It might sound a bit dramatic, but truly, for antique lovers, history aficionados, museum goers, or flea market treasure seekers, this is a place to go, at least once. But beware, it can be addictive.
What: The second largest antique market in Europe, this Sunday market is an antique-shoppers paradise in Tongeren, Belgium.
When: Every Sunday morning from 0800 until 1400. I like to arrive by 0700 when some vendors are still setting up, but there are already shoppers there. Getting there earlier is recommended for the true treasure hunters especially in the summer when it gets light earlier. Vendors do arrive earlier in the summer and a little later in the winter. On nice days, there will be more to buy, but also more crowds. Most of the vendors start packing up by 1300, so if you’ve purchased something and need to go back and pick it up, make sure you get there in time.
Where: Tongeren, Belgium – just a hop, skip, and jump from Maastricht. Tongeren itself is worth checking out too. It’s the oldest town in Belgium and still has quite a bit of its old city wall and a couple gates as well as a beautiful church on the hill and some quaint streets to walk around and photograph.
Directions/Parking: Using my GPS, I enter the street St. Ursulastraat in Tongeren which leads you down a narrow street along the market and the old city wall. When you get within 500 meters of turning right through the large city gate, start looking for a left hand turn just a few feet before the gate. Turn left and follow that narrow road about a block and on the left you’ll see a small parking lot where you can park all day for only 2 Euros.
Kids: Totally your call, but I’d label this a mature 8 and up activity. I’ve seen people there with their entire families including young children, but as the day goes on, the market does get crowded. There are a zillion things to touch and trip over and break from expensive glass to antique tools. I’ve taken my twelve year-old and she loves it, but I think my younger ones would not only be bored, but my worrying would take away my enjoyment of the day as well.
What to Bring:
- Cash. The vendors take cash. I haven’t run into anyone in Tongeren who takes credit cards. Bring a few extra euros for parking, and a snack.
- Most folks do have small plastic bags. Some offer delivery. Most don’t. If you’re looking for large items, come prepared. I brought a wagon once and it was great, but by the end of the day when the crowds were heavier, I felt rather conspicuous. A shopping bag on wheels would be helpful if you think you’ll get a lot of little things – a truck if you’re doing big shopping.
- A flashlight if you are showing up before the sun is up completely.
ATM machine: Towards the end of the main road and past the end of the wall, at the intersection where you most likely turned left, there is a large ING bank. Inside there is an ATM. There is a long row of machines, but only the one at the very end takes VISA/Mastercard, so there is often a long line.
- Haggle. Bickering prices is a personal thing. Some people enjoy it and others don’t, but vendors are used to it. Some won’t lower their prices at all. Some will give you one price and say “best price” which is almost never lowered. But, some will continue to lower the price as you walk off. It never hurts to offer a price that is a little lower especially if you are buying several of the same item. The worst that can happen is that they say “no,” and then you just have to decide if you really want it that badly or not.
- No guarantees. The more you go, the more you’ll realize what you might see again and what you may not. There are some very unusual treasures out there that only come up every few years and then, the price may not be right. If you love it and the price is good, remember that it may not be there an hour later or even 5 minutes later. It’s always a risk. If you love it, it’s usually better to get it – especially if the price is reasonable.
- “Antique” here means over 100 years old. Not everything there is an antique, but these dealers do take the business seriously as their reputations and future business depend on it. They do tell you what they know. Most are fairly knowledgeable about what they are selling. Most are also very honest about what they don’t know which is sometimes when you get the best deal.
- De Rembrandt – Belgium’s Oldest Restaurant
In the old square
Open: Wed – Fri 1130 – 0200; Sat 1400-0200; and Sun 0500-0200. Closed Mon and Tues.
- Gran Sasso – Fantastic Italian Food just inside the city gate (Moerenpoort) on the left. What impressed me most is that while the food is great, the service is also fantastically warm and friendly and they remembered me months after my first visit! Open for lunch! And… a clean bathroom is included with your meal!
Kielenstraat 97; 3700 Tongeren
Open: Wed – Sat 0800-1500 (pizza only 1630-2200); Sundays 1130-1430 and 1700-2200 (restaurant and pizza)
- Just across from Gran Sasso is a smoky old place called, T’ poort, I think. It’s a small smokey bar/cafe that has decent tostis and omelets, but you go there for the dim smokey atmosphere, not for the food. It’s average. And, the place is almost always too smokey for me… but atmospheric, yes. A clean bathroom will not be found here. They have a bathroom, but it is a bit scary.
- Inside the warehouse is a cafe which lacks in atmosphere, but makes up for in quick service, tasty food, and good prices. This is almost always the mid-morning cappuccino stop when I go because I can warm up on a cold day and know that a clean bathroom awaits me. There is an excellent sandwich there that is similar to panini – sorry I can’t remember the name. The tostis do come with a nice salad.
- May is the season of raspberry beer. It’s fuchsia pink and everywhere.
Bathrooms: Go to the warehouse. Inside is a small cafe with great hot coffee on a cold day, raspberry beer, waffles, great hot sandwiches, and, yes, a clean bathroom for only 30 cents.
