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.
Leuven hosts the Leuven Innovation Beer Festival and the Zythos (Greek for beer) Festival, which moved to Leuven in 2012.
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) In Leuven
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
The Visit Leuven website, which is available in a variety of languages, offers more information about the town. You can find out more about the surrounding area at Visit Flanders.
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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39 thoughts on “15 Great Things To Do in A Day in Leuven, Belgium”
I have passed through Leuven before, but never really stopped for any time. It sounds like a great city to spend at least a couple of days. I love the idea of the longest bar!
The square with the longest bar was really only just waking up when we went there at lunchtime. But I can imagine it full and bustling, particularly on a long summer evening when the world could be put to rights over lots of conversation.
Some great things to do in Leuven, I would love to go one day. The castle would be the top of my list!
There was absolutely loads to do; we’re keeping that as our excuse to go back. And it was so beautiful!
Leuven is indeed a revelation. I guess it gets overshadowed by other cities like Brussels, Antwerp, etc.. I love the old world charm of the place. There are so many sights and experiences waiting there. Would love to stay for a couple of days to soak in the atmosphere of the place by walking around. The Town Hall looks really majestic, loved the statue of the eternal student too.
We’d seen a lot of trains heading to Leuven over the years that we’d been visiting Belgium, and decided it was time we finally went there. We shouldn’t have left it so long! As you say, it’s got loads to offer, and the eternal student was a favourite of mine too. I think there’s a bit of him in all of us who love to explore.
We loved Leuven….drank at one of the oldest pubs there and had such a wonderful time with the locals. Loved the bequinages here and the Gothic Town Hall. Loved revisiting this with you. Definitely one of my fave Belgian towns.
We found it really friendly too – from the moment we set eyes on Fonske, and people around started chatting, we knew we’d found a place we’d love. We’re going to have to go back and see more, but then Belgium seems to have that effect on us. 🙂
Loved the mini slideshow explanation! I’m a big fan of picnics so will add Heverlee Woods to my Belgium bucket list. These are such wonderful recommendations so thank you! Although I would probably do this over 2 days at least hahaa. So many things to do so little time!
Glad to see a fellow picnic-lover here! And definitely it’s somewhere that needs more time than we had; we’ll return now we know how much there is to see and do.
I wish to visit Belgium one day, never heard of Leuven before but it is such an amazing place. Will definitely visit Leuven, thanks for sharing.
Belgium is full of charm, great architecture and history. Plus, of course, a lot of chocolate! Hope you enjoy it when you visit.
As I am currently living in Rotterdam, I’m always looking for quick-ish trips and Leuven is definitely on the list. We will use your post of what to do when we finally make it there 🙂
I’m envious of the living in Rotterdam. I’ve only been once, and it struck me that I’d be very happy to be living there. Leuven would make a fab weekender.
I’ve sadly never visitied Leuven but know Belgium has some amazing places. Only been in Bruges, Brussels and Antwerp. But the architecture looks really familiar, seems worth a visit as I really need to see more of Belgium and Netherlands anyway!
For me, the Low Countries are the gift that keeps on giving. So many beautiful places we’ve been to and loved. And yes, there’s a certain “look” to the architecture that makes Leuven feel very like Brussels and Bruges. If you’re heading back, don’t hesitate to check out Ghent too; it’s like Bruges with a bit of Game of Thrones thrown in and it’s a fabulous city
Great tips! I visited Leuven a few years ago to visit a friend’s family and was lucky to experience most of your tips. It’s such a lovely city with so much to offer, great roundup here!
Ah, it must be a wonderful place to see through a local’s eyes. It seemed wonderfully friendly, and I’m glad you got to experience that too.
I had no idea that Leuven was so easy to get to! I’d heard of it before, but assumed it would be tricky to reach – silly me! It looks lovely, and I think my boyfriend would get a kick from that statue (he’s usually got his nose in a book too). Thanks for sharing!
I’m sure Fonske would be delighted to meet another bookworm. I’d thought it would be an hour or more from Brussels, so, like you, was pleasantly surprised to find it so quick. And the walk into the centre is lovely; I was planning my fantasy house purchases all the way, gable by lovely gable.
Ha ha I like how beer featured a few times in your post. Although I guess when you’re in Belgium……..and the Stadhuis looks crazy, such detailed architecture!
What can I say….? 😉 (Although I need the gluten-free versions these days.) And the Stadhuis is incredible close up too – so much detail that I could be there for hours just peering at all those statues.
I’ve never heard of Leuven! But it sounds so great. Definitely an underrated gem.
It’s some of those places that’s hiding in plain sight. I’d seen lots of trains heading there, and thought it was time we went. I should have done that earlier. It’s lovely!
Longest bar – oh yes please haha. Love all the suggestions but I have never visited Leuven before …
I don’t thing you’d be disappointed. It was a really friendly place, and even by day, the longest bar was revving up for a good time.
I hadn’t heard of Leuven but it looks lovely and I am impressed that such a small city has so much to do. I love the architecture. I also like the mix of museums, affordable restaurants, and bars!
It was a heady combination. We ended up running around like mad to fit everything in and vowing to go back. Soon!
This is a fantastic guide! I have never heard of this city and it looks fantastic. Reminds me of the beautiful Antwerp that I visited – the educational institutes, the architecture, and the cobbled streets. I will surely refer to this guide when I visit Leuven
If you loved Antwerp, you’ll like Leuven too; it has a very similar vibe. As you rightly point out, the Flemish architecture is beautiful across the swathe of Belgium from Antwerp to Bruges and Ghent to Leuven. Flanders is indeed gorgeous.
I enjoyed reading about this lovely city! So much to see and do! Your photo of the town hall has me captivated. Hope to visit!
The town hall really is incredible. It looks so different from each way you approach it. And then when you see the individual statues close up, if you’re like me, you could be there for hours. Such intricate and painstaking work.
I’d love to be there for the Christmas Market! It must be a perfect backdrop for the holiday season. Did you find out what is in the cellars at the Leuven Town Hall? You could write a book on the towers you visit. You make them sound fantastic and I would not normally be so entranced by a tower’s description but this is twice now that you had my full attention on a tower and I have enjoyed the read,
You may have gathered that architecture is one of my vices! Belgium is absolutely bursting with beautiful buildings, and it’s definitely a reason I keep heading back. There are so many stories behind each building there: tales of kings, princes, wars, upheaval and ordinary people living their lives. So glad you enjoyed visiting Leuven with us. (And yes, a trip to Belgium at Christmas is always wonderful – we’re often in Antwerp or Ghent for the holidays.)
Beautiful City. Love Fonkse. This post really made me want to go to Leuven
I love how you say “Belgium gives good town hall”. LOL. My university offered a year study abroad here and the students who went loved it. I regret not going! Looks wonderful and who can ever get enough of that chocolate?
That must have been amazing! I went on some archaeological digs through university, but they can’t compare to the thought of a year in Belgium. And as for the chocolate? I suppose one of us might volunteer to test that out…
Dont think I have ever heard of this city before, but then again I have only been to Brussels. Clearly a trip back to Belgium is in order soon. As a lover of architecture I am fascinated by the detail of the church or cathedral in your pin image.
It’s only half an hour from Brussels, so if you can make time, it’s an easy day trip. If you love architecture, Leuven is an absolute delight – you could spend hours just inspecting the Stadhuis before you got to any more buildings. Those statues are fascinating!