There’s more to Leuven than Stella Artois and cute cobbled laneways. From innovative food to fascinating historical legacies, here’s our list of the best things to do in Leuven.


Leuven, a small medieval city in Belgium, was built at the end of a navigable river in the 15th century. With its strategic position, it became a pint-sized ancient capital and a thriving market town.

Throughout its history, it has survived Spanish religious wars, French revolutions, German occupations and an annual influx of 55,000 university students. No small feat for a town of 100,000 people.

But it was the First World War that brought the most change. By the end of it, only one building in the historic centre rose above the rubble: Leuven’s stunning Town Hall. Today this ostentatious Baroque gem, towering over a square surrounded by newer but beautifully constructed architecture, sums up Leuven beautifully.

An ancient town with a youthful core, it hums to the rhythm of a city full of young creative energy. A vibe that’s housed in the cobbled lanes and atmospheric bars; each boasting a beer list longer than Leuven’s chequered history. A history that includes nurturing one of the most famous beers in the world, Stella Artois.

So for a fresh young vibe, interesting history, an innovative dining scene and world-class art, look no further than this inconspicuous Flemish gem.

Here’s our guide of the best things to do in Leuven.


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1 / SOAK UP THE BEER CULTURE AT THE LONGEST BAR IN EUROPE

Beer and university life are the soul of Leuven’s personality. There’s no better place in town to experience the symbiosis of what these two institutions have bought to Leuven, than at Oude Markt – affectionately known as the longest bar in Europe.

A market has been held on the site since 1150. Heavily damaged in the war, the square has been rebuilt over the years with a style that many war-ravaged cities across Europe would be envious. A row of typically Flemish façades frame the cobbled square with tables and chairs spilling out from each establishment.

The university, KU Lueven – in addition to adding an extra dose of youthful enthusiasm into the nightlife – is also front and centre in the Belgium beer scene. The Faculty of Bioscience Engineering is putting great minds to great work by developing a scientific approach to beer production. Everything from relentlessly testing new flavours, to developing exacting brewing methods and eco-friendly techniques is researched at the university.

A night at Oude Markt is the perfect places to sample this innovation. Try the brew from Professor Freddy Delvaux who set about creating an academically correct beer. Or perhaps a Geuze Boon, which combines brews at different stages of fermentation to allow a second fermentation to occur in the bottle.

Whatever your tipple, a night doing the bars along Oude Markt is one of the best things to do in Leuven.

2 / VISIT THE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY & TOWER FOR A CARILLON CONCERT

On 25 August 1914, German soldiers rampaged through Leuven killing around 300 civilians and causing widespread destruction. The university library was burnt to the ground, destroying 230,000 books and 750 medieval manuscripts. The devastation shocked the world.

After the war, the library was rebuilt with donations from 400 American universities. The architect was Whitney Warren who also designed Grand Central Station in New York. The building is loaded with symbolism including a statue of the virgin Mary killing the German eagle; St George and St Michael killing the devil and a clock with 48 stars representing the 48 states of the USA (at the time).

Sadly the library is only open to students but you can pop your head in and examine the exquisite woodwork on your way up to the tower. As you climb to the top, each floor has photographs depicting the history of the building with information in English detailing the events around the German destruction and the reactions from around the world. And at the top, you’re treated to one of the best views of Leuven.

But to see the tower really come to life go to a live carillon concert either on Tuesday evening or Wednesday lunchtime. Here you can join the carilloneur in the bell chamber for one of the most engaging experiences in Leuven. Sit and listen as he energetically beats a keyboard (with a similar layout to a piano) melodically ringing 63 bells installed in the tower. You can hum along to popular classics and he’ll even take requests.


University Library & Tower / 10:00 – 19:00 Mon-Fri; 10:00 – 17:00 Sat/Sun (Jul to Sep) | Cost: €7/€5 | Location: Monseigneur Ladeuzeplein 21 | Carilion Concert: 18:20 – 20:00 Tue; 12:20 – 14:00 Wed (Sep to May) | Cost: €5

3 / MARVEL AT THE NOT SO SUBTLE BAROQUE TOWN HALL

When Duke John I asked the pope for permission to build a university, it was a tentative maybe. There were a few conditions that had to be satisfied first. For starters, it had to be Catholic. Secondly, the old town hall had to be rebuilt with far more glamour.

