Many destinations claim to be family-friendly but few are able to really live up to the title. When we visited Mechelen, a small(er) city in Belgium this summer I was interested to see what set them apart as a destination for families. Could they live up to the hype? I was delighted to learn that yes, indeed they do!
Why is Mechelen so family friendly? I can't help but think it's part of a larger goal of including children and creating a community that does the same. 40% of the population is under 18 and they've done some serious planning to create programs that meet this need. Any community that invests not only in attracting families to visit their city but also goes out of their way to make it a great place for families to live has their priorities in order.
What does this mean if you're visiting with a family?
A welcoming, relaxing trip is what!
Mechelen is small and very walkable (think no hills to climb or cars rushing everywhere). Even though it's small, don't think there's nothing to do. In fact the small size is what makes it really appealing for visiting families – less ground to cover means kids who don't get worn out with walking all day.
How to Get to Mechelen
Mechelen is located in the Flemish part of Belgium. Belgium is divided into two main areas Wallonia (French) and Flanders (Dutch). The city is between Antwerp and Brussels and can make a very easy day trip from either city thanks to frequent train service.
Getting here is very simple.
There are IC trains (intercity) that run from Antwerp, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Brussels and many more cities with stops in Mechelen. You will want to double check that the train does stop in Mechelen as some bypass the stop. Tickets can be purchased online to make things easy. We used the NS.nl app that allowed us to buy tickets in the Netherlands and Belgium during our stay. The tickets are digital too so we only had to scan the barcodes to enter the station and with the conductor. Extremely easy to use.
If you have a car you can also drive. The city center does have restrictions on motorized traffic so it may make driving around the city a bit more difficult. The Mechelen tourism page has more information on distances and how to get to the city from major points in the region.
What to do in Mechelen
DIY Walking Tour
My kids have had their fill of city tours and this mom knows when to call it quits. But in Mechelen they've designed a tour you can do yourself, at your own pace. They've designed two of them in fact. The kids are put in charge of a map and the parents have the book key. While the kids guide the way on one of the tours (themed with either animals or “wet feet”) at each stop the parents – or kids – can read from the key book for more insight. Take as much or as little time as you want. You can pick up the family city map and other helpful publications at the Mechelen Tourism office just off the Grote Markt.
DIY Food Tour
We LOVE food tours but we'd never done a do it yourself food tour. In Mechelen it's possible! The city has put together a coupon book (the Sense-sational Mechelen Guide) that can be purchased at the tourism office for 5€. I was a little unsure how it would all work but it couldn't have been more straight forward. We started with the stop closest to our hotel and then found our way around the rest of the path. Each book has several different coupons for local specialties. You simply walk to each of the stops and redeem the coupons. We picked up our food items as we did the walking tour and found it worked really well.
It was raining while we were visiting but on a nice day we would have loved to have taken a walk down the Dijlepad to the Botanical Gardens and had a picnic with all the items we picked up.
St. Rumbold's Tower
You can't miss this UNESCO world heritage site visible from nearly every corner of town! It's very impressive to see from the outside and even though it's over 500 steps inside to the top, we decided we'd attempt it. I have to admit I was nervous! But, they've done a great job making it easier to do. There are five stops on the way up. At each stop you can go inside the tower to see different apparatus and learn a bit more about the inner workings of the tower and its past. This made for a great break on the way up. Once you reach the top there's a great view of the city and on clear days you can see to Brussels or Antwerp.
On Saturday's the Grotemarkt comes to life with the weekly market. This is an integral part of life in European cities and it's no different here. Browse the stalls selling a wide variety of Flemish foods and specialty items. If you only purchase one thing, make sure that you pick up some freshly made waffles. They might be one of the best things you eat all year! At just 5€ for a 1/2 kilo bag they're also a great bargain.
Small and Large Benguinage
Truthfully, I had no idea what a benguinage was until we visited Mechelen. These communities originally started as a way for religious laywomen to live together and create a life for themselves. They never took vows so they weren't attached to a church but a church usually was central to the community. Overtime these areas evolved as their own villages within a larger area but the key feature was always that it was just women who lived here, protected by the walls that encircled the communities. They developed their own trades and ways to survive and people of all classes could live here, though they needed to provide a way to support themselves. Benguinages answered womens' need for social and economic needs while giving them independence that was rarely offered to women of this period. For women who chose not to marry, were widowed or were women who wanted a religious life but didn't want to become a nun this was an answer.
There is both a small and large benguinage in Mechelen. People live in these areas today and it no longer functions as it once did. You can visit and see this UNESCO world heritage site and learn more about how the benguinages affected the growth of Mechelen and which industries grew out of thee areas.
The Kazerne Dossin is a museum dedicated to the remembrance of the Jews and Romani of Belgium who were deported from the area during World War II. More than 25,000 Belgian Jews were deported from here with just over 5% surviving. It is one part museum and one part memorial documenting the lives of those lost as well as the rise of mass violence; how and why it happens. It might not be best to visit with small children but for teenagers it can be an insightful visit.
Where to Eat in Mechelen
For a small city Mechelen has many different options for where to eat! The problem we faced was not having enough time to try all the places we wanted! Mechelen takes family friendly even further here. There are restaurants that tout themselves as kid-friendly locations with kids areas, menus, and in some cases quicker service for families (or earlier service for children). Here are our suggestions for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Saturday Market – If you're here on a Saturday you need to head to the market in the morning and grab some fresh waffles for breakfast. Trust us.
Foom – They serve both breakfast and brunch (depending on the day of the week) with big portions so be prepared – your kids may want to share. Located near the cathedral and kid friendly.
Sister Bean – Pop in for a coffee or grab a bite to eat. Sandwiches and salads fill the menu along with some great desserts. This is especially a good stop if you've got anyone gluten-free in your party as they've got plenty of options.
Brasserie't Vlietje – Probably a better option if your kids are a bit older but good Belgian food options. They do have a kids menu so children are welcome, we just felt older kids may be happier.
Sava – This tapas restaurants isn't what you'd expect to find in Belgium. But, having eaten in Spain more than I might like to admit, I can say the food here was excellent. We ordered a wide variety of tapas on the menu and really enjoyed everything. So did our kids!
De Cirque – One of their menu items for kids is smurf soup – can you really go wrong??
Where to Stay in Mechelen
If I had to choose one place you should stay it's Martin's Patershof. It was such a wonderful experience for our family that I can't recommend it enough. This hotel was once a church but has now been completely remodeled. The rooms are beautiful and exactly the type of place our family seeks out. 100% family friendly, mid-level luxury with great food. I looked forward to breakfast every day. It's also very centrally located so walking anywhere was not an issue.
There are of course other places that you could choose during your visit if Martin's is booked out.
Novotel Mechelen Centrum – Novotel is a trusted brand in Europe and in Mechelen it's no different. With rooms that can fit two adults and two children (somewhat rare in Europe) your family can visit in comfort. They provide a full free breakfast for children under 16 as well as children's menu at their on-site restaurant.
Holiday Inn Express Mechelen Centrum – With the free wi-fi and breakfast included in the room you're stay can be hassle free. It's also a less than 10 minute walk from the train station and city center giving you a great location to explore Mechelen.
We really enjoyed our visit to this little gem in Belgium. It was a lot of fun to discover a smaller city than get lost in the large cities like Brussels or Antwerp. Don't write off small cities when you travel, instead look to what they offer, and you might end up pleasantly surprised!
Our visit was assisted by Visit Flanders and Mechelen Tourism. As always all opinions are our own