48 Hours in Leuven: explore the university city of Belgium
What happens when you mix a 600-year-old university, a lively atmosphere, gorgeous gardens and some truly unique artwork? The city of Leuven is where you'll find the answer. With its iconic Gothic town hall, the intoxicating history of the Stella Artois Brewery and delicious local food, Leuven will keep you fascinated for every moment of your visit. Enjoy your 48 hours in Leuven, a spectacular city just waiting to be discovered.
Bells, books, bugs, and the bizarre
You won't need to be in Leuven for long before you start to notice the positive, happy atmosphere. Just strolling into the centre of the city along the Bondgenotenlaan, you'll immediately notice the laid-back atmosphere as students pedal along the streets, chat in cafés and go about everyday life.
With a giant atom in Brussels (the Atomium) and an enormous, gleaming diamond on the edge of the Harbour in Antwerp (the Port House), it may seem that every city in Flanders has a taste for quirly design. Leuven is no exception. Tou'll find the most wonderful example at the Monseigneur Ladeuzeplein. In collaboration with KU Leuven (Leuven University) and the city of Leuven itself, artist Jan Fabre created the Totem.
This 75-foot-tall (23 metre) needle impales a giant bug: it's quite simply surreal. Especially with the neo-classical university library in view behind it. At the same time, it's the perfect representation of the spirit of the city of Leuven.
A visit to the university library and bell tower is a must. An exhibit on the lower floors brings the best and worst of human behaviour to life by telling the story of how the library was treated by invading forces in the two World Wars, as well as its resurrection through different charities. The reading room is a treasure, albeit one with a markedly different atmosphere to the rest of the city. The bells in the bell tower chime every hour and if you're lucky, you'll be privy to one of the carillon concerts too. The balcony on the top storey offers a spectacular view of the city and is a great place for watching the hustle and bustle of the market that takes place every friday.
From here, it's just a short walk to the M Museum. Once a cabinet of curiosities, this museum has since developed into an excellent collection of artwork, particularly focused on pieces from Leuven and the Brabant region of Flanders. Masterpieces by Flemish masters such as Jan Rombouts I and Josse van der Baren are exhibited alongside more contemporary sculptures, paintings and day-to-day objects.
The Grote Markt (Grand Place)
Known as the Grote Markt, the town square in Leuven is dominated by two spectacular buildings. The first of these is St. Peter's Church which dates back more than 1,000 years. The church measures more than 300 feet (91 metres) in length and it's a wonderful example of Flanders's Late Gothic architecture. St. Peter's Church is also home to a vast array of artistic masterpieces: Dirk Bouts's Last Supper and martyrdom of Saint Erasmus, Nicolaas De Bruyne's Madonna and Child, which is used as the emblem of KU Leuven, and perhaps most impressively, the oak pulpit that has a life-size depiction of Saint Norbert of Xanten falling from a horse.
Across the square, the Stadhuis or Town Hall is Leuven's pride and joy. The ornate exterior has delightful lace-like details, as well as 236 statues that constitue the city's own 'Hall of Fame'. You can hear stories about these sculptures during a guides tour, where you'll also be able to see sculptures by Constantin Meunier and Jef Lambeaux.
The University of Leuven
The largest university in Belgium, the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (KU Leuven) is very much a central pillar to Leuven itself; everything from the hospital to a variety of museums are linked to the school in one way or another. his is hardly surprising since it dates back to 1425. And with this history, you'll understand exactly how and why it offers such a wonderful array of architectural and artistic treasures. With the clock ticking, our recommendation is a visit to the University Hall. Once a market for women goods, it's now home to a small museum and a cosy bar. It's a charming place to wind down with a coffee while watching the hustle and bustle of university life.
If you're feeling peckish, there are some great restaurants in the neighbourhood: EssenCiel serves up fresh, pure and innovative flavours under the guidance of Flanders Kitchen Rebel, Chef Niel Brants. At Domus, the hearty meals on the menu are best washed down with one of their self-brewed beers. If you want a taste of the spirit of Leuven, De Werf channels the city's rebellious nature in their menu and décor. Offering hearty meals, the place is a hotspot for students. The large terrace also adds to the sense of fun and relaxation.
From here you're a short walk from St. Michael's Church. Originally a place of worship for the Jesuit community in Leuven, the highly decorated façade, with 'The Altar Outside the Church' is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful sights in Leuven. Inside, ionic white-sandstone columns rise to a beautiful domed roof that glows when the sun hits it.
