Leuven (or Louvain in French) is the capital of Flemish Brabant in Belgium. It’s a mere 25 kilometers east of Brussels, making it perfect for a day trip, although there’s plenty to tempt you if you want to stay longer. It’s the eighth biggest city in Belgium, with a population of just over 100,000. This makes it broadly the same size as Worcester in England, Bergamo in Italy or Santa Fe in New Mexico, USA. You might be interested in visiting Leuven if you have a love of learning, history, art, architecture, or food and drink. That’ll be most of us then. So here are our top 15 things to do in Leuven.
This post was revised and updated in August 2018.
How To get From Brussels to Leuven
It’s a very easy train journey from Brussels to Leuven. If you are flying out of Brussels Airport at Zavantem, you’ll find regular trains to Leuven and connections from other Brussels stations. There are normally three trains an hour, with the quickest journey time being 13 minutes. If you are heading out from Brussels Central, we found it’s an easy option to leave any baggage at the station, where there are cavernous luggage lockers. The same lockers are in place at Brussels Midi station, should you be arriving or departing by Eurostar. We have more information on taking the Eurostar here.
Getting Around in Leuven
From Leuven station, it’s about a ten minute walk into the city centre. You have a choice of two parallel roads. The first takes you along a residential and business street, which will, if you are like me, provoke the usual envy of Belgian architecture. The second option is to walk up the main shopping street.
Leuven’s a bike and pedestrian-friendly city, with lots of cobbled squares and spaces where bikes and people roam free-range. So if you do find yourself thinking of driving there, maybe think again, or park in one of the underground garages, and then explore on foot.
Things to do in Leuven
There’s no one time of year when it’s best to visit Leuven. Most of us welcome a bit of sunshine for our travels, but there is plenty to see and do here, even if the weather is grey and rainy. So whatever time of year you arrive, Leuven will do its best to entrance you.
We’ve got plenty of choices to offer you, by day and by night, in Leuven. Here’s our guide to the things we enjoyed most in the city.
1. Meet Fonske, the eternal student and fountain of wisdom
You’ll spot him just before you arrive in the main square of Leuven. His full name is Fons Sapientiae: Latin for fountain of wisdom. Fonske is pouring water (or maybe beer) from a glass into his open head as a metaphor for wisdom seeping into the brain. He’s a rather charming soul with a thirst for knowledge, and he’s Leuven’s answer to the Manneken (or Janneke) Pis. In a city with a significant university heritage, the search for eternal wisdom is entirely fitting.
Just like Manneken Pis in Brussels, Fonske is sometimes dressed in costumes appropriate for specific occasions. On the day he posed for us, he was sadly underdressed for the chill, but it appears his wardrobe ranges from casual gear to uniforms.
Meet Fonske, the eternal student of Leuven. He brings out his best gear for special occasions, but was au natural on the day we met him.
2. Visit the Stadhuis (Town Hall)
Leuven Town Hall, the Stadhuis
Belgium gives particularly good Town Hall (Brussels, Ghent, Antwerp and Bruges all have fantastic offerings), and Leuven’s is a mighty fine example too. As you arrive into the cobbled square, you’ll find the Stadhuis, Leuven Town Hall, resplendent with flags and ablaze with Gothic features. It was built between 1448-1469, and then in the nineteenth century 236 statutes representing the great and the good of Leuven were added to the exterior. There are dukes, scientists and saints represented. It’s an extravaganza of a building, even by Belgian standards. If you time it well, there’s a guided tour here each day at 3pm, plus a tour of the cellars once a month.
The Leuven Stadhuis is open for tours at 3pm daily, and you can get down into its hidden cellars once a month.
3. Admire Sint-Pieterskerk
Sint Pieterskerk, Leuven
This church, opposite the Stadhuis, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s one of the 56 Belfries of Belgium and France. The observant among you might notice that it doesn’t actually have a full belfry. The bell tower was planned, but could not be completed due to movement of the ground below. It now stands 50 meters high instead of the planned 169 meters. It still houses a carillion. You also get wonderful Brabantine Gothic architecture, and paintings by Flemish artist Dirk Bouts including a rendition of the Last Supper. Inside the church is also a model of its original intended design.
Sint Pieterskerk, Leuven, Chapel
4. Enjoy the love of Learning: Leuven University Library – Universiteitsbibliotheek
Leuven University Library – Universiteitsbibliotheek
Leuven has a long history of learning. The University Library was established in 1425, but was destroyed by bombing in the Great War. It was rebuilt – with American funding – in the 1920s in the Flemish Renaissance style. Today its collection encompasses French and Dutch publications. There is a reading room constructed entirely of wood within the building, and you can get a beautiful view over the city from the Library’s Belfry (advance booking is needed). The Belfry holds one of the largest carillions in the world.
5. Groot Begijnhof – Grand Beguinage
Part of the restored Groot Begijnhof, Leuven
The Beguines were a group of pious single women who lived within the beguinage community. The history of the beguines is a fascinating story of female empowerment. Communities of beguines were established from the twelfth century, bringing together women who did not want to take monastic vows but instead lived a life marked by piety and hard work. This was a time when many alternative ways of living were considered pagan. In 1311 it was decided to abolish the beguinage movement, but the Pope made a special exception for Flanders, where the beguinages survived.
The Groot Begijnhof in Leuven was founded in 1234, and the last Beguine survived until 1988, making this a community with a sustained history. At any one time, up to 350 women lived in 100 sandstone houses, surrounded by canals, squares and gardens. The entire site was sold to the university in 1962, and restored to make lodgings for students and professors. This is surely one of the most beautiful and historic sets of student digs around. It is one of the best preserved Beginages in the Low Countries, and another UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Klein Begijnhof, Leuven
As its name suggests, the little sister of the Groot Begijnhof hosted a smaller community of beguines. It is of similar age, and comprises a street, a square and two alleys next to Sint Geertrui Abbey. Around one hundred women of modest means lived here. The infirmary was restored in 2000, and around 30 Flemish houses remain.
