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Lush Guide to Mechelen, Belgium

Thinking about visiting Belgium? You probably have Brussels and Bruges on the list, but it would sad to leave the country without seeing one of her most historic towns, especially if you are a beer lover. If you haven’t been to Mechelen already, then time to head to this adorable town only 30 minutes from Brussels by train with its charming mix of history, culture, food, and drinks!!

Lush Guide to Mechelen, Belgium 1

What to Drink In Mechelen

Did I say beer? Finding a cold glass of beer in Mechelen isn’t a tall order. Brewing in Belgium began more than 700 years ago. So you can be secure in the knowledge that they have mastered it by now. What makes brewing history in Mechelen unusual is who made it more than how it was made.

Beguine's making beer

In the 13th C, Belgium found itself with way too many women. Men had either gotten themselves killed in a crusade or at battle or found someone else on their way to Jerusalem. What were families supposed to do with these extra ladies? 

At the time, women were not allowed to work, nor could they buy or rent a house. Needless to say, there were limited possibilities for these young meisjes. They could get married if they were lucky enough to find a man, live with their parents, or join the church.

But not every leftover wanted to be stuck at home or dedicate herself to God. Luckily for them, a fourth option existed – become a Beguine. Similar to their saintly sisters, Beguines lived in their own community, areas called Beguinages, and had to wear a black and white uniform. But unlike nuns, they could own, buy, build or rent their own home, and, most importantly, they could work.

Many had occupations such as nurses, lacemakers, teachers, and for our purpose here, brewers!  In 1471, the Beguines were granted permission to brew beer for their private use and public good.After the brewing process was complete, the Beguines would carry it right to the hospital where patients were prescribed it as medicine. Clearly, they had some very happy residents and soon it became the national drink.

In the16th century, there were about 2,000 Beguines in Mechelen and a lot of happy drinkers. The last Beguine in Mechelen died in 1993, but their tradition of brewing is still going strong!

Beguinages

You can visit Mechelen’s UNESCO protected Béguinages on your way to the town’s one and only brewery.

  • Address: Large Béguinages – Hoviusstraat 16, 2800 Mechelen

Where to Drink in Mechelen

Het Anker Brewery

Het Anker Brewery

You can see the Beguine’s hospital nestled into what is now Mechelen’s only working brewery, Het Anker. Still run by the fourth-generation of the Van Breedam family, Het Anker is creating not only their Gouden Carolus Classic beer (Klassik Goudon Carolus), selected as the  “Worlds’ Best Dark Ale” by the World Beer Awards, 2012, but other expressions of the Gouden Carolus range, including Whisky Infused and Maneblusser.

In 1958, a divisive decision was taken by third-generation Charles Van Breedam. He decided to veer away from the ubiquitous PIls recipe that everyone in town was brewing, Asking his brewer to develop a special top-fermented beer for the World Exhibition of 1958 in Brussels, Charles presented his new product, Keizersbier aka Imperial beer.

Gouden Carolus Beer

There weren’t many fans of this dark brown liquid at first, but it proved to be a winner in the long run. Every other Mechelen brewery has since closed down after bigger brands gobbled up the market for pils, leaving them the only active brewery in Mechelen today! 

When visiting Mechelen, make sure to take the Het Anker tour and then definitely don’t miss a bite at their pub or brasserie. Try all the beers on tap as you wouldn’t want to miss any of them. We sat and ate their Vlaamse stoverij (Flemish stew) made with Gouden Carolus Classic and accompanied by Gouden Carolus Classic, plus Bream fried in Gouden Carolus Hopsinjoor beer with fries & tartar sauce with, you guessed it, a glass of the same Gouden Carolus Hopsinjoor!

  • Address: Het Anker Brewery, Guido Gezellelaan 49, 2800 Mechelen
Café de Hanekeef. Mechelen

Bruine Kroegen (Brown Bars)

If you don’t get to the brewery, you can definitely savor an Het Anker beer at one of the many bruine kroegen around town. These bruine kroegen or brown bars are called as such due to their atmospheric, mostly wooden interiors, not because of the brown ale served. Here are few I wouldn’t miss!

Café de Hanekeef

We can’t talk about brown cafes without mentioning the oldest one in Mechelen. Although no one can confirm when it was turned into a cafe, there is research to show that  the building began as a chicken farmers’ market. These unlucky chickens were sold in baskets (“hanekeef”) and each sale was accompanied by a shot of gin. They’ve been serving gin, and beer of course, ever since Mecheln pulled the plug on selling live chickens in 1886!

