Hasselt is the embodiment of Limburgian hospitality: friendly faces, a lively oldtown with great restaurants, a surprising cultural offer and lots of nature around. Trot Op! booked a little house in the forest bordering the city, and decided to find out what to do in Hasselt in detail.
Let’s not beat around the bush here: Limburg is not necessarily known as a destination for the most exhillarating of adventures. Belgium’s most musical province – we’re mainly talking about the local dialects here; you’ll figure it out – is usually seen as a place to enjoy nature to the fullest. Cycling and walking through numerous nature reserves, picking apples in the Haspengouw fruit orchards, running for your life from a wild boar or a wandering wolf: it’s all possible here. What people often forget is the number of interesting cities that can be visited in Limburg. They’re never really big, but all the more cosy. The provincial capital of Hasselt is the perfect example of this: a colourful ensemble of terraces, restaurants and boutiques, all housed together in a compact historic city centre you could traverse on foot in about fifteen minutes. Hasselt personifies everything you’ll find elsewhere in Limburg: warm greetings, good fun and lively bars. It’s a city made for and by bon vivants, and it has loads of culture on offer as well. Time for a closer look I thought, and as I’m a man of action, I went and got one.
What to do in Hasselt: 8 tips for a fun weekend in Limburg
This was not my first visit to Limburg. I’ve kind of seen the entire province and almost everything in it. This is because three years ago I was asked to write the Limburg Holiday Guide. As a result, I visited the entire territory in record time, visiting all the main sights as well as the smallest hamlet that had anything on offer. I saw it all, but I didn’t get much time to enjoy it.
“A weekend in Hasselt has a lot to offer: from cultural highlights to cosy restaurants, and from historical monuments to beautiful nature.”
Time to change all that. The weather gods were on my side at least: temperatures were rising and a fresh spring sun was shining bravely. The perfect opportunity to wake my blitzy bestie Floor from hibernation as well (just kiddin:; she never sleeps). A pleasant weekend in Limburg awaited her, whether she liked it or not. First we would explore Hasselt, to then do the same in the less touristy but just as interesting city of Genk. We spent the night in a so called “Nature House” in the forest around Bokrijk, where a wood stove had been placed in the garden so we could go for a campfire medley under a starry sky. The local wildlife is still recovering from it. Anyway: here are our eight finest tips on what to do in Hasselt. Go nuts!
1. Bokrijklodge: Stay in a Nature House in the forest
The initial reason for my visit to Hasselt was an offer from www.natuurhuisje.be to spend the night in one of their more than 18,000 locations all over Europe. This website offers sustainable holiday homes in the middle of nature. They range from forest bungalows to beach houses and from tree houses to Mongolian yurts. For each night booked, one euro is donated to local nature projects. For our “nature house” we chose Bokrijklodge, located in the woods around the open-air museum of the same name. Bokrijklodge is a small house that was ingeniously furnished by the owners to have enough space for a comfortable stay with a family of four. It comes with a fully equipped kitchen and bathroom, two bedrooms, digital TV with a solid movie selection and a garden with BBQ and the above mentioned wood stove. Every morning at 9 am a shepherd walks through the garden with his sheep right in front of the main bedroom window, but consider this as an extra attraction. You can also rent a bike here, so you don’t have to drive to Hasselt or Genk by car. Check the website to see what kind of houses are available for rent at your next destination.
2. Quartier Bleu: summer vibes on the waterfront
Just outside the historic center of Hasselt, one of the hippest and newest neighbourhoods in the city was built up along the canal basin. Quartier Bleu combines a shopping boulevard, a lot of new apartments and restaurants and a marina into a place oozing holiday vibes, especially when the sun is out. The whole atmosphere is reminiscent of a couple of foreign cities with a lively waterfront, I’m thinking Copenhagen or Barcelona (but of course way smaller). Here you can watch the sun go down with a drink in hand from one of the many loungers along the quay – there are worse places to spend a Saturday evening. Across the water behind the moored boats, you can spot some industrial relics full of street art – more about those later. This is a great project, and a textbook example of how you can transform a somewhat decrepit area into one of the new hotspots of your city with a bit of vision and inventiveness. www.quartierbleu.be
3. Z33: a modern architectural gem
When I put the finishing touches to the Limburg Holiday Guide at the end of 2019, Z33 (that would be the House for Contemporary Art, Design and Architecture) was still being built. I didn’t get to see it at the time. By now, the museum has been open to the public for about two years, and it turned out to be a great addition to the cultural offer. There is no permanent collection; the expositions change every few months. Most of the halls are currently filled with the interesting On-Trade-Off exhibition. It tells about the ethics of lithium mining in Congo, the links with colonialism and how this raw material helps sustain our modern lifestyle. In my opinion, the biggest attraction of the museum is actually the building itself: a daring architectural project full of high ceilings, strange corridors and snow-white exhibition spaces that lend themselves fantastically to photo expositions. Fancy some other Hasselt museums? Then visit the Jenever Museum, where you can (virtually) see what an abundance of alcohol does to your body, the Fashion Museum and the Stadsmus. www.z33.be
4. Hidden green spots in Hasselt
Spatially, Hasselt feels more like a big village with the spirit of a city. The centre is surprisingly compact and walkable, full of narrow little alleys to get lost in. There are still some green spots hidden in this maze though. The Stadsmus garden is one of those (enter through the gate to the right of the museum entrance). The garden of the beguinage behind Z33 is also worth a stroll. Kapermolenpark just outside the old town was recently redeveloped. Via the new pond paths you can now walk cross the water without getting your feet wet. The most beautiful green spot in the city proper is perhaps Kadettensteegje (see photo). This is a tiny park completely enclosed by buildings, which makes it a great place to relax. You’ll find a number of benches, a lot of sculptures, a restaurant and a couple clothes shops around. Perfect place to eat your sandwich (or to steal your first kiss – I bet it’s one of the main spots).
