An industrial city in Belgian Limburg, Genk experienced a surge of mining activity in the middle of the 20th century as it sits right on the Kempen coal basin.
Those collieries were out of action by the 1990s, but their imposing architecture lives on at the C-Mine cultural centre and creative hub, and the Thor Park, an ultra-modern science and business park.
Despite Genk’s industry there’s a lot of nature all around the city, at Belgium’s only national park and in the pastoral Bokrijk, home to a super open-air museum.
When Genk was little more than a village in the 19th century, the countryside of heathland and ponds attracted some of the great Belgian landscape painters of the day, and you can discover the work of the Genk School at the Emile Van Dorenmuseum.
Sitting amid woodland and ponds, this estate west of Genk hosted a farm run by Herkenrode Abbey from 1252 all the way up to the French Revolution.
The land was sold off and although the residence was demolished, a number of outbuildings remained and became the basis for a model farm in the early 20th century.
This was replaced in the 1930s by an open-air museum documenting Flanders’ culture and history.
There are almost 150 buildings at Bokrijk, relocated here from across Flanders, and the oldest dating back to 1507. As well as farm structures, you’ll get to visit everyday amenities from days gone by, like an inn, smithy and all sorts of craftsmen’s workshops, all populated by costumed re-enactors.
Also on the land is a botanically important arboretum in 18 hectares and a gigantic children’s play area with mini golf and pedal carts.
2. Hoge Kempen National Park
In 2006 the 5,700 hectares of elevated coniferous forest and heathland between Genk and the Meuse River became a national park, the first and only one on Belgian soil.
The Hoge Kempen was earmarked for industry after the collapse of coal, but in the 1990s a new policy blending economic development with tourism laid the groundwork for the national park and an enormous cycling network.
The scenery is all purple-flowering heather, pine woodland, large ponds formed by sand and gravel extraction, and lots of high ground for distant vistas.
It could hardly be easier to jump into these nature-rich landscapes, on more than 200 kilometres of cycling trails and 40 walking loops up to 14 kilometres in length.
There are six gateways to the park, the closest to Genk being the space-themed Kattevennen, which we’ll cover later in this list.
3. Fietsen Door Het Water
The most treasured bike path in Flanders runs through Bokrijk in Genk.
Fietsen Door Het Water, literally “cycling through the water”, is on a massive paved cycling network connected by “knooppunten”, or “nodes”. These are essentially junctions that help you plot your route through the countryside more easily.
Fietsen Door Het Water is between nodes 91 and 243, and as it enters De Wijers pond, sinks along a trench below the waterline.
This gives you the curious sensation of riding with the surface at eye level, all the stranger if there are waterfowl close by on the pond.
The path is three metres wide and opened in 2016. If you don’t have your own set of wheels you can rent a bike at Bokrijk for €10.
The Winterslag coal mine, one of seven near Genk in the Kempen basin, closed its doors in 1988 and the preserved site was reborn in the 2000s as a cultural centre and incubator for the creative industries.
As well as a platform for the performing arts, this is a hub for dozens of creative companies, comprising app developers, art studios, website builders, set designers, drone manufacturers and lots more.
It’s impossible not to be drawn in by the restored colliery site and its restored Energy Building and giant pithead, and you can swing by the visitor centre to find out what this extraordinary place is all about.
The C-Mine Expedition is a tour leading you through the mining tunnels and up the restored pithead 60 metres above the complex.
The old shower building has become Euroscoop, a state-of-the-art cinema, and for wee ones, ‘t Speelmijntje is a 1,000-square-metre indoor playground, ideal for rainy days.
Barely five minutes east of the centre of Genk is a forested natural space where you’ll come to one of the six main gates for the Hoge Kempen National Park.
The visitor centre and themed trails that wind off into the park deal with the big questions of the universe.
For instance, the Planetenpad has a scale model of the solar system, and the Stenenpad illustrates more than 500 million years of geological history.
At the visitor centre you can get tickets for a high-tech show at the centre’s Cosmodrome, an enormous huge 360° movie theatre.
There are also interactive exhibits on the universe, kids can go on their own space odyssey at the Speelplaneet playground, and there’s a mini-golf course and a restaurant, De Krater.
6. Emile Van Dorenmuseum
Genk attracted landscape artists as early as the 1840s for its Kempen landscape of dunes, heathland, fens and ponds reflecting the big skies.
One artist to fall in love with this scenery was Emile Van Doren (1865-1949), who settled here in the 1890s and in 1913 built a villa, “Le Coin Perdu” on a hillside overlooking the Molenvijver pond.
Emile’s daughter Fanny stipulated in her will that the villa should become a museum, and this opened in 1976. Exhibits are dedicated to the appeal of this countryside and the story of Van Doren.
You’ll also learn about other prominent members of the Genk School drawn to the area between 1840 and 1940. There are pieces on show by Joseph Coosemans, Isidore Verheyden, François-Joseph Halkett, Edmond De Schampheleer and many more.
7. De Maten
There’s 300 hectares of beautiful protected nature in the south-west of Genk, bleeding into the Diepenbeek municipality and ready for peaceful walks and bike rides.
Humans have had a big hand in De Maten’s landscape, damming the Stiemerbeek brook in Medieval times to create a long chain of more than 30 ponds to raise fish for consumption.
De Maten today is exceptionally diverse, comprising 13 different European protected habitats, among them dunes, peat bogs, a variety of heathlands and oak-birch forest to name a small few.
The abundant water makes this a crucial site for birds, to breed or pause on long migrations and there’s a large bird hide by the Augustijnenweyer (Augustinian pond) in the south-east of the reserve.
