One of Belgium’s oldest cities has a central square over a Gallo-Roman cemetery, and was the birthplace of Clovis I (466-511), founder of the Merovingian dynasty.
Grand Place, lovingly reconstructed after firebomb raids in 1940, has a rare concentration of historical buildings.
There are two World Heritage Sites here; a magnificent Romanesque-Gothic cathedral and a Belfry that has stood since the 12th century.
Tournai, with close streets that beckon you down to quaysides on the River Scheldt, is a city that demands exploration.
Awaiting are historic churches in the city’s transitional Gothic style, a Medieval fortified bridge, Romanesque houses and engrossing museums for art, archaeology, social history and natural history.
1. Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Tournai
One of two UNESCO inscribed monuments on Grand Place, Tournai Cathedral is a magnificent blend of Romanesque, and Gothic and easily recognised by its five solemn square towers.
More than 130 metres long and with a maximum height of 84 metres, the proportions of this monument are vast when you consider its age.
The nave went up at the very beginning of the 12th century, while the Gothic choir is a transitional transept with both Romanesque and Gothic elements from the turn of the 13th century.
In typical Romanesque fashion, the nave is austere and intimidating, contrasting with the airiness of the choir, which was inspired by the northern French cathedrals in Amiens and Chartres.
Be sure to check out the Issue of Souls in Purgatory by Peter Paul Rubens (c.
1635), and the masterful Renaissance rood screen by Flemish sculptor Cornelis Floris from 1573. The treasury brims with invaluable liturgical art, like a 14th-century Arras tapestry, two reliquaries, precious ivories and magnificent pieces of goldsmithery.
2. Grand Place
Tournai’s triangular main square was outside the city walls in its earliest days some 2,000 years ago.
At that time this expansive space was a Gallo-Roman cemetery, and only became a market place in the Carolingian era, around the 8th century, when European trade was reborn.
We’ll talk about all of the big sights on Grand Place in this article, but it’s also worth remembering that Tournai has a record-breaking number of catering establishments.
Grand Place, restored after devastating incendiary bomb attacks by the Luftwaffe in May 1940, has an almost unending row of cafe and restaurant terraces on its north side, under historic gabled facades.
The 72-metre freestanding bell-tower on Grand Place is one of 56 belfries in France and Belgium that have earned a single UNESCO World Heritage listing.
The story of Tournai’s belfry begins around 1188, after Philip II of France granted a town charter, part of which allowed for a communal bell.
This makes it the oldest belfry in Belgium, and, as the city grew in the 13th century, buttresses and polygonal turrets were added to that 12th-century base.
The tower was used as a vantage point to spot attacking enemies, as well as fires within the city.
The chambers within, on five different floors, were used as a prison until 1827 but also held the town hall for a time.
The original bells were claimed by a fire at the end of the 14th century, and the oldest bell in the tower today was cast as long ago as 1392. The belfry is open year round, Tuesday to Sunday, and you can battle up the 257 steps for an all-encompassing view of Tournai.
4. Musée d’Histoire Naturelle de Tournai
In 2028 this natural history museum will celebrate its 200th anniversary.
Since 1839 it has been housed in a Neoclassical building on the site of the former Abbey of Saint-Martin, which was dissolved in 1797. This was the first museum in Belgium to be accessible to the public, and owed its early growth to the patronage of King Leopold I and the leading botanist/politician Barthélemy du Mortier.
The natural history museum, mainly charting evolution in the animal world, is modern in many ways, but has the feel of a 19th-century cabinet of curiosity with specimens and taxidermies kept in elegant glass cases.
A favourite for younger visitors is the Vivarium, which keeps live Chinese alligators, tarantulas, chameleons and all kinds of other reptiles and invertebrates.
5. Maison Tournaisienne
You can learn all about Tournai’s inhabitants at this museum in a 17th-century house on a little lane off Grand Place.
All walks of life and every social stratum is covered, from nobility down to Tournai’s orphans.
You can get to know all of the city’s many trades, at recreated workshops for weavers, potters and printers.
In 23 different exhibition rooms you’ll get to indulge your curiosity for Tournai’s carnival traditions, its military history, fashion, religious customs, medicine, societies, processional giants, education and its societies.
Each room is embellished with real artefacts, one of the most precious being a plan-relief (military scale model) of old Tournai from the reign of Louis XIV.
6. Museum of Fine Arts
The famed Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta designed this art museum, built on the site of the Abbey of Saint-Martin in 1928. The design was a response to security fears after the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911, and has the shape of a turtle or flying squirrel, with radiating rooms converging on a sculpture hall, allowing a single guard to survey the entire building in one turn.
The Museum of Fine Arts has a considerable collection of painting and sculpture, beginning with Medieval Flemish primitives and paying special attention to Impressionism.
Monet, Vincent van Gogh, Manet and Seurat are all represented, but there are also earlier pieces by masters like Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Peter Paul Rubens and Jacob Jordaens.
7. Église Saint-Jacques
In the Middle Ages Tournai was a crucial stopping point on the Way of St James, a cross-Europe pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
This church on Rue du Palais Saint-Jacques would have been built for pilgrims in the 12th century, and was enlarged in the 13th and 14th centuries in a transitional style unique to this city and known as Tournai Gothic.
The nave, aisles and transept are from the first decades of the 13th century, while the choir was expanded just over a century later.
Standing in the nave, take a look at the foliate capitals on the giant columns, and, right above these, look up at the many columns of the triforium (interior gallery), linking with another gallery at the transept.
