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Mechelen: another hidden gem in Belgium

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A day out in Mechelen

About an hour away from Brussels our journey takes us to Mechelen, another hidden gem in Belgium.

It’s another small town, tucked away from mainstream tourism, but in my mind, just as beautiful as a city like Brussels.  Actually, it’s probably more beautiful because it’s smaller, easier to get around, and you can cover so much ground in one day.  This makes it a perfect town for a day trip from Brussels.

Despite it being freezing, we are still mad enough to ride our bikes into the town.  The locals, of course, make it look so easy, and if they didn’t ride their bikes in this weather, they would probably never leave their homes!  If they can do it, then so can we!

Walking through the Beguinage

The Beguinage is an historical area in a city containing a collection of small houses, that sit on narrow streets. Many centuries ago, men left their wives to go off on the crusades.  Many never returned.  Soon, the women outnumbered the men and many of them elected to live together in the small houses, living like nuns, but without the lifelong vows.  They were given the term beguines.

Beguinages exist in many Belgian cities and are noted as being small or large.  Irrespective of size, they are all worthy of a stroll through them, if your time permits.

 The original “large” beguinage, built outside the Mechelen city walls was destroyed, and this one built in its place.  This more recent beguinage commenced being built in 1595 and has since been declared a UNESCO world heritage site.

It contains an amazing baroque church, several convents, many small houses, and narrow cobbled streets. With tiny doors, leading into tiny houses, these photos don’t do justice to the size of these buildings. Many of them felt as though they were barely extending over my head.

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Most unusual to see a two-story house in the Beguinage
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Narrow cobbled laneways
Mechelen
Small house
Another beguinage house in Mechelen
Another beguinage house

 

This baroque church was designed in 1629 and reflects the one-time wealth of the beguinage people.  Despite being covered in scaffolds when we visited, it was interesting to see how the restoration work is changing the face of the church.  Note the whiter facade at the top of the church against the bottom half.

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Beguinage Church – Sint Pieter and Paulkerk

A stop at the Het Anker Brewery

Having sampled a glass of the Golden Carolus Classic the night before, we headed to the brewery that is responsible for producing this ale.  It’s daunting enough ordering beer from Belgians.  Ordering in a brewery adds a whole new level to the fear.  The people that work here know everything there is to know about their beer, and about beers in general.  My request to try an Anker beer was therefore met with a rather odd look, a frown and a comment that made me feel like a beer drinking novice.  She wasn’t rude and didn’t mean to be.  It’s just that they are passionate about their beers, and apparently what I was about to order rates quite a way down on the “best beers to drink” list.

We were quickly given the beer bible, a professional looking portfolio noting all the beers on tap and their relevant characteristics.  Upon consultation, my husband opted for another Golden Carolus offering, this time a Tripel, a beer with a strong aftertaste, full body and a high level of fruitiness.  Me, well despite the fear of further ridicule, I still chose the Anker.  And, whilst I am quite sure it doesn’t live up to their expectations, it was still a refreshing ale for me.  After all, it was only 10 am, so no need to be into the heavy beers quite yet.

You’ll note in the photo the presence of a whiskey glass.  Despite the early hour, we were in the brewery and it made no sense to have to come back later to try their prized whiskey.  Made from the mash of the Golden Carolus Tripel that we had just ordered, this whiskey is smooth and refined.

 

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Beers and whiskey at the Het Anker Brewery

The Vis Markt

Otherwise known as the Fish Market, this was where fish was traded in the main square dating back to the 1500s.  Today, there are still a few excellent fish shops on the square, selling some incredible food and fresh seafood.

 

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Incredible seafood terrines
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Jellied and glazed salmon fillet

Shopping

I am not a huge “shopper” when I travel.  I spend most of my money on travel related exploration and food experiences.  If shopping is your thing however, there is a very nice street, called Ijzerenleen, that runs from the Koren Markt to the Grote Markt.  Beautiful buildings line the streets, and local fashion stores fight it out with the major chains.  There are also some wonderful food stores worthy of a visit, especially if you love cheese.

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Some of the cheese at Schockaert

 

And just to prove that the Belgians also take their bread very seriously, we found a 24-hour vending machine, just in case you get to the bakery and it’s closed.  Good for unsuspecting tourists perhaps during siesta time.

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Bread vending machine

Why can’t I buy something easy to take home?

We did make one special purchase, however.  Taken as we were with the Stella Artois glasses we drank from in Leuven we were now keen to try and find some of them.  Because these beer glasses were very old, they weren’t going to be something we could find in one of the ubiquitous beer stores in Belgium.  Rather, if they were going to be found at all, they would be in second-hand stores.  Luckily, there were quite a few in this main shopping street.

