Leuven is one of the hidden gems of Europe that more tourists have begun to uncover. Its historic centre has proven to be one of the most beautiful in Belgium and its Catholic university is the oldest in the world, having been founded in 1425.
The city has a rare blend of energetic youth – due to its 35,000 students enrolled in the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven – mixed with its rich history. There is much that appeals to both old and young, from lively nightlife to stunning historic sites like St Peter’s Church and Castle Arenberg. Learn more about the best things to do in Leuven…
1. See the iconic Stadhuis
No list of places to check out in Leuven is complete without including the iconic Stadhuis – or city hall – at Grote Markt square. Built between 1448 and 1469, it is a fine example of Gothic architecture. In the 19th century, 235 statues were added to its façade, each of which is dedicated to past residents of the city. The Stadhuis was hit by a bomb during World War II but fortunately, it was not destroyed.
Address: Grote Markt 9, 3000 Leuven, Belgium
2. Visit Leuven’s UNESCO World Heritage Site
Right across the Stadhuis is St. Peter’s Church, a beautiful 15th century church that is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Despite never having its bell tower completed, it was included among the Belfries of Belgium and France, a group of 56 buildings designated by UNESCO. It has a Brabantine Gothic style and holds two paintings by the famed Flemish artist Dirk Bouts, the 1465 Martyrdom of St. Eramus and 1460s Last Supper.
St. Peter’s Church
Address: Grote Markt 1, 3000 Leuven, Belgium
Website: St. Peter’s Church
3. Go back to school
The Universiteitsbibliotheek is quite a mouthful, but its architecture is truly one to marvel at. It has been a library for students for three different universities throughout its history, beginning at the Old University of Leuven from 1425 to 1636. The current library was rebuilt after German soldiers burnt it down during the First World War, in which many valuable works were destroyed by the fire. Its current collection is split between the French-speaking Catholic University of Louvain and Dutch-speaking Catholic University of Leuven.
Address: Monseigneur Ladeuzeplein 21, 3000 Leuven, Belgium
4. Explore Leuven University’s quarters
University students in Leuven are certainly lucky. As if a gorgeous library isn’t enough, their residential dorms also happen to be the Groot Begijnhof, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. How many students can say that of their dorms? At 3 hectares (7.4 acres) in size, it was founded in the 13th century by the Beguines. It has some 300 apartments and gives visitors a chance to see what living was like 300 years ago.
Address: Groot Begijnhof, 3000 Leuven, Belgium
Website: Groot Begijnhof (in Dutch)
5. Get a taste of Belgian beer
Persconferentie in Leuven, op de oude markt! Press conference in Leuven!Posted by Leuven Innovation Beerfestival on Tuesday, 31 March 2015
Leuven’s Beer Festival is among the largest in Belgium. Each year, it attracts more than 16,000 attendees. Due to its sheer size, there is a party atmosphere to it, as attendees get to try over 500 beers from across 100 breweries. It isn’t just booths showcasing beers though. There are organised beer tastings, including beer tours on bikes and brewery visits lined up. Check their official website for the full schedule.
Leuven Innovation Beer Festival
Address: Brabanthal, Leuven, Belgium
Website: Leuven Innovation Beer Festival
6. Discover how Stella Artois is made
Expansion of the Stella Artois Brewery | Leuven, BelgiumPosted by TSC Silos on Thursday, 1 September 2016
If you haven’t heard of the Stella Artois brewery, do yourself a favour and have one this weekend. Belgian beer is among some of the best in the world. The brewery first released this Christmas beer in 1926 – named Stella, the Latin word for star – and it became such a huge success they decided to put it on the market permanently. During this 90-min guided tour, you will become familiar with the entire brewing process. The tour will end on the brewery’s rooftop, where you can sip Stella Artois and enjoy the surrounding views.
Stella Artois brewery
Address: Aarschotsesteenweg 20, 3000 Leuven, Belgium
Website: Stella Artois brewery
7. Walk along abbeys built by monks
Joining the list of the country’s beautiful architecture are abbeys built by monks. While Leuven has plenty of great abbeys, perhaps the most stunning of them all is the Keizersberg Abbey (also known as Mont César Abbey), built by Mardsous monks in 1899. In 1969, part of the abbey was commissioned for student accommodation. Lucky students, like we’ve mentioned. Trappist beer has famously been known to be made by Belgian monks and although there is a commercial beer on the market in the abbey’s name, the monastery has never been involved in brewing.
Address: Mechelsestraat 202, 3000 Leuven, Belgium
Website: Keizersberg Abbey
8. View over 46,000 masterpieces
Opened in 2009, the M – Museum Leuven is notable for its mix of classical and contemporary art, featuring over 52,000 paintings and sculptures from late 16th century to 19th century including those by Flemish artists like Constantin Meunier and Jef Lambeaux. Modern visual art, such as photography, dancing and performing arts, also form part of the museum’s exhibitions.
M – Museum Leuven
Address: Leopold Vanderkelenstraat 28, 3000 Leuven, Belgium
Website: M – Museum Leuven
9. Experience Leuven’s nightlife
Built in 1150, the Oude Markt – or Old Market – looks like it has the longest bar in the world, but is actually different ones all joined together. Oude Markt has it all, whether you’re looking for a nice café like Vesper or bars like Villa Artois or Bar Nine. There are also several restaurant establishments offering a wide variety of food, from Japanese to local cuisine. In mid-August every year, the annual music festival, Marktrock, is held.
Address: Oude Markt, 3000 Leuven, Belgium
Website: Oude Markt (in Dutch)
10. Escape the city
If you’d prefer to make a quick escape from the city, head for Heverlee Woods, a 2,000-hectare (4,942-acre) forest located on the outskirts of Leuven. Go on a nice relaxing hike or bring a picnic basket with a cool Belgian beer. The park used to be a hunting ground for the noble De Croy family. Visitors have also stumbled upon a small abandoned castle. We won’t spoil the surprise, but it won’t be difficult to find.
Address: 3050 Oud-Heverlee, Belgium
Leuven isn’t one of those “mainsteam” European cities advertised on travel brochures, but given how popular it’s becoming, we won’t be surprised if we soon see them joining the list. If you’ve always loved European history and culture, this is not a place you’ll want to miss out on.
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