In the choir there’s a magnificent brass eagle lectern, cast in Tournai in 1411.
8. Musée de la Tapisserie de Tournai
In the 15th and 16th centuries, Tournai was a major centre for the art of tapestry weaving, and you can view some astonishing examples from that period at this museum in a handsome Neoclassical townhouse.
These historical tapestries are astounding for their size and their narrative richness, but the museum also keeps textile art alive in the here and now.
So you can get to know the work of artists from the 1940s to the present, like Roger Somville, Edmond Dubrunfaut and Louis Delfour.
There’s also a conservation and restoration workshop, where you can find out about the slow and meticulous process of preserving this art, while the documentation and study centre is open to teachers, students, researchers and the general public.
9. Hôtel de Ville
In a sweet formal park, Tournai’s city hall sits opposite the Museum of Fine Arts, and has an interesting past.
This Neoclassical building, completed in 1763, was in fact the residential palace for the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Martin.
The history of that monastery goes right back to the 11th century, and it was dissolved little more than three decades after the new palace was completed.
Most of its buildings were torn down, but there are some exciting traces like the Romanesque crypt and portions of the beautiful Gothic cloisters from the 15th century.
Tournai’s city offices moved into the palace early in the 19th century, and a fire gutted the building in 1940, though the stately facade was saved.
10. Église Saint-Quentin
The bare, castle-like facade of this Romanesque church is hard to miss among the gabled buildings on the west end of Grand Place.
Église Saint-Quentin grew up in the 12th century, and was linked to the enormous Gallo-Roman cemetery that used to be Grand Place.
The oldest section is the nave, austere and unadorned, while the pointed vaults in the transept and the choir show a transition between the Romanesque and Early Gothic styles.
There are also two circular chapels where the nave and transept meet, one holding the tomb of the knight Jacques Castaigne (d. 1327). As for art and fittings, the marble balustrade closing off the choir is Baroque from the 17th century, while on the pillars of the transept you’ll spot two polychrome sculptures from 1428, depicting the Archangel Gabriel and Mary, by local sculptor Jean Delemer and painter Robert Campin.
11. Pont des Trous (Bridge of Holes)
When we wrote this list in early-2020, the arches of this historic monument were being raised to accommodate larger boats on the Scheldt.
Hailed as one of Belgium’s greatest Medieval military vestiges, the Pont des Trous is a bridge and water gate constructed between 1281 and 1329. Along with a couple of intact towers around the city, this is the main survivor from a system known as the “second municipal enclosure”, “seconde enciente communale”, and has defensive towers on each bank.
The upstream, city side of these towers is flat, while the outer, downstream side is curved.
Large portcullises would slide down between the arches to block off the river.
The bridge was partially demolished by retreating British troops in 1940 and was rebuilt after the war with taller arches to facilitate water traffic, before undergoing its latest round of renovation.
12. Maisons des Jésuites
Any walking tour of Tournai has to take in the cobblestone Rue des Jésuites, along which can be found some of the oldest secular buildings in the city.
The Maisons des Jésuites is a set of four adjoining limestone houses, at No. 12, 14, 14b and 16, all put up at the beginning of the 13th century.
The clue to the great age of these two-storey properties is in the windows.
These are large and rectangular, and split down the middle by a slender column.
The first floor windows are identical to the ground floor, except for a transom (crosspiece) about three quarters of the way up.
13. Musée d’Archéologie
The old-school museum, showing off Tournai’s Gallo-Roman and Merovingian finds, is in the 17th-century building of the Mount of Piety, a charitable pawnbroker.
The Flemish Renaissance polymath Wenceslas Cobergher established 15 of these institutions around what was then Spanish Netherlands between 1618 and 1633. You’ll begin with prehistoric stone tools before moving onto gold and silver pieces from the Bronze and Iron Age.
The museum’s cache of Gallo-Roman artefacts has grown with recent excavations of the necropolis under the Grand Place.
These have brought to light plenty of glassware and terra sigillata pottery, as well as a decorated lead sarcophagus, a one-off in Belgium.
From the Merovingian period there’s a marvellous array of silver jewellery, unearthed in Tournai’s Saint-Brice district at the tomb of Clovis I’s father, Childeric I (d. 481), and in the park around the Hôtel de Ville.
14. La Halle aux Draps
Tournai’s profusely decorated cloth hall draws your eye on the south side of Grand Place.
This commercial building is from the 1610 and replaced a 13th-century wooden hall that collapsed in a storm.
With lots of gilding on its stone friezes, columns and mouldings, the new Halle aux Draps is in the Renaissance style, but with a hint of the Gothic building that came before, in the row of pointed arches on the ground floor.
The gables at each end of the building are Baroque, and the passageway leads onto a fine Italianate courtyard from 1616, where the cloth merchants would set up shop.
The building has come through difficult times, after collapsing in 1881, and being hit by incendiary bombs in 1940, but was fully restored in the second half of the 20th century and is now an exhibition and event space.
15. Jungle City
In amongst all of Tournai’s art and history there’s an attraction just for kids.
A couple of kilometres north of Grand Place, Jungle City is for children up to the age of 13 and has more than 2,500 square metres of amusements and animal enclosures.
There’s a “5D” cinema, electric go-karts, bouncy castles, ball pools, an arcade and much more.
Jungle City also has a mini farm with domestic animals, as well as all sorts of exotic birds including an emu, macaws, parakeets and owls.
While children have fun in safety parents can take a break with a cold drink and make the most of free Wi-Fi.