The oldest city in Belgium was founded as Atuatuca Tungrorum in the 1st century CE.
Decades before, the Celtic tribal prince Ambiorix had railed against the Roman Empire on this land, and is remembered with an imposing statue on Grote Markt.
You can take a trip back to Roman times all over Tongeren, at the 1.5 kilometres of walls last altered in the 4th century CE, at the Gallo-Roman museum and in the city’s foundations of the Teseum.
Fast forward a thousand years or so, and Tongeren’s Medieval treasures include a Gothic Basilica with an exceptional treasury, 13th-century fortifications and a beguinage on a maze of cobblestone alleys.
In the 21st century the city is also on the map for a weekly antiques market with more than 350 traders.
1. Gallo-Romeins Museum
You can dip into Tongeren’s ancient past at this award-winning museum, which moved into a modern building in 2011. The attraction has its roots in a 19th century history and antiquarian society, and its collection has been bolstered by digs and discoveries across more than 160 years.
The permanent exhibition begins with the Neanderthals and study’s the major landmarks in human history in the Limburg region, from our earliest direct ancestors, to the first farmers, to the beginnings of trade, to the foundation of Atuatuca Tungrorum in 10 BCE.
Along with compelling artefacts like statuettes, steles, jewellery, architectural elements and a pristine 1st-century BCE bust of Julius Caesar, the exhibition is full of multimedia, highly-detailed models and lots of tactile items for a multisensory journey.
There’s always a temporary exhibition and in February 2020 this was dedicated to Romania’s Dacian treasures.
2. Basilica of Our Lady
During a period of conflict in the 13th century, Tongeren’s Romanesque main church burnt down and was rebuilt in the Gothic style that survives to this day.
In the foundations of this building there’s stonework belonging to a long line of previous places of worship going back all the way to the 4th century CE.
The Basilica of Our Lady as it is today took more than 300 years to complete, and you’ll be struck by the 55-metre spire-less tower that serves as Tongeren’s belfry and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Inside, look up at the exquisite triforium and the massive canvasses painted by Liège artists like Théodore-Edmond Plumier (1671-1733). On a neo-Romanesque altar sits the 15th-century walnut-carved polychrome image of Mary with Child, titled Onze Lieve Vrouw Oorzaak onzer Blijdschap (our dear lady, cause of our joy). Outside, predating the current church, is the only Romanesque cloister in Maasland, with daintily carved capitals.
The treasury for the Basilica of Our Lady is in the chapterhouse and is an attraction in its own right, holding one of the richest collections of Catholic art in Belgium.
At the Teseum this art is combined with an archaeological site excavated to a depth of three metres.
Down here you’ll be able to see right back to Tongeren’s origins, in the foundations of ancient buildings and the remnants of seven churches that came before the present basilica.
Many of these show signs of fire damage, hinting at a turbulent past.
Then in the treasury you can pore over a glimmering line-up of invaluable liturgical art in gold and silver, including monstrances, candlesticks, reliquaries, illuminated Medieval graduals and extremely rare relic pouches.
4. Tongeren Flea Market
On Sunday mornings Tongeren is swept up by an antiques market that winds around the city along seven streets.
A normal Sunday will bring about 350 stallholders to Tongeren, complementing the 40 or so antiques shops that open their doors.
The Tongeren Flea Market started in the early-1970s and has snowballed from a casual gathering to a weekly event that pulls in visitors from all over Europe and the United States.
Just for a snapshot, the stalls will be stacked with vintage toys, collectibles, decorative art, antique appliances, furniture from all eras, art, light fittings, vintage and more than we could hope to list here.
Early birds get out onto the street at 07:00 to start their hunt, and you can recharge with coffee or breakfast at a terrace along the route.
5. Roman Walls
At the start of 2nd century under Emperor Trajan Atuatuca Tungrorum was enclosed within a wall, more than 4.5 kilometres long and protected in places by up to three moats.
The walls were up to two metres thick, and it is believed that, because they were built during a long period of peace, they were built more as a status symbol that for defence.
The core of the wall was made from flint, which was then clad with sandstone, although this material has been quarried since that time.
Remarkably more than a kilometre and a half of Tongeren’s Roman walls are still standing.
The best pieces can be seen on Caesarlaan and Legionenlaan.
6. Medieval Walls
Come the 13th century, when Tongeren was under threat from the Duchy of Brabant, those 4th-century Roman walls were not enough to protect the city.
In 1241 a 50-year program of construction got underway, leaving Tongeren with 13 towers, 6 gates and a walled enclosure that added up to 54 hectares (roughly 100 football pitches). A lot of flint and sandstone from the Roman wall was re-used for the Medieval fortifications.
There are tons of thrilling vestiges to be found, like the Moerenpoort gate, Lakenmakerstoren (cloth-makers’ tower) and Velinxtoren (named for an influential 16th-century family). The most intact stretches of the ramparts can be found along Elfde Novemberwal to the north, and the Leopoldwal to the east.
Of the six gates that controlled access to Tongeren in Medieval times, only the eastern Moerenpoort is still standing.
The name refers to the marshes (moeren), on Tongeren’s eastern flank, and you can visit these at the De Kevie nature reserve.
The Moerenpoort, as it is now, mostly dates from 1379 when it was reconstructed after an attack in 1344 by soldiers of the deceased Prince-Bishop of Liège, Adolph II of the Marck, against his controversial successor and nephew Engelbert III of the Marck.
Facing out, the gate’s portal has an ogival arch, but inward there’s an older, Romanesque round-headed arch.
The foundations were built from flint quarried from the old Roman walls, and above is a three-storey tower, designed like a keep.
The last restoration took place in 2011, and you can go in to visit a free museum, explaining the story of this gate and Tongeren’s military history.
At the top you can head out for a labelled view of the city and countryside.
8. Begijnhof van Tongeren
West of the Moerenpoort is Tongeren’s beguinage, a community for lay religious women who lived a monastic life, without a vow of poverty.
This community, dedicated to Saint Catherine, moved to a walled enclave within the city’s defences in the middle of the 13th century.
After the Counter-Reformation in the 16th and 17th century the beguinage reached the height of its wealth, and between 1610 and 1716 the wooded houses were rebuilt in stone.
At this time there were more than 100 properties, inhabited by around 300 beguines.
There are eight cobblestone streets and alleys to explore, and a variety of facilities still standing.
On Sint-Ursulastraat the old infirmary from 1659 is now a brasserie, and the Baroque Ursulakapel next door is a solemn venue for concerts and talks.
The Gothic church of St Catherine is currently closed to the public, but you can appreciate the building from a cafe terrace or the restful little garden on the north side.
9. Grote Markt
In a city as old as Tongeren, it’s exciting to think that people have been congregating on its plazas for many hundreds of years.
Grote Markt, and the neighbouring Vlasmarkt and Graanmarkt at the foot of the Basilica of Our Lady, have both been fully pedestrianised and re-paved in the last decade.
On a sunny you could just park up on a brasserie or cafe terrace and take in a view that includes a burly depiction of Ambiorix, Prince of the Eburones, the Stadhuis and that basilica.
There’s a weekly market below the statue every Thursday morning, for things like fruit, vegetables, meat, dairy and fabrics.
10. Standbeeld Ambiorix
More on that statue of Ambiorix (d. 53 BCE), who strikes a defiant pose with axe in hand.
He was part ruler of the Belgic Eubrones tribe, which had been conquered in 57 BCE.
Three years later Caesar’s troops were low on provisions, and tried to take what they needed from the Eubrones.
They resisted because their own supplies were low, and a revolt ensued, which would later push Ambiorix to national hero status after Belgian Independence in 1830. Ambiorix and the Eubrones were massacred in the end, but not before taking out a Roman legion and five cohorts.
His statue was erected in 1866, depicting him in Germanic garb, with a dragon helmet, and ringed by a Celtic-style fence with spears and wild boar heads.
In 1677 a city fire destroyed much of Tongeren, including the town hall.
The new town hall went up from 1737 where the city’s cloth hall had stood before the fire.
Delayed by the War of the Austrian Succession and ready in 1755, this in a Rococo style typical of the Maasland.
It’s also a close match to city hall of Liège, and was designed by the same man, Pascal Barbier.
Although the building only has a ceremonial role today, it is closed to visitors, which is a shame because the interiors have exquisite stuccowork, panelling, fireplaces with Delft tiles and Baroque furniture in the Liège-Aachen style.
You can take in the exterior’s double stairway and pediment, which contains the coat of arms of Georges-Louis de Berghes (1662-1743), 94th Prince-Bishop of Liège.
This was slightly damaged in the Liège Revolution of 1789-91.
12. Stadspark de Motten
Tongeren’s municipal park is to the south of the city centre, and on a warm summer’s day has plenty to offer families.
An obvious attraction is the large pond (one of two) at the park’s heart, with a boathouse where you can rent rowboats and pedal boats.
But kids can also run wild at the park’s playground and drive a pedal kart at the “traffic park”. And on top of all that you’ve got a mini-golf course and a cafeteria where parents can take a needed time out.
Tongeren is on the Way of St James, a pilgrimage route leading to the shrine of the apostle St James in Spain’s Cathedral de Santiago.
For hundreds of years pilgrims would stay at the Sint-Jacobusgasthuis hospice, which became a wealthy institution through donations.
All this ended with the French Revolution, and the hospice was later used as a hospital, orphanage and rest home.
In 1980 it was transformed to house Tongeren’s municipal services and today contains a hotel, shops and residences.
The chapel is the visitor centre for the tourist office, integrated with historic architecture and fittings.
The building is from the middle of the 17th century, with an altar, organ case and a confessional carved in the second half of the 18th century.
And, being a visitor centre, you can shop here for delicacies from the region, like top fermentation beer, jenever (juniper liqueur) and all manner of traditional sweet treats.
14. Roman Remains
Aside from the walls there are other traces of Roman habitation around Tongeren if you know where to look.
South-west of Tongeren proper, in Koninksem there’s a pair of tumuli, standing out unmistakably in the landscape and dating to between the 1st and 3rd century BC.
They are both set on the Romeinse Kassei, a Roman road now on the course of the N69. Around a kilometre north is the Beukenberg, also a protected monument.
This is where you’ll come across Atuatuca Tungrorum, which was an earthen construction that tallied with the natural slope and had an embankment six kilometres long, leading to the centre of the city.
Finally, just off the Roman wall at Caesarlaan you can visit the site of an ancient temple, the footprint has been marked out with modern paving and illustrated with handy interpretation boards.
15. De Kevie
To break away from the city for a while, there’s a beautiful nature reserve on the Jeker River, south-east of the city.
At De Kevie the river has recovered its natural meanders, and twists through marshland, reedbeds and former pasture now reclaimed by nature.
There are four walking and cycling trails in the reserve, ushering you by the river, coppiced willows, poplars and hedgerows.
As you go, keep on the lookout for the Eurasian hobby, a nimble falcon that preys on grasshoppers and dragonflies.
You can buy a map “Langs de Flanken van de Jeker” from the Tongeren tourist office.