In the middle of the 19th century, quartz sand, a valuable mineral for glassmaking, was discovered outside Lommel.
This sparked an industry that persists today, permanently altering the countryside around the town.
Exhausted former quarries are now nature reserves, and combine to form the gigantic Bosland, the largest wooded area in Flanders.
Lommel’s contribution to glassmaking is recognised by Het GlazenHuis, a museum and centre of excellence under a 30-metre glass cone.
There’s a Center Parcs holiday village on the edge of town, and lots of things to get up to close by.
You can amble in a forest with extraordinary sound sculptures, ride over circular bridge through the forest canopy or grab a few bottles at one of the world’s few authentic Trappist breweries.
The natural space around Lommel, as well as the neighbouring municipalities of Peer, Overpelt and Hechtel-Eksel have been combined to create the largest public wooded area in Flanders.
Bosland is over 5,100 hectares, broken down into a host of smaller nature reserves.
We’ll talk about the Lommelse Sahara below, but also in Lommel are the pastures of De Watering, the heathland of Heuvelse Heide and the Kattenbos and the Scots pine woodland of the Pijnven.
The landscapes have been made accessible for walkers, cyclists and horseback riders.
Head to the tourist office in Lommel and you can buy adventure packs for children’s treasure hunts in several of the reserves.
2. Fietsen door de Bomen
One of a few unforgettable experiences to be had in Bosland is the sensation of riding through the forest canopy at this incredible structure to the south in Hechtel-Eksel.
You can reach Fietsen door de Bomen from Lommel via the cycle route network, and you’ll find it at junction (knooppunt) 272. You’ll ride a circular cycle path 700 metres long, 100 metres across and rising to a height of 10 metres on a gentle 3-4% gradient.
The structure is held up by steel pillars designed to blend in with the straight trunks of the Scots pines in the Pijnven forest.
3. Lommelse Sahara
From the centre of Lommel you can walk north for a few minutes and find yourself in a strange dune landscape wrapped in coniferous woodland and protected as a nature reserve.
If you had made this journey 100 years ago you would have found a very different scene.
This was a quarry for quartz sand, and around this time a zinc factory blighted the landscape.
Those days are long forgotten now, and the thick pine woodland on its fringes was planted to prevent these white sands from spreading, restricting the Lommelse Sahara to just under 200 hectares.
At the heart of the dunes there’s a sapphire lake, contrasting beautifully with the shimmering sand.
To the north is the Bocholt–Herentals Canal, which can be crossed on a suspension footbridge to continue your hike.
4. Uitkijktoren Sahara
Since 2015 there has been a mesmerising architectural statement by the water at the Lommelse Sahara.
This jagged-looking, 30-metre watchtower has curving contours on its frame, caused by suspended ropes that evok the rolling dunes of the Sahara desert.
In all there’s more than 3.5 kilometres of rope wrapped around the structure.
The Uitkijktoren Sahara has 144 steps to the top, for a panorama that stretches more than 25 kilometres on a clear day, encompassing all of Bosland.
The tower is a collaboration between the firms, MaMu Architecten and Ateliereen.
5. Het GlazenHuis
Quartz sand, a key ingredient for glassmaking, has been extracted around Lommel since 1891. This has left its mark on the landscape, and former quarries have been turned into nature reserves, like Lommelse Sahara.
There was also an important glassworks in Lommel up to the end of the 20th century.
As a nod to its role in the industry, the Flemish Centre for Contemporary Glass Art opened in Lommel in 2007. The building is hard to miss for its towering 30-metre glass spire, and each year hosts two exhibitions by internationally renowned glass artists.
Het GlazenHuis has an educational role, staging workshops and demonstrations at its own furnace heated to more than 1100°C.
And at the shop you can purchase a unique piece of fine mouth-blown glass as a souvenir.
6. Center Parcs de Vossemeren
Set against the Dutch border, on the eastern fringe of Lommelse Sahara is a branch of the holiday village chain, Center Parcs.
At just three kilometres, this is close enough to the middle of Lommel that you could purchase a day pass and make the most of the abundant facilities.
Amid many hectares of woodland for walks there’s a spectacular indoor subtropical pool, a cavernous pirate-themed indoor play area, two lakes for water sports, a petting zoo, a cluster of restaurants and a spa and wellness centre.
You can also put your name down for a range of activities like climbing, archery, mini-golf, paintball and laser tag.
On a rough triangular plan and with grand rows of lime trees, Lommel’s market place is somewhere you’re sure to end up at some point.
At the time of writing, in early 2020, this space, along with Dorp, to the east, had just been re-landscaped.
The town’s tourist information point is on the east side, and there’s a helping of cafes, brasseries and restaurants on the square’s borders.
Hiding among the foliage is the old Neoclassical town hall, built in 1845 and now mainly a venue for weddings.
In front is a little bandstand and water pump, both dating from 1905. The weekly market takes place here on Wednesday afternoons, and every Sunday from April to October you can browse the Teutenmarkt, a flea and antique market.
While most of this church the centre of Lommel is neo-Gothic from the beginning of the 20th century, the tower is actually Medieval, in a Kempen Gothic style and dating to 1388. There’s also quite a lot of art inside predating the church, the most important of which is a polychrome carving of Mary from the 16th century.
