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March visit to Belgium--time in Mechelen

Hello everybody,

I'm planning a trip to Belgium in mid-March and would love some advice/input on visiting Mechelen. The details of the trip aren't finalized, but I won't have a huge amount of time and will be trying to fit in a lot. One question is whether to do Mechelen as a day trip (possibly on a Monday and probably from Antwerp) or to spend a full day and night there. The weather isn't a major concern for me, but it will be on the threshold between winter and spring and the days still on the shorter side, so I want to take that into consideration too as I plan.

I'm a historian and major museum nerd, and my original interest in Mechelen was its connection to Margaret of Austria (and Anne Boleyn). I definitely want to see the Hof van Savoye, but since only the gardens are open to visitors, that won't take very long. According to VisitMechelen, the Museum Hof van Busleyden is closed for renovations and won't reopen until Spring 2024--since I'll be there mid-March, I'm guessing that I will (sadly) just miss it. The beguinage sounds really interesting and I know there are lots of churches, but does anybody have any particular recommendations for which ones to seek out?

Also, has anybody visited the art nouveau winter garden attached to the old Ursuline convent school on the outskirts of Mechelen? It sounds great and there are tours available on Sundays. But it is also closed 'until spring' and at this time, I can't find any more precise information than that, but it seems like something to learn more about and keep in the back of my mind.

Lastly, thoughts or recommendations on places to stay or eat? I'll be on my own and, though not quite on a shoestring, will be looking for ways to economize.


Posted by
7270 posts

I am a huge fan of Antwerp, so my preference to wake up there is ... slanted. There is 10 times as much to do in Antwerp. The two cities are well connected. It's slower but very interesting to take the bus (from Rooseveltplein bus station in Antwerp) to Mechelen, because you see all the post-war residential development. Although I saw (!) the courtyard Charles V played in as a child (?), there was not much feeling of Empire in Mechelen. I was lucky enough to see a temporary art show on homeboy (fauve painter) Rik Wouters and his father, a fine woodcarver. I think I mention the Nazi prison in the link above. Hard to get to without a car.

If you can get hold of Lonely Planet Belgium, it has a lot of good details on Mechelen, including churches worth seeing. As you noted, the museums there have strange problems staying open! TI used to be beside the Town Hall, across an alley.

If you can't find any museums open in Mechelen (I never found the Joods Museum open, ever) then it's a good Monday trip. The Town Hall museum might (?) be open on Monday just because of where it is. Do not overlook the KMSKA in Antwerp, since you like Museums. World-Class. If you like Art Nouveau in general, you might consider the (exteriors only, thus always open) the striking Cogels Osy Lei in Antwerp, about 100 townhouse exteriors, many of them Nouveau or Deco.

Posted by
7270 posts

Pick the highest value target you can for Sunday, because there are a few Sunday-only tours, through the TI office, booked sometimes in advance. For example, the inaccessible interiors of the Antwerp or Leuven Town Halls. I have not been to Doel, a tiny town that was expropriated and abandoned to build the current new-Port of Antwerp. I think it is shown only on Sunday. Fort 5, a medieval defense in the Mortsel neighborhood of Antwerp used to be partly open some Sundays. I'm half joking, but the Antwerp neighborhood of Deurne has a homebrewed history museum that a bartender has the key to, Volksmuseum Turninum, Deurne Volksmuseum, Koraalplaats 2, behind Bar “an de
Pappegei”. Sat & Sun 14:00-17:00, 1€, At one time, the best jobs in the neighborhood were at Crown Cork and Seal.

The Antwerp town hall is Art Deco inside, Leuven's much older, but heavily restored.

As I note in the link, the Beguinage in Mechelen has been restored and modernized so much that it is only a ghost of a Beguinage. My favorite Beguinage is Leuven's, but it's out of the way in town. Second best, Turnhout, which has a small museum part of the week. Antwerp has a Beguinage, and of course the one in Bruges is a UNESCO WHS.

Turnhout, BTW has an excellent, unique Museum of Playing Cards, and a good Town history museum. Leuven has a first-class Town (art) Museum, with museum-quality art. Lier has a smaller one that's nearly as good.

As an historian, there are smaller museums you must see in Antwerp, like the foundling home, and the, which are both also mansion-visits. The latter has several important Brueghels, including "Mad Meg." The over-touted Reubenshuis is a barren but important mansion with no art collection, while the Rocoxhuis does own and show art, in a more luxurious setting. The Vleeshuis is a must-see for historians. Note that the formerly independent Silver Museum and Shipping Museum were subsumed by the newer MAK. There is a bit of Port history in that neighborhood, and there is/was a significant nightime-only red-light district on Schipperstraat. I have not been to the newer Red Star Line Museum.

Posted by
293 posts

Hi Tim,

I've been crazy behind at work and trip planning fell off for the time being, but belated thanks for all the info. I am sure I will be back with more questions!

Thanks again,

Posted by
1968 posts

Hi Caroline,

Is it Margaret of Austria herself you are interested in or more the period she lived?

I have visited Mechelen not so many times, once the garden (in typical Renaissance style) of the Hof van Savoy, but the “Hof” itself is nowadays a courtyard. It was indeed from there she governed the “Nederlanden” / the Low Countries at the time Belgium and the Netherlands formed together in fact a unity of regions like Flanders, Holland, Brabant, Liege and so on. Just looked around in the entrance there and the only thing I can remember was a man with handcuffs, a lawer and a policemen waiting for the trial to become.

With the arrival of Protestantism and the Great Voyages of Discovery a lot happened here at the time (and later ofcourse) during her life. With the marriage of her brother Philip the Handsome with Joanna of Castile they became the parents and so Margaret the aunt of Charles the Fifth resulting that the Habsburgs became the dominant dynasty in European history. And as Joanna’s sister Catharine of Aragon was the first wife of Henry VIII of England, their devorce had anyway a huge impact on British history and beyond. And ofcourse the life of her successor Anna Boleyn too.

You can find the tomb of Margaret’s mother Mary of Burgundy in the Church of Our Lady in Bruges, next to the tomb of her grandfather Charles the Bold. The marriage, a party like no other of her brother Philip took place in Lier, close to Antwerp and a very intriguing story to learn more about.

I know too little about Mechelen to recommend a church. You can climb the tower of the Rombouts cathedral and from the platform on the very top you can overlook the whole city, that’s all I know. Think the Museum Hof van Busleyden must be fantastic and a pity just missing it. Nevertheless Mechelen is anyway a lovely place to visit.

To learn more you can not only contact TI’s but also local guides, universities or organizations like: Koninklijke Kring voor Oudheidkunde, Letteren en Kunst van Mechelen. Select under Categorie* Ik wens een vraag te stellen / Have a question to ask. Further this list of links can be of interest too: