The Gallo-Roman Museum takes you through a huge sweep of history, starting in 500,000BC. Hands-on exhibits make this staggering span of years digestible. Kids will love the life-size models and interactive touchscreens. Artefacts of particular significance are displayed in large scale and explain major shifts in human history.
The Sagalassos: City of Dreams exhibit (until 17 June) shows artefacts from the legendary Greco-Roman hill city which was devastated by an earthquake in 518. This is the first time the archaeological treasures have left Turkey.
Tongeren’s béguinage is a city within a city, in the 17th century more than 250 Beguines lived within its peaceful confines. The wealthy Beguines had unusual freedom, living a halfway existence between closed orders and secular life, and this autonomy attracted strong papal disapproval. A private museum in a carefully restored Beguine house dating from 1660 (Beghina, 12 Onder de Linde, closed on Mondays) gives an insight into the life of a Beguine. In the basement you can mull over what you’ve seen with a ‘daily beer’ specially brewed for the museum. Beer was often preferable to local water in the time of the Beguines as Tongeren’s river would have been full of effluent from both slaughterhouse and tannery. Lucky Beguines were permitted to consume four litres of beer a day.
The gothic Onze-Lieve-Vrouwebasiliek (Basilica of Our Lady) took 300 years to complete and still dominates the town centre. Within this working church you will find relics such as a walnut statue of the Virgin Mary that dates from 1479, as well as a 12th-century Romanesque cloister.
The Grote Markt and surrounding streets are lined with restaurants. ’t Vrijthof, in the shadow of the basilica, serves excellent local dishes that have kept owner Jean-Luc Legros in business for 30 years.
Vendome is one of the restaurants offering a special Roman menu in connection with the Sagalassos exhibit currently running at the Gallo-Roman Museum. The sea bass in Vermouth sauce and roast pigeon in honey and thyme jus are delicately delicious – present your Sagalassos ticket for a €4 discount.
De Pelgrim is a historic, cosy restaurant right in the béguinage. Finger-licking ribs are the house special.
Join local brocanteurs and sample some of the 37-odd beers at the ’t Poorthuis. If you are wondering who the children are whose photos line the walls take a closer look at the people on the table next to you. Locals provide a picture of themselves as a child in exchange for a free drink at the beginning of each year.
The modish Eburon Hotel (rooms from €99) is in a 19th-century building on the site of a 12th-century inn that sheltered pilgrims en route to Santiago de Compostella. The road weary were fed, watered and sent on their way here – which is not dissimilar from the service it offers today albeit in a much more stylish fashion.
The Ambiotel (rooms from €95) is another well-priced option on the Veemarkt.
Tongeren is a great place to be an antiques dealer as customers flock here each Sunday for the weekly antiques market. It all began more than 35 years ago in the Café Rembrandt on the Veemarkt when a few friends discussed starting an antiques market. That weekend they put up a few stalls, the next weekend there were a few more and now the market attracts up to 7,000 people. A Toulouse Lautrec drawing was recently sold here (by an unwitting dealer). Michel Mulleneers opened a flower shop here 27 years ago when he was just 19 and today it is filled with his gorgeously artistic arrangements (13 Maastrichterstraat).