In Medieval times this city on the Leie was powered by a lucrative flax and linen industry, generating trade with England and France.
Kortrijk also has a certain prestige for the Battle of the Golden Spurs (1302) a victory for Flanders against the French, now marked by a national holiday for the Flemish Community.
Later, the Treaty of Kortrijk (1820) set out the border between Belgium and France that is still in place today.
With Medieval churches, an intact 17th-century beguinage and iconic towers, Kortrijk has masses of history to delve into, but also stands out for its modern urban planning.
In recent decades the Leie has been made navigable to large ships, requiring a massive regeneration project, while in the 20th century the old city centre was turned into one of Belgium’s largest car-free zones.
1. Begijnhof Kortrijk
Like an enchanting little village on a knot of alleys within the old city, the UNESCO-listed beguinage of Kortrijk was set up in the 13th century by Joan, Countess of Flanders (1199-1244). This complex for lay religious women, set between the city’s two main churches, was ransacked several times, notably during the epochal Battle of the Golden Spurs in 1302. The 41 houses all date from the 17th century, and you’ll be able to make out the home of the Mother Superior (Grootjuffrouw) by its double-stepped gable.
The ground floor of the Sint-Annazaal, with a distinctive corner tower, houses an experience centre explaining the significance of this site and beguinages in general.
There’s also a show-house for a taste of life at the beguinage, at No. 41, close to the main entrance to the courtyard.
The entire site is free to visit, and you can borrow an audioguide to help you interpret the Beguinage and its historic surroundings.
From the 9th century onwards the Counts of Flanders constructed a castle and defensive compound in what is now the centre of Kortrijk.
All that remains of the Medieval walls that defended it is a pair of circular sandstone and limestone towers on either bank of the Oude Leie river.
These are the Broeltorens, and though they are nearly identical the structures were built at different times and had different roles.
On the south side is the Speytorre put up in 1385 to control traffic on the Leie.
The Inghelburghtorre across the water is from 1415 and was an armoury.
They were once part of a Medieval defensive system that was torn up in the 17th century by the famed military engineer, Vauban.
The bridge between them is the Broelbrug, which was blown up in 1918 and again in 1940 before being restored to its original appearance.
3. Kortrijk 1302
In the Begijnhofpark there’s a multimedia history museum housed in a building that belonged to the Cistercian Groeninge Abbey.
This monastery dates to the 13th century, but after the abbey outside the walls was destroyed by the Spanish, a new one was built within the city walls in the 1580s.
The museum is in a dormitory building raised in the 17th century.
The date 1302 refers to the Battle of the Golden Spurs in the Franco-Flemish War (1297-1305), fought close by at the Fields of Groeninge and resulting in a surprise victory for the Flemish.
This later became a milestone, and 11 July, the date of the battle became the official holiday of the Flemish community in Belgium.
The museum tells you all you need to know about the battle and its causes and consequences, and explains how the date became symbolic for the Flemish Movement in the 1800s and 1900s.
After the Battle of the Golden Spurs the victors hung the golden spurs of 500 dead French knights from the ceiling of this former collegiate church.
The originals were looted later the same century and replaced with replicas that are still there today.
This initially Romanesque church went up at the end of the 12th century within what was then the curved compound for the castle for the Counts of Flanders.
The western wall, nave and transept of this first building remains, while the rest was reworked in the course of the 15th century.
The interior was later given a Baroque update.
In the 14th-century Gravenkapel (Counts’ Chapel), see the stunning wall paintings, the stained glass and the image of Holy Catharina, considered a masterpiece.
In 1631 the canon Roger Braye commissioned Anthony van Dyck to paint the Raising of the Cross for the church and after being removed following the French Revolution, this masterpiece was brought back to the altar in 1817 where it remains today.
5. Grote Markt
As we’ll see, the main square at the historical heart of the city only came into existence at the end of the 19th century with the demolition of the Oude Lakenhalle (Old Cloth Hall) around the Belfry.
Before that time there was a loop of smaller squares here, each with markets for different goods, like eggs, groceries, pottery, fruit and clothing.
Looking at Grote Markt on a map you’ll notice that the eastern side has a curve, and this traces the lost walls of that 9th-century castle founded by Baldwin II, Count of Flanders.
The square was pedestrianised in the 1999-2000 and among the sights to see are the Historisch Stadhuis (Town Hall) and the Belfry, which we’ll come to below.
Also worth a closer look is the townhouse Den Roeland at No. 19, which despite its 18th-century Neoclassical facade has a history going back deep into the Middle Ages.
It sits above 13th-century brick vaulted basement and in its time has been a school, warehouse, headquarters for the English Army in the 18th century, army hospital and Masonic lodge.
6. Historisch Stadhuis
Drawing your eye on the north side of Grote Markt, is the magnificent historic town hall, which has a core from 1418 and a facade completed around 1520. This is in a transitional style between Late Gothic and Renaissance, and is also remarkable for the 14 niches on the first floor with sculptures of the Counts of Flanders.
You’ll be able to go in to see the Vierschaar (Aldermen’s Hall) and the Raadzaal (Council Chamber). The former was in use until 1787 and is now a wedding venue.
While there, check out the stained glass windows, 19th-century murals, the carved allegorical figures depicting Lady Justice anchoring the ceiling beams, and the staggering Late Gothic mantelpiece from 1527. There’s another sublime mantelpiece in the Council Chamber, carved from sandstone and wood with allegorical figures of Righteousness (Left) and Peace (Right) and with Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor at the centre.
There are also stunning carvings in this hall where the beams meet the walls, representing passages from the Bible and classical literature.
7. Texture Museum
You’ll have a better grasp of Kortrijk’s history and present after a visit to this museum that opened in 2014 under a gleaming golden crown.
The Texture Museum tells the story of flax growing in the Leie Valley, explaining how this crop was processed into linen, which was Kortrijk’s lifeblood for centuries and remains a pillar of the local economy.
While the nobility spent fortunes on lace and damask, basic cloth for the masses was produced in vast quantities in Kortrijk.
From around the 14th century “Courtrai Flax” became a market leader and was highly sought after overseas.
West of the centre, in the Overleie district, the museum is in a converted depot (1912) for “swingled” flax.
There are three main rooms to peruse: The Leiekamer tells you all about the flax industry and its key players in the Leie region; the hands-on Wonderkamer shows you flax’s modern applications, while the Schatkamer shows off a marvellous, precious textile collection, rich with laces and damask.
An enduring emblem for Kortrijk, the belfry as added to the market square at the beginning of the 14th century when the city was coming up as a hub for the Flemish cloth industry.
For hundreds of years until the very end of the 19th century this now free-standing tower was part of the Oude Lakenhalle (Old Cloth Hall) complex.
This was a set of houses, which had previously contained the Cloth Hall before it moved to larger premises in the mid-16th century.
Those houses were torn down at the turn of the 20th century as part of a project to improve sanitation in the old city.
The tower’s bell tolls were integral to life in the city, marking the time, work hours, emergencies and all sorts of events.
As we see it now, the building’s design dates from 1520 and the gilded statue of Mercury atop is from 1712. The current jacquemarts, a man called Manten and woman called Kalle, on the east side of the spire, were added in the post-war restoration in 1961, and on Sundays, holidays and market days you may catch a little concert by the carilloneur.
The Merovingian Saint Eligius 588-660 founded a church at this very site in 650. That building grew into a Romanesque place of worship, replaced in the 14th and 15th centuries by the current Gothic edifice.
What will grab you is the height of the tower, dominating Grote Markt to the west and at 83 metres still one of the tallest structures in Kortrijk.
In 1862 the tower’s ornate wooden spire was struck by lightning, burning down and taking the choir, side choirs and St Anna chapel with it.
These were all soon restored in a neo-Gothic style.
Head in to admire a trove of important art, like the Triptych of the Holy Spirit (1587), showing the creation of Adam and baptism of Jesus.
Also noteworthy is the sacrament tower for Eucharistic bread, rising 6.5 metres and built in 1585. The 15th-century Sint-Elooiskapel (Eligius) has been turned into a treasury where you can appreciate the church’s other masterpieces including altar hangings and paintings from the 17th century.
At Sint-Jansstraat on the east side of the old centre is a preserved almshouse established in 1638 for 13 destitute women.
The Baggaertshof was named for its founder Josijne Baggaert, and its 13 little houses and a chapel face inwards on a rectangular courtyard.
A curfew was strictly enforced (20:00 in winter) and the residents were required to pray every evening at the chapel and thank the benefactors.
At the chapel’s altar there’s a polychrome carving of Madonna with Child produced in 1626 by Kortrijk master-sculptor Jan Bolle Veys and painted by Joes van Moerkercke, also from Kortrijk.
Baggaertshof’s herb garden has been centuries in the making and grows a rare white mulberry, a beautiful holly tree, a black locust, a lilac and a hazelnut tree.
In 1981 a medicinal garden was also planted here and grows more than 300 different herbs.
11. Pedestrian Shopping Streets
We’ll see that Kortrijk has been a real trailblazer when it comes to urban planning.
Korte Steenstraat in the old centre became the first pedestrianised shopping street in Belgium in 1962. Centred on this street and the perpendicular Lange Steenstraat is one of the largest car-free urban areas in the country, endowed with most of the brands you would hope to find in a Belgian shopping quarter, as well as cafes, confectioners and bakeries.
Since 2010 this has been enhanced on the east side by the K in Kortrijk shopping mall, incorporating 90 tenants including H&M, Zara, HEMA, Claire’s, Casa, C&A, Esprit and MediaMarkt.
12. Banks of the Leie
When you step onto the Leie’s riverside you’ll see a waterway that has been shaped by human hands over hundreds of years.
The arm south of Buda Island, between the Broeltorens, is all that remains of the natural Oude Leie.
The Nieuwe Leie was moulded for waterborne cargo as early as the 1580s, but the biggest upheaval has taken place in the last 40 years.
To allow ships of up to 4400 tons to navigate the river between France and the Scheldt the Leie was deepened and widened, which required a huge urban renewal project in Kortrijk, furnishing the city with extra greenery and recreation spaces like Buda Beach.
Between 1997 and 2012 six new bridges have been built for the river in Kortrijk, breathing new life in the cityscape.
As part of the same project, the banks in front of the Broeltorens were also lowered, creating picturesque plazas with steps and benches.
A consequence of enlarging the Leie is that this island between the river’s two arms has grown a lot in recent decades.
Buda, historically on the north bank of the Leie, is part of the historic centre, but another long-term urban renewal project has established the island as a hotbed for creative industries.
For visitors this means you can check out contemporary visual art at BUBOX, watch acclaimed independent movies at Budascoop or catch live performances for all kinds of disciplines at Buatoren.
On the island’s north-east corner is Buda Beach, a cleverly landscaped park with a cafe, as well as sand and deckchairs in the summer.
14. Stadswandelroute ‘Metamorfose van de stad’
The tourism office has set up a walking route around Kortrijk, with a route marked on the ground with embossed copper rivets.
Setting off from Begijnhofpark, “Metamorphosis of the City” will of course bring you to all the big sights, but will also show you the new areas on the banks of the Leie.
You can buy a map from Toerisme Kortrijk but there’s also an audio version for smartphones, full of absorbing facts and anecdotes you might not otherwise have come by.
Both are available in English as well as Dutch and French.
15. Internationale Rozentuin Kortrijk
This gorgeous formal rose garden is in the south of Kortrijk on the grounds of the Kasteel t’Hooge, a manor house dating to the 1830s.
In one hectare, the Internationale Rozentuin was laid out in 1959 and is an experimental garden, where between 100 and 150 new types of roses developed around Europe are tested over a two year period.
After this time-span an international jury assesses each rose on criteria like scent, disease resistance and the appearance of its blooms and foliage.
Next to the experiment garden is a demonstration, where you can appreciate some 200 varieties that have made the grade down the years.
The Internationale Rozentuin is open to the public, admission is free and the garden is at its best from June to September.