Coming from Holland’s number 1 student town, I was stoked to visit Belgiums equivalent; Leuven. Most tourists in Belgium visit Antwerp, Bruges or Brussels, but Leuven is definitely one of Belgium’s best kept secrets (another being Ghent). A beatiful old city where beautiful buildings have survived through various wars.
Leuven houses the oldest university of the Benelux. Having the highest student density of Belgium (1 out of 4 inhabitants), it can’t be a coincident that Leuven calls itself the ultimate beer city. Leuven’s soul is young, hip and vibrant. While most other Belgian cities seem deserted on weekdays, Leuven is alive and kicking.
All Leuven’s highlights are within walking distance from the city center (Grote Markt), therefore you only need one day to check out everything. However, you will have a busy day if you want to make the most out of it, and once you have experienced Leuven’s nightlife, you may find yourself staying here an extra day, and another, and another.
NOTE: Unless you hate young crowds, be sure to come here during weekdays. In the weekends, Belgian students like to go back to their parents.
1. Take a tour through the Town Hall (Stadhuis)
Built in a Brabantine Late Gothic style between 1448 and 1469, the town hall is Leuven’s most impressive building by far. It was built immediately after Brussels finished their own pretty town hall. Leuven could not stay behind. Whilst the city suffered heavily from both world wars, the town hall survived. During WWII, an Allied bomb barely hit the façade.
But the outside is nothing compared to the interior, which is a museum by itself. You will find an impressive collection of paintings, including portraits of the Leuven mayors since 1794.
Guided tours: Every day at 15:00 (€ 3,-)
2. Take a walk through the Beguinage (Groot Begijnhof)
The buiguinage was once a series of houses for religious women, today this is where the university staff and international students live.
A small town within a city
It really feels like a small old town within the city, and it’s a great place to relax and read a book. In 1998, the Grote Begijnhof was officially recognised by Unesco as a World Heritage Site.
3. The Academic library
The old Library at the Monseigneur Ladeuzeplein [maps] is a gem in the city. Actually it’s not that old, because it was destroyed and rebuilt twice. But Belgium wasn’t Belgium if they wouldn’t rebuild the masterpiece in the same authentic way.
Climb the Bell Tower (€7,-) for a spectacular view of Leuven.
You can see the inside of the library for free. Which, like the town hall, is a museum itself. You will find beautiful paintings and architecture. There’s usually a themed exhibition as well.
However, keep in mind that people are still actually studying here 😉
4. Student Night Life
As said, you can’t leave Leuven without experiencing the city’s vibrant night life.
Here are some of my personal favorite pubs (outside of the Oude Markt square, which can be read below):
– The Capital (for having more than 2000 beers, world’s largest selection)
– De Blauwe Kater (a great jazz-cafe in a cute alley with awesome beers)
– Domus (they brew their own, but expect a lot of tourists here)
– De Fiere Margriet is a great place to start your adventure.
However, if you like cheap, you better make some Belgian friends. Their faculty bars offer beers for less than an Euro. Or just follow some young folks with beer crates, and you may find yourself in a classic student house party.
When all other bars have closed, go to “De Bierkelder”; infamous for staying open all night.
5. Enjoy the Longest Bar in the World
At least that’s what Belgians call the Oude Markt (Old Market). It’s a market place where almost every building is a bar; You will find at least 37 bars, and each bar has something unique to offer. Leuven will keep you busy at night.
6. Visit a Belgian Brewery
Belgium’s largest brewery is Stella Artois, and it’s the main beer of all bars in Leuven. If you’re a fan, you must visit it because they go into a lot of detail. Stella Artois started out as a Christmas beer only; Stella translates into Star in Latin, and Artois was the master brewer at the time. The beer was such a success that it became much more than a Christmas special.
If you are more into local microbreweries, or if you just like a taste, then visit Domus,
Go to the Saint Peter’s Cathedral
7. Visit the Botanic Garden (Kruidtuin)
8. Eating in Leuven
The restaurants at the Grote Markt are all considered top notch, and not too pricey. I recommend the Notre Dame, which attracts all kinds of people, and has quality food.
For Lunch, you should definitely check out DeWerf (Hogeschoolplein 5), which is where the locals and the students go. You have not been to Leuven if you weren’t here. Their sandwiches and meals are very good and the prices are student-friendly indeed. The neighborhood here is an excellent place to have a chat with locals.
Away from Leuven
Leuven’s main station has excellent connections to nearby Brussels, Ghent, Antwerp or the French-speaking Wallonia region in the south (Namur, Charleroi, etc)