some streets we felt like we were the only people there. I wanted to see the Large Beguinage, a town within a town, where centuries ago beguines lived. It’s something so typical for Flemish (and some Dutch towns), that I always love exploring them when travelling there. During the Crusades men would go to war and many of them would never come back, leaving many widows and orphans behind. That’s why, these women started supporting each other and living together. Soon, small communities grew and became a city neighbourhoods with its own breweries, nursery homes and stores. Today, many of those beguinages are beautiful urbanistic areas and often under the UNESCO’s protection.
*Child friendly TIP: The whole area of the Large Beguinage is a pedestrian zone. So, it’s great for kids to run around and explore it themselves.
Hof van Busleyden Museum
Mechelen was an important art center during the Renaissance time. And a significant person during that time was Jeroen van Busleyden who built Hof van Busleyden as his home at the beginning of the 16th Century. He was a scholar, diplomat and politician and he’s very important for founding a Collegium Trilingue at a nearby Leuven.
Today a museum’s located in it and you can learn there a lot about Mechelen’s history, it’s importance as a home to the high court, capital of Low Countries and some of its famous inhabitants.
*Child friendly TIP: If you’re visiting with a child, ask for an activity booklet at the entrance. There are golden boxes located all around the museum and in each one of them there is a different task kids have to do. It’s quite nice, because at the end they are going to create their own art piece out of it.
Lunch at Sava
Still under the impression of art we’ve seen and some beautiful buildings on our walk it was a time for the lunch. We’ve followed Rommy’s recommendations again and have went to a local tapas Sava Restaurant. We had some sea food tapas and they were delicious. As a dessert we had an apple pie dressed with Gouden Carolus beer. And although it sounds like a weird combination, it worked really well!
As a treat for the end of our trip we’ve left ice skating. Well, two out of three members of our family are a huge fans of it (you can probably guess by the pictures bellow which ones). Mechelen has a very special floating ice skating rink at the River Dijle. We had a lot of fun there and it definitely made the end of our visit so beautiful.
*TIP: If you’re going to visit during the Spring or Summer time, I would take a walk next to the River Dijle. There are so many boats there and you’re going to pass next to some really beautiful houses.
Interesting things about Mechelen
# – It was the capital of the Low Countries (roughly today’s the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg) in the first half of the 16th Century
# – First train service on the European continent was between Mechelen and Brussels. And the first train departed in 1835.
# – First postal service between Mechelen and Innsbruck was established back in 1490.
# – Margaret of Austria lived there – She was a regent of the Habsburg’s Low Countries between 1507 and 1530. Her residental palace was the Hof van Savoje, the first Renaissance building in the Low Countries and the new style spread from there. She had a turbulent life. She was 24 when her third husband and a love of her life died and she refused to remarry after that (well, who could blame her).During her reign arts and sciences flourished. And some notable artists and phylosophers stayed at the palace. garden of it could still be visited and its open for visitors on Saturdays 8:30 AM to 3:30 PM.
*Many thanks to Visit Mechelen for organizing a weekend trip there for me and my family. We had a great time and enjoyed every second of it. However, as always, all opinions are my own.