And so today, miraculously unscathed after two world wars, the Leuven Town Hall stands triumphant over the Grote Markt. Flamboyantly stuffed with turrets, flags, statues and intricate engravings, the pope’s request for more glamour was well and truly delivered.

The first stone was laid in 1439 and it took 30 years to build. The façade is loaded with statues of local scholars, artists, noble-folk, biblical figures, eminent citizens and of course, dukes. In all, there are 236 statues on the building.

Inside this Baroque marvel, ornate details, gilded ceilings and lavishly furnished saloons compliment the exterior. The showpiece is the impressive Gothic hall with its intricately carved fireplace. Keep an eye out for the portraits of all the mayors and the Lineage of Leuven – portraits of the towns 7 sons-in-law.

Just spending an afternoon photographing this Baroque gem is one of the best things to do in Leuven. While the exterior of the Town Hall is a drawcard any time of the day, you can only get inside on a guided tour.


Town Hall Tours / 15:00 Tue & Thu; 15:30 Sat | Price: €4 | Tickets: from www.visitleuven.be or from the Tourist office at Naamestraat 3.

4 / UNDERSTAND THE DEVOUT BEGUINAGE COMMUNITY

In the 16th century there were two main options for women. They could be married to a man and have children, or they could be married to the church and become a nun. But unsatisfied with their choices, some looked for other ways in which they could live their lives without being controlled by church or a man.

This emancipation came in the form of a concept that had been around since the 13th century. Beguinages were semi-religious communities where single women (mostly widowed) could do charitable work while earning an income. These communities gave them an interdependence they would have otherwise found impossible to obtain.

Beguinages managed to survive the Papal Inquisition by Pope Gregory IX where Beguine’s were deemed heretics and many were burned at the stake. A compromise was later reached where they were allowed to continue if they took a vow of obedience to the church, lived in a gated community and dressed so they could be identified.

The Groot Begijnhof in Leuven flourished in the 16th century where – at its peak – 360 Beguines once lived. It managed to survive the French revolutionaries however, the buildings were sold to social projects.

In 1988 the last Beguine died and today, the Great Beguinage of Leuven is an atmospheric neighbourhood to stroll around. There are a series of alleys, hidden courtyards, gardens and houses built from traditional sandstone. It’s a quiet, reflective way to explore the life this brave group of women created for themselves throughout inquisitions, reformations and revolutions.

5 / DISCOVER THE ATMOSPHERIC WAR MEMORIAL AND CRYPT AT THE CEMETERY

The story goes that Léon Schreurs was out drinking the night before he was due to leave for the battlefields with his platoon. Enjoying too many of Belgium’s fine beers, he fell asleep at the bar and his platoon left without him.

The next day, Germany invaded Leuven. Seeing them march towards town, Léon hid behind a post box ready to make what little impact he could to defend his city. He was one man armed with one rifle and he took on the approaching German army. He killed 5 of them but was soon shot and killed himself.

Léon Schreurs became known as the last defender of Leuven.

Schreurs now rests in the Leuven Cemetery – a thoroughly understated but interesting thing to do in Leuven. Along with memorials to both the First and Second World Wars the cemetery contains a fascinating, easy to miss, crypt. It’s a long, deep catacomb with a number of graves at either side. Léon’s was decorated with a single flower when we were there – an atmospheric tribute to one of Leuven’s favourite sons.

Look for a small staircase beside the First World War memorial that you’ll need to squat down to enter. You might need to turn the light on – don’t forget to turn it off. Once you finish in the crypt, spend some time strolling around the graves from the Second World War to get a sense of the size of the loss incurred on this small city.

6 / EXPLORE FLEMISH CLASSICS AND MODERN INSTALLATIONS AT M MUSEUM

There’s an installation in the M Museum in Leuven about the history of eternity. It says that in the Middle Ages, time was seen as cyclical, closely linked to nature. During the enlightenment, when watches started to adorn wrists and clocks became synonymous with train stations, we developed a sense of time that was linear.

