The capital of Belgian Limburg is a sociable, pedestrian-friendly kind of place with a fashion scene, spellbinding street art and history-rich countryside on its fringes.
One nearby site is Herkenrode Abbey, where the surviving buildings hint at the size and finery of a complex that met its end more than 200 years ago.
The old city centre, heaving with shops, brasseries and cafes, is mostly closed off to road traffic and lies beneath the spire of the Sint-Quintinuskathedraal.
Historic townhouses and former monastic properties have been converted into museums for fashion, literature, Hasselt itself and the traditional liqueur, Jenever.
In the outskirts you can get away from it all at Europe’s largest Japanese garden, a fantastic outdoor museum, a valuable arboretum and pasture grazed by Galloway cattle.
1. Herkenrode Abbey
This Cistercian monastery existed for 600 years from the end of the 12th century to the French Revolution when it was dissolved.
Although the original church was lost in a fire in the 19th century, most of its artworks survive, some at Hasselt’s town museum.
And more than 200 years later, many of the outbuildings are still intact, including the gatehouse, mill-house and a tithe barn.
For the last decade the latter has been home to a visitor centre where you can take a chronological tour through the history of the abbey and get to know the abbesses who controlled big tracts of land in Medieval times.
The rambling English garden, planted with exotic trees in the 18th century is still here, and there’s also a contemporary herb garden, opened in the 2000s and featuring more than 450 labelled herb varieties.
The abbey site is a launch-pad for adventures into the countryside west of Hasselt, and you’ll be able to rent a bike to see what you can find.
2. Japanse Tuin
The largest Japanese garden in Europe is a symbol of friendship between Hasselt and its Japanese twin city, Itami in Hyogo Prefecture.
The Japanse Tuin is a 2.5-hectare extension of the Kapermolenpark and was laid out in the early-1990s by the landscape architect Inoue Takuyuki.
As you’d guess, the garden is completely suffused with symbolism, from its bubbling creek to it zigzagging bridge (Yatsuhashi), waterfall and stone lantern (Yukumi-Doro). As well as harmonising with the garden by being reflected in the pond, the Ceremonial House is built from traditional materials like bamboo, stone and clay.
This structure also uses centuries-old cooling techniques, like exaggerated eaves that prevent sunlight from reaching the interior.
You can feed the koi from the “pebble beach” next to the pond, while tea ceremonies are often given at the garden’s tea house, and there’s a chrysanthemum festival in the autumn.
Fifteen minutes from the city centre and roughly halfway to Genk there’s a parcel of land that was bought by Herkenrode Abbey in the 13th century.
The abbey’s farm was sold off after the French Revolution though a lot of the outbuildings survived, and a Neoclassical house was completed at the end the 19th century.
In the 1950s some of the estate was turned into an open-air museum.
Bokrijk is a remarkable place, with nigh on 150 historic buildings, some in situ and others that have been moved here from around Belgium and are positioned according to their region of origin.
The oldest of these dates back to the beginning of the 16th century, and although the focus is farming you’ll come across a school, an inn, a church and buildings for a variety of trades.
Some 30,000 objects giving a sense of daily life between the 1600s and 1950, and costumed staff help to bring the whole place to life.
Added to this is the arboretum, growing one of the nation’s largest plant collections and, along with a conservatory, is divided into ornamental gardens for ferns, Mediterranean plants and “Scents and Colour”.
As is often the case the town’s main church has a complicated construction history, and was made a cathedral with the foundation of the Diocese of Hasselt in 1967. There was a church on this site as long ago as the 8th century, while the remnants of an 11th-century Romanesque church survive in the substructure of the current tower.
Between the 13th and 15th century the Sint-Quintinuskathedraal took on a Gothic form, beginning with the completion of the current early-Gothic tower around 1250. A restoration in the 19th century furnished the church with its current stained glass, as well as murals by the Hasselt painter Godfried Guffens.
Some things to keep in mind are the late-16th-century Niehoff organ and a painting from Herkenrode Abbey depicting a procession with the 17th-century abbess Barbara de Rivière and the sisters accompanying the sacrament.
A little carillon museum meanwhile has a keyboard from the 1700s and an exhibition explaining the bell-casting process.
5. City Centre
The first thing you’ll notice about the old heart of Hasselt is how walkable the streets are, and this is something that has won the city a lot of praise: In 2004 Hasselt was named “most sociable city in Flanders”. The main shopping arteries are Demerstraat and Koning Alberstraat, while the smaller Hoogstraat and Kapelstraat are where things get a little more upscale.
