From ancient palaces to funky shops, Mechelen is an intriguing mix. Between 1506 and 1530 this was the capital of the Spanish Netherlands, governed by Margaret of Austria, the regent for the Habsburg Emperor Charles V. In the 1550s it became a significant religious centre and today Mechelen remains the home of the head of the Belgian church.
Take a walk around town to see the appropriately fine architecture: the medieval palace of Margaret of York on Keizerstraat, now the town theatre; Margaret of Austria's bold Gothic and Renaissance palace more or less opposite and today housing the law courts; St Rumbold's Cathedral dating from the 13th century and with its tower containing two notable carillons of church bells.
The 16th-century mansion, Hof van Busleyden, on Frederik de Merodestraat, now houses a town museum of Mechelen's renowned crafts (www.mechelen.be/stedelijkemusea). Along the way here you'll take in cobbled alleys, market squares and streets of graceful gabled houses.
Then make for the old fish market, Vismarkt, where you'll get a feel for Mechelen's spirit of enterprise. A large brewery used to dominate this neighbourhood and when it closed in 1995 the area became semi-derelict. Over the last few years, however, Vismarkt and its surrounds have been transformed into a cool centre of cafés and restaurants. It has rapidly become something of a honeypot for local residents and it exudes a gently vibrant atmosphere.
Grand Café Lamot at Van Beethovenstraat 8 opened in 2005, right on the site of the Lamot brewery, and offers fine brasserie fare (00 32 15 20 95 30; www.grandcafelamot.be). At Puro at Guldenstraat 20 (00 32 15 33 68 22; >www.puro-mechelen.be) Lamot's former offices have been strikingly revamped into a hip new café and restaurant.
Mechelen still has a working brewery. Het Anker in the historic centre at Guido Gezellelaan 49 dates back to the 14th century. It makes the renowned Gouden Carolus brand – and last year acquired a licence to distil whisky.
The sense of innovation is shared by several of the town's shops. Awardt at Adegemstraat 3 is a wonderfully stylish and inventive hat and accessories store. At Vismarkt 24, Pâté du Chef sells wacky retro-style goods. De Witte Zebra at Hoogstraat 49 opened in May this year, and specialises in exquisite creations of wool and silk from scarves to brooches.
For a chic place to stay, head to Hotel Vé at Vismarkt 14, (00 32 15 200 755; www.hotelve.com; doubles from €174/£145 including breakfast). Or book into Dusk till Dawn B&B at Onze-Lieve-Vrouwestraat 81, a 19th-century townhouse (00 32 15 41 28 16; www.dusktilldawn.be; doubles from €120/£100 including breakfast).
More information from Mechelen tourist office, Hallestraat 2 (00 32 70 22 28 00; www.inenuitmechelen.be) www.visitflanders.co.uk