by Janis / 0 comments - Orginally published:12th September 2023

Burning off those Belgian sweet treats

If you’re planning a visit to the delightful city of Mechelen in the heart of Flanders, you may have already heard of St Rumbold’s Cathedral, with its magnificent imposing Gothic belfry gracefully dominating Mechelen’s skyline.

Ohh yes, and great news, you can even climb to the top of the tower.

Ascending to the top of St Rumbold’s Tower was one of the highlights of our visit to the Belgian city of Mechelen. While I’m very happy to say that now, if you’d asked me while climbing through the steep, narrow staircases, I may not have been so enthusiastic.

But hey, I lived to tell the tale.

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Mechelen is a perfectly sized city for a European mini-break. It is easily navigated on foot, with many historical sights and museums within strolling distance of Mechelen’s picturesque Grote Markt. You may want to turn this visit into a road trip like us and visit Ghent and Leuven.

Without further ado, let’s climb that belfry.

Where is Mechelen?

How to get to Mechelen

- By Train
Start creating your own Mechelen adventure by train and discover the cultural delights of this picturesque city at a relaxed pace. Explore the sites amongst the charming city streets.
In under 2 hours and 45 minutes from the UK, you can hop on the Eurostar to Brussels, change onto a Belgium National Rail train to Mechelen, and your Flemish fun begins.

- By Car
If you’re venturing from the UK, jump on Le Shuttle and tour Belgium under your own steam.
Alternatively, it’s so easy to visit Flanders on a road trip. Rental Cars search multiple well-known car hire brands and find the best deals that suit you.

A little history of St Rumbolds’s Cathedral

Mechelen’s Gothic showpiece

Construction of St Rumbold’s Cathedral began in the early 1200s, although the cathedral was not consecrated until 1312. A fire in Mechelen in 1342 hampered the second phase of the cathedral structure; however, work would later continue.

By 1451 the vaults, nave and choir were complete. The following year, work began erecting St Rumbold’s Tower, and the first brick was laid on 22nd May. By 1481 the tower reached the Bell Chamber, located roughly halfway up the belfry.

The view from Grote Markt in the centre of Mechelen with Saint Rumbold’s Cathedral in the background.
St Rumbold’s Tower from the Grote Markt

In 1492 a landmark was reached, and the first bells were installed within the tower. Construction continued on St Rumbold’s Tower until 1520, when the belfry had reached 97.5 metres.

Building should have recommenced on the tower as the planned height, including the spire, was due to be 167 metres high. This would have meant the tower would have been taller than the Dom in Cologne, Germany.

There were grave concerns that as St Rumbold’s Cathedral and Tower were erected on wetlands, the groundworks would not have supported the extreme weight. Research has since revealed that the current foundations are less than 3 metres deep.
A close-up of a large brass bell embossed with dutch text that makes up part of the church bells inside St Rumbold’s tower in mechelen
St Rumbold’s Belfry
The inside of St Rumbold’s Cathedral with its tall white stone columns and its ornate dark carved wooden pulpit
Inside St Rumbold’s Cathedral

The delightful flat-top tower that now stands in the heart of Mechelen remains to be Belgium’s highest Gothic tower. With all its stonework, wooden flooring, brass bells and two carillons, the belfry weighs over 42,000 tons.

Many belfries across Belgium, Germany and France were used as watchtowers. From this vantage point, an alarm would be sounded to the city folk below if a fire or uninvited guests were approaching. In Münster, Germany, this ancient practice still survives. The ‘all clear’ horn is sounded by the Tower Keeper every 30 minutes from 9pm until midnight.

To discover the mystery behind Mechelen’s Maneblussers, take a peek below.

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Ascending St Rumbold’s Tower

The summit awaits
A visit to Mechelen isn’t complete without a climb to the top of St Rumbold’s Tower. You’ll love it, honestly; I know you thought it was time to relax and enjoy a Belgian beer or a delicious hot chocolate, but no, 538 steps await your ascent.
The illuminated tower of St Rumbold’s Cathedral at dusk as seen from the grote market in mechelen, flanders
St Rumbold’s Tower in the evening

St. Rumbold’s Cathedral and Tower stands proud in the Grote Markt, the city square and is magnificent inside and out. Take a seat in the church after you’ve finished your climb, and you’ll appreciate it even more.