Philosophical musing about time aside, the M Museums is a great way to spend it. The collection started in the early 19th century as a small selection of artefacts in the Town Hall. After a succession of homes and the acclimation of more curiosities over time, the collection arrived at its current home in 2009.

And what a stunning home it is. The building blends historical remnants in a contemporary shell. It’s beautifully laid out and makes great use of every nook and cranny. We may have developed a linear sense of time, but M Museum is rebuffing all that. From room to room you can experience religious art, stained glass windows, wood carvings and gold trinkets alongside contemporary pieces, modern interpretations and quirky installations.


M-Museum / 11:00-18:00 Mon, Tue, Fri, Sat, Sun; 11:00-22:00 Thu; Closed Wed | Price: €12 | Location: Leopold Vanderkelenstraat 28 | Tickets: available from their website.

7 / ENJOY HIPSTER FOOD AND DESIGNER COFFEE

Apart from educating the minds, the university contributes another equally important factor to this bustling town: good food. With an influx of 55,000 hungry university students each year comes the bourgeoning of on-trend eating establishments ready to be devoured by young folk hungry for hipster options.

And hipster options Leuven delivers. From designer hotdogs to organic soup bars; tiny neighbourhood digs to experimental sharing concepts; vegan options from every cuisine to local Belgium classics. Leuven delivers it all in styled-up surroundings with designer touches.

For a swish dinner we highly recommend Barraca (Tiensestraat 34), Italian inspired socially fuelled tapas with a twist. Their dragon balls with prawns were on the money and the décor buzzed with a cool NYC lower east side vibe. The mesmerising performance of the chefs preparing the tasting menu from the kitchen bar at Hop Gastrobar (Vaartkom 1a) is matched by the triumph of the dishes and the pairing of the beers.

The simple but very innovative take on classic Belgium sandwiches at Bar Leuv (Parijsstraat 6) is an excellent choice for lunch. Follow it up with an outstanding coffee at Mok Roastery & Specialty Bar (Diestsestraat 165). Their flat whites were nutty and subtle with slight citrus notes and the milk was textured to perfection. On the way to coffee, pick up handcrafted chocolate from Zuut (Vismarkt 2) and indulge in their delicious perfectionism.

But, you don’t need our help to eat well in Leuven, just stroll around and you’ll be spoilt for choice.

8 / EXPLORE HIDDEN CORNERS OF LEUVEN ON A BIKE TOUR

Away from the heaving bars, monumental architecture and world-class art, there’s a more subtle side to Leuven. A side that shoulders the pleasures and sorrows of history. A less-visited side. One that’s best explored on a bike tour.

On our tailor-made tour, we escaped into the grounds of St. Gertrude’s Abbey – a quiet tree-lined sanctuary still wearing the bruises of history. The abbey was suppressed during the French Revolution and much later, suffered during the damage inflected in the First World War. Today, community housing has been constructed from the rubble leftover from the war.

Next, we cycled out of town to Park Abbey – an atmospheric reminder of older times set in beautiful grounds. Like St. Gertrude’s Abbey, Park Abbey was also confiscated by the French Republic. With bold determination, it has been inhabited since 1129 by monks performing pastoral work. Today it conducts organic farming experiments and music research among other social programmes.

War, religion and revolutions weren’t the only things to make their mark on Leuven, Stella Artois owned a huge amount of land in the city which is now being repurposed. Next up was De Smidse – the former forge for the brewery – which now houses a contemporary dining space with an award-winning Italian restaurant, a bakery and a concept store where you bring your own containers to be refilled with local produce.

We highly recommend Leuven Leisure who tailored a tour specifically for some of the things we were interested in seeing.


Leuven Leisure / 10:00-18:00 Mon-Fri; 10:00-19:00 Sat | 10:00-16:00 Sun (Jul & Aug) | Price: from €31 per person | Location: Tiensestraat 5 | Bookings: on their website.


9 / DISCOVER MASTERPIECES INSIDE ST PETER’S CHURCH

The other thing the pope requested on the back of the duke’s request to build a university was a shiny new church. The result was the 15th century St Peter’s which occupies prime real estate on Grote Markt today.