  • Address: Keizerstraat 8, 2800 Mechelen, Belgium
Café De Gouden Vis, Mechelen

Café De Gouden Vis

Unlike some of the brown cafes that appear as if they haven’t changed since the 18th C, Café De Gouden Vis was designed in the Art Nouveau style.  Don’t miss its hidden balcony overlooking the river. Every boat that goes by gives a little honk!

  • Address: Nauwstraat 7, 2800 Mechelen
T Ankertje

’t Ankertje aan de Dijle

Sitting right in the middle of the Vismarket on the edge of the Dyle River, there is almost nowhere as pretty to enjoy a summer brew as ’t Ankertje aan de Dijle. Don’t miss popping inside to see all the beer-related knickknacks covering the walls!

These are just a few of the ones we tried over a short weekend. There are many, many, many more places to drink in town, so find your special place.

  • Address: Vismarkt 20, 2800 Mechelen
Lam'Eau

Where to Eat in Mechelen

Lam’Eau

I would be remiss not to have eaten at Lam’Eau.  Set in the former 19th-century Lamot Brewery, Lam’eau is one of the best restaurants in town with its inventive twist on Belgian-French cuisine

There was a site here as early  1627, but the Lamot family established their brewery in the 19th C and it ran continually until the 1990s. In 2001, the building was renovated and is now a conference and heritage center. Don’t miss asking the restaurant staff to show you the other rooms – you might miss seeing the former brewery.

They have a great cocktail list, as well as wines and beer.

  • Address: Van Beethovenstraat 8/10, 2800 Mechelen
De Vresshalle

De Vleeshalle

Another historic place to dine in Mechelen is the former butcher’s hall, De Vleeshalle! Look for the bull’s head above the entrance and you know you are in the right place.  Here you have a choice of cuisines from Spanish tapas to Indian to Middle Eastern to Belgian!  Every one of them has its own stall with communal seating in the center. A huge bar takes center stage with everything from fizzy drinks, to cocktails to the ubiquitous Het Anker beers.

  • Address: Huidevettersstraat 7, 2800 Mechelen
St. Rumbold’s Cathedral

What to Do When You’re Not Drinking

Head up the stairs at St. Rumbold’s Cathedral 

It would be a pity not to at least step inside one of the most important churches in Belgium built in the 13th Century. Right in the center of town and with a see-it-from-everywhere tower, it is hard to miss St. Rumbold’s.

If you are enthusiastic, you can climb the 538 steps to the top for fabulous views of the city and to view the massive carillon bells which are actually played by keyboard below! 

The tower is actually shorter than it was supposed to be. When started in 1452, the plan was for 167 meters, but today it’s only 97. Construction was halted when it looked like it might go the way of the Tower of Pisa due to the swamp beneath it, so they stopped where they were. 

Maneblusser Beer

Also you might have tried Maneblusser (moon extinguisher) Beer which is found all over Mechelen. It is so called because in 1687 a fire in the tower was rumored to have started.  With buckets of water in tow, the townspeople headed up the tower to extinguish it only to find it was only the light of the moon! Thus, Mechleners have been known as Maneblussers since then!

  • Address: Onder-Den-Toren 12, 2800 Mechelen
Hof van Busleyden museum

Meet Hiëronymus van Busleyden

Although everyone rushes to climb the steps of St. Rumbold’s Cathedral, I would say that the Museum Hof van Busleyden is the treat of Mechelen.  Built as home to Hiëronymus van Busleyden, a great humanist and friend of Margaret of Austria, it’s one of the prettiest Renaissance building in the city and filled with treasures from the Burgundian period.

Originating as a Roman settlement, Mechelen flourished in the Middle Ages. From the end of the 14th to the end of the 15th C. in what is now called the Burgundian era in the Netherlands (then comprising Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg) and northern France saw Mechelen as a political powerhouse under Margaret of Austria.

Coat of Arms

I saw the temporary exhibition (2024) centering around the Knights of the Golden Fleece. These knights were members of the elite Order of the Golden Fleece founded in Bruges to commemorate the marriage of Isabella of Portugal to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, in 1430.  The exhibit celebrates the fifteenth chapter event which took place in Mechelen in 1491. Each member had his own coat of arms, which has been meticulously restored for the exhibit. After the exhibit, they will be available to see in St. Rumbold’s Cathedral.