5. The Japanese Garden: a touch of the far east
The most beautiful patch of greenery in Hasselt is without a doubt the Japanese Garden. It’s located just outside the city centre and is the largest of its kind in all of Europe. It’s a beautifully crafted piece of landscape art, and a nostalgic look at a Japan from bygone times, where picturesque stone bridges run over peaceful ponds full of koi fish. Here you can quietly enjoy the afternoon under Japanese cherry trees or around some of the traditional wooden houses. Every season makes for a completely different picture: in spring all the trees will blossom, while fall transforms the whole garden into shades of red and orange. True weeaboos can even try a couple of Japanese themed activities here. Attend a tea ceremony, do flower arranging, sign up for a calligraphy workshop or have your kids practice some Tai Chi (I think that’s Chinese, but hey, whatever right?). Hasselt’s Japanese garden is a picturesque oasis of peace, which with a little imagination, will transport you all the way to the land of the rising sun. And with an entrance fee of just €6, it’s a lot cheaper than a plane ticket to Tokyo. www.visithasselt.be/nl/japanse-tuin
6. Street Art in Hasselt
Nowadays, just about every self-respecting town has a whole array of graffiti sprayed on the local walls – see also half of my Belgian city trip reports. Hasselt is no different in this regard, but it was one of the first Flemish cities to officially promote the art form. The result is quite impressive: more than a hundred facades have already been painted by national and international artists. Some works are so small that you would walk right past them if you didn’t know they were there, others are gigantic and spread over several walls. Many of the murals can be found in places where you would not immediately expect them, which makes every walk a journey of discovery and brightens up the street scene. If you don’t want to make a search out of it and just want a look at your favourites, download the Street Art Cities App. All works are indicated on a map, photos and coordinates included, so you can make a selection of choice. www.streetartcities.com/cities/hasselt
7. Restaurants in Hasselt
If Hasselt has one thing in abundance, it’s excellent bars and restaurants. The whole centre is littered with them and most of them get quite packed in the weekends. Here’s an overview I managed to squeeze out of the local natives (aka my Limburg connections). We had dinner in Kapel 16, a fairly fancy place with a solid wine selection. If you like a lot of choice, head to Markeat. This is the first food hall in the whole of Limburg, and it combines several businesses under one roof. Maison Mathis is an upscale brasserie with a spacious terrace on the quay in Quartier Bleu. La Vache qui Suisse not only has the best restaurant name in Belgium, they specialise in cheese fondue so you can go après-skiing without having to go all the way to Switzerland. Koks & Tales is a top cocktail bar that was voted best in the country in 2017. Café Latino combines cocktails with Mexican dishes. De Levensboom is a great vegan restaurant, and Boulebaar is a combination of a lunch restaurant and a concept store, housed in a historic mansion. There, that should get you through the weekend. Still need some inspiration? Pick up the free Spraakmaker Smaakmaker Route map at the Visit Hasselt offices.
8. Herkenrode Abbey: heritage outside the city centre
Always had a soft spot for nuns? Then go and visit Herkenrode Abbey a couple of miles from the city. This impressive complex is one of Hasselt’s major attractions, is more than 800 years old – the buildings that are still standing date from the 16th-18th century though – and was once the richest and largest women’s abbey in the area. How these nuns got their money and what exactly they did with it is a mystery to me (I’m guessing crypto) but is probably explained perfectly in the experience centre inside. There you will be guided through the building’s history by a virtual abbot via an audio guide. Since the restoration a few years ago, many of the halls now host events and exhibitions. The domain also comes with a herbal garden, a covered green walkway and a number of playful question games that will keep your kids happy for a good while. The art installation “The Silent View” by Hans Op de Beeck now stands on the site where the abbey church used to be. With it, he managed to create a grey, bare and seemingly infinite landscape of pure desolation. Great view for those wanting to visit something uplifting on their free Sunday. www.abdijsiteherkenrode.be
What to do in Hasselt: hotels and partners
There you go dear friends: that was all I had to say about my weekend in Hasselt. What did you think of it? Are your favourite places mentioned? Do you have anything to add? Leave your comments below.
We received a lot of help from the people of Visit Limburg in organizing this weekend. For great tips and information about what to do in the entire province, surf to their website at www.visitlimburg.be. Also check the previous article about Limburg’s nature reserves I made for them last summer. If you want to read the Limburg Holiday Guide I wrote, you can do so via this link: www.visitlimburg.be/nl/limburg-vakantiegids-2020.
We would also like to thank www.natuurhuisje.be again for the stay. There was absolutely nothing to complain about, and if we end up at a destination in the future where a number of their houses can be booked, we know where to look.