We are in Belgium. In the middle of the triangle Antwerp-Brussels-Leuven, Mechelen is a perfect place for a city trip. And for all families out there: don’t forget to bring your kids! The city claims to be the most family friendly city in Belgium. Mechelen is the self-proclaimed “Children’s City” where both kids as well as their parents will have a great time. We were asked to check out that family-friendly promise ourselves. Here is part 1 of our Mechelen experience!
Belgium cities are well-known for their historical architecture, vibrant city squares and lots of bars serving delicious Belgian beers (with some Belgian fries on the side). Mechelen is for sure no exception to that. But the city offers more. The amazingly high St. Rumboldstower (almost 98 meters, to be seen on the pictures above), the adventurous Planckendael Zoo and the impressive Holocaust memorial & museum at Kazerne Dossin. Just some of the highlights that we visited during our stay last May.
We indeed could sense everywhere that the city is taking good care of its young visitors. Mechelen Tourism is putting lots of effort in entertaining families. At the central Tourist Information Center you can obtain walking tours aimed at kids (more about that in part 2), there are special kids activities and many hotels in the city offer family friendly holiday packages (I will share the list of these hotels in part 2 as well).
Almost everything in Mechelen can be reached within walking distance. So let’s go and explore some highlights, the first one leading us high into the sky.
1. St. Rumboldstower (and cathedral)
Our kids loved this one: climbing 538 steps all the way up to the skywalk… the St. Rumboldstower (Sint Romboutstoren) is UNESCO World Heritage and special in its own kind.
Built in the 1400s, this tower is really top of the world in Mechelen. Almost 98 meters high it easily tops the Statue of Liberty and from its Sky Walk you can actually see both Antwerp as well as Brussels. We could even see Atomium Brussels in Brussels glistening in the sun. How cool is that!
On your way to the top there are several rooms where you can sit down and rest (because you need it!). The first room offers you a glimpse down into the cathedral….right above the church organ. Impressive view!
In some of the other rooms of this fortified tower you can find dozens of (huge!) bells. Two carillons play regularly (with carillon concerts held every week). And together with the panoramic views from the top this tower is a must when visiting Mechelen. From the top you have great views of the main square ‘Grote Markt’. During our stay the square was packed with kids attending the annual Speeldag (Playday). Don’t hesitate and climb this symbol of Mechelen!
The St. Rumboldstower is the actual hero in one of the main city’s legends called the Moon Extinguisher (Maneblusser in Dutch). It’s actually quite an embarrassing story. In the 1600s a drunk local thought the famous St. Rumboldstower was on fire. It was shrouded in mist and a red glow appeared from behind the tower. He alarmed the whole city and buckets of water went up the tower stairway, over 500 steps… Suddenly the glow disappeared. The moon slipped through the haze, exposing the real cause of the glow. There was never a fire in the tower and the locals quickly realized they had been trying to extinguish the moon…and not a fire. The news soon spread within the country and until today the people of Mechelen carry the nickname ‘Moon Extinguishers’.
Try to find this sign on the market square. It depicts the Moon Extinguishers legend!
When in Mechelen, do also order the beer called Maneblussers bier.
Our second visit was of a far more serious kind: the holocaust museum & memorial at Kazerne Dossin.
2. Memorial Museum Kazerne Dossin
This museum is worth a visit if you want to teach you children about the Second World War and current themes like racism and human rights. Make sure your children are over 10 years as some of the pictures are disturbing.
We went quiet while entering the museum. The building is completely redesigned and actually looks like a design museum from the outside. But the topics covered inside the building are completely different.
The former Dossin barracks used to be a waitingroom for more than 25,000 Jews and gypsies from Belgium and Northern France during World War II. From here they were transported to the concentration camps. Only few survived.
This is the cruel part of the history of Mechelen. Despite its beautiful buildings, cafes and restaurants it also has a different story to tell. A significant one that today can only be found behind the walls of Kazerne Dossin. But still a story that will always be present in the hearts and minds of many.
Kazerne Dossin is a place of historical significance and we wanted to visit it with our kids. The wall with pictures is something I will not easily forget. The colored pictures are the people that survived the concentration camps.
Quite impressive was also the Memorial, situated opposite Kazerne Dossin. The small black cubes on the picture represents transports from Mechelen to the concentration camps. The date on the cube is the date of the particular transport. Sitting on each of the cubes made you listen to all the names of people on that particular transport. We all went silent.
From the top of Kazerne Dossin you have a nice view of the city.
3. Large Beguinage
Close to Kazerne Dossin you will find the famous Large Beguinage of Mechelen. This is a place to just wander around at your own pace. A beguinage used to be a small town within a town, where many originate back to the time of the crusades. A beguinage had its own bakery, brewery, nursery, hospital, etc. In Mechelen’s beguinage you will find the famous Anker brewery (open for visits and tours; make sure to try a nice Carolus beer). Stroll the quiet streets and enjoy the UNESCO listed houses built in the 1500s.
During our visit a lot of construction work was going on, but all to renovate the important heritage of Mechelen.
And this marks the end of part 1. We have so many pictures and stories to share with you, too much for only one blog post. Part 2 of this post covers Planckendael Zoo, the kids walking tour of Mechelen, the floating Dyle path and some hidden gems like the Green Water and the Palace of Margret of Austria. We for sure had fun exploring Mechelen!
We were invited by Tourism Mechelen to explore the city for 3 days. All opinions are our own. Text and photography by: Emiel van den Boomen
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