Park Abbey and PARCUM
It's time to head outside the city centre to Park Abbey (Tuesday to Sunday, 10am - 5pm). Once one of the most prominent abbeys in Belgium, it's now the best-preserved one in the country. This is a great place to go if you feel like a little peace and quiet, although if you're planning on seeing the sights, make sure you double-check the opening times. You're free to cycle, jog or walk through the park and among the many ponds at any time, should certain drop by the farm to try out the fresh farm products, and consider visiting the House of Polyphony for a bit of Gregorian chanting and to catch up on the latest in the study of Polyphony for a bit of Gregorian chanting and to catch up on the latest in the study of music.
A visit to the St. John the Evangelist's Church (Fridays and Sundays, 1.30 - 4.30pm), is also recommended; the church, dating back to 1129, is beautiful with its sparse decoration. If you want to see artistic treasures and religious iconography from the world of monks, nuns, recluses and hermits, there's just one place to go: PARCUM (Tuesday to Sunday, 10am - 5pm). Recently refurbished, it houses a spectacular collection of pieces that show the inersection of religion, art and culture. Although the exhibits date back hundreds of years, they comment on the state of religion - and society - today.
What do you do when you're in an international student city, in a country renowned for brewing hundreds of different types of beer? We recommend heading to the Oude Markt. Known as 'The longest bar in Europe', it caters to every taste. The friendly, happy and relaxing atmosphere makes it easy to settle down and enjoy yourself. there are so many options available, it may be difficult to know where to start... Try De Rector, named for the head of the university, Den Brosser, a great place for a chat and a drink, Café Belge, which is always popular, or De Bierkelder where you'll never run short of different beers to try. And once you've checked them all out, there are plenty of other options to investigate.
A quiet and relaxing morning
Flanders is famous for its beguinages - closed cummunities where unmarried or widowed women who did not want to become nuns could continue to work and contribute to society. With 300 homes spread across 7.5 acres, Leuven's Great Beguinage is one of the largest and arguably the most charming. Houses are built along a series of narrow streets and small squares, making the beguinage a village of its own. Bridges cross back and forth over the Dyler river and this, combined with the height of the buildings, gives the area the feel of a fairy-tale town. Make sure you visit the Gothic church with its lovely stained-glass windows and mini-carillon that plays a beguine melody every half hour.
Follow the Dyle north and you'll come to the Dijlepark. This photogenic inner-city park is not just charming, it's also romantic. The little bridge is adorable, the vegetation is as diverse as it is picturesque and the quiet atmosphere is ideal for relaxing or enjoying a picnic.
The Botanical Garden is as different from the park as it could possibly be. Dating back to 1738, they're the oldest gardens of their type in Belgium, with an incredibly diverse plant collection, a huge greenhouse to explore and plenty of statues, artwork and incredible explosions of colour.
If you've resisted the urge to have a picnic, there's no better place to enjoy lunch than at Improvisio. And not just because of the food on the menu. The restaurant is set in the courtyard of an 18th century hospital. It's wonderfully peaceful and a great first step to visiting the fascinating HistarUZ museum. Using photos, instruments, authentic locations and examples from former textbooks, this hospital museum tells thousands of stories, shows the evolution of the medical world and gives you a peek at how hospitals worked from 1850 to just after the Second World War.
Stella Artois afternoon
One of the highlights of Leuven is to wander about the streets. You'll see some spectacular architecture, old and new, and with a touch of serendipity, you'll discover quaint little art galleries and charming antique shops, all of which will keep you entertained as you fall in love with Leuven. However, you shouldn't leave the city without exploring the northern quarter of the town, and more precisely, the Stella Artois brewery. Join a tour and you'll follow the history of this world-famous brewery from 1366, visit the bottling plant and see exactly what happens when six centuries of traditional artisanal beer brewing are combined with the latest in technology. Of course, the true test of beer is in the taste. Fortuneately, every tour finishes with a glass of freshly brewed Stella Artois. Enjoy!
Please note: Tickets are not always available at the brewery itself. We recommend buying them online well in advance.
You've experienced 48 hours in Leuven, but there will always be more to see. Whether you feel the need to window-shop, enjoy a pleasant drink on a charming terrace or just get lost in the historic streets, Leuven will always offer a unique atmosphere you can enjoy time and time again.
Story created on February 13, 2018