Grote Markt, south-west of the cathedral is fronted by cafes and brasseries, and on the west side stands one of the most famous old houses in the city, the half-timbered Het Sweert (1659). For a moment of repose, seek out the landscaped Kadettenpleintje, which you’ll find along the passageway, Kadettensteegje, which cuts away from the city’s tourism office on Maastrichterstraat.
On Groenplein the town hall (up to 2018), dates from the end of the 17th century, while the oldest secular building in the city is the Renaissance-style refuge house for Herkenrode Abbey, built in the middle of the 16th century.
6. Nationaal Jenevermuseum Hasselt
The juniper-flavoured spirit Jenever is such a part of Hasselt’s history that there’s even a festival for the drink every October.
From the end of the 18th century a distillery set up shop at a beautiful brick building and courtyard that used to belong to a Franciscan convent – the name Witte Nonnenstraat is a bit of a giveaway.
Distilling finally came to an end here in 1971, after which the building was protected by royal decree.
The Jenever Museum, documenting this traditional beverage, opened in 1987 and came through a renovation in the 2010s.
You can tour the courtyard, malt tower, germ attic, mill room, boiling room, bottling plant, distiller’s residence and oxen stable (these would be fed a by-product from the distilling process). These spaces are enriched with a whole trove of artefacts, from labels to antique posters, shot glasses, bottles, stoneware and ceramic items.
At the end you can pull up a stool at the tasting room to try some Jenever for yourself.
7. Het Stadsmus
Two elegant patrician houses on the corner of Maastrichterstraat and Guido Gezellestraat are home to Hasselt’s city museum.
One, the Waerdenhof, went up in 1680, while its neighbour the Stellingwerff goes back to 1857. Within you can study Hasselt and its people, politics and culture across hundreds of years, finding out how this free city in the Medieval County of Loon became the capital of modern Limburg.
Among many absorbing objects on show are artefacts from Herkenrode Abbey, including a gilded silver monstrance ordered from Paris by abbot Aleidis van Diest.
Dating to 1286, this is the oldest known monstrance in the world.
There’s also preserved stained glass from the abbey, a 17th-century handwritten compendium of plays, pieces from Hasselt’s ceramics manufactory, silver objects produced by the city’s 15th-century silversmiths and much more.
8. Modemuseum Hasselt
It’s no coincidence that there should be a museum about fashion in Hasselt.
For one thing the city had a thriving cloth trade in Medieval times.
Among the posh fashion emporia on Kapelstraat is Jeurissen, which was founded here just after the Second World War and has real cachet in the Belgian fashion industry.
As part of a push to underscore Hasselt as a fashion city, the Modemuseum was established in 1986 in the south wing of the former Grauwzusters monastery.
In the last 35 years the collection has grown to more than 18,000 pieces of clothing and accessories between 1750 and the present day.
Some of the many great designers represented are Chanel, Versace, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Paul Poiret, Dior and Yves Saint Laurent.
There’s no permanent exhibition here; instead the Modemuseum hosts two overview exhibitions each year along a certain theme.
For example, in 2019-20, “SMUK” celebrated opulent decoration in contemporary and historic couture, be it embroidery, precious stones, feathers, shells, pearls or sequins.
9. Villa Verbeelding
What used to be Hasselt’s literary museum has had an experiential makeover and reopened as the “Imagination Villa”, dedicated mainly to the work of Flemish authors and illustrators.
In this fine white townhouse on Bampslaan you can step into imaginary worlds created by literature, discovering inspiring or humorous objects relating to renowned children’s and youth authors like Kolet Janssen and Bettie Elias.
Smaller visitors will adore the exhibition, Giftige appels op gouden bordjes (poisonous apples on golden plates), all about food and drink in fairy tales, be it gingerbread houses, hot porridge or poisoned apples.
The multimedia exhibition, Van schrijver tot lezer (from writer to reader) lets you in on the stages that result in a completed book, from author through prepress, printing and binding.
Keep an eye on the calendar for readings, workshops and masterclasses.
