It will not take you long to figure out what Leuven was built on as its university and breweries are very much still the heart and soul of the city. The University is a striking mix of classic architecture and state of the art research and facilities. As tourists it will be the classical side of the university that interests you. As with many university towns, the sheer amount of students give the place a real buzz. The city is home to over 25,000 students and this can clearly witnessed on any night or evening out in the city.
The city is located only 25km away from Brussels and very much lives in the bigger city’s shadow in terms of tourism. But if you have visited Brussels or anywhere else in Belgium and liked what you saw, then you will certainly enjoy what Leuven has to offer.
Despite the picturesque centre of the city being small enough to see it all in a day or two, the charms and culture of this lively city will easily keep you here for a week or two.
Here are the best things to do in Leuven!
1. See the Iconic Stadhuis
Leuven’s most iconic building is without a doubt its town hall or Stadhuis. The building is a fine example of late Gothic architecture with stunning turrets, stonework and flags all adding to the imposing but beautiful appearance. There are a total of 235 statues, honouring notable past residents of the city, on the exterior of the building. These were added in 19th Century. All this is made even more remarkable by the fact that the building was very nearly destroyed during the Second World War but fortunately the bomb that skimmed the buildings facade failed to explode.
2. Visit Schatkamer
The St Pieterskerk Treasury is home to various artwork including two famous triptychs by Dirk Bout, a famous Leuven based painter. The triptychs were produced in the 15th century by Bouts and are considered to be two of the best works from that time period. The pieces are without a doubt the main reason to visit the Schatkamer but the church itself is also worth admiring. It was built in the 15th Century in Gothic style after the original church on the site burnt down in the 10th Century.
3. Take a sip of Stella Artois
Stella Artois is one of the most popular and well known breweries in the world and it is here in Leuven that the brewery is located. These days much of the brewing process is automated but it is still possible to take a tour of the facility. You can either book a last minute tour on the day, subject to availability or book to or three days in advance. In the summer months tickets are also available from tourist offices. You will find the brewery about 1km north of the train station.
4. Go to University
Leuven’s Universiteitsbibliotheek may be a bit of a tongue twister but it is still worth popping on your itinerary. The building is both beautiful and well made. Built in renaissance style with a brick tower topped with a cupola the building is perfect for photos and sight-seeing in general. The library was all but destroyed when it was burned down during the German occupation of Leuven in 1914, it has since been rebuilt twice. The buildings can be visited only at certain times during terms but the steps to the top of the tower can be ascended all year round.
5. See Some Art at the M Van Museum
The M Van Museum is the top art museum in Leuven and is completely state of the art. The art housed here ranges from between the 15th and 18th Century as well as contemporary pieces and temporary exhibitions from big name artists from around the world. As a bonus, entry to the museum allows for free access into the St Pieterskerk Treasury meaning that you can also see the pieces on display there to complete a perfect day for art lovers.
6. Visit Leuven’s Cloth Hall
The historic Cloth Hall in Leuven or the Lakenhal is actually situated in the heart of the University’s administration complex and currently is used by the university. The hall was constructed in the 14th Century and was the place where cloth was traded in Leuven for many years. The building is in fitting with the Gothic style of the rest of the university and is well worth seeking out whilst walking around the area.
7. Admire the Groot Begijnhof
The Groot Begijnhof is a completely restored historic quarter located in the south of Leuven. It was founded in the 13th Century by the Beguines and they remained here until the late 17th Century. The houses have since been restored and are now a residential area for the lucky students of Leuven University. The site, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a great chance to see what living in Leuven was like 300 years ago.
8. See the Sint Jan De Doperkerk
This church is hidden away in the Begijnhof area mentioned above. It was built in a Gothic style but boasts a stunning and elaborate Baroque interior. The church is open from the beginning of April until the end of September between the hours of 1:30 and 4:30. The church is always closed on Mondays.
9. Be Amazed by the city’s top Museum
The Leuven Museum or Museum Leuven certainly stands out upon first sight. The building integrates with several historic buildings in the area and incorporates them into its contemporary design. This blend of new and old is reflected in the museums art displays. Inside the museum is a vast collection of ever-changing exhibitions displaying various paintings and sculptures from the 17th Century onwards. There is also plenty of contemporary on display in the museum ranging from photographs and films to sculpture and paintings.
10. Attend the Leuven Beer Festival
With the very apt caption of “Leuven is the place to beer”, the Leuven beer festival takes place between 22nd April and 22nd May. During the festival, there is the opportunity to taste more Belgian beers than at any other festival in Europe. There are also plenty of new up-and-coming beers to sample as well as extended opportunities to visit one of the many breweries in the city.
11. Shop at one of Leuven’s Markets
Leuven is a great place for shopping, especially in one of the cities weekly markets. You have the choice of browsing the weekly flower market, which takes place every Thursday, the food and clothes market on Fridays, or the exquisite artisanal market on Saturdays. Whether you are looking to buy or just soaking up the relaxed atmosphere of a Leuven market, this is a must do for shopping fans.
12. See the Keizersberg Abbey
Leuven has many great abbeys but at the top of the list is the Keizersberg Abbey. Built by Mardsous monks the abbey, with its surrounding wall, looks more like a fortress than a place of worship. Even so, it is still a beautiful sight and the gardens here, which are now a public park, are a great place for panoramic views of the city. Although open to the public, the gardens are slightly wild with long grass and nettles taking over in the summer month, so it is best to stick to the paths.
13. Learn at the Archives of Leuven
The Histaruz, is the archives of the UZ Leuven, the academic hospital in the city. On display here are over 9,000 objects from throughout the hospital’s history including past apparatus and books about medicine from as far back as the 18th Century. The museum also features restored nursing units from the early 20th Century allowing visitors to time travel back to a different age of medicine and treatment. There is also an 85 year old auditorium where thousands of doctors and nurses have been trained throughout the years.
14. Sample the Nightlife of the Oude Markt
The Oude Markt may seem like the longest bar in the world but it is actually made up of several different bars all joined together in the Oude Markt square. Whatever you are into, whether it be reggae, rock or Chinese food, the Oude Markt has it all and all in one location. In summer it is a perfect place to sit on one of the many tables lining the square and watch the people of Leuven and the many tourists go about their daily activities.
15. Visit the Heverlee Woods
If you feel like escaping from the hustle of the city on a particularly busy day or if the heat gets too much and you want to relax in the shade of some trees, then Heverlee Woods are perfect. Situated just outside of Leuven (can be reached by a single bus) the woods are part of a 2,000 hectare wooded area. The woods are great place to walk or cycle or simply enjoy a picnic with a cool Belgian beer. The woods can be reached by train, bus or, if you drive from Leuven, there is also car parking.