Off the beaten tourist track and in the very heart of Belgium, Leuven is a small University city characterised by its UNESCO world heritage beguinage and many microbreweries. But look past the student scene, and you’ll soon discover that there are plenty of hidden gems and unusual things to do. Here’s your guide to the best of secret spots in Leuven!
Even if you’ve never heard of Leuven before, then no doubt you’ll have heard of its most famous export, the beer ‘Stella Artois’. And if you’re wondering what to do in Leuven, you’ll no doubt be surprised by the plethora of activities you can do in the little Belgian town. After all, from drinking a pint in the ‘longest bar in the world’ to visiting the oldest botanical garden in Belgium (for free), Leuven offers something for everyone!
‘Snow Whites’ of Leuven
Though not exactly a ‘secret spot,’ during WWI the library of Belgian university KU Leuven was purposely burned down and destroyed. In the process, well over 300,000 books were burned, though as the library was in the process of being audited at the time of the destruction, the full number of books remains a mystery.
Though the library, known locally as the Universiteitsbibliotheek, was rebuilt in due time during the 1920s with designs from American architect Whitney Warren, the few charred books that survived the fire were saved. Placed into glass caskets and dubbed the ‘Snow Whites’, the tomes are now within the Leuven University Library collection.
Secret Courtyard behind the Leuven tourist office
If you’re visiting Leuven, then no doubt you’ll want to walk into the tourist office at some point or another. After all, once inside you can pick up a free map and speak to the friendly staff for some helpful insider tips on the best place to grab a bite to eat or sample the local beer.
And if you’re looking for a quiet space in which to plan your route, then the secret and secluded square behind the Stadhuis can be accessed for free by a doorway in the back wall of the entrance hall to the tourism office (address Naamsestraat 3, 3000 Leuven, Belgium).
In a nod to the many students of the city, the ‘Fons Sapientae’ (literally translated as ‘Source of Wisdom’) is a rather humorous statue in the heart of the city, close to Leuven Cathedral. Depicting a student reading while simultaneously dumping water (or metaphorical booze) on its head, the Leuven fixture demonstrates the age-old dilemma that many a student faces: to study more or to go out and party!
Kasteel van Arenberg
Once a grand and prominent château that was lived in by lords, nobility, and other wealthy families, the Castle of Arenberg can be found on the fringes of Leuven in Heverlee. Surrounded by a park and rather sumptuous with its brick turrets and expansive façades, now the building is part of the Catholic University of Leuven. Though the interior cannot be visited, this magnificent château can still be admired from the outside!
Located down an otherwise unremarkable street, the Romaanse Poort (otherwise translated as the ‘Romanesque Gate’) is the only remaining piece of the Sint-Elisabeth guesthouse and dates back to between 1218-1222.
One of the more unusual secret spots in Leuven, the guest house itself was founded during the 11th-century by Henry III, Count of Leuven. Today, this slice of Romanesque architecture is stunning to admire and provides the entryway to a cultural centre.
Leuven old city walls
Hidden, off the beaten path, and away from the main sites and attractions of Leuven, all that’s left of the ancient city walls of the town date back to the Middle Ages. Though there is little to see today, these crumbling walls are a visible reminder of the city’s rich history and can be found on a pedestrian footpath between the Romaanse Poort and Mercator Statue, alongside a babbling brook.
Just in front of the ancient city walls, the sky tower, pardon the pun, quite literally towers above everything that surrounds it. Constructed in 201 using the oldest soil to be found anywhere in Leuven (dirt that was excavated from 2 metres beneath the soil), 40 tons of the stuff was used to construct the Sky Tower.
In front of a particularly modern set of buildings, there’s a statue dedicated to the Flemish cartographer, Gerardus Mercator. This scholar was born in Rupelmonde (in what is now Belgium) in the beginning of the 16th-century. Mercator then began his studies at the Catholic University of Leuven in 1530, where he studied humanities with philosophy.
Following time travelling in Antwerp and Mechelen, Mercator then ventured back to Leuven with a newfound love of geography. And it was here in the central Belgian city that the philosopher and cartographer created maps of Europe that would go on to become world-famous. However, Mercator’s greatest innovation was the Mercator projection, a type of cylindrical map projection, a technique that is still commonly used in navigation today.
Though everyone counts the UNESCO listed Groot Begijnhof as one of the best things to do in Leuven, what you may well not know is that there is a much smaller beguinage that’s also worth noting. Located in the shadow of the hill where the Sint-Geertrui abbey can be found, the small beguinage has no relation to the larger Leuven beguinage.
Founded as early as 1272 (or, at the very least, this is the first recorded date of the beguinage), it’s thought that the community was founded to house women who worked in the nearby Abbey, though this too is unclear. Today, the pretty street is one of the most beautiful roads in Leuven. Cobbled and restored several times in the past few decades, the Klein Begijnhof is easily one of the most stunning hidden gems of Leuven.
Kapel “Jezus in ‘t Steenje”
On the fringes of the historic city centre, a small 19th-century chapel can be found on the side of the street. Constructed on the site of two former ecclesiastical buildings, the votive chapel is simple in style, with a few Iconic columns, and a small altar. The nearby church of Sint-Kwintenskerk is one of the most beautiful churches in Leuven and is home to the Catholic English Speaking Community of Leuven.
Things to know before visiting Leuven for the first time
Belgium is a fairly small country, meaning that no destination is more than a few 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 on the train, making it a great starting point for any Belgian adventure!
Though there are plenty of accommodation options when it comes to staying in Leuven, we personally stayed in the Pentahotel in the heart of town 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.