| 11 min read
Boasting the oldest university in Belgium and a city hall "that is nicer than the one of Brussels", Leuven has plenty to offer. You can easily spend a day in Leuven, or even two. It is the capital of the province of Flemish Brabant and is the eight largest city of Belgium overall. Given that it lies only 25 km east of Brussels, it is super easy to get there by train. The historic center of Leuven is relatively small, but you can easily make it a weekend and explore some of its more distant (but not less interesting) sights.
Town hall of Leuven
The town hall of Leuven is one of Belgium’s most famous gothic buildings. When they started construction, they did so with the intent that it should look nicer than that of Brussels, thereby hoping the duke of Brabant would settle in Leuven again. The result is a three-floored building with flanked by four towers, which was adorned afterwards with no less than 256 statues of people important to the city. Among them you’ll find the painter Dirk Bouts, two popes, Erasmus, Saint Nicolas and many others…
We’ve joined a guided tour organized by the tourist office of Leuven during which we received an explanation about the remarkable architecture of the building. We also entered the town hall, which nowadays is merely used for town council meetings and ceremonies. Our guide led us through the waiting room where judgements were announced in former days, as well as the treasury, a lounge with portraits of all of the city’s mayors since the French revolution, the wedding hall, the mayor’s ceremonial office and the gothic hall.
On the small square in front of the town hall, the Rector De Somerplein, you'll find the statue of Fons Sapientiae, commonly known as 'Fonske'. He symbolizes Leuven as a university city (hence the book) as well as a lively student city. Although the official theory is that he's pouring wisdom into his head, the most wide-spread belief is that it represents a glass of Stella Artois beer which is consumed in large quantities by the students.
Saint Peter’s Church
Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the collegiate church of Saint Peter’s facing the town hall is built in the 15th century in Brabantine Gothic style. Inside you can contemplate the painting ‘The Last Supper’, a masterpiece by Dirk Bouts (1415-1475).
Nicknamed the longest bar in the world, this square is surrounded by an innumerable series of bars. It is no surprise this is a popular meeting place for students and locals, especially on a sunny day when the outdoor terraces fill up quickly.
The Parijsstraat parallel to the Oude Markt, houses various shops, bars and restaurants. We stopped for a local beer in the authentic brown café ‘De Metafoor’. On the menu you’ll find a selection of regional beers, among which I especially appreciated the Egotripel, a light blond ale.
The university library and tower
The prestigious library with its impressive tower on the Mgr. Ladeuzeplein symbolizes the university of Leuven. It houses an Harry Potter-style reading room with encyclopedia, influential manuals, reference books, dictionnaires… You can climb the two flights of stairs to overlook the beautiful reading room from above. It is also possible to climb the 87 meters high tower, inspired by the Giralda of Sevilla, for a panoramic view over the city.
The large beguinage
About 3 hectares in size, the historical quarter of the ‘Groot Begijnhof’ is one of the largest remaining beguinages in the Low Countries. Listed as a UNESCO heritage site, this pedestrian and cobblestoned charming village within the city of Leuven is a web of houses, small streets and grass patches. It is used a temporary communal housing for students and academics.
Ending the day with a bite and a beer
We ended our day with dinner at the BBQ restaurant Gainsbourg, a paradise for meat lovers. After the meat is “massaged with water and spices” for hours, it is then grilled on the barbecue. The result is meat so soft you hardly have to chew. A funny detail is that the menu comes in the shape of a black and white newspaper. The restaurant is situated next to Gieelenhof, a little park boasting remnants of the old city wall. Before heading to bed, we had one last beer in the jazz and blues café De Blauwe Schuit, which played good music and had an extensive selection of beers.
If you’re looking for a place to eat, you could also check out the Muntstraat which is a super cozy small alley lined with countless restaurants.
Given that we had an entire weekend in Leuven, we were in no hurry to visit all of its main sights in one day. If you only spend one day in Leuven, I’d recommend you also visit the small beguinage and maybe also the botanical garden. You’ll find the details of these places further down below.
It’s a relatively long walk to Park Abbey and the other sights we’re discussing below, so it might be a good idea to rent a bike for the day. After crossing the sports complex Sportoase, a beautiful view laid out in front of us.
We had to make a little detour because of the railway tracks separating us from Park Abbey, but it wasn’t far anymore. The domain accommodates a lot of buildings from the 16th-18th century, including a beautiful church, a little graveyard, the PARCUM museum, several gate buildings, sheds and a watermill house turned into a restaurant with a terrace facing the lake. As we were feeling hungry, we headed for the latter. Unfortunately, it was a bit too cold to sit outside today. The food was delicious and we were served such a large meal that we couldn’t finish our plates. In order to digest, we took a little stroll around the ponds adjacent to the complex.
The next landmark was the Arenberg castle, in the adjacent town of Heverlee. It was built in renaissance style in the 16th century and was renovated in neo-gothic style in the 19th century. The result is completely asymmetric castle, which is kinda ironic for a building used by the Engineering Science faculty of the KU Leuven. The castle itself cannot be visited, but the huge surrounding park is great for a stroll or a bike ride.
Created by the university of Leuven for its students of medicine in 1738, the botanical garden of Leuven is the oldest one in Belgium. Botany enthusiast are welcome to explore the park and the diverse plant collections. I especially like the greenhouse complex that houses countless tropical and subtropical plants.
The small beguinage
The small beguinage is a little district made up of one street and two blind alleys north of the Saint Geertrui abbey. Up until the 19th century, it was inhabited by a community of religious women called beguines.
On our way back to the center, we had a break in the bar De Blauwe Schuit, which proclaims to have the nicest terrace in town. It is lush and green indeed, and a beautiful pet peacock loves to parade around the garden (and steal your food).
This was the last visit of our weekend in Leuven. We’ve still missed out on quite a few interesting spots like parks and museums, but I guess that will be for another time. I think we can conclude that Leuven has enough to offer to keep you busy for an entire weekend (at least).
Where to stay?
We booked a room in Ooostel2.be which offers affordable and modern accommodation close to the train station and within walking distance of the city center. We paid 49 EUR for two persons.
- A visit to the townhall can be arranged via the tourist office of Leuven and costs 4 EUR.
- If you also want to visit the university library, it is best to buy an ILUVLeuven ticket for 8 EUR, which grants you access to both the townhall and the university library.
- Entrance to the small beguinage, the large beguinage, park abbey, the Arenberg Castle park and the botanic garden of Leuven is free.
- Address of the restaurant Gainsbourg: Kardinaal Mercierplein 1, 3000 Leuven. More information on the Gainsbourg website
- Address of De Metafoor (bar): Parijsstraat 34, 3000 Leuven
- Address of De Blauwe Schuit (bar): Vismarkt 16. More information on De Blauwe Schuit Website
- Address of De Blauwe Kater (bar) : Mechelsestraat 51. More information on the website of De Blauwe Kater
- If you want to rent a bike, you can get one from Blue-Bike or from Leuven Rides
- A handy app for visiting Leuven is Leuven Walk which is free and offers an offline map and guided walk through the city.
- Try to get your hands on a copy of a USE-It map of Leuven, as their suggestions are great and the descriptions hilarious.
Do you have questions? Did you experience something similar? Did you notice a mistake? Please share!