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How the city of Leuven isn’t a bigger deal in Belgium is beyond me! This small city in the region of Flanders is simply full to the brim with stellar attractions. I honestly think it stands toe-to-toe with Belgium’s better-known destinations like Bruges and Ghent. Visiting Leuven, you’ll find it offers a distinctive UNESCO site, one of the most remarkable libraries I’ve visited and a hearty beer culture to boot. What more could you possibly need?
Part of what puzzles me is that the city lies just outside the national capital of Brussels. As such, it’s super easy to visit Leuven as a day trip from there. I was coming further away in Ghent and found it remarkably simple, much like most trips around Flanders. The only feasible answer then is that people simply haven’t heard of the city yet. So to remedy that, here’s everything you should know and all the things to do in Leuven, Belgium.
The City of Leuven
Before we get to the sightseeing in Leuven, first a little on the city itself. Leuven is the capital of the Flemish Brabant province near the centre of Belgium. As I said before, the city is super close to Brussel, sitting just 20 kilometres from the nation’s capital. This makes it much closer than other popular day trips like Ghent or Antwerpen. Now, it may not be one of Belgium’s biggest cities with only 100,000 residents, but it makes up for its size with a world class university and major beer brewing pedigree.
History of the University Library
When it comes to the attractions of Leuven, I feel compelled to start with the magnificent University Library. Even though the city has plenty of wonderful architectural landmarks, to me the library is the pinnacle of Leuven’s great catalogue. It really wasn’t until the founding of the university that Leuven made a name for itself. Skip further down if you don’t feel like a history lesson right now.
For centuries, the university played a crucial role in Leuven’s development and was considered its crowing jewel. In fact, thanks to the library, for a time Leuven was dubbed the “Oxford of Belgium“. Sadly though, in August of 1914, invading Germans set the library alight in retaliation to supposed local sniper attacks. The attack came after they had taken the city, but also after German soldiers accidentally fired upon one another. Thus “local insurgents” became the scapegoats for German failures.
The unwarranted punishment to the library resulted in over 2000 buildings being destroyed and 248 casualties. While the devastation to the people and buildings was felt, what garnered equal outcry was the loss of 300,000 volumes of books from the library.
Without skipping a beat, communities began collecting money and books to support the library, even during the war. One of the many reparations that Germany had to make following their defeat in World War I was the provision of books worth 13 million marks.
And yet, it wasn’t until America stepped in offering to build Belgium a new library that the university had somewhere to put all these resources. Sadly the library burned down again near the start of WWII, as it was seen as a war memorial to Germany’s previous defeat. Again, once the war had ceased, the city rebuilt the library.
Visiting the Leuven University Library
Besides the fascinating history, what makes visiting the library so remarkable is the incredible craftsmanship that went into it. Simply looking around the main reading hall with all of its distinctive woodwork, you can’t help but be in awe at the skill and execution. As you wind your way up its staircases, past the carved animal banisters to its many nooks and crannies, I’m sure you’ll have found a new favourite library here.
Moving on, within the building’s tower you’ll find a museum that explains the history of the library’s destruction and reconstruction as you wind you way up. The museum visit ends with the outdoor viewing area at the top of the tower. There you earn what must be the best views of Leuven that are possible. Entry to the University Library including access to the tower costs 7€. Ultimately, I think this is a highlight of the things to see in Leuven and why it’s first up.
Situated on a large square in the centre of the city, the library dominates the place and arrests your attention as soon as you see it. The only reason you may look away is to stare in wonder at the Totem, a 23 metre high art installation of a jewelled beetle impaled upon a needle. For a city that feels quite traditional and historic, the Totem literally stands out. To me, the installation treads the line between frankly bizarre and endearingly cute.
A University City
As mentioned above, Leuven is very much a University city and one of the finest in the country. The university has over 50,000 students across its campuses and a history dating back to its founding in 1425. Scattered throughout the city centre are a number of historic colleges, many from the 16th century.
Walking around the city you can see the beautiful architecture of the many colleges and visit courtyards like the above in Pope’s College. The moniker of Belgium’s Oxford certainly becomes believable after seeing a few of its colleges and the architecture here.
The Fonske Statue
I was warned that I might feel old among the largely student population but that turned out to be a bit of an exaggeration. Sure, Leuven certainly has the feeling of a student city but that certainly doesn’t define it. One statue though that reflects the student side of Leuven, is the Fonske Statue.
Standing off the main square, the statue shows a university student reading a book, letting wisdom from the glass above pour into his head. A nice idea, no?
Having covered all the university elements, let’s get to the other main places to visit in Leuven. Which of course means starting with the main square as is often the case in Europe or when exploring the best cities in Flanders like Leuven. The Grote Markt has been the throbbing heart of Leuven since the 14th century and is home to some stunning city landmarks.
While a historic part of the city, the square has undergone a few modern adjustments including becoming a car-free zone, not to mention the visually interesting staircase that digs down to an underpass. Except for its major landmarks, the square is home to plenty of cafes and taverns and just a pleasant area in general.
Of all the landmarks found around the Grote Markt, none is quite as striking as the city’s Town Hall. Built in 1439, this elaborate gothic building bears intricate carvings on its exterior and six pointed spires. All told there are 236 statues displayed in its detail; local figures of Leuven throughout the ages.
The town hall interior including its upper halls is said to be quite remarkable. Had I not had conflicting tours, I would have loved to have gone inside. You can join a guided tour of the Town Hall everyday from 3pm for only 4€.
Further flaunting Leuven’s gothic pedigree is the Tafelrond building, sitting opposite St Pieters Church on the Grote Markt. The building has housed a number of different organisations and businesses throughout its history, but today contains a restaurant and hotel. Regardless of what is inside, you can easily appreciate its gothic wonder as you walk through the phenomenal Grote Markt.
St Pieters Church
The third of the admirable gothic buildings to sit upon the Grote Markt is the St Pieters Church. Construction of the church started in the 15th century and technically it remains unfinished, thanks to its towers. Regardless, it does look quite grand, especially with its other other gothic neighbours. It also happens to possess one of Belgium’s many UNESCO listed belfrys. The nave of the church is decorated with elegant, white stonework and hosts a wonderfully detailed Gothic tabernacle.
The big draw of St Pieters Church though is its opulent treasury. Inside you’ll find plenty of reliquary statues as well, carved wooden icons and a beautifully engraved chest. The church’s prized possession is its ‘The Last Supper” painting by Dirk Bouts, which is still hanging where it was originally intended and the only by a Flemish Primitive to still do so.
My time in the church’s treasury was unfortunately a rushed visit, between having lunch and walking out to the Stella Artois Brewery for my 3pm tour. In hindsight, I would have allowed quite a bit more time. While entry to the church is free, the treasury costs 3€ to visit.
There are two vastly different reasons to visit Leuven’s Oude Markt Square. Either you are after some sensational Flemish renaissance houses, or you just want to go to the pub! The Oude Markt is one long square, lined with gorgeous traditional architecture that just so happens to house pubs, cafes and bars.
The square has been home to the city’s markets since the 12th century, but today it’s true focus is the 42 bars that surround what feels like one great big terrace. In fact it’s often described as Europe’s longest bar!
As a university city you can imagine this square is the lively heart of student life after class has finished. Nothing said that like the sheer stillness and quiet I experience walking through there on a Saturday morning, as outdoor chairs and tables began to be set up.
One of the recommendations of what to do in Leuven that popped up several times before my visit was the M-Museum. The museum is said to have a superb collection of artwork ranging from rare historic pieces to more contemporary pieces. Beyond its permanent exhibits, there are plenty of temporary exhibits including everything from sculpture to photography and film to architecture.
Unfortunately, the M-Museum was closed for refurbishment during my trip to Leuven but will be reopening in June (2017). Still, just by looking at the museum’s exterior I was able to get an idea of the mixture of its historic and contemporary influences. Its design includes a rather neo-classical front facade and entry connected to a modern geometric design, and is likely to grab your attention all on its own.
Coffee in Leuven
After my first few attractions, I decided to stop in for a coffee at one of the dozens of cafes in Leuven that had been recommended to me, many found on Parijsstraat. This particular cafe had appeared on both of my lists and with a name like Koffie Onan, it stuck in my mind.
Walking in, I was immediately struck by an air of sophistication but also an immensely cosy feel. With boxes and bags along its wall, the coffee here is freshly ground and you choose the origin of your beans. If I didn’t have most of the city yet to explore I easily could have whiled away more of the day here.
Removed from the centre of town but within walking distance is the enchanting historical beguinage of Groot Begijnhof. A beguinage is a housing complex formed to house beguines, women who chose to dedicate their life to their religion without taking vows. It’s similar in concept to a convent, except with fewer restrictions.
Beguinages were for women who didn’t want to submit to a particular religious order and wanted to remain part of society. The region of Flanders is known to possess some extremely beautiful beguinages and the Groot Begijnhof is one of its finest. Walking around the Groot Begijnhof is an absolute must when you visit Leuven.
The Groot Begijnhof of Leuven is so large that feel more like its own little district of the city. But it also feels incredibly distinct from the rest of the city, probably explaining why it was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List. After reaching the begijnhof, I strolled through some gardens before finding the wonderfully quaint residential streets, all lined with traditional brick houses.
Here and there you could spot small canals calmly winding through and alongside the sweet old beguinage. I’d say the Groot Begijnhof is actually quite a romantic spot, which is funny considering its original purpose. Definitely don’t miss this beautiful attraction when you visit Leuven.
By no means as large or as isolated as the Groot Begijnhof, the Klein Begijnhof is the other beguinage of Leuven. Resting on the opposite side of town, the Klein Begijnhof is no less interesting because of its smaller size. In fact, it’s quite nice seeing the considerable differences between the two beguinages as you explore the city.
While the Groot Begijnhof feels like an idyllic district hidden away, the Klein Begijnhof feels like a working class neighbourhood. Here, humble white-washed houses replace the ever-present tall red brick buildings, giving it a totally different look. There’s a far more blue-collar atmosphere to the smaller beguinage than its larger counterpart. And yet, it’s still quite pretty.
One recommendation for my visit that piqued my interest was wandering the streets around Leuven’s Vaartkom. The Vaart is the large historic canal that joins Leuven with the next city to the north, Mechelen. Where the Vaart ends in Leuven you’ll find Vaartkom, an industrial area through a process of urban renewal. On one side of the small harbour you can see shiny brand new apartments. Over the other, old rundown industrial buildings.
The reason for the state of the Vaartkom is the relocation of traditional industry that once called the area home, including timber yards and breweries. Given how landlocked Leuven is, the town had to rely on the region’s famous canals to strengthen its industry. That need has obviously faded since the industrial age, leading Leuven to adapt to meet modern needs. I’m definitely curious to see what the area looks like in a few years time.
Touring the Stella Artois Brewery
When it comes to Belgian beer, there are seemingly unending choices to pick from. But perhaps the most well-known Belgian beer around the world is Stella Artois. And the home of Stella Artois? It’s Leuven. Just by the Vaart you’ll find the Stella Artois Brewery, where you can take a tour of the facilities, learn about the brewing process and of course, have a glass of beer or two.
The Stella Artois Brewery runs tours on Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm and they take a bit under 2 hours. Entry costs 8.5€, with information here. To get an idea of what the tour is like though, check out my detailed post on my tour of the Stella Artois Brewery.
Getting Tourist Information
If you’re looking for somewhere to start then you can’t go past the city’s tourist information centre. From the city’s Tourist Information Centre just off Grote Markt, you can gather plenty of information including self guided tours featuring different themes of the city, like landmarks, churches and beer.
Through their small brochures, or their app, you can learn about what there is to see and make the most of your visit. I found the self-guided tours really useful to give my exploring some direction.
Travel Tips for Visiting Leuven
- Unfortunately during my time in Leuven I missed Arenberg Castle and Park Abbey, the latter of which was undergoing massive renovations;
- As I only visited for one day, I had to choose between various tours starting at 3pm: the Town Hall tour or the Stella Artois Brewery Tour;
- When it comes to getting to Leuven from Brussels, the city is only a 30 minute train ride and even less from Brussels Airport;
- However, if you do decide on staying in the city itself, you will find the city has a decent range of options for places to stay in Leuven.
Have you heard of the university city of Leuven Belgium before? Does this blog post make you want to visit Leuven? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
*Disclosure: I received free tickets from Visit Leuven to the University Library and Tower, the Treasury of St Pieters Church and the Stella Artois Brewery Tour. As always, opinions are my own.
This article is now available as a mobile app. Go to GPSmyCity to download the app for GPS-assisted travel directions to the attractions featured in this article.