It isn’t just the locals of Mechelen who love their tower; in 1999, St. Rumbold’s Belfry was listed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site as one of the significant Belfries in Belgium and France.

Tourist Information

If you’re tempted to visit Mechelen, the local tourist office provides some highly useful information and handy pointers for around the city. They can be found at Vleeshouwersstraat 6 in Schepenhuis, the old Alderman’s House.

Only 538 steps to go

The five floors are welcoming you
The 538 steps to the summit of the 360-degree Skywalk may first appear overwhelming; however, there are fortunately five floors as you ascend the tower for you to rest, catch your breath and discover the history of the ancient belfry.
The crane chamber, with its giant hoist wheel, the first level as you climb St Rumbold’s tower.
Crane Chamber

The initial 160 stairs take you to the Crane Chamber, the crane on this first floor was used to hoist up heavy materials to the floors above. Incredibly it wasn’t until after the First World War that this was replaced with an electric crane. Previously it was undertaken by the local workforce.

From within the centre of the Crane Chamber, you’ll also be able to see the cathedral organ below. If you’re ok with heights, peer over the wooden barrier through the glass floor, and you’ll have a bird’s-eye view of the organ and stained-glass windows.

The view down from the crane chamber to the pipes of St Rumbold's Cathedral's organ below and the stained glass window behind.
Bird’s-eye view of the St Rumbold’s Cathedral organ
After climbing another 73 steps, you’ll arrive at the Forge, where many of the materials to be hoisted further through the tower were stored. You’ll spot the trapdoors within the flooring on every belfry level.

Maneblussers, the Moon Extinguishers

I always love a little bit of folklore, and still today, the people of Mechelen proudly hold the nickname Maneblussers, the Moon Extinguishers.

The delightful tale shared amongst visitors is that on one night in January 1687, a slightly inebriated local stumbled out of an inn in Grote Markt.

As he glanced at St Rumbold's tower piercing into the hazy skies, he noticed the tower was ablaze. He raised the alarm, and the city came out in force to extinguish the fire with hand-to-hand buckets of water.

Before the chain of buckets reached the top of the tower, the moon slipped away, and the reddish glow disappeared along with it. The loyal citizens of Mechelen were trying to extinguish the moon.

We reach the Bell & Carillon Chamber

Onwards to the Ash Cellar

We head up a further 117 stairs and reach the Bell Chamber and the Old Carillon Chamber. St Rumbold’s Tower houses 49 bells, six of which are Bass Bells.

The largest of the bass bells is called the Salvator and was cast in 1498 and weighs 8,800 kg. Before the bells were automatically rung, this one bell would have required six bell ringers.

The verdigris bronze bells of Saint Rumbold’s Cathedral in Mechelen, with the contrasting red mechnisms to strike them.
St Rumbold’s Tower Bells

The bells were made of bronze, so, therefore, they would occasionally crack and need to be recast. The five other bass bells are the Karel cast in 1524 at 6,000 kg, and the Rumoldus, dating from 1491 at 4,235 kg. The most recent is the 3,000 kg Sint-Jan-Berchmans cast in 1947 and is rung on Mechelen’s Liberation Day on 4th September.

The remaining two are Magdalena, recast in 1498 after the tower fire, weighing 2,145 kg. The Libertus also recast in 1498 at 1,850 kg.

A close-up of a large brass bell embossed with dutch text that makes up part of the church bells inside St Rumbold’s tower in mechelen
Bronze bells within St Rumbold’s Belfry

The higher-tone bells hang in a bell cage one storey above. There are steps within this chamber to obtain a better view of the bells.