6. Visit the Longest Bar in The World
Well, not quite. But nearly every building in Oude Markt is actually a bar, and it feels as though the whole street is part of one big happy party. It’s reported that this has more bars than any square in Europe, and you’ll find all kinds of options for drinking and dining here. Thursday night is student night.
One whole street of bars, restaurants, terraces and good times: Oude Markt, Leuven
7. Visit the world’s largest brewer
Leuven is home to Anheuser Busch In-Bev, the world’s largest brewer, and one of the world’s largest consumer goods companies. It’s responsible for Stella Artois, Leffe and Hoegaarden. You can visit the brewery near the station for a tour and a tasting. Tours are offered in English.
The label with the date 1366 and the hunting horn refers to the foundation of the Leuven Brewery Den Hoorn, which was later taken over by Stella Artois.
8. enjoy Leuven’s Beer Festivals and the local brewing scene
I should note that I share a house with a beer-guide carrying beer lover. Leuven has plenty to offer the specialist beer lover, with the Domus brewery in the city piping three varieties direct into its own bar. Domus has tours for groups of 8 or more.
Other local beers include Luvranium, Delvaux and Koeischiter, available in bars like De Fiere Margriet which has over 300 beers. The bar also has an interesting back story, and is another tale of a strong woman. Margriet herself worked in a bar in the early 1200s. A group of robbers attempted to attack her, but she fought them off. She’s now seen as the patron saint of barmaids.
9. Visit the M-Museum
Flemish splendor at the M-Museum, Leuven
As you’d expect from a seat of learning, Leuven has a great museum too. The M-Museum is full of visual art, from Flemish masters to contemporary Belgian art. There are more than 52,000 paintings and sculptures here.
It has a hidden garden too, perfect for refreshing your eyes after all that gorgeousness that is Leuven’s architecture and art. The M-Cafe here hosts beer tastings on some Fridays.
10. Visit the tomb of Pater Damiaan
Father Damian spent his life supporting the leper colony at Molokai in Hawaii, and eventually succumbed to the disease himself. He is buried in Sint Antonius chapel, and was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI. Father Damian is known as the leper priest and the apostle of the lepers.
11. Visit the Castle at Arenberg
Leuven – Arenberg Castle
This beautiful space and its surrounding gardens was built in the 16th century in the Renaissance style. It was renovated in the 19th century in the neo-Gothic style, complementing Leuven’s range of Gothic buildings. The Castle was donated to the University in 1916. It is open to the public (although not during the academic year), and has a beautiful park setting, great for walks and picnics.
12. Go Shopping in Mechelsestraat
Leuven is well served for Belgian chains and staples such as Hema. But for a different shopping experience, try the cobbled street of Mechelsestraat, full of small boutiques and artisan food shops. From bakeries to brasseries and galleries to fabrics, it’s all here.
My favourite things to bring back from Belgium? Homewares, which are generally gorgeous, especially lighting and household linens. Stationery and cards are other favourites; art seems to be important here. Then don’t forget to stock up on beer and chocolate (friets being rather difficult to transport). To find Michelsestraat, look between Sint Pieterskerk and the Vismarkt.
Leuven’s a city that welcomes wandering around
13. Get Lunch (and dinner)
Leuven’s a student city, so blessed with many reasonably priced restaurants, cafes and bars. Domus, like many bars, does fabulous spaghetti, seemingly the go-to dish in so much of Belgium – and go hungry, there’s always lots! De Werf has a reputation for great, inexpensive and filling food (hence loved by students) and you can dine well for less here. Muntstraat is full of wall to wall restaurants, and there are also plenty of options in the area surrounding the station.
The Stella Artois sign and a cornucopia seemed to sum up Leuven
14. Get out of town for a walk and a picnic
The beautiful Zennegat
We’ve mentioned where to get stocked up on food. Why not head out of the city centre and see some of Leuven’s green surroundings? Bus 1 will take you out to Heverlee Woods, where you can enjoy a walk and a picnic in its 2000 hectares. This is great countryside, and so close to the city. There are routes for biking, walking and riding, plus hides for spotting birds. If you’ve been staying in Brussels and want to feast your eyes on more greenery, this (and Saint-Gilles) are great options. You can also head out to Zennegat, where the Leuven canal joins up with several other watercourses in a protected area of archaeological interest.
15. Attend Leuven’s Festivals and events
Throughout the year, Leuven hosts a number of special events.
- Zythos Beer Festival
- Leuven in Scene (Street Theatre in May)
- and& (Health, Tech and Creativity, new in May 2018)
- M-idZomer (Comedy and perfomance at the M-Museum in July)
- Hapje Tapje (Grote Market beer and food in August)
- Marktrak (Music festival in August
- Playground (Performing and Visual Arts in November)
- Christmas Market (City Centre in December)
Find out more about Leuven
Find out more about Belgium
You can find out more about other Belgian destinations we’ve tested out for you:
- Exploring the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Brussels Grand Place
- Visiting Brussels Saint-Gilles and its Art Nouveau buildings
- Finding the best things to do in Ghent
- Seeing Ghent from the River Leie
- Exploring the Belgian coast via the Coastal Tram – Kusttram
- Enjoying Antwerp at Christmas for the Kerstmarkt
- Understanding Belgian life through a trip to Brussels
- Sharing the best of Belgium through the eyes of travel writers
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