A medium sized town (Belgian standards) of around 70.000 people, Sint-Niklaas is located between the larger cities of Ghent (Gent) and Antwerp (Antwerpen) in East Flanders. It is the capital of the Waas region (in Dutch: Waasland). This region, which does not have any administrative functions, is surrounded by the river Schelde on three sides.
As a historic resting spot for traders between Antwerp and Ghent, Sint-Niklaas boasts the biggest market space of Europe (originally the lawn where traders halted). It was given its title of city by Napoleon and had a second big spurt of growth during the Industrial Revolution, when it was an important industrial town for textile and bricks. In the late 19th century this has resulted, in the northern part of the city centre, in a geometric street pattern where you can still see many examples of the historic Art Nouveau and Art Deco houses built for the new bourgeoisie.
From Sint-Niklaas it is possible to visit several historic towns and villages on the banks of river Schelde (Doel, Hulst, the villages on the Schelde between St. Amands and Rupelmonde), and it offers a good starting point for cycling trips along the beautiful tidal landscapes on the river shores.
The E17 highway (Antwerp - Ghent - Kortrijk) passes by the city. The A12 (Antwerp - Brussels) can be reached from Sint-Niklaas through the N16. Also, it is possible to go to the seaside by taking the E34 (Antwerp - Knokke-Heist) which is reachable from Sint-Niklaas by taking the N41 and N403.
Trains from Ghent and Antwerp run three to four times every hour, taking 20-30 minutes. Trains from Leuven/Mechelen run once an hour, taking one hour. From Brussels there are direct stopping trains via Dendermonde, but the express (IC) via Antwerp or Ghent is quicker despite the need to change trains there. It is also possible to change trains in Mechelen which has very regular connections from Brussels and an onward connection to Sint-Niklaas once every hour. The trip from Brussels takes around 1 hour if the connection goes smooth. Finally, there are also direct trains to Sint-Niklaas from the coast (Oostende) via Bruges (once an hour, takes 1 hour), and Lille Flandres in France (once an hour, takes 90 minutes).
Sint-Niklaas is easily explored on foot. After a major overhaul of Market Square and the main streets leading through the city, Sint-Niklaas was awarded the title of Most Pedestrian Friendly City in Belgium. The distance from the railway station to Market Square is half a mile/750 metres. The city also has excellent new bicycle lanes, with right of way for cyclists on most intersections. Finally, local buses run through the main streets on designated bus lanes. The main bus terminal is next to the railway station.
Market Square - Belgium's largest market square, almost rivals Moscow's Red Square and the Vatican's St.Peter's Square in size. During the Vredesfeesten hot air balloon happening in early September, 50 hot air balloons take off from here simultaneously. Around the square you can see the neo-gothic City Hall with its typical Flemish belfry tower with carillon playing songs every hour; behind it the Holy Mary Church with its 18 ft. tall golden Holy Mary statue on top; on the other side of the Square, the old city hall and prison, with behind it the St. Nicolas Church (the Old Church); in the northeastern corner of Market Square there is Houtbriel, a smaller square with nice historic houses.
Mercator museum - Fascinating maps are the focus of this museum. Mercator was one of the most famous cartographers in history, and was born in Rupelmonde, a village in the neighbourhood.
Stadspark & Kasteel Walburg - nice park with castle surrounded by a moat, a few hundred metres south of Market Square.
Sint-Niklaas is also a convenient starting point for many interesting cycling trips in the Waasland and along the river Schelde, offering a nice respite from city life in the otherwise densely populated area between Brussels, Ghent, Antwerp and Leuven. For some itineraries, see below in the 'Get Out' section.
Sint-Niklaas is also famous for its yearly hot air balloon festival held the first weekend of September. This festival, called 'Vredesfeesten', commemorates the liberation of the city by British troops from German occupation on September 9th, 1944. Next to the 50 hot air balloons competing in a race, you can also admire the take-off of helium gas balloons with sand ballast bags and of the 'special shapes' - huge hot air balloons in the shape of a beer glass, castle, motor cycle, dinosaur etc.
Siniscoop is Sint-Niklaas' cinema, located not far from the centre, close to the railway station [www.siniscoop.be].
There are only a few hotels in Sint-Niklaas, mainly around Market Square (Hotel De Spiegel, Ibis Hotel), near the railway station (Hotel New Flanders) and on the southern end of the city, on the approach to the E17 motorway (Best Western Serwir Hotel). For budget accomodation and youth hostels, it is advisable to stay in nearby Ghent or Antwerp and come for the day.
Recreatiedomein De Ster - About 4 kilometres southeast of the centre, this recreation area comprises a large artificial lake suitable for swimming and sailing. There is a sandy beach, a playground for children, a swimming pool, several outdoor sports courts, and a little tourist train running around the lake to connect all these places.
