If you’re looking to meander a little off the beaten tourist track, the smallest of the famous Flanders medieval cities is to be found in the form of Leuven, a city around twenty minutes on the train from Brussels. Home to delights such as a UNESCO listed beguinage and a handful of churches, this university city is well worth exploring over the course of one or two days. Here’s your guide to the best things to do in Leuven.
Situated somewhere east of Brussels, Leuven is best-known as being a university town of around 100,000 residents and for having plenty of breweries (this is the home of Stella Artois!). Known in French as Louvain and in German as Löwen, this city is the capital of the Flemish province of Brabant. Other than beer, some of the best reasons to visit include UNESCO heritage sites, an escape from the crowds of more popular cities, and an excellent foodie scene.
A brief history of Leuven, Belgium’s hidden gem
The first mention of Leuven dates back to 891 as Loven. At that time, a Viking army was defeated by the Frankish King Arnulf of Carinthia together with his army. Soon enough, thanks to the city’s prominent position alongside the River Dyle.
During the time of the Duchy of Brabant in the Middle Ages (this Grand Duchy was a state within the Holy Roman Empire and comprised of modern-day parts of the Netherlands, as well as the North of what is now Belgium), Leuven was one of the most important cities of the region thanks to its role in the cloth industry.
Wander around the city today and you can still spy the grand cloth hall in between several university buildings. So prosperous was the city of Leuven, that it was where the first University, the Catholic University of Leuven, was founded in the 15th-century.
The city was largely destroyed during the First World War when even the University Library was purposely destroyed with incendiary rounds and petrol. As such, much of what you see today was rebuilt during the 1920s, even some of the parts that look particularly old.
The city was once again badly damaged during the Second World War. The University Library was once again set on fire and nearly a million books were burned. Visit Leuven today and you’ll now discover a vibrant and thriving Belgium settlement that’s easily one of the most underrated cities in Europe.
10+ Best Things to do in Leuven
#1 Stadhuis (Town Hall)
There is no doubt that the most beautiful building in Leuven is its incredible Stadhuis. Originally constructed in the Brabantine Late Gothic style from1448 to 1469, the ornate façades are intricately carved in a lacework style. Unlike much of the city, Leuven’s Stadhuis escaped the damage of WWI, though a bomb strike heavily damaged the front façade during WWII.
Elsewhere in Grote Markt square, you’ll soon spy the Fons Sapientiae (literally translated as ‘Source of Wisdom’), which more than encapsulates the spirit of the city. After all, much of the population of Leuven is formed of students and so the cheeky statue of a student pours water over its head.
#2 Universiteitsbibliotheek (University Library)
Grand and imposing, the University Library is one of the most beautiful places in Leuven. Unfortunately, the original library was purposely destroyed during WWII, including its 300,000 books. The current building you see today was built by funding from Americans in a traditional Flemish style in the 1920s.
While the square in front is filled with cafés and eateries, what you may not know is that you can actually enter the library and climb its beautiful bell tower for a fee. Find more information about how to do this on the Visit Leuven website.
#3 Sint Pieterkskerk (St Peter’s Church)
UNESCO listed thanks to the incomplete towers that have made their way onto the belfries of France and Belgium, St Peter’s Church can be found in the very heart of the city. Though there has been a church onsite since the 10th-century, much of what you see today finds its foundations in the 15th-century.
#4 Schatkamer (Church Treasury)
One of the greatest artworks anywhere in Belgium, let alone Leuven, is the 15th-century Last Supper masterpiece by Dirk Bouts. Throughout 2019, during renovation works on the church treasury, mean that many of the works of art (including Bouts’ painting) are instead on display within the main body of St Peter’s Church.
#5 Enjoy a local beer
Birthplace of none other than Stella Artois, Leuven has plenty of other beers to offer. After all, the city is filled with and surrounded by an array of breweries, some world-famous and others simply micro-breweries. Some of the best beers to enjoy in Leuven include Domus Beer (this restaurant and café is also a brewery) and many of the fruit beers that are derived from produce picked in the local Limburg region.
#6 Drink at the longest bar in the world
And while we’re on the subject of sampling beer, be sure to head to the ‘longest bar in the world’, i.e. the Oude Markt. This square can be found close to the Grote Markt (you should be careful not to confuse the two piazzas) and is allegedly the longest line of consecutive bars, inns, and pubs in the world.
Whether or not this is the case is unclear. After all, ‘the longest bar in the world’ is also often touted to be the nickname of the Altstadt in Düsseldorf, Germany. However, whether or not this really is the longest bar, there’s no denying that the Oude Markt is a great place to sit back, relax, and enjoy a local beer with friends.
#7 Enjoy the artwork of Museum M
The best museum in Leuven is the ever-so-modern M Van Museum. Located in the historic city centre and opened to the public in 2009, this cultural hub boasts well over 46,000 masterpieces. Highlights of this well-reviewed museum include late Gothic paintings, as well as works of art by big names such as Jan Rombouts I and Jef Lambeaux.
#8 Soak up the ambience of the historic city centre
Truth be told, one of the best things to do in Leuven is to wander around the historic city centre and soak up the atmosphere. Snap photos of the narrow lanes, enjoy coffees in lesser-known cafés and browse in independent boutiques. For the best selection of brasseries and restaurants in the city, be sure to meander along Muntstraat.
#9 Groot Begijnhof (Grand Beguinage)
The UNESCO world heritage listed complex of the Grand Beguinage is easily one of the most beautiful beguinages that Europe has to offer. Now part of the University complex, the beguinage dates all the way back to the 13th-century, easily making a meander around the Groot Begijnhof one of the best things to do in Leuven.
Like many other beguinages throughout Belgium and the Netherlands, including those of Amsterdam, the beguinage was constructed so as to serve as housing for unmarried semi-religious women. Today, the buildings belong to the university and the entire complex covers a staggering 3 hectares, making this one of the largest beguinages in Europe.
#10 Discover Leuven’s Hidden Gems
Of course, there’s a side of the city away from the imposing cathedral and stunning Stadhuis. From a 16th-century Belgian château to a mini beguinage that’s not on the UNESCO list, there’s no shortage of quirky and historically-inspired things to do in Leuven. Some of my favourite hidden gems of Leuven include the secret courtyard behind the main tourism office, as well as the Romanesque Romaanse Poort.
#11 Hortus Botanicus Lovaniensis
You may well not know this, but the oldest botanical garden in Belgium is to be found on the fringes of old town Leuven. Covering a massive space and free to visit, there are even greenhouses you can wander around, meaning that these botanical gardens are even perfect to visit during a rainy day in Leuven.
Highlights of the Kruidtuin Leuven include a wisteria wall, plenty of flower borders, and an impressive succulent collection. What’s more is that the botanical garden is free to visit, making the Kruidtuin one of the best free things to do in Leuven.
Travel tips & things to know before visiting Leuven for the first time
Like much of this region of Belgium, the weather at Leuven can change several times in the course of just one day, thus meaning that you should bring an umbrella. I’d also advise packing layers and a capsule wardrobe so that you can plan for any weather eventuality (in the spring temperatures can fluctuate particularly wildly).
Flemish is the official language of the city (Flemish and Dutch are not actually two different languages. Instead Flemish is a variation of Dutch), though English, German, and French are widely spoken. However, it’s only polite to learn a few words of the local language and so consider bringing along a simple phrase book like this one. If you’re travelling to Europe from the UK, North America, and plenty of other destinations from around the world, you’ll also want to bring a travel adapter like this one.
For more information about the city and its surrounds (including the chance to pick up a free map with all of the top tourist Leuven attractions), a visit to the Visit Leuven tourist office is an absolute must. Situated just off the Grote Markt square (address Naamsestraat 3, 3000 Leuven), you’ll find a little courtyard in the vicinity where you can sit and plan out your route.
Finally, the town is pretty compact. This is especially true of the historic city centre where everything is within walking distance. As a result, you won’t want to drive your car around the centre of Leuven and you can easily see all the major Leuven attractions by exploring the city on your own two feet. If you wish to venture into the outskirts, these are also walkable, though you could also rent a bike.
How to visit Leuven
Belgium is a fairly small country and nothing is more than a couple of hours away. Leuven’s central location means that it’s easy to reach from Liège, Ghent, Bruges, Brussels, and Mechelen. The city is also only around half an hour from Brussels airport via public transportation.
This vibrant and lively university city is characterised by its student nightlife and collection of beautiful buildings. You can easily explore Leuven over the course of one or two days and the city’s close proximity to the Belgian capital (just twenty minutes by train) means that the secret Belgian town can even be visited as a day trip from Brussels.
Otherwise, if you’re looking to get a unique, unusual, and local’s perspective of Leuven, then you might consider booking a guided tour. For example, this fun guided tour will show you the top highlights of the city via bicycle and will show you plenty of secret spots and well as Leuven top attractions.
Where to eat, drink, and caffeinate in Leuven
For the best coffee in Leuven: Mont Café, Alfons Smetsplein 1, 3000 Leuven, Belgium
If you’re looking for hands down the best coffee in town, you simply need to head to Mont Café. Situated close to the Grote Markt and nearby to all of the city’s main attractions, the caramel latté was simply superb, with the milk frothed to perfection!
For the best dinner in Leuven: The Beach, Tiensestraat 138, 3000 Leuven, Belgium
Located on the fringes of the old town, and even open on a Sunday (like many smaller cities in Europe, you’ll find that many establishments are closed on Sundays, which is traditionally a rest day), The Beach serves incredible vegetarian fare at reasonable prices. And with an ever-changing menu, you’ll always have a wide variety of tasty dishes from which to choose from.
Where to stay in Leuven
There are plenty of accommodation options when it comes to staying in Leuven. We personally stayed in the Pentahotel and found it absolutely charming. Think a hip, trendy, and cool reception area with candlelit tables and quirky decor. The bed was enormous and we particularly loved the quirky toiletries in the bathroom! Check prices and availability here.