Turnhout is a mid-sized town, in the north of the province of Antwerp, close to the Dutch border. The area is known as “De Kempen” and Turnhout claims to be its capital. “De Kempen” consist mainly of heathland and pine forest and is a popular destination for tourists in search of tranquility and nature.
Turnhout has been around for at least 800 years, and they had a festive year in 2012 to commemorate it. Turnhout was known for its weaving industry for a long time, but it was gradually replaced by paper, and today it remains the most important centre for paper and graphic industry in Belgium.
The main sights in Turnhout are some of the well-preserved historical buildings, which you can visit in peace, as you will rarely encounter another tourist in this underestimated town. The oldest building is the castle of the Dukes of Brabant, a 12th century castle around which the settlement probably grew. The Sint-Pieterskerk dominates the main square, lined with many terraces and bars. The interior houses some beautiful original artwork, including a triptych by an unknown 16th century artist.
Probably the main reason for a visit to Turnhout is the “Begijnhof” or beguinage. You have probably heard about the Begijnhof in Bruges or Mechelen, maybe even the oldest beguinage in Belgium in Lier, but very few people come to visit the beguinage in Turnhout, although it is beautifully preserved, very quiet and recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Walking down the cobbled streets, one can easily imagine the beguins going about their quiet and pious daily life. There is a baroque church, 2 chapels and a small museum.
I tried the local beer at café “De Ranonkel”, called “De Gageleer“, a refreshing amber-coloured beer, but at 7,5% it packs quite a punch. It is brewed in nearby Oud-Turnhout with locally produced and organic barley and “gagel”, the flavouring used in medieval times, before hops, so a very unique beer, that you should try. Corsendonk was traditionally brewed in the region of Turnhout and is still considered a local beer here. Apparently there is caviar from Turnhout. Sturgeons are bred here, and the caviar is of such great quality, it has been authorised the name of “Royal Belgian Caviar”.
There are a few museums in Turnhout, most notable are the museum of the playing card, as Cartamundi is based here and is a major producer of playing cards, the Meduceum and if you are visiting for a nature walk or bike-ride, a prior visit to the Natuurpunt museum can help you identify the plants and animals you will see on the way.
Turnhout is the ideal starting point for exploration on foot or by bike of the surrounding area, which is well-known for its diversity and changing natural landscapes. A bike-ride along the canal, praised as one of the most beautiful waterways of Flanders, or a stroll through one of the many nature reserves is the ideal way to forget about the daily worries as you will often find yourself all alone in quiet and peaceful nature.
We stayed at the B&B Bon Bon Nuit, a small hotel with a charming chocolate shop & tea house on the ground floor. The owner will take the time to make you feel at home and tell you about all the possibilities on offer. Ask him about his collection of Absinth and maybe you could go to sleep with green fairies in your head.
For all visits and information, we recommend you contact Toerisme & UiT, they will organise visits and can help you find the right accommodation.