South of Sint-Niklaas:
Walking/Cycling along the Schelde - 10 km south of Sint-Niklaas, the river Schelde winds its way from Ghent to Antwerp through a beautiful landscape that was the decor for 'Stille Waters', a Flemish TV-show. Although still 100 km away from the North Sea mouth, the Schelde is already tidal at this point, with a tidal difference of 5 metres twice a day. As a result, the view from the green and muddy river banks is changing by the hour. The river is flanked by asphalt cycle lanes on both sides, passing through scenic villages like St.Amands, Mariekerke, Den Bunt (Hamme), Weert (Bornem), Temse and Rupelmonde. A number of riverside cafe's offer nice views over the river while having a cold beer or eating the specialty of the area, river eel in green sauce, of course eaten with frites. You can cross over from one side to the other at several places by means of small public ferries, which are free of charge and have space for bicycles. In Temse, there is the impressive 19th-century iron bridge, the last bridge on the Schelde's way to the sea. The area can easily be reached by car. The only train station in the proximity is Temse, with an hourly train from Sint-Niklaas (takes 7 minutes). As it is on the line to Mechelen-Leuven, it can also be reached from that direction. Upstream, Dendermonde is also an option, 5 km away from where the scenic part starts but with good train connections to Sint-Niklaas, Ghent and Brussels.
North of Sint-Niklaas:
Doel - A village on the river Schelde in the Antwerp harbour area, 20 kilometres to the northeast of Sint-Niklaas. The panorama of the river, 1 kilometre wide at this point, is very scenic. There is the 17th century windmill with looming in the background the two 176-metre high cooling towers of Doel nuclear power plant, Belgium's largest, a few km further north on the Dutch border. The village is threatened with demolition and removal from the map as the Antwerp harbour authority has plans to build docks here. However, these plans have been shelved for the time being and a small number of inhabitants has persisted in staying here, despite efforts by the harbour authority to make everyone leave. As a consequence, the village has something of a ghost town, with most houses deserted and some already in ruins. The depopulation of the village has attracted street artists squatting the houses and spraypainting often political-ecologically inspired graffiti on the walls throughout the village. On sunny summer afternoons, it has become a bit of an alternative day trip destination, with people from the cities coming to see the river panorama and soaking up the surrealistic, slightly eerie atmosphere. On the river dike, the old windmill still has a cafe/restaurant where you can have an afternoon tea while overlooking the village and the river. Doel can be reached from Sint-Niklaas by car or bus. By bicycle is also possible, but beware apart from the last 8km through the polders, the road is long and uninteresting. In Summer, there is also a free public ferry from Doel to Fort Lillo on the other side, in Antwerp province.
Cycle lane to Hulst - one of the better cycling trips which can be done around Sint-Niklaas. Hulst is a walled medieval city surrounded by a moat, 15 km north of Sint-Niklaas. Originally a Flemish town, it was captured by the Dutch troops during their war of independence and served as a bulwark on the left bank of Schelde against the Spanish troops further south. As the military frontline solidified into the later Belgo-Dutch border, Hulst is now in the Netherlands, but still retained its Flemish character. The town itself has a couple of historic buildings (city walls and gates, fortress, canons, windmill, city hall and church) and can also be reached by bus from Sint-Niklaas. But the nicest way to go there is by bike; the railway bed of the old railway line to Hulst was transformed into a flat asphalt bike lane cutting 11 km straight north through the landscape, without road besides it. The complete absence of any hills, turns or motorised traffic make this a true cycling highway. After crossing the practically invisible Dutch border in the village of De Klinge, the path continues through a forest till it reaches the outskirts of Hulst. One way, the trip by bike takes about 45 minutes for an average cyclist. From Hulst, it is possible to continue through the polder landscape to Doel (10 km to the east) and to the Land van Saeftinghe (10 km to the north). The latter is a tidal swampland on the Westerschelde, the estuary where the river Schelde meets the salty waters of the North Sea. The area was once inhabited, but was taken back by the sea over 400 years ago, drowning the villages on this land forever. Now an official nature reserve, it is a treacherous place where the tides easily consume large stretches of land in a matter of seconds and must not be explored without an experienced guide. In the hamlet of Paal there is food/drinks available and it is possible to swim in the estuary.
A possible bicycle trip itinerary to combine Hulst, Doel and the Antwerp harbour would go as follows:
Start at Sint-Niklaas railway station and follow the old railway/cycling highway to Hulst; take a break there to explore the town. From here on, you can go straight to Doel by going east via Nieuw-Namen and Prosperpolder, or you can first head north along the nice Dutch polder roads to Land van Saeftinghe and then continue southeast along the sea dike, Hedwigepolder - which is due to be given back to the sea - crossing back into Belgium at Doel nuclear power plant and entering Doel from the north. After some refreshments in Doel, take the 2 km ferry ride to Fort Lillo, which also has a couple of bars, and continue southeast along the river through the Antwerp harbour. You will cross several sluices to the harbour docks before finishing in the centre of Antwerp. If needed, it is possible to make the circle round and return to Sint-Niklaas by crossing over to the Left Bank using the Pedestrian Tunnel, and then following the old highway - it has good bike lanes - through the villages of Zwijndrecht, Melsele and Beveren. The total route Sint-Niklaas to Antwerp via Hulst, Saeftinghe, Doel and Fort Lillo would be around 55 km; add another 20 km if returning to Sint-Niklaas.