Enclosed Gardens

A section of the permanent collection that should not be missed is that of the Enclosed Gardens of Mechelen. Were these cabinets closed, you wouldn’t think twice about walking right past them, but open one up and you see that they are wonders of detail. They are filled with silk flowers, shells, lace, sculptures, and inscriptions all decorated to represent paradise. These are certainly a testament to the devotion and patience of the women of the time!

  • Address: Frederik de Merodestraat 65, 2800 Mechelen, Belgium
Winter Garden Ceiling

Visit The Winter Garden of the Ursuline Nuns

If you have the time, take the 15 minute ride out to see the Winter Garden of the Ursuline Nuns. Set inside a former religious boarding school for girls in the small town of Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-Waver, the Winter Garden is an Art-Nouveau wonder.  

Lucky for the students who attended, these nuns took the principles of the ‘l’art à l’école’ movement very seriously. It was the idea dedicated to bringing more beauty into school, believing that the school should inspire and stimulate young minds. 

Not only is the Winter Garden with its fabulous stained-glass dome unmissable, but its classrooms, dining hall, and Alpine Drawing Room covered with scenic decorations “that in the first place bring colour and atmosphere to these spaces, but at the same time offer the possibility to transfer some new knowledge to those who are open to it.” (https://artnouveau.club/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Baeck_Unexpected-wonder_Mechelen-Ursulines-winter-garden.pdf)

What a great place to go to school!

  • Address: Bosstraat 9A, 2861 Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-Waver
Mechelen at Sunset

Boat trip on the inner Dyle

I believe that one of the best ways to experience Mechelen is by boat! Throughout history, this tiny town has been reliant on trade by boat and to miss the experience of being on the River Dyle would be a shame. You’ll sail from lock to lock passing under the Fonteinbrug, across the Vismarkt square by water(Fish Market), and along the Botanical Garden. Wave at those enjoying a beer at the Café De Gouden Vis as you pass by and then join them when the tour is done.

Mechelen 2

How to Get to Mechelen

Getting to Mechelen is relatively straightforward, thanks to its central location in Belgium, near both Brussels and Antwerp. Once you’re here in Mechelen, the city is walkable and you can get everywhere by foot, by bike, or using public transportation. You can even take a boat ride!

By Air

The nearest major airport is Brussels Airport (BRU), which is about 20 minutes away by train or car. While Mechelen itself doesn’t have an airport, you can fly into Brussels or Antwerp International Airport. From there, you can easily reach Mechelen by train or car.

By Train

Did you know the first train ever in Europe went from Brussels to Mechelen! On 5 May 1835, three steam trains journeyed from Groendreef station in Brussels to Mechelen. There were three carriages which held 900 riders! At that time, it took over an hour, but today it’s only 30 quick minutes!

Almost 200 years later, it’s still on the main line between Brussels and Antwerp. The train station is pretty central so you can easily walk in town in about 10 minutes if you have light luggage or there are taxis and buses outside. Trains leave about every 20 minutes from Brussels!

By Car

Mechelen is also super easy to get to by car. If you’re driving, you can reach Mechelen from Brussels in about 30 minutes, from Antwerp in about 25 minutes, and from Ghent in around 45 minutes, depending on traffic.

By Bus

Several bus routes connect Mechelen with neighboring towns and cities.

By Bike

I don’t usually add by bike, but Belgium has an extensive network of cycling paths, and Mechelen is no exception. If you’re nearby or enjoy cycling, you can bike to Mechelen using dedicated bike lanes and routes. Also biking is definitely the way to get around in town!

Where to Stay in Mechelen

We stayed at Martin’s Paterhof and I highly recommend it. Not only is it the best hotel in town, but it’s truly unique, in the real sense of the word. Built in 1863, the hotel was originally a convent. It remained as such until 2009 when it was transformed into the Martin’s Paterhof. A few of the rooms still retain the stained glass and arched windows, so make sure to request one of those!

You can find it on Booking.com!

I hope this Lush Guide has inspired you to explore Mechelen’s hidden corners with beer in hand!  Whether you’re a beer lover, history buff, an art enthusiast, or simply looking to climb a lot of stairs, Mechelen promises to enchant. 

I want to thank Anita Rampall of Visit Flanders and Lente de Vil of Visit Mechelen for hosting me. We had an amazing time and loved the city!

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