To our absolute delight, we found some in one of these stores.  They weren’t exactly the same, but they were old and we loved them.  And, they were the bargain of the year at €3 each.  Or so we thought.  We took two glasses up to the counter to pay for them and the lady there asked were we taking the rest.  The rest?  It seemed that we were in for an even bigger bargain.  All six glasses on the shelf were part of the €3 price tag.

Suddenly I found myself trying to cautiously place six fragile glasses into my handbag.  Today, of all days, I had decided that I didn’t need to carry my extra shopping bag with me. The second-hand shop didn’t have plastic bags (as is the case in most of Europe), so I had no alternative but to put them in my bag.  Lucky I guess that I’m not someone who carries a tiny handbag!

It’s also quite typical of us to buy something fragile when we travel and have to nurse them all the way back home.  To complicate matters this time, we still had weeks to go on our motorhome trip, where we had limited space.  If these get back home without being broken, we will have achieved something great!

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Two of our special Belgian purchases.

 

So much more to see in Mechelen

There is no end of things to see and do in Mechelen, however, our day of rain meant that some of the things we wanted to do were made difficult.

  • The St Rumbold Tower in St Rumbold’s Cathedral offers a view to Antwerp and Brussels on a clear day.  Unfortunately, this wasn’t to be for us today, so we avoided the 538 steps leading up to the belfry as well.
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(partly obscured) St Rumbold’s Tower
  • The Grote Markt, like many other Belgian towns, offers a smorgasbord of beautiful buildings, people watching, cafes and restaurants.  In Mechelen, the tourist office also resides here, full of fantastic and helpful people.

 

  • Mechelen city centre is home to eight churches and several buildings that are listed as UNESCO Heritage sites.
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Sint Katelijnekerek
  • If tapestries are your thing, then this will be your delight.  Mechelen is home to a world famous manufacturer, De Wit Royal Manufacturers of Tapestry.
  • Walk along the water that runs through the centre of the city between Haverwerf and the Botanical Gardens.
 
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The waterway that runs through the centre of Mechelen

 

Leaving Mechelen

With the weather preventing us from doing a few more things here, it was time once more to head for the next town.

With the rain continuing to fall, we drove the wet roads towards Antwerp.  We had added Antwerp to our list quite late, but we were ready to spend some time there tomorrow.  Tonight we were staying at a former campground, that was built in readiness for the Antwerp Expo some time ago.  Today, Camperpark Vogelzang  is known more as an “aire”, with limited services, but nonetheless a great place to stay the night.

 

Campsite review

Camperpark Vogelzang
Vogelzanglaan 7-9
2000 Antwerpen
Belgium

N 51.18958,  E 4.40064
N 51°11’22”,  E 4°24’02”

  • Very large, grassy area, with plenty of trees for shade. Some areas are also hard stand.
  • Dedicated area for motorhomes, maximum capacity approximately 140.
  • Open 9.00am – 8.00pm off season and until 9pm during peak.
  • Cash only.
  • Motorhome and two people €8.00 per night.
  • Water is €0.50 per 100 litres and electricity is €1.00 per KwH.
  • There are ample points for electricity around the grounds.  They take euro coins.
  • Free waste disposal although the facilities are quite ordinary and not very sanitary.
  • Public transport (bus and tram) about 200m walk.
  • Located adjacent to the Antwerp Expo site.
  • Very friendly and helpful host.
Antwerp
Our campground
Antwerp
All alone out there in the campground
Antwerp
Camperpark Vogelzang

 

Been to Mechelen?  Share your stories and experiences here with me by commenting below.

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Why Mechelen is a hidden gem

 

 

6 thoughts on “Mechelen: another hidden gem in Belgium”

  1. Great post! One of my biggest regrets is not spending more time in Mechelen. For 10 years we lived right down the road (at least by Canadian standards) in Brussels, yet we only ever spent a weekend in Mechelen. I hope we have the chance to go back!

  2. Thanks so much Alison. Yes, I think we could have easily spent more time here too. And, coming from Australia, I hear you when you say that Brussels is “just down the road”…..not very far away at all.

  3. You had me at hidden gem! I have a thing for small villages, and I cannot wait to be in this part of the world to explore little medieval towns. This gem looks every bit of lovely to me!

  4. Thanks Erica, I agree. Whilst I am still happy to visit the well known places, these little cities offer such a personal experience. People are more willing to talk to you and interact and you learn so much more. Mechelen is such an under rated town. So many have never heard of it and yet it’s so close to the major cities like Antwerp and Brussels.

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