In Leuven, centuries-old heritage and the freedom of student life form a seamless whole. Discover its pleasant city centre and artistic highlights, one of Europe’s oldest universities with a rich history, oases of tranquility and the continent’s longest bar.
The heart of the city
We will start our two day visit at the Grote Markt, the city’s beating heart. This square gained its current form in the 14th century and is marked by stately Brabantine Gothic architecture. The monumental Town Hall is a prime example. The first stone of this historic building was laid in 1439. It is remarkable for its enormous wealth of detail. Its amazing façade is decorated with an impressive 236 unique sculptural elements.
Once you have finished admiring all the sculptures, simply turn around to take in Saint Peter’s Church, another eye-catching edifice. This 15th-century late-Gothic monument with belfry has been a UNESCO world heritage site since 1999 and was fully restored in 2020. It is magnificent, and not just on the outside. A great treasure trove is located within. The church houses a unique collection of art, which has been preserved here for centuries. The highlight of these works is The Last Supper, created by Dieric Bouts, Flemish Primitive and Leuven’s city painter. His monumental triptych still hangs in the chapel for which it was originally painted nearly 600 years ago.
While the actual works of art on display are very old, St. Peter’s has added an ultra-modern touch. The so-called HoloLens is a device that looks a bit like a combination of a helmet and glasses. It uses speakers, cameras, projectors and sensors to add a layer of 3D imagery to the environment. This further enhances the church’s artistic splendour with spectacular images and animations. Ancient heritage and futurism have joined forces to create something truly special.
Flowers, plants and sacred tranquility
After our dose of mixed reality, we will leave technology to its own devices for a bit. A brief walk brings us to two oases of tranquility. First is the Kruidtuin, Belgium’s oldest botanical garden. This was created by the University of Leuven for its medical students in 1738 and remains imposing today. Lovers of botany will be delighted by its magnificent array of flowers and other plants. The 450 m² greenhouse complex is sure to make an impression, with all its various (sub)tropical species combining to produce an explosion of scent and colour.
These natural wonders have a special power. They have the ability to inspire a great sense of peace and tranquility. Our next highlight, the Great Beguinage, will further reinforce this sensation. Centuries ago, groups of beguines lived here. Unmarried women and widows who wished to dedicate their lives to God, but without taking vows. Together, they formed enclosed communities all over Flanders and in parts of France. These were characterised by networks of small alleys and courtyards, gardens, parks and dwellings. Leuven’s Grand Beguinage has 300 homes distributed over three hectares or so, making it one of the largest and possibly the most picturesque of its kind. Historic buildings, small bridges over the Dyle and a Gothic church with splendid stained-glass windows; all are still here. These fairytale surroundings are a lovely setting for a peaceful walk.
After this restful interlude, we will head back towards the city centre. We are off to visit Museum M! Only decades ago, this was a modest urban museum that most resembled a cabinet of curiosities. Times change, however, and so has the museum. Today, M boasts an impressive collection of art. This is richly diverse, with close ties to its locality. The museum maintains a focus on Leuven and the former Duchy of Brabant. The collection also includes a few masterpieces by Flemish Masters such as Dieric Bouts, Constantin Meunier and Rogier Van der Weyden. It is a fine introduction to the Flemish Primitives and their successors.
A refreshing draught
After such a busy day, your feet deserve a rest. Have a seat and expand your knowledge of another piece of great Belgian heritage: beer. Leuven has something to offer here. Not only is the city home to the famous Stella Artois (more on this later), it also boasts the ‘longest bar in Europe’. The Oude Markt is lined with close to thirty cafés, all side by side. If the weather is nice, you can sit outside and admire your surroundings, and if not, you can tour the cafés instead. It’s an enjoyable opportunity to familiarise yourself with Leuven’s student life. The mood here is wonderfully casual. Cheers!
We already briefly encountered the University of Leuven on our first day. Today, we will improve our acquaintance. This is unavoidable for anyone wandering through this city, as you can’t really imagine Leuven without its ‘unief’. The Catholic University of Leuven is inextricably linked with the city. It was founded back in 1425, making it one of the oldest universities in Europe. Over the centuries, its presence in the city has continued to grow. Everywhere you go are signs of the university’s history and of the more than 50,000 students enrolled here. We begin our second day with a tour of this university's rich heritage.
We will start with the University Library, located on the expansive Monseigneur Ladeuzeplein. It is a beautiful building in the Flemish neo-Renaissance style, with a tower proudly pointing skyward. While this temple of knowledge houses a dizzying collection of books, it also serves as a war monument. The building was almost entirely destroyed during the two world wars. The damage was immense. Countless books and manuscripts were lost, including the university’s original charter. Following these dark times, the library was almost completely restored in accordance with the original plans. Tour its five floors to learn all its stories.
We will return to the Grote Markt for our next university highlight. This is the University Hall, a building drenched in centuries of history. It was originally used by the city’s weavers as a place to sell their cloth. Soon after its establishment, the university moved in as well. It still serves as the university's policy centre today.
We have now seen two gems very close together, though that is not so surprising. The city is littered with university heritage, after all. Various campuses and colleges are spread across the city. Exit the university hall and turn right. Walk two minutes and you will see the Premonstratensian College’s façade. This building was originally used by theology students in the late 16th century. It abuts Atrecht College, which was established in 1508 as housing for destitute students. Another few metres along is Hogenheuvel College, built in the 15th century. All these historic buildings remain in use by the university today.
This applies to King’s College as well.Philip II, King of Spain, founded this college in 1579. Today the building houses the Museum of Zoology. The museum hosts an extensive collection of skeletons and taxidermy specimens. It offers a systematic and lively overview of the animal kingdom, from sponges to mammals. Our university building tour ends at Hