Belgium is a wonderful country with its own fascinating history, mesmerising architecture, delicious cuisine and a large variety of craft beer. From the fairytale city of Bruges, to the scenic canals of Ghent and mediaeval Antwerp, there are so many wonderful cities to explore. However, one city in particular is Belgium’s hidden gem. It is a place bursting with character, just waiting to be discovered.
Leuven is a modern city with a small town vibe that encapsulates the best of Belgian culture. It is only a stone’s throw away from Belgium’s capital making it the perfect day trip if you are planning to visit Brussels.
In this article we will cover our favourite things to do in Leuven in a day, but you can easily spend a weekend here!
Leuven is a city located just under 30km from Brussels. It is home to Belgium’s largest university, KU Leuven. This is the oldest Catholic University in all of Europe, opening its doors in 1425.
How to make the most of your stay in Leuven:
- Leuven is a highly walkable city. It is much easier to get around the city on foot or public transport than in a car. In fact, the use of cars is restricted on certain streets during the day. If you want to see even more of Leuven however, we would recommend renting a bike for the day as it is the best way to get around Leuven.
- Visit on a Saturday. Some of the activities we have listed below are only available on a Saturday. During term times Saturdays are usually quieter as students go home or travel for the weekend. Many shops close on a Sunday in Belgium so if you want to experience everything that Leuven has to offer we’d recommend visiting on a Saturday.
- The Weather. Leuven is known for its changeable weather. Locals describe experiencing ‘four seasons in a day’ as a regular occurrence. If travelling to Belgium outside of the summer months, bring lots of layers and an umbrella as you may experience sudden rainfall or wind on an otherwise nice day!
- The Language. Belgium has 3 official languages; Dutch, French and German. As Leuven is in the Flemish region of Belgium, Dutch is the primary language spoken. However Leuven is a very tourist-friendly city and as a university is used to a large influx of international students each year. As a result, the majority of people here speak English fluently, especially in shops, bars and restaurants.
- More information: Check out visit.leuven.be for everything Leuven related!
It’s probably no surprise by now that we really love Leuven! However what other locations do you think feature in our top 10 unmissable places to visit in Belgium?
Here are our top 10 picks of things to do in Leuven, keep reading to find out why they have made the list!
- The Stella Artois Brewery Tour
- The University Library
- The Oude Markt – Europe’s longest bar
- The Beguinages – A UNESCO World Heritage site
- Saint Peter’s Church
- The Grote Markt
- The Botanical Gardens
- The Weekly Market
- M Museum Leuven
- Try Belgian Cuisine
#1 Take the Stella Brewery Tour
You can’t visit Leuven without touring the Stella Artois Brewery. Stella Artois originated in Leuven hundreds of years ago and since then it has become an internationally recognised lager.
Tours at the brewery only take place on Saturdays and you have to book well in advance to avoid disappointment. You may also choose to take a private tour if you have a large enough group. Tickets cost €14 per person.
If you do go on a beer tasting tour in Leuven, make sure to pair your ale with some traditional Belgian food. Chocolate, Waffles and frites are just some of the delicious food that the Belgians have perfected!
#2 Climb the Belfry Tower at the University Library
If you want stunning views of the city of Leuven, climbing the Belfry tower of the old University Library will yield the most rewarding results.
While you will have to climb a few sets of winding stairs, the dizzying climb is worth the view of Leuven from the top of the bell tower.
It may surprise you to discover that students still go to this library to study for exams among the many tourists taking photos of the ornate rooms.
Whitney Warren, a famous architect and part of the Warren Wetmore practice, restored the University tower after it was destroyed in WWII. Warren’s firm also designed Grand Central Terminal in New York
Eager historians will notice the engravings of the coat of arms of many American universities on the exterior of the library, all of which donated and contributed to the restoration of the building after WWII.
The library is just one part of KU Leuven. Leuven university has its faculty campuses scattered around the heart of the city. It is easy to walk past a building without realising that it is actually the entrance to a large campus!
Some say that walking through the library feels like strolling through Hogwarts castle – though others argue that Trinity College in Dublin is a more direct inspiration for the wizarding school!
#3 Oude Markt Leuven
Have you ever wondered what the longest bar in Europe is? The Oude Markt proudly claims this title with over 20 bars making up the square. If you’re lucky there may even be a concert or event in the Oude Markt!
On a warm Summer’s day the outside terraces will fill up quickly creating the atmosphere of a large beer garden. In the winter you can grab a blanket and sit under the outdoor heating or in one of the temporary cabins. Or head inside to see what each pub has to offer. From dancefloors and DJs, to live music and karaoke there is something for everyone!
While most nights out in Leuven end up at the Oude Markt, there are plenty of other worthy bars and restaurants scattered around the city if you want something a bit more lowkey.
#4 Visit the Beguinages, a world UNESCO heritage site
The Beguinages are a fascinating part of the history of the low countries (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg). These female-only residences offered young women from the countryside an opportunity to live and work in the city without having to get married or take religious vows.
Beguines were lay women who lived in these religious communities without retiring from the world or taking vows. They were free to leave and marry if they chose to and they did not have to give up their land or wealth to join the order.
The Beguinages were a walled/gated community inside of the city and the lay women often contributed to the economy, through charitable work and notably with their involvement in the textile industry.
There are 2 beautifully preserved Beguinages in Leuven that you can explore during your stay! Today the Groot Begjinhof provides accommodation for visiting professors as well as KU Leuven staff and students.
#5 Visit Saint Peter’s Church
Saint Peter’s Church is one of the most magnificent buildings in Leuven – and that’s really saying something! Art lovers will particularly enjoy a visit to the church to see the amazing architecture, sculptures and paintings preserved in their original location.
One of the most famous paintings in the church is Dierec Bouts’ ‘The Last Supper’ which was created for the chapel nearly 600 years ago.
Built in a late Gothic style, the belfry of the church was declared a world UNESCO heritage site and is another example of history preserved and celebrated in the city.
#6 Get a photo at Town Hall / Visit the Great Market Square
In the Grote Markt (Great Market Square) you will find yourself surrounded by intricate architecture, including the old town hall. While administration functions have moved to a different part of the city, ceremonial functions still take place at this location, for example, you may see a wedding photoshoot take place outside of this ornate building!
It’s no surprise that the old town hall is still so popular as its elaborate and delicate architecture makes the perfect backdrop for a special photo. Statues are carved into the pillars of the wall, depicting local figures and saints as well as scenes from the Bible; every possible part of the building has been decorated to perfection.
As a bonus the townhall is located right beside Saint Peters Church and the Oude Markt, so you can see many of these locations in just a few minutes!
Can you spot the statue in the picture? Officially called ‘Fons Sapientiae’ (‘Source of Wisdom’) and known affectionately as Fonske by locals, this fountain depicts a student pouring water onto their head while reading.
The meaning is often debated. Many claim that the water is meant to symbolise a thirst for knowledge, while others argue that the diligent student is clearly holding a Belgian beer in celebration, to symbolise the vibrant student life!
#7 Explore the Botanical Gardens
Nature lovers should visit the botanical garden during their time in Leuven. Created for medical students by the university of Leuven in 1738, and known as Kruidtuin (which means ‘herb garden’), the botanical garden is another part of Leuven with a rich history, home to a diverse range of flora.
The park is free to enter but unfortunately dogs are not allowed. Group tours are also available weather permitting.
If it’s a nice day, why not have a picnic at the botanical garden and immerse yourself in nature.
About a 50 minute drive from Leuven (just under 60km) is Hallerbos, the fairytale bluebell forest. While it’s not strictly related to Leuven, you can find out more information about it on our list of the best things to do in Belgium, such as the best time to see the flowers in bloom!
#8 Visit the weekly market
Every Saturday you will find lots of stalls set up along the main streets of Leuven selling everything from local cuisine, and artisanal dishes to homegrown produce, plants, flower bouquets, old records and even vintage clothes!
If you are looking for a laid back start to your morning, grab a snack from one of the stalls and browse everything that local traders have to offer. The market attracts locals and tourists alike and many people spend their morning sitting outside cafés with a coffee or a glass of wine and charcuterie board, watching the hustle and bustle from afar.
Alternatively, hit the high street for a day of shopping. There are plenty of fashion boutiques, designer shops and everything else that you would expect to find in a big city. As a bonus, traffic is restricted in most shopping zones of the city during opening hours which makes getting by on foot so much easier.
#9 Visit M Museum Leuven
It is evident from the building itself that M Leuven is a place where classic meets contemporary. The museum hides a modern entrance behind the facade of a traditional arched wall. Designed by Stéphane Beel, the museum itself symbolises the love for art old and new.
You will find lots of art from Leuven dating as far back as the middle ages up until the 19th century. Be sure to check out the temporary exhibits on display while you are there!
During the Summer, the museum opens its rooftop garden/terrace bar, so you can sit back and enjoy a refreshing drink in the sun after a day spent admiring art. Sounds perfect!
#10 Try some authentic Belgian food
Belgium has some delicious cuisine that you must try during your visit. Belgian fries are the perfect snack to get on the go. They’re traditionally paired with mayonnaise and you are usually given a generous portion.
For dessert, there are many Belgian chocolate shops to choose from, each with their own unique flavours. Alternatively, we would really recommend trying a Belgian waffle. It’s the perfect dessert to enjoy on the go. You can drizzle it with rich Belgian chocolate or load with fresh fruit or sweet caramel sauce. Many people enjoy a plain waffle as its simple yet tasty.
Thanks for reading! Belgium is an amazing country to visit. Whether you’re on a city break, on Erasmus, or Interrailing around Europe for the Summer, Leuven is the perfect place to experience Flemish culture at its finest.
Leuven is a great location for history, architecture and art lovers as the mediaeval city is so well preserved. It is a city that takes great pride in its appearance and walking down its tidy streets will prove this.
On the other hand, Leuven has a great night life. The Oude Markt is the perfect place to unwind with a coffee during the day, or enjoy a night out on the town exploring its many bars.
Now that you have plenty of ideas on how to spend your stay in Leuven, why not brush up on your general knowledge by checking out our top 10 interesting facts about Belgium.
If you have enjoyed this article, you may also like other articles from around the world, including:
The Best Bars & Pubs in Ireland | Les Vosges: A Green Heaven in the Northeast of France | The Full Travel Guide to Rotterdam: The Gate of Europe | Best Things to do in Cologne for an Enjoyable Vacation
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