Sint-Niklaas is a medium-sized city (by Belgian standards) of around 77,000 people (2018), in East Flanders, between the bigger cities of Ghent and Antwerp. It is the capital city of the Waas region (Waasland), which is surrounded by the river Schelde (Scheldt) on three sides.
Sint-Niklaas is the gateway to the scenic landscapes around the river Schelde. Located just 10 km from the Dutch border, it is also a useful starting point to explore places in the province of Zeeland, especially the fascinating city Hulst right across the border.
As a historic resting spot for traders between Antwerp and Ghent, Sint-Niklaas boasts one of the largest market squares in 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 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.
The E17 motorway passes by the city.
Sint-Niklaas is on the main railway line between Antwerp and Ghent. Trains from Antwerp and Ghent run three to four times every hour, taking 20-30 minutes. Trains from Mechelen/Leuven run once an hour, taking 35 minutes/over 1 hour respectively. From Brussels there is an hourly direct train, but it is rather slow and takes well over 1 hour; it's usually faster to travel via Antwerp-Berchem or Mechelen, changing trains there. From Brussels Airport-Zaventem, take a train to Antwerp-Berchem and change there. Finally, there are also direct trains to Sint-Niklaas from the coast (Oostende) via Bruges (once an hour, takes over 1 hour), and Lille Flandres in France (once an hour, takes almost 2 hours).
A brand-new cycling superhighway (Fietssnelweg), the F4, connects Antwerp and Ghent via Sint-Niklaas. Most of the bike lane is very comfortable (good asphalt) and wide, and runs parallel right next to the Antwerp-Ghent railway. It is very well signposted with F4-signs. Distance from Ghent is 34 km; it starts/terminates at Gent-Dampoort railway station, although the first part exiting Ghent is not yet finished and follows normal roads. From Antwerp (20 km from Sint-Niklaas), the F4 starts/terminates at the railway station in the nearby village of Zwijndrecht, just a few kilometres west of Antwerp. The final approach into Antwerp with a new bicycle bridge across the river Scheldt has not yet been completed. Zwijndrecht can easily be reached from Antwerp by ordinary road after crossing the river through the Kennedy-bicycle tunnel or the Sint-Anna pedestrian tunnel with its quaint antique wooden escalators.
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 850 m (2,790 ft).
The city also has excellent new bicycle lanes, with right of way for cyclists on most intersections.
Local buses run through the main streets on designated bus lanes. The main bus terminal is next to the railway station.
- 1 Grote Markt (Market Square). The city's main square is 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 6-metre 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.
- 2 Mercator Museum, Zamanstraat 49, ☏ . M closed. 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. In winter the museum is closed for a few weeks so it is advised to check in advance if it is open when you are planning a visit during the winter. €5 regular ticket, free for children up to 12.
- 3 Stadspark & Castle Walburg, Parklaan (a few hundred metres south of Market Square). Nice park with castle surrounded by a moat.
- Sint-Niklaas is 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. It is a truly spectacular sight to see dozens of hot air balloons take off simultaneously from Market Square, right in the middle of the city and surrounded by buildings. 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. In the evening, concerts are held throughout the entire city centre. This part of the "Vredesfeesten" is named "Villa Pace".
- Bicycle trips in the area: Sint-Niklaas is a convenient starting point for many interesting cycling trips in the Waasland, along the river Scheldt, to fascinating places like Doel, to the Dutch fortified city Hulst and further into the Netherlands (Zeeland), 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 'Go next' section. Especially the former railway bicycle trail to Hulst is highly recommended.
- Recreatiedomein De Ster - About 4 km southeast of the centre, this recreation area comprises an 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.
The main shopping street in the city centre is the Stationstraat, the street between the railway station and the Grote Markt.
- 1 Waasland Shopping Center, Kapelstraat 100 (2 km south of the city centre), ☏ . M-Th Sa 10:00—20:00; F 10:00—21:00. This is the largest shopping mall in the area.
- Supermarkets: Inside the Waasland Shopping Center, there is a Delhaize. Nearby, there is an Albert Heijn. Inside the city centre, there is a Carrefour. North of the railway station, there is another Carrefour and a Colruyt.
- Night shops: There are several night shops scattered all over the city.
- 1 Frituur Conny & Franky, Plezantstraat 325, ☏ . For the typical fries the Belgians are so proud of. A great option for budget dining, but not the healthiest one.
- Kopenhagen (Houtbriel). Chic but not cheap.
- Amadeus (Houtbriel). Spareribs à volonté.
