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Notre-Dame Cathedral in Tournai

By Babs Rodrigus

What is the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Tournai?

The Cathedral of Our Lady is a stunning cathedral with five towers in Tournai, a city in the southwest of Belgium.

Its history may go back to the 5th-6th century, when Clovis, the first king of the Franks, named it a cathedral. However, the construction of the cathedral we see today started in the 12th century. The cathedral’s design is a captivating blend of architectural styles, combining elements from three distinct periods.

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Its overall dimensions are equally impressive: a length of 134 meters (440 feet), a width of 60 meters (200 feet), and a maximum height of 83 meters (272 feet). Originally planned for seven spires, the cathedral currently has five, but it’s an impressive sight nonetheless.

Notre-Dame Cathedral, towering over neighboring buildings.

Why is the Cathedral of Our Lady in Tournai a UNESCO World Heritage site?

The Tournai Cathedral was recognized by UNESCO in 2000 for its historical and architectural significance. It’s the only cathedral in Belgium that’s been recognized as Unesco Cultural Heritage.

The cathedral is a mix of styles from different times, combining Romanesque and Gothic elements in a way that’s both unique and historically significant. It was mainly built in the 12th century, with the nave and transept done in one go, and the Gothic choir added in the 13th century.

What makes this cathedral stand out is its massive Romanesque nave, beautifully sculpted, and a transept with five towers that signal the start of Gothic art. The choir is purely Gothic, showcasing the advanced technology and artistic trends of the 13th century. The cathedral’s design and innovations had a big influence on the development of early Gothic art, making it a key piece in architectural history.

At the same time, the cathedral is evidence, according to UNESCO, of “considerable exchange of influence between the architectures of the Ile-de-France, the Rhineland and Normandy during the short period at the beginning of the 12th century that preceded the flowering of Gothic architecture,” making it significant in terms of architectural history.

Looking up at the cathedral building with its large rose window.

What can you expect on a visit to the Tournai Cathedral?

When you visit Tournai, you’re discovering a hidden gem in Belgium and even as a UNESCO site, it isn’t crowded with tourists. In fact, I saw no other tourists when I was visiting.

The stunning Notre-Dame Cathedral has been undergoing renovations since 2006. However, they’re expected to finish up in 2025, which isn’t too far away. For a long time, it was impossible to visit the inside of the cathedral. But at this moment it is possible to go inside and admire the impressive architecture. Do note that about half of the interior is being renovated at the moment.

Walking around the cathedral, you’ll get to see it from different angles and appreciate how big and impressive it is. You’ll be able to admire the towers from just about anywhere in the city, but the best view is without a doubt from the top of the nearby Belfry. However, that is closed now for renovations too.

Statues of saints in a row in niches.

Is the Cathedral of Tournai worth visiting?

The Cathedral of Tournai is an architectural marvel and one of the top things to do in Tournai. It definitely deserves a visit. While it may not be as famous as some other European cathedrals, its historical significance and stunning craftsmanship make it a worthwhile stop.

If you find yourself in the area, allocate an hour to explore the inside and another 30 minutes to slowly walk around it and admire it from every side. The intricate stonework, the rose stained-glass window, and the centuries-old treasures within will leave a lasting impression on any visitor.

What sorts of travelers would like the Cathedral of Tournai?

Apart from UNESCO enthusiasts who are on a mission to see all UNESCO sites in the world, the Tournai Cathedral attracts a diverse group of visitors. People with a deep appreciation for religious sites will find the cathedral’s history and spiritual significance deeply rewarding, while architecture lovers will be fascinated by the unique blend of Romanesque and Gothic styles. Additionally, travelers who love discovering charming, lesser-known destinations will be delighted by Tournai’s enchanting historical center. The cathedral stands as a crown jewel in this quaint city, and if you’re exploring Tournai, you really can’t miss the opportunity to visit the magnificent cathedral.

Text: Notre-Dame Cathedral in Tournai, Belgium. Images: above, a view of the cathedral; below, some sculptures of saints in niches.

Tips for visiting the Cathedral of Tournai

Keep in mind that the cathedral is undergoing restoration work until 2025. While you can still explore the interior, some areas may be blocked due to construction. Despite this, the visit is worthwhile.

Climb to the top of the Belfry (also a UNESCO site together with 55 other belfries in Belgium and France) for panoramic views of Tournai Cathedral.

The cathedral boasts a beautiful rose stained-glass window measuring seven meters across. It depicts parts of Tournai’s history and is a sight you won’t want to miss.

While entry to the cathedral is free, don’t miss out on visiting the treasury for a fee of €2.50. Inside, you’ll find five rooms full of religious treasures, ivory and gold, including two shrines and the oldest choir hanging in the West, known as the tapestry of Aras.

Pay attention to the details! Look up at the central choir screen, crafted by Flemish sculptor Cornelius de Vriendt. Admire the intricate stonework on the columns in the center of the cathedral.

Pass by the tourism office and watch the 20-minute movie “Heaven Carved From Stone” about the cathedral. You’ll gain deeper insights and appreciation of the beautiful story of the cathedral from its birth until the present day.

Guided tours to the cathedral are possible. Email info(at)visittournai(dot)be for more information.

Or take a guided tour of the town of Tournai, starting at the cathedral.

Use the map below to find accommodations in the center of Tournai:

If you’re going to be in Bruges, make sure to see its Historic Centre, a UNESCO site, as well the Beguinage there, which is part of a collection of Flemish Beguinages that together form a UNESCO site. There’s also a Beguinage not far from Tournai in Kortrijk.

Where is Notre-Dame Cathedral in Tournai?

Notre-Dame Cathedral in Tournai is located at Place de l’Evêché 1, 7500 Tournai, Belgium. You can find it in the heart of the historical city.  

By Car: From Brussels, you can drive to Tournai in about 1.5 hours. From both Ghent and Bruges, it takes about an hour. Alternatively, if you’re coming from Lille, you’ll reach Tournai in 30 minutes. You can park at Esplanade de l’Europe, which is just a 15-minute walk from the cathedral and parking there is free.

Compare rental car prices here.

Book accommodations in Tournai, Brussels, Ghent, Bruges or Lille.

By Public Transportation: The best way to reach Tournai is by train. There are direct trains from Lille (30 minutes), Brussels (1h10) and Kortrijk (30 minutes). From Tournai Station, you can walk to the cathedral in 13 minutes.

For more information about the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Tournai, including its opening hours and admission fees, you can visit its official website.

Text and photos provided by Babs Rodrigus of Next Stop Belgium, a blog about travelling to and in Belgium.

Have you been to the Cathedral in Tournai? If so, do you have any additional information or advice about this UNESCO World Heritage site? Please add your comments below!

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