10. Oud Kerkhof
Hasselt’s historic cemetery on the Kempische Steenweg was in use from around 1800 to 1930, and has been a Belgian protected monument since 2004. It came about after the city had run out of burial space around the Sint-Quintinuskathedraal – in fact things had become so crowded and unsanitary that burials within the city ramparts had been outlawed by the French in 1796. The Oud Kerkhof was divided between Catholic and non-Catholic burials and is stacked with beautiful statuary, chapels and headstones among the willows and cypresses.
As well as the high degree of artistry on show in the cemetery’s architecture, stone carving and ironwork, there are plenty of important burials, from governors to mayors and aristocrats.
The 19th-century chapel at the centre interprets the cemetery’s history and helps you decipher some of the recurring symbolism on the graves.
A tree stump for instance represents a life suddenly cut short.
11. Plopsa Indoor Hasselt
Belgium’s first indoor theme park opened in Hasselt in 2005 and is a welcome rainy day option for young families.
This is one of seven amusement parks in four different nations, established by the theme park division of Studio 100, a Belgian broadcasting corporation making children’s shows.
On almost a hectare, Plopsa Indoor has more than 20 attractions, mostly themed on Studio 100 characters, like Mega Mindy, Piet Piraat, Samson & Gert, Kabouter Plop and Bumba.
This is all geared towards children up to the age of six or so, with soft play, slides, a ball pool, a carousel, spinners, an indoor rollercoaster, bumper boats, to name a few.
There’s a Studio 100 restaurant inside and a store for Plopsa merchandise.
12. Domein Kiewit
North-east of Hasselt next to Bokrijk is a nature reserve in 130 acres.
These are the grounds of a mostly 19th-century stately home that has elements going back to the 17th century.
This tract of grassland, pasture, fens and Medieval ponds was bought by Hasselt in 1953 and has big expanses grazed by Galloway cattle.
The ponds serve as perfect scenery for a family picnic and there’s a children’s farm at the mansion with domestic animals, accompanied by a play area and adventure “play wood”. Colour-coded walking paths snake off into the landscape and you can buy a map from the reserve’s office.
You can take a pit-stop at the Koe-vert Tavern, also at the house and sourcing local, organic and fair-trade ingredients.
13. Fietsroute Graffiti Street Art
Hasselt is understandably proud of the mesmerising and often hyper-realistic art that enlivens some 80 facades around the city centre.
In fact the tourism office has even put together a cycling and pedestrian route to help you see it all.
This is a canvas for some of the top street artists and graphic designers in Belgium and around the world, going by aliases like CAZN, INTI, MYMO, Sneaky Jay, Animalito, Smates and DZIA.
Each work is itemised and a leaflet with accompanying map offers an explanation and information about the artist.
You can also download a pdf from the Visit Hasselt website.
14. Circuit Zolder
In the 70s and 80s the Belgian F1 GP took place at this track about 15 minutes out of Hasselt.
Big names like Niki Lauda and Jackie Stewart claimed victories at Circuit Zolder, and it was here that Canadian driver Gilles Villeneuve lost his life.
As of 2020 the track is still a stop on several tours, like the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series, the Dutch Supercar Challenge, the FIA European Truck Racing Championship and the Deutsche Tourenwegen Masters.
In August one of the most anticipated events is the GT endurance race, 24 Hours of Zolder.
If you’re willing to pay, Thursdays clear of events in summer are International Testdays when you can come to experience the track and get driving tips from racing old hands.
The circuit also has cycling heritage, staging road racing events down the years, as well as the UCI BMX World Championships in 2015 and 2019. The Flemish Cycling School provides lessons for young riders, and every Tuesdays, Wednesday and Thursday evening year round you can take your road bike onto the track during the Evening Cycle Sessions.
Belgium’s second-biggest music festival goes down in a field flanking the Kempische Steenweg dual carriageway in mid-to-late August.
The site is about seven kilometres from the city centre, and the dual carriageway is closed to all traffic throughout the event.
One of many things to appreciate about Pukkelpop is how it encourages a low carbon footprint.
There’s free camping at the festival site, transport to Hasselt from within Belgium is free, and there’s a free shuttle from the train station to the festival site.
The catalogue of famous acts to have performed at Pukkelpop since its birth in the mid-80s is a who’s who of rock, alt-rock, indie and electronic music over the last 35 years : Think Metallica, Sonic Youth, Pixies, Daft Punk, Radiohead and PJ Harvey.
On the bill in 2019 were Post Malone, Anne-Marie, The National, Tame Impala and Billie Eilish.