Home of the international playing card manufacturer Cartamundi, Turnhout is also unofficial capital of the Kempen region, a landscape of heathland, dunes and fens in the north-east of Belgium Turnhout had ties with the sport of hunting for hundreds of years, and a stag still adorns the city’s coat of arms.
The Dukes of Brabant established a hunting lodge here in the 13th century, turned into a palace by Mary of Austria in the 16th century and still standing today.
Right up to the French Revolution, regional hunting disputes were resolved at a court on the main square.
In the 19th century Turnhout turned its hand to the printing industry, which is the root of Cartamundi and the city’s many graphic design companies.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Turnhout:
1. Begijnhof Turnhout
On an elongated plaza, bookended by a gatehouse at one end and a chapel at the other, is a Medieval community for lay religious women, or beguines.
This complex was likely founded around the 1200s and its last resident passed away as recently as 2002. Turnhout’s Beguinage has had UNESCO World Heritage listing since 1998. The cosy little houses lining the plaza were rebuilt in the 16th and 17th centuries, at which time the beguinage was home to 370 beguines.
The Baroque chapel at the east side is from the same period (1666-67). Call in at the Beguinage Museum, where you can find out more about what being a beguine entailed.
You’ll discover the distinction between a beguine and a nun and get to know the arduous daily schedule for the poorer beguines.
2. National Playing Card Museum
The international playing card and board game company Cartamundi is headquartered in Turnhout, so there’s no better location for a museum all about the evolution and manufacture of playing cards.
This is found in a old factory building dating to 1926 and has a collection much more engaging than the name suggests.
The oldest pieces go back as far as the 1500s, but the focus is mainly on the industrial period from the 1700s to the present.
You can peruse old graphic machines and Stanhope printing presses, all in working condition, as well as a 19th-century steam engine (1896) in situ.
Also thrilling is the partially intact 19th-century machine for applying gloss to playing cards.
Check the calendar as there are several live demonstrations on this machinery each month by trained operators.
3. Castle of the Dukes of Brabant
Walking Turnhout’s city centre you may be stopped in your tracks by this moated castle, the origins of which go right back to the 1200s as a hunting lodge for the Dukes of Brabant.
The castle’s present Renaissance appearance is from the 16th century when Mary of Austria turned it into a luxurious residence.
The unblemished facade that greets you today belies a turbulent past, especially in the Eighty Years’ War when the castle was struck by cannon 100 times.
The castle was dilapidated by the 20th century, but was rescued from demolition and became a listed monument in 1936. Turnhout’s courts of justice are now set inside, but 90-minute guided tours are available on afternoons and weekends if you book in advance, taking you from the basement to the top of the tower.
On its own in the middle of Grote Markt stands the city’s main Roman Catholic place of worship, some pieces of which have been here since the 1100s.
This can be seen in the lower sections of the tower, while the remainder of the building is a melange of styles from different periods.
The nave for example was enlarged in the middle of the 18th century, but just a few steps east is the choir, ambulatory and radiating chapels from the 1480s.
Some details to keep in mind are the stained glass windows in the ambulatory, the 18th-century late-Baroque altar on the north side of the transept and the pulpit on the middle aisle from 1862. Also worthwhile are the various epitaphs and funerary plaques from the 17th to the 20th century and the eye-catching organ in the western gallery, built in Ghent in 1662.
5. Taxandria Museum
Turnhout’s local history museum is in a gorgeous 16th-century townhouse, the second-oldest burgher residence in the city and a guesthouse for distinguished visitors in old times.
The museum is the HQ for Taxandria, an archaeological society devoted to the Kempen area, founded in 1903 and donating its big collection to Turnhout in 1931. There’s a lot to get through in this fabulous setting, but a few item need as much time as you can afford.
These are a 15th-century case for valuable city documents, a precursor to the 17th-century privilegenkast now at the city hall, and a hoard of gold coins from the last quarter of the 16th century, unearthed during renovation works at a house on Turnhout’s Grote Markt in 1891. Also enthralling is a painted door (1665) from the old city hall’s hunting courts, and the exquisite Art Nouveau lace pillow used to pass a set of keys to the future King Albert II and Queen Elisabeth when they inaugurated a set of fountains on Grote Markt in 1904.
The highest tower in Turnhout belongs to the Heilig-Hartkerk, a neo-Gothic church completed in 1907. That tower is 92 metres tall and is visible on every approach to the city.
Although the church is relatively young, it deserves your attention for the exceptional level of craftsmanship that went into its fixtures and decoration.
This was all executed in an Early Gothic style, and important artists like Napoleon Daems (confessionals) and Paul Cauchie (sgraffito decor) were recruited for the interior.
Allow some time to appreciate the stained glass (1906-1939), the pulpit, sculpted from blue-grey limestone and marble, and the radiant high altar in gilt copper on a black marble base.
7. Landschap De Liereman
East of the city, just past Oud-Turnhout is one of the oldest protected nature reserves in Belgium.
This is Landschap De Liereman, in classic Kempen countryside made up of heathland, coniferous forest and dry drifting dunes that stoop to saturated fens.
It’s all a habitat for beautiful wildflowers like the marsh gentian, as well as European nightjars, wading birds like curlews and the natterjack toad.
On your journey you’ll come by herds of grazing sheep and may also see wild konik horses.
