Just because you won’t see Hasselt on most Belgium itineraries doesn’t mean that you should ignore it.
This quietly seductive city is best known for its wonderful Japanese garden, its street art and for its museum dedicated to jenever, Belgium’s favourite tipple. Hasselt is also an easy day trip by train from major cities, including Liège, Brussels and Antwerp.
Escape the tourist pack and visit Hasselt for the day. Let’s look closer at why you should do it and the best things to do in Hasselt.
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Where is Hasselt in Belgium?
Hasselt is the capital of Limburg province in the Flanders region of Belgium.
Why You Must Visit Hasselt, Belgium
1. To visit the largest authentic Japanese garden in Belgium
For me, this was the main reason to take a day trip to Hasselt.
Designed by Japanese architect Takayuki Inoue as a traditional 17th Century garden, the Japanese Garden of Hasselt (Japanse Tuin Hasselt) spans six acres. It is a symbol of friendship between Hasselt and the city of Itami, which is close to the city of Osaka in Japan.
Featuring ponds filled with koi carp, waterfalls and graceful footbridges, it is a wonderful place in which to take time out from your busy sightseeing schedule. There is a ceremonial house, a traditional tea house, a Shinto shrine and a peace bell which you are encouraged to ring.
Visit in late Spring and you will be treated to a dazzling display of blossoms, thanks to the 225 cherry trees planted in the garden.
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2. To visit Hasselt Cathedral (Sint-Quintinuskathedraal)
Like many cathedrals in Belgium, St. Quentin’s Cathedral has a long construction history.
A church first occupied this site as early as the 8th Century. This was replaced by a Romanesque church in the 11th century, remnants of which survive in the cathedral’s tower.
Work that took place between the 13th and 15th Centuries resulted in the Gothic structure that we see today. St Quentin’s Church was elevated to cathedral status in 1967 following the formation of the diocese of Hasselt.
Step inside to take a look at the frescoes by the Hasselt painter Godfried Guffens (1823-1901), the cathedral’s Renaissance choir stalls and 19th Century stained glass windows.
Address: Vismarkt, 3500 Hasselt
Opening hours: Daily from 9.30 am until 5.30 pm
3. It is home to a UNESCO-listed beguinage
Hasselt’s beguinage is one of 13 in Belgium that were collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998.
A beguinage is an architectural complex, laid out like a small town, which was created to house beguines. These were lay sisterhoods of the Roman Catholic Church, founded in the 13th century in the Low Countries.
Beguines were still living and working in the walled beguinage in Hasselt up until 1886. Today, it is the home of the House for Contemporary Art, Design & Architecture.
4. To learn more about Belgium’s favourite tipple
Jenever, also known as genever, is a type of Belgian gin made from corn grain, juniper berries and other aromatics. To learn more about this popular spirit, visit the Jenever Museum Hasselt (Jenevermuseum Hasselt).
The museum is housed in an attractive, fully operational 19th Century distillery and focuses on the history and production of jenever through its extensive collection of artefacts. This includes glass bottles, stone jugs and pitchers, glasses, posters and bottle labels.
At the end of the self-guided tour, you get the chance to conduct a spot of empirical research with a free shot at the museum’s tasting bar. The original grain jenever recommended by the cheerful staff was like nectar.
5. To visit one of the world’s great street art cities
Hasselt is perhaps best known for its outstanding street art collection.
Street art comes and goes but at the last count, there were around 150 works of art adding splashes of colour and whimsy to the city’s walls.
To explore the street art of Hasselt, download the free Street Art Cities app on your iPhone or Android phone. This GPS-enabled app not only plots the location of artworks in central Hasselt but also provides information about the murals.
You can search for works by artist or follow one of the app’s three Hasselt street art tours. There are two walking tours and one cycle route covering a distance of between 3.5 and 10.8 km.
I was delighted to see that the app also includes wonderful street art in London.
6. To visit the historic Herkenrode Abbey (and try its beer!)
Founded around 1180 by Count Gerard of Loon, Herkenrode was the first Cistercian women’s abbey in the Low Countries. The abbey went through periods of great prosperity and devastating decline before the religious community was expelled at the turn of the 18th Century.
Learn about its chequered history in its Experience Centre. If you are visiting Hasselt in the summer months, make time for Herkenrode Abbey’s garden. This covers an area of two hectares and is home to more than 500 different types of plants.
The Middle Ages was the golden age of beer. In a time when there was a good chance that water might kill you, beer was a healthy option.
Complete your visit with one of Herkenrode Abbey’s award-winning beers. The recipes for these three beers are those used by the sisters over 800 years ago.
7. To indulge your inner fashionista at Hasselt Fashion Museum
This is one of the best things to do in Hasselt if you are a fashion follower.
Housed in a 17th Century building, the Hasselt Fashion Museum (Modemuseum Hasselt) traces the history of Western fashion from 1750 to the current time. Its extensive collection numbers approximately 18,000 items, including clothing, shoes, handbags, accessories and underwear.
8. For its appealing historic city centre
There’s no show-stopping square in Hasselt, no must-see art collection, and none of the almost palpable sense of history you experience in other Belgian cities like Bruges or Leuven. Don’t visit Hasselt expecting to wander along the side of meandering canals lined with gable-roofed buildings.
But that doesn’t mean that Hasselt is devoid of charm. Far from it.
Although Hasselt is largely a modern city, its centre is mostly car-free, making it a pleasure to roam.
There is a handful of attractive older buildings lining its interlocking squares. These include the half-timbered Het Sweert on Grote Markt (1659), the city’s 17th Century town hall and the Renaissance refuge house for Herkenrode Abbey.
9. Hasselt is much quieter than the Belgian tourist destinations
As it is not home to any big hitters, Hasselt is not on many people’s radars when they are visiting Belgium. As a result, the city attracts a fraction of the visitors descending on the tourist honeypots of Bruges and Brussels.
This is one of the best reasons for visiting Hasselt. If you have ever visited Brussels’ Grand Place on a Saturday afternoon or tried to elbow your way past people in one of the chocolate shops of Bruges, you will know what I mean.
10. Visiting Hasselt is easy from other Belgian cities
Trains leave Antwerp and Brussels every 30 minutes for Hasselt. The average journey time is around 70/80 minutes respectively.
Frequent trains also run between Hasselt and Leuven (40 minutes).
You can check train times here.
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