Within this floor is the Old Carillon Chamber, and every 7 ½ minutes, the historical carillon plays a tune known as the Mechelen Half. Mechelen is renowned worldwide for its Carillon School, founded in 1922 and still operates today.

A look inside the homely looking old carillon chamber of St Rumbold’s tower in mechelen with its organ-style keyboard for playing the carillon bells
The Old Carillon Chamber
Still on the same level is the Clock Chamber. An accurate time was required throughout the city of Mechelen due to the introduction of the railways. The clock regulator now sits within St Rumbold’s Cathedral and still controls the tower clock and the drum.
The cogs and wheels of the clock mechnism inside St Rumbold’s tower in mechelen
Clock Chamber
Before the 1930s, the Tower Keeper had to manually wind the counterweight every 24 hours. This process was executed electronically up until 2009, when it was fully automated.
A huge perforated copper drum spiked with pegs to identify the bells to play in the carillion inside St Rumbold’s tower in mechelen
Copper drum for the old carillon

The impressive copper drum which controls the chiming of the old carillon bell has 16,000 tiny holes within it, and all have been filed by hand. Thousands of pins are placed in the holes to define the tune that is played by the 40 bells, precision work.

As the drum rotates, the pins pass under the levers with a wire mechanism to the bells.

If you’re heading off on a Belgium adventure, then grab a copy of this DK Eyewitness book. I love planning road trips and these guides are so helpful.

I find them extremely informative, easy to follow and the pictures and maps tempt you into discovering more of the back roads.

St Rumbold’s Skywalk beckons

Yes, the rain has held off
One hundred more stairs, and we arrive at the New Carillon Chamber, with only another 88 steps to go. The following 40 paces take you to the Ash Cellar, which seems ironically named as this would have been the tower’s highest floor before the Skywalk platform’s addition.
The skywalk at the top of St Rumbold’s tower, offering great views over mechelen, flanders
St Rumbold’s Tower Skywalk

The last 48 steps, and we finally make it to the top of the belfry to the Skywalk. The 360-degree views from the top of St Rumbold’s Tower are incredible and are certainly worth the climb.

Take your time to stroll around the glass platform and try to pick out the local landmarks near and far. Unfortunately, it’s now time to head back down the twisting stairwell; in no time at all, you’ll be back on ground level.

The view from the Skywalk on the top of St Rumbold’s Tower in Mechelen, belgium.
View from Skywalk
Gary and I are reasonably unfit, and it took us around 35 minutes to climb and about 12 minutes to descend. So, not too bad.

Our video of Mechelen

We have created a YouTube video of our visit to Mechelen. Why not take a look?

Also, why not subscribe to our YouTube channel and get the latest clips as we post them?

Where to stay in Mechelen

Will it be a church or a brewery?

During our stay in Mechelen, we were hosted by Hotel Martin’s Patershof.

Hotel Martin’s Patershof is a beautifully restored church hotel located along the quiet street, Karmelietenstraat and was an incredibly peaceful day and night.

This beautiful hotel was a former 19th-century neo-Gothic convent and was converted into a Martin’s Hotel in 2009.

The Hotel Martin’s Patershof is only a five-minute stroll to the Fish Market and 10 minutes to the Grote Markt in Mechelen, so perfect for a weekend getaway.

Our extraordinary room in Hotel Martin’s Patershof in the upper reaches of the Apse of the former church with authentic stained glass windows.
Our room in Hotel Martin’s Patershof

Another accommodation option is to stay at Hotel Brouwerij Het Anker, Belgium’s first brewery hotel.

No sooner will you have stepped out of your bedroom door, and you’ll be the first in line for your Het Anker Brewery tour.

The brewery’s location is quite unique as it is in the heart of the ancient Beguinage. The brewery hotel is within easy strolling distance of Mechelen’s main sights. It is only 10-minute stroll to the Grote Markt.


This article was produced in partnership with Visit Mechelen and Visit Flanders in exchange for an honest review and an account of our personal experiences.

* This post may contain links to affiliated sites where we earn a small commission at no additional charge to you.

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