The visitor centre has an exhibition about history and biology of this ancient landscape, and boasts a welcoming scenic terrace open every afternoon.
8. Cultuurhuis de Warande
Turnhout has a celebrated multidisciplinary cultural centre with the sort of programming you might expect in a much larger city.
Cultuurhuis de Warande was updated in a couple of phases during the 2010s, with a new main hall, new theatre, additional performance and exhibition spaces and a cafe.
There’s even an underground live music and dance venue.
Come for concerts by a wide range of artists, as well as spoken word, dance, plays, contemporary art exhibitions, children’s entertainment and a rich programme of workshops and festivals for film, comics and architecture.
9. Route Bels Lijntje
There’s a 37-kilometre cycle path, heading north from Turnhout and crossing the border as far as Tilburg.
This is on the course of the old Bels Lijntje railway, laid down by the Grand Central Belge consortium in the 1860s, shutting down in 1973 and turned into a greenway in 1990. Apart from on a few short sections, there’s no road traffic to contend with, and the old railbed runs in straight lines through the Kempen area’s vast heathland and fens.
Five kilometres north of the centre of Turnhout you’ll be at the Turnhouts Vennengebied, a water-rich nature reserve where you can look out over the ponds, heath and coniferous forest from an observation tower raised next to the path in 2009.
10. Dessel-Schoten Canal
Passing by Turnhout, this waterway arcs through the Kempen landscape for 63 kilometres from Dessel in the eat to Schoten outside Antwerp in the west where it joins the larger Albert Canal.
The Dessel-Schoten Canal was built in the 1840s and was ready by 1851, with the purpose of funnelling the mineral-rich waters of the River Meuse into the poor Kempen soils.
The towpath represents another light, car-free way to get around by bike.
Such is the volume of traffic along the canal that an art and history project “VaART” has been set up along the way, with 12 points where you can check out works of art and catch up on stories about the canal.
You’ll learn about the life of 19th-century canal diggers and the dramatic upheaval of the war years.
Turnhout’s city farm is a great community resource.
As a visitor attraction the Stadsboerderij works best for families with smaller children, who will love meeting the sheep, goats and chickens, while there’s a big nature playground and lots of space for a picnic.
The farm’s herb garden is interesting, with medicinal and industrial varieties from the past and present.
If you live in or near Turnhout, the Stadsboerderij has lots of benefits, from a busy schedule of workshops and events to a community garden for fresh produce, allotments and space to rent for functions.
The farm is in the Park Heizijdse Velden, a pastoral green space on regional cycle and walking paths.
12. De Lilse Bergen
Out in the countryside, a stone’s throw from Turnhout is a four-star campground in pine woodland on the edge of a large clear lake.
De Lilse Bergen caters to tents, campervans and caravans, but also rents out all kinds of accommodation, from huts, to caravans to tipis.
And if all you want is a summer outing, there’s day access to the enormous lake and its beach, as well as the shallow play pond for little ones with a maximum depth of 50cm.
You can make the most of the little amusement park on the pond’s banks, with go-karts, trampolines and play equipment, and you can rent a pedal boat or kayak for a little voyage on the water.
13. Stadhuis van Turnhout
Turnhout’s modern city hall faces off against Sint-Pieterskerk on Grote Markt.
This was ready by 1961 and has a Modernist design with Neoclassical flourishes.
The bas-reliefs flanking the porch symbolise family, safety, sports, education and the courts.
This building had been in the pipeline since 1948, and has always been controversial: A 17th-century patrician house had to make way, while the historic city hall, combining a cloth hall, meat hall and historic courts, was torn down to improve traffic flow.
This ushered in a period of demolition during which the centre of Turnhout lost some of its heritage.
The new building isn’t without its merits though, least of all in the stained glass windows depicting the arts on the first floor, the murals throughout, and numerous details from its predecessor like a “privilegekast” from 1650 (privilege cabinet) and various historic paintings.
Grote Markt in front is a lively space with long rows of bars, restaurant and cafe terraces on its northern and southern edges.
14. MOOOV Film Festival
Cultuurhuis de Warande and the multiplex cinema UGC Turnhout are the city’s platforms for a regional festival screening upwards of 70 films across 10 days in April-May.
MOOOV is an international event dedicated to quality and craft in filmmaking, and helping world cinema find new audiences.
The selection is normally announced around March, and during the festival a range of juries (public, film press, youth, international and even a jury of prisoners) award prizes in a host of different categories.
As well as screenings, MOOOV schedules all sorts of side events including workshops and talks with important international guests.
The pioneering Flemish pop artist Bobbejaan Schoepen set up this amusement park an easy drive south of Turnhout when he was at the peak of his powers in the 1960s.
At firstt, this tract of former marshland was drained to become a 1,000-seater performance venue, combined with water attractions, but slowly developed into a conventional theme park with an ever-expanding line-up of white knuckle rides.
One ride that will please the thrill-seeker is the Euro-Fighter Typhoon, with a scream-inducing 97° first drop.
Another big ticket is the steel indoor Vekoma Illusion rollercoaster, equipped with Samsung Gear VR headsets in 2016. Bobbejaanland has also recently introduced a dynamic pay-as-you-go pricing plan via a mobile app, costing as little as €0.12 an hour but ensuring the total price never exceeds the daily ticket price of €35.50.