- Fast food (Market square and surroundings). Rolls, burgers, fries, pizza, kebab. Open till late at night on Fridays and Saturdays.
- 2 Dynasty, Nieuwe Baan 128c (on the road to Lokeren), ☏ . Tu closed. Chinese and Japanese restaurant (showcooking, not traditional Japanese).
- Burger King (Waasland Shopping Center). Open until 20:00.
- McDonald's (on the old highway to Antwerp, very near Recreatiedomein De Ster).
On the square behind the Old Church there are a couple of nice bars, like Het Elfde Genot (The Elenth Pleasure) and, nearby on Market Square, Het Hemelrijck (Heaven's Empire)
- Cipierskelder (Market square). A pub in a medieval cellar.
- Pool Fiction (near railway station, Siniscoop). Pub in retro Americana style. You can shoot pool. Sometimes there's a live DJ. Can be busy on Friday and Saturday night.
There are only a few hotels in Sint-Niklaas, mainly around Market Square, near the railway station and on the southern end of the city, on the approach to the E17 motorway. Most people staying in Sint-Niklaas are business travellers so the amount of cozy hotels are rather limited. For better budget accommodation and youth hostels, it is advisable to stay in nearby Ghent or Antwerp and come for the day.
Sint-Niklaas is safe. The usual precautions will suffice.
- Hulst – The most interesting nearby city to visit (besides Antwerp and Ghent of course) is Hulst in the Netherlands, just across the border, 15 km to the north of Sint-Niklaas. Hulst can be reached by car or bus from Sint-Niklaas. However, the nicest way to go there is by bicycle: the track bed of the former railway line to Hulst was transformed into a flat asphalt bike path cutting 13.5 km straight north through the landscape, without road besides it. The railway bike trail starts, unsurprisingly, near Sint-Niklaas railway station, at the Driekoningen Roundabout to be more precise. Soon after exiting the city, it passes through beautiful countryside and several forests along the way. The complete absence of any hills, turns or motorised traffic make this a true cycling highway. After 10 km, the bike path crosses the NL border at De Klinge, a village divided by the border. Right before the border and next to De Klinge's disused railway station (there is an old steam engine on a stretch of track still remaining), there is a pub called 'De Oude Statie' where one can refresh with a delicious draught Bolleke Koninck, Antwerp's most famous beer. Next to the border marker 100 m ahead, there is a replica of the Dodendraad (Wire of Death), the lethal electric fence erected by the German military to control the Dutch–Belgian frontier after the occupation of Belgium during the First World War. The bike trail terminates 3.5 km further, right in front of the city moat around Hulst.
- Doel – A village on the river Scheldt in the Antwerp harbour area, 25 km to the northeast of Sint-Niklaas. The panorama of the river, 1 km wide at this point, is very scenic. There is the 17th-century windmill against the backdrop of the two 176-m-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 dyke, the old windmill still has a pub where you can have a beer while looking over the village and the river. Doel can be reached from Sint-Niklaas by car or bicycle (24 km along the road). The shortest route from Sint-Niklaas to Doel is to follow the N451 highway, which has bike lanes for most part. However, the highway is boring and you will be cycling right next to heavy traffic racing by. A slightly longer, but much more interesting, scenic and largely traffic-free route is to head north on the former railway bicycle trail towards Hulst (see above). Once you reach the NL border at De Klinge, leave the bike trail and turn right towards the east. After a few kilometres of following the Dutch border through the village streets, you will reach the Koningsdijk (King's Dyke), a 6-km long straight dyke through the polders running right on the border. It has a bicycle path on top of it, lined with trees and offering great views over the surrounding landscape, with the Netherlands on your left and Belgium on your right-hand side. Once you reach Kieldrecht, you can pick up the road to Doel which, during these last 8 km, cuts straight through windswept empty polders.
- In the other direction, to the south of Sint-Niklaas, there are nice and scenic bike paths along the river Scheldt connecting villages like Rupelmonde, Temse (with its massive iron bridge crossing the river, the longest river bridge in Belgium), Bornem, Hamme (cross by free ferry), Mariekerke, Sint-Amands, etc. To get there from Sint-Niklaas, first cycle down to Temse or Hamme (both around 9 km). Although still far from the North Sea, the Scheldt is already tidal at this point, which makes the views from the green river banks change by the hour as the water goes up and down. At several places, it is possible to cross the river by free ferry with your bicycle. There are several pubs along the riverside serving drinks and local specialities.