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 by Tourism Mechelen to check out that family-friendly promise ourselves.
Things to see and do in Mechelen
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Special kids tours
It is really true: Mechelen is doing their utmost to please parents and their children. It’s clearly visible everywhere. Maybe it’s me, but I even noticed how the people of Mechelen approached children in restaurants and elsewhere in the city. They all seem to fully support the positioning of Mechelen as Children’s City!
So what does Mechelen offer for families to make the most of their stay? First of all, kids visiting the city will receive a small backpack with some fun things and information. You can get this at the Tourism Agency (Toerisme en UIT, Hallestraat, Mechelen) or in selected hotels that offer family-friendly package deals.
For just a couple of Euros you can buy three nice informative guides, aimed at families:
1. Zin in Mechelen (“Feel like Mechelen”): guide with useful information for parents and kids about the city and its history. It explains many of the city’s things-to-do and places-to-see, contains travel tips and games for kids.
2. Mechelen stuurt je stappen (“Mechelen sends you walking”): two walking routes covering the city, where kids have to answers questions or solve puzzles along the way. Kind of city hunt. Give the map to your kids and let them guide the way!
3. Pretpakket (Fun package): discount coupons for the highlight attractions but also some vouchers to taste local specialties!
All packages are available in Dutch, French, German, English and Spanish.
Throughout the city the municipality is currently building so-called Kids Installations. These are remarkable places where kids can play, discover or just hang around to have fun. In total there will be six of those installations. One of them is ‘XXL Opsinjoorke’, a giant (XXL) version of what used to be a small statue. To understand I have to again explain a local legend…
Opsinjoorke is a tradition dating back to the 1600s, where during a procession a doll was thrown in the air by means of a large linen cloth. Throwing into the air equalled the symbolic punishment of husbands who maltreated their wives (!). When in 1775 a local guy from the rival city of Antwerp was accused of stealing the doll, they renamed it after the nickname of the people of Antwerp: Opsinjoorke!
On the main square you will find a small statue of Opsinjoorke, being thrown with hands and feet up in the air. But why not enlarge it and allow kids to climb it! So that’s what they did close to the St. Rumboldstower. It’s literally big fun and….very yellow!
Planckendael is a fun zoo! It not only has a great collection of animals, the way it is set up is again aimed at kids. You can do much more than only watching animals!
Established in 1956 as a refuge for sick and injured animals from Antwerp Zoo (the 3rd largest zoo in Europe in terms of number of species), Planckendael later developed as an animal park of its own right, on its way to surpass Antwerp Zoo on popularity.
Planckendael now has hundreds of animal species from all five continents and extends on 42 hectares (104 acres). To watch the elephants you can climb your way up to the viewing platform. The way up there is already an adventure for kids!
The Zoo aims to be a bit different. Rail tracks and wagons, an old Jeep or even a boat to cross water, it’s all there.
And there is always time for a joke!
For opening times and entrance fee visit their website. With the mentioned Pretpakket coupons you will get € 3,00 discount per person.
Hidden gems of Mechelen
OK, now let’s leave the kids activities for a moment. Mechelen has very nice hidden gems that I really want to show you.
In the Keizerstreet you will find the former Palace of Margret of Austria who was regent of the Habsburg Netherlands between 1507 and 1530. The building currently is court of law, but you can enter the garden. Quite a surprise entering from a busy shopping street into this peaceful place…
Groen Waterke (“Green Water”) at Goswin De Stassartstreet, is one of many idyllic spots in Mechelen. The brook owes its name to the duckweed which covers the surface of the water. It’s a remainder of an old brook and offers the current green view after a Mother Superior of the convent complained about all the boats passing by, reducing the traffic considerably!
The floating Dyle Path is a nice way to see a different side of Mechelen. It’s a walk between the Botanical Garden and the Vismarkt (Fish Market). The Vismarkt is actually a very nice place to have dinner or enjoy a drink on the many terraces.
The Botanical garden is a nice place to relax after a long walk. Like all of the main attractions, it is not far from the main square.
Where to stay in Mechelen
I mentioned earlier that some hotels have special family-friendly packages. Upon check-in your kids will get the small backpack with funny stuff where our Novotel Mechelen) even has a XBox Kinect in the lobby to keep kids entertained while you still enjoy breakfast or a drink.
Here is the list of hotels that offer the family-friendly package: Best Western Hotel Gulden Anker, Martin’s Patershof, Novotel Mechelen Centrum, Holiday Inn Express, NH Mechelen, VixX hotel, hotel Muske Pitter and Jeugdherberg (youth hostel) De Zandpoort.
Thank you Mechelen, we had a great time!
We were invited by Tourism Mechelen to explore the city for 3 days. All opinions are our own.
I’ve travelled through Belgium, but embarrassingly, have never heard of Mechelen. I love how Europe focuses on children without making attractions only for kids. It’s great when you find a place the entire family can enjoy. The Memorial Museum is particularly important for all ages of travellers.
Thank you Jody! Belgium has so many beautiful places… We have traveled as a family to places around the world, but when kids get special attention they tend to remember that particular trip much better. Hope you make it to Belgium again someday!