The 32 neo-Gothic stained glass windows are a joy, dating from 1906-1912 and painted by Gustave Ladon of Ghent.
The church’s organ is also noteworthy, and was an early work by master organ builder Arnold Clerinx (1816-1898), who was just 27 at the time.
In the tower is a 63-bell carillon, and Lommel’s carilloneur Liesbeth Janssens puts on a concert every Wednesday from 15:00 to 16:00. You can also go in to see this historic tower and its carillon on the first Wednesday of the month for free from 15:00 to 16:00.
9. Burgemeestershuis en Park
There’s a gorgeous patch of public greenery a little way south of the centre of Lommel.
With paths looping around lawns and mature trees, this is the old parkland for the mayor’s residence.
Come the summer there’s a lively schedule of live music and festivals in the park, based around the bandstand.
The mayor’s residence, dating to 1898 and built in an Eclectic style, is on the east side, on Stationsstraat, and until recently contained Lommel’s tourist information office.
Since the 2010s there’s been a restaurant here, “Het Burgemeesterhuis”, with a terrace in the garden.
First built in 1797, 15 kilometres away in the village of Olmen, this fine post mill in the hamlet of Kattenbos has moved around a lot in its time.
The Leyssensmolen has been dismantled, relocated and put back together three times, in 1808-09, 1964 and in 2007. The most recent move was just up the road on Zandstraat to allow the mill to catch the wind better.
Painted an arresting shade of sky blue and posted on a grassy mound, the Leyssensmolen has always milled flour, apart from between 1955 and 1988 when its internal mechanism was removed.
You can pay a visit and chat with the miller in the afternoon on the first Sunday and third Saturday of the month, while there’s also an annual festival with market stalls and fun for children at the end of May.
This one-of-a-kind museum in Pelt is set in a forest where you’ll encounter a growing array of sound-producing art installations.
There are now up to 20 pieces at Klankenbos, by artists from around Europe.
These works are intriguing to behold, and produce sound, either manually or by ingeniously using the natural power of the wind to chime, hum, rustle or blare.
One of the installations, “Liglicht”, is a bench that makes a different sound depending on how people are sitting on it, while others record ambient sounds and play them back as you approach.
Another, “Tacet”, is a sound-proofed glass box, from which you can see the forest all around but hear nothing.
12. Achelse Kluis
Achel Abbey, boasting one of only a handful of Trappist breweries in the world is an easy drive away in Hamont-Achel.
There was a community of hermits at this location from the 17th century up to the invasion of the French Revolutionary Army in 1789. Then in 1846 Trappists from Westmalle Abbey founded a priory here, which would gain abbey status in 1871. As well as cheese, the Achel Abbey has been making beer since the 1850s, and today produces a variety of Bruin and Blond beers for general sale, labelled according to their ABV (5, 7, 8 and 9.5). There’s also a Bruin and Blond 5s, only available at the cafe at the monastery.
Most of the monastery and brewery are off-limits, but you can pause at the cafe which has windows on the brewhouse and there’s a giftshop on the courtyard selling beer, cheese and handicrafts made at the abbey.
13. LAGO Pelt Dommelslag
Also in Pelt there’s a super indoor pool and recreation centre 15 minutes east of Lommel.
At LAGO Pelt you’ll find a wave pool, a variety of children’s pools, slides, a lazy river and an outdoor pool for days when the temperature gets above 20°C.
Combined with all this is a 25-metre pool with six lanes for people who are out for exercise.
For stressed parents and grownups seeking relaxation there’s a large wellness area available only to people above the age of 16. This has a panoramic sauna, biosauna, whirlpool, steam bath, warm lagoon and a blissful wellness garden, to name just a few of its facilities.
The whole centre also has free Wi-Fi, and a restaurant for a healthy post-swim bite.
14. Deutscher Soldatenfriedhof Lommel
Lommel is home to the largest military cemetery for German Second World War personnel outside Germany itself.
The 39,102 burials at Kattenbos were moved here by the American Battle Monuments Commission in 1947 from a number of locations around Belgium, like Henri-Chapelle in the Liège Province and Tongeren in Belgium Limburg.
Some 6,221 of the burials are unidentified, and a further 542 are from the First World War.
If you’re passing by, the cemetery is a worthwhile, thought-provoking stop.
The 16-hectare grounds are immaculate, and marvellous in spring when its many flowers are in bloom.
At the entrance is a grand gatehouse, holding an information room and vaulted crypt, all topped with a crucifix carved from black lava.
15. Polish Military Cemetery
The largest Polish military cemetery in Belgium is also in Lommel, just off the N71 (Ringlaan), south-west of Lommel.
Laid out in 1946, this was set up for Polish personnel killed in the liberation of Belgium.
Remains from around the country were transferred to this cemetery, which has 257 burials, two of which are marked with a Star of David.
Curiously, the town of Tielt refused to give up its burials after the war, as these heroes had become a “relic of the city”. Under the large cross at the far end are stones inscribed with the Belgian locations where these soldiers fell.
There’s also a multilingual information panel by the entrance showing the course of the War through Belgium in 1944-45. A Socialist Realism sculpture by Marian Wnuk (1906-1967) depicting a woman with a laurel wreath commemorates the sacrifice of those who died.