The city of Genk and transdisciplinary artist Koen Vanmechelen have collaborated on this evolving high-concept project which, safe to say, is like nothing you’ve encountered before.
At the site of the old Zwartberg colliery and the zoo that opened after its closure in 1966, LABIOMISTA is an effort to strike a balance between humanity and nature, and let culture and biodiversity flourish hand-in-hand, promoting a concept called “biocultural diversity”. In 24 hectares, comprising the mine’s villa and new structures designed by Mario Botta, you’ll find monumental indoor and outdoor art installations interacting with live animals.
The park is open from April to November, and while grown-ups can ponder LABIOMISTA’s implications for the future, children will be pleased with the opportunities to explore and see camels, emus, ostriches and llamas.
9. Thor Park
The Waterschei colliery in the north of Genk was in operation from the 1920s up to 1987, and was at its busiest in the 1960s.
The stately Art Deco office building and headframe are still there, and are the anchor for the enormous Thor Park.
As of 2020 this is in development as a combined high-tech science and business park.
For visitors, that spectacular main building warrants a look inside for its glass ceiling and mix of contemporary and early-20th century design.
A “food plaza” is also taking shape, to serve the business park growing around it.
Outside there’s 30 hectares of nature, on footpaths signposted with little stone men.
These will lead you up the mine’s sizeable spoil tip for an all-encompassing view of the site and KRC Genk’s stadium.
10. Mijndepot Waterschei
Even as the old colliery is transformed into a 21st-century business park, you can get in touch with the old days at a former warehouse.
There a miner who worked at Waterschei will be ready to walk you through the history of the mine and what it was like to work here.
The Mijndepot includes an exhibition with tools and samples of what was brought to the surface during those six decades.
On the tour you’ll even get to visit subterranean air shafts, as well as viewing lots of interesting photography and an introductory film bringing this once thronging mine to life.
The Mijndepot is open all year, every day from April to October, and on weekends in the winter.
In the 1960s a swampy patch of land around the old village pond and watermill (Dorpsmolen) directly east of the city centre was regenerated.
The swamp was dammed to form a second pond, all within a 15-hectare park.
Groves of exotic conifers were planted on the banks of the two ponds, along with big grassy spaces with picnic tables and barbecue grills.
Later, in 2000, a garden with 12 unique contemporary sundials was set up in the park.
The Dorpsmolen is now De Molen Grill, one of two restaurants on the west side of the park, accompanied by a hotel.
From the banks of the pond you’ll have a clear view to La Maison Blanche, landscape artist Armand Laclot’s villa at Molenstraat 80.
12. Alden Biesen Castle
From the 1000s all the way up to 1795 this castle, not far from Genk, was a provincial headquarters for the Teutonic Order.
The mostly Renaissance architecture at Alden Biesen Castle is from the 1500s to the 1700s, and following a large fire in the 1970s the monument was purchased by the Belgian state and restored.
Alde Biesen is used for major events, performances and important temporary exhibitions, and almost all of its considerable estate is free to visit.
For a small fee you can also see the commander’s apartments in the moated castle.
The estate encompasses a stunning English landscape park laid out to a design by Capability Brown in the 18th century.
The current church was reworked in the 1630s but has a lot of Medieval fixtures, like the 13th-century ledger stone Teutonic order bishop Edmund von Werth (d. 1292) and a 13th-century High Gothic image of Madonna with Child.
In front of the church is a dainty French formal garden, with precise boxwood hedges and topiaries.
13. KRC Genk
When we wrote this article in 2020 Belgian football was on fire, and the main driver behind the national team’s success was the work done by First Division clubs like KRC Genk.
“Blauw-Wit”, for their club colours, have brought through stars like Thibaut Courtois, Divock Origi, Yannick Carrasco and Dennis Praet, and given a start to the likes of Wilfred Ndidi, Kalidou Koulibaly and Sergej Milinković-Savić.
In 2019-20 the club qualified for the Champions League group stages and plays at the 23,718-seater Luminus Arena.
GoalMine is the name of the interactive exhibition at the stadium revealing the history of the Belgian Limburg mining teams from which KRC Genk originated.
On the first Saturday of the month there’s also a guided stadium tour.
14. Karting Genk
There’s a go-kart circuit of international standing just a few minutes out of town.
Karting Genk has twice staged the Gear Kart World Championships, in 2011 and 2018, while a young Fernando Alonso was crowned Junior World Champion here in 1996. What’s great is that you don’t need any prior experience to drive on either of the centre’s tracks.
The Fun Circuit is perfect for kids (1m25 and up) and newcomers, with karts that have a top speed of 60 km/h, while the speed limit on the highly technical Pro Circuit is 90 km/h.
For convenience, an “Arrive & Drive” session gives you 15 minutes on the track for €18 and there are packages if you want to scale that up.
If you need to learn the ropes first you could also book an in-depth three-hour training session, with one-on-one tuition at the track where Max Verstappen learned to race.
15. Genk On Stage
Over three days on the last weekend of June, Genk on Stage is a music festival pulling in more than 100,000 visitors.
They come to see over 100 different acts, which makes it even more remarkable is that the whole event is free.
There are up to nine stages all within walking distance of the city centre, the Main Stage being on Grote Markt.
Genk On stage has been going since 1982 and offers equal billing to Belgian and international artists.
Some acts from the last decade include Sam Bettens, Belle Perez, Daan, Urban Trad, Fixkes, Level 42, Boy George, Fun Lovin’ Criminals and The Human League.