In 1505 a plan was hatched to add 3 towers to the church with the central spire rising to 170 metres. If successful, this would have been the tallest structure in the world at the time. Unfortunately, insufficient ground stability and several collapses saw the towers shrink from their intended scale. Today, they barely rise above the roof of the church – 3 stunted reminders of what could have been. It didn’t deter UNESCO however, who still listed the belfry anyway.

Architectural failures aside, St Peter’s Church is an essential thing to do in Leuven due to the masterpieces it houses. The Last Supper by Dirk Bouts is one of the most famous works of art to come out of Flanders. The work was seized by the Nazis during the occupation. As part of the repatriations of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was forced to return it along with panels purchased legitimately in the 19th century. This historical hiccup is a blessing to visitors to St Peter’s Church who can now enjoy the masterpiece in its entirety.


St Peter’s Church / 10:00-16:30 Mon, Tue, Thu, Fri, Sat; 11:00-16:30 Sun | Price: Free until end of restoration works (March 2020) | Location: Grote Markt 1.

HOW TO GET TO LEUVEN

Leuven is conveniently located just 30 km from Brussels (26 km from Brussels Airport) with excellent rail connections. This makes Leuven a perfect option for that cultural European weekender.

BY AIR / The closest airport to Leuven is Brussels International Airport which has daily flights from many European destinations. You can check flight prices here. A very convenient train service will whisk you from the airport to Leuven in 15 minutes (€8.80). Check timetables at Belgian Train.

BY TRAIN / International high-speed trains connect Brussels to many destinations in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Check prices and timetables with Thalys. If you’re coming from London, Eurostar will get you to Brussels in 2 hours, where you can easily connect to Leuven on the same ticket. From Brussels, it’s around 20 minutes by train to Leuven.

BY CAR / Given the excellent train network in Brussels and the compact nature of Leuven we wouldn’t recommend driving. However, if you want to get a taxi from the airport it will set you back about €60-70.

ILUVLEUVEN TICKET

A great way to see all the sights in Leuven and save some money on entrance fees is with the ILUVLeuven ticket. You can join the Town Hall Tour and visit the University Library & Tower for €8, or take the ILUVLeuven Ticket XL which will give you access to the Town Hall, the University Library & Tower, and the M Museum for €16.

Tickets can be purchased at the M Museum, the University Library, at the Tourist Office (Naamestraat 3), or online at Visit Leuven.

WHERE TO STAY IN LEUVEN

Being a thriving university town, there are a number of great options for staying in Leuven to suit every taste. Here are some recommendations from us.

URBAN COOL / With well-appointed rooms, a 24-hour lobby bar and interesting design touches, it’s hard to go past the pentahotel. The location is excellent and the vibe is cool. It’s a shame they advertise free WIFI when the free package only allows speeds of 256kbps which doesn’t really cut it. Otherwise, it’s a great hotel.

INDULGENT STYLE / With a dedication to details and an effortless style, the high-end option in town is The Fourth – Tafelrond. It’s a stunning hotel located right beside the Town Hall with enough class to make anyone feel like they’ve indulged themselves. Their beautiful central courtyard is the ideal place for a cocktail after a day of sightseeing.

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WHERE NEXT?

Firstly, if you found this article helpful, we’d love it if you could follow us on Instagram.

There’s plenty more to see in Flanders, so if you’re looking for options in the area, head over to Visit Flanders for some more information and inspiration.

For city guides from us, we’ve got a lot to say about coffee in Paris, or you can read about how to do Sintra in one day. But our favourite city would have to be Istanbul, read about our top highlights in this fascinating city.


THANKS / This article was produced in partnership with Visit Leuven and Visit Flanders.

Fifi and Hop

If you have any questions please leave them in the comments section below – we will always reply. To stay up to date with our travels, follow us on social and signup to our NEWSLETTER.

Leuven is a medieval city in Flanders, Belgium with a young, cool edge. Discover a fantastic dining scene, Flemish art, Baroque architecture and a thriving beer culture. / #leuven #belgium #flanders

Leuven is a medieval city in Flanders, Belgium with a young, cool edge. Discover a fantastic dining scene, Flemish art, Baroque architecture and a thriving beer culture. / #leuven #belgium #flanders

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