Mechelen: An Undiscovered Belgium Gem

By Don Heimburger
Photos by the author

Mechelen, Belgium, about 15 miles north of Brussels, is a city of about 79,000 that features more than 300 monuments, eight historic Catholic churches and four UNESCO world heritage sights. You can reach the city by a short train ride from the main railway station in Brussels.

Mechelen is worth visiting not only because of its sights, but its people flourish because of a built-in determination and a friendliness that transcends nationalities. Maybe its because the Mecheleners have been perfecting humanity since 500 BC, when the first traces of human habitation of the area were discovered.

At one time, more than 100 firms in the city made furniture and word carvings, as evidenced by the many large and ornate church carvings seen here. Be sure to look for them as you discover this cobblestoned town, whose city center is only about a half mile across.

The Town Jester in Mechelen
The “Town Jester”

Some of the city’s sights include the early Gothic Brussels Gate, the last remnant of the medieval fortification constructed around the inner part of the city, built about 1300. At one time, all traffic entering and leaving had to pass through its limestone gates.

You can’t miss St. Rumbold Tower—it dominates the city skyline. If you have the time, conquer the 514 steps to the top of the tower to the skywalk for a great view of the area. Original plans for the tower were made when Mechelen was a rich and powerful commercial and political center, and thus the tower of St. Rumbold’s Cathedral was to become the highest tower in the Low Countries. Completed, it would have reached the dizzying height of 547 feet. Financial problems in the 16th century halted construction. The tower now reaches a height of 318 feet, still plenty tall.

Inside the cathedral is a scale model of what the tower should have looked like had it been completed. Also inside the church are two of the largest stained glass windows in Europe. Jo Haazen and other guest carillonneurs present a carillon concert at the church every Monday evening from 8.30 p.m. to 9.30 p.m. These recitals are free.

A third highlight of the city is the Large Beguinage, where widows and unmarried women of class were invited to live together, submitting themselves to pledges of obedience and chastity. Parts of this community are still visible and are inter-woven into the city’s many old structures that line narrow streets in the center. Still in tact are the Beguines’ church, the infirmary, the house of the grand mistress and other structures.

(middle) One of the largest stained glass windows in Europe in Mechelen’s cathedral.

Another important site is the Palace of Margaret of Austria of the Court of Savoy. This was the first renaissance building in the Low Countries and perhaps outside of Italy. The facade features Margaret’s coat of arms, and between 1616 to 1795 it was the seat of the Great Council. Its interior garden area is a fine place to rest your feet for a while.

Another spot worth visiting is St. John’s Church, which is open to the public. A very fine wood carving on the interior is one of Ruben’s masterpieces, The Adoration of the Magi. The church furniture, paintings and statues date largely from the 17th and 18th centuries.

Cigar store clerk

For a respite from walking or touring the city, find Windels at Iron Leen 48 (not far from the main railway station), the oldest cigar store in Belgium (from 1875) that continues to make fine cigars, and offers them in beautiful hand-made wooden boxes. The store, now being run by the fifth generation of Windels, also carries a good selection of whiskeys.

The Jef Denyn Royal Carillon School, at Frederik de Merodestraat 63, is a state-subsidized educational institute that offers a six-year program to obtain a laureate’s diploma. Even the Vienna Boys Choir visited the school during the last few years. When you realize Belgium is one of the carillon capitals of the world, this school makes sense, and attracts students from as many as a dozen different countries. The heaviest carillon in Belgium—there are five different carillons in town–is in one of the local church towers.

Tapestries in Mechelen museum
Tapestries at the De Wit Royal Manufacturers’ workshop

The Jef Denyn Royal Carillon School in Mechelen

The De Wit Royal Manufacturers of Tapestry, operating since 1889, is the only workshop in Flanders to retain this age-old tradition. Offering a complete range of tapestry services, the firm offers individual tours on Saturdays at 10:30 a.m. and group tours on other days. The De Wit is housed in a beautiful old Abbey at Schoutetraat 7, and plays a key role in many old and expensive tapestry restorations throughout Europe.

Perhaps at lunch time you’ll want something unique and that is a local delicacy. Find a restaurant that serves the town’s famous Mechelse koekoek, or Mechelen cuckoo (chicken). This chicken, with black-gray feathers, is a feature on many local menus, and is often served with fresh vegetables or with a Mechelen beer sauce. You’ ll likely get a large side dish of round roasted potatoes to go with the chicken.

The special cuckoo chicken
Delicious cheese lines the shelves in a Mechelen shop.

After lunch, stop in at one of the two local Gauthier chocolate shops (one is at Guldenstraat 2), and soak in the atmosphere. Store candies are hand-made, made from traditional Belgium customs, and follow a unique recipe, so you’ll likely leave with a bag full of something good to eat. The Gauthier family, with master chocolate maker Edouard Gauthier, has been making candy in town since 1964.

Gaulthier Chocolatiers

Round out your afternoon with a boat trip on the Inner Dyle River. A multilingual audio-guide tells you about the sights along the river banks. The departure is at the Jetty at Lamot/Haverwerf and costs €6 for adults.

Many more Mechelen sights are available if you have the time, such as the Watchmaker’s Museum, the Jewish Museum of Deportation and Resistance, the Museum in City Hall (the old Rathaus), and the Het Anker Brewery Museum. At this small family brewery, best known for its local beers such as Gouden Carolus, you’ll get a feel for quality. The brewery also has its own restaurant and 22-room hotel.

Het Anker Brewery

Around the year 1500 more than 100 breweries operated in Mechelen, but like most things, the businesses and other important history of the city has faded over time. But this quaint Belgium town continues to re-count its traditions and rich past, and brings it forth today for all to enjoy.

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