What you’ll see… “The 20 minute home stretch is lined on both sides with antique shops of all sizes. They are all so enticing. It is like walking past the bakery window on the way to a nice restaurant when you’re famished. When you arrive early, the trucks will still be unloading along the old city wall. Park near the gate and begin your day. The market begins there right at the city gate and continues down the road sandwiched between the road on one side and the old city wall up on the grassy hill to the left. Vendors park their big vans and trucks on the side of the road, unload their treasures right there on the ground, and sit in their beautiful old chairs ready to sell. Almost nothing is marked with prices, so you have to ask, but most vendors speak adequate English.
There is too much to see and immense variety. Chandeliers, stuffed foxes, 17C metal pots, furniture both rustic and ornate, pottery, glass, bronze, leather, teddy bears – little pieces of history. Walking along I made mental notes of things I might want to come back for… an old bench for our entryway, a hall tree, a small chandelier for the girl’s room, a leather hat box, a long kitchen worktable…
Things I won’t need… a fox butler, a 350 Euro dress form (though it was pretty), a 4′ art deco vase that will surely break in the move… Yeah, that was a short list. Tongeren is a decorators dream. The variety from the truly valuable to the simply quirky is astounding, and would be really fun with an unlimited budget, a big house, and a grand imagination. Who knows… in the right home, my foxy friend might be the perfect addition.
The antique market winds around several streets, by countless antique stores which are also open, through a large warehouse full of vendors, and into an large square. The warehouse has mostly glass, jewelry, and bronze. Need a Christmas gift for someone who has it all.. you’ll find it here. Walking around the market, there were several that caught my eye and the prices weren’t horrible. In fact, none of the prices were horrible. Of course, the truly valuable antiques weren’t selling for peanuts, but they were selling for about 1/4 of what I’ve seen them for in the states.
In one of the first booths I found a beautiful old hall mirror framed with nicely carved mahogany. It tempted me all day. One vendor had an entire 8′ square table heaped with old wooden shoe forms of all sizes. Another sold old wooden balls.
You’ll see sleek old “boats” once used to gather and then grind up grains. Carved from one piece of wood, there is no glue holding it together – no nails, no screws, no other pieces of wood. Filled with breads and treats on a buffet, with gifts under the Christmas tree, with pots of potted flowers, they look fantastic.
There was no mistaking that we were Americans, but no one seemed to be bothered by the wagon. Instead, we were frequently stopped with questions and comments like, where did you get that, what are you going to do with that, I’ve been wanting one of those, or wow, that’s beautiful. People without English skills would smile, look at our “boats,” and gently run their fingers along the edges of them as we pulled the wagon by. It’s a friendly place.
Going to Tongeren is a bit addictive. I absolutely love it and would go every week if time and money allowed. The amalgamation of the old town gate and wall with all the little treasure shops tucked around it and the sidewalk vendors lining the sidewalks and streets with every possible aged object engage me. It all seems so story-like and the characters sitting on the back of their trucks have as many stories as the wares they sell. Going to Tongeren is a bit like an open area museum in which you can touch everything. Last time I’d gone I found a piece of Steuben glass that I can still clearly remember. This day, walking along casually looking about the randomness on each table, I found an another amazing glass vase – just sitting there in the middle of an unimpressive assortment of old stuff. I will have to look online to find out more about it, but it was truly special and signed. I got to pick it up, turn it in my hand, and feel it’s weight. Then I asked the price. 1300 Euros. And probably worth more. Though it would be fun to decorate my home with all the Tongeren treasures, it is also a privilege just to be able to pick up and touch some of these things that could easily be placed in a museum behind glass.
Feel like people watching?
- On one of the side streets, we saw this sweet scene which is very typical of Europe and probably didn’t catch the eye of any locals there. Just another day at the market… These sheikly dressed folks enjoyed a chat and their cappuccinos using this beautiful antique trunk as a table.
- On that same stretch was a man with a counter on which he had some wine glasses and several bottles of wine. He was clearing out a wine cellar. Two bottles of an 1950’s French Bordeaux, he sold for 600E each. We had the pleasure of chatting with him and sipping on a 1996 Bordeaux that he was selling for just 30E a bottle. I would have gotten a couple, but he was selling it in a lot of 300 bottles. But these are the fun characters at Tongeren – friendly, open, without presumption. He chatted with us for a good 10 minutes and then invited us to come back for a nice glass later if we had the time.
- The Moerenpoort is open in the summer months for tours inside. They usually close to the public the first week of October. The tower tour is only 1 Euro – a great bargain. Stand at the top near the flags and a friend can stand below and get your photo!
- The Basilica of Our Lady stands tall on the hill overlooking the town. You can see it as you drive in from a distance and if you try to drive down one of the narrow streets through the old gate, you’ll most likely end up there. Beside it is the local market area and some small shops. With a bell tower at 64 meters, it’s quite impressive and worth a stop to see it and take a few photos. I’ve heard that it has a nice collection inside as well if you have some extra time. There is a large parking area beside it.
- There is more… museums, statues, restaurants, and picturesque nooks and crannies… you just have to spend some time and find them. The people of Tongeren are very friendly and will help you out, for sure. Once I got lost and drove around for almost an hour in circles and a nice gentleman actually got back into his parked car and led me out of the loop.