In Medieval times Hasselt was on the Zuiderzee, a saltwater bay of the North Sea, and as a member of the Hanseatic League was a major player in northern European trade in the 15th century.
But after losing business to other better located trading posts in the 16th century, Hasselt slipped into relative obscurity and remains a small but pretty fortified town of 7,000. The old centre, once an important pilgrimage site, is heaving with Dutch heritage sites (more than 70), and there’s a canal ring moored with typical Dutch sail barges.
The town church has a tower that you can climb, while a working windmill and lime kiln offer a snapshot of traditional livelihoods.
1. Town Tour
Hasselt’s town centre is a Dutch “protected cityscape” with more than 70 national monuments (rijksmonumenten). Most of these are in the compact core, still defended from the east by the points of a bastion fort, partly converted into a park.
You won’t even need a map to see the best of Hasselt as the centre is bite-sized, broken by a picturesque canal ring, which we’ll cover in more detail below.
Ridderstraat is also adorable, meandering through low brick houses between the canal lock on the Zwarte Water and the historic town hall.
Further up, Nieuwstraat has most of Hasselt’s local shops, like a florist, confectioner and bike shop.
2. Grote of Sint-Stephanuskerk
Wherever you are in Hasselt you should be able to see the tower of this late-Gothic church, raised during Hasselt’s golden years in the 15th century.
The building has suffered a few mishaps since then, like damage during an attack by troops from Zwolle in 1657 (more on that below at the Vispoort) and a lightning strike in 1725. The Grote of Sint-Stephanuskerk is well-regarded for its acoustics and Knol organ from 1806, while the city carilloneur regularly gives concerts on the newly restored carillon.
Head to the Stadhuis in summer and you can book a place on a guided tour (Wednesdays 13:30-14:30), to climb the church tower.
On the way up you’ll stop at the carilloneur’s room for an impromptu performance.
3. Oude Stadhuis
Right next door in the middle of Hasselt’s central marketplace is one of the oldest town halls in the Netherlands.
Also late-Gothic, the Oude Stadhuis dates from 1550 and is in a superb state of preservation.
Partly hidden by the lime trees on the square the monument has a stepped-gable with intricate brickwork turrets, and bands of brick and stone around its window openings.
The Oude Stadhuis is the venue for Hasselt’s Toeristisch Informatiepunt (TIP) so you can go in for free during business hours from Monday to Saturday.
If the schedule is clear you can take a look at the stunning wedding hall, with 17th-century paintings, and size up a collection of original weapons including a halberd, morningstar and arquebus.
4. Molen De Zwaluw
This delightful smock mill is in working order and has stood just east of the city walls since 1784. There was an earlier mill at this location dating back to the 16th century, while the current building needed a reconstruction after a fire in 1857. Restored in 2017, De Zwaluw is thatched on its upper levels, above a wooden gallery and a brick base.
The sails are almost 22 metres long and can be seen turning if there’s a breeze on Saturday afternoons.
That means the mill is grinding, and you’re welcome to pay a visit to see the millstones turning and buy a bag of organic flour.
5. Kalkovens Hasselt
On the northeast edge of the fortified town there’s a pair of historic lime kilns, preserved as a museum.
Lime kilns were essential to Hasselt in its Hanseatic League days, producing shell lime, a key ingredient for mortar and concrete.
To make this substance, sea shells had to be heated in these ovens to a temperature of more than 1000°C.
Peat would be needed to fire the ovens, and was brought by boat from the nearby harbour town of Vollenhove, while the shells were sourced from the North Sea coast.
The resulting lime was exported across North and South Holland.
The museum is open Monday to Friday in the afternoon and uses antique tools and documents to bring a forgotten industry to life.
In this small provincial town, you might be surprised to find a stately canal ring, like a miniature version of Amsterdam.
On Baangracht, Prinsengracht, Heerengracht and Brouwersgracht there are pollarded lime trees, fine canal houses, locks, quays and cute bascule bridges.
This may be the most photogenic part of town, with traditional Dutch botters (sail barges) in the water, iron gaslights and a few picnic benches where you can just soak up the scene for a little while.
The best way to see more of the remarkably diverse landscapes around Overijssel is on a two-day, 40-kilometre walking trail.
The Christoffelpad uses some trails walked for hundreds of years by pilgrims on the way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, now leading into the Weerribben-Wieden National Park and the IJssel Delta.
On this route you’ll come across Medieval dikes, woodland, swamps, canals, rivers, peat bogs, reed beds, modern polders and lots of spiritual locations tied to the pilgrimage.
As well as Hasselt, the hike takes in charming and historic settlements like Zwartsluis and Vollenhove, both with beautiful harbours and built around trade on the former Zuiderzee.
It can be fascinating to see the methods that were used to keep water out over hundreds of years.
Even more so when you remember that the sea this wall was erected to keep out no longer exists.
The Zuiderzee, part of the North Sea, was dammed by the Afsluitdijk (1932), while the land to the west of Hasselt was reclaimed in the decades that followed.
Today a Dutch heritage site, Rijksmonument, the Stenendijk is more than a kilometre long and was first mentioned in 1558. There’s lots of greenery beside the wall as well as vistas of De Zwaluw and the Grote of Sint-Stephanuskerk, so it’s worth a short walk.
In the 1650s Hasselt was caught up in a civil war in Overijssel, and this is the origin of a real curiosity at one of the last remnants of the city wall.
In those days the Vispoort (Fish Gate) gave access to the water and later the fish market on the quay.
The monument is rather understated, except for the presence of a stone cannonball embedded in the brickwork as you approach the portal from the outside.
This was left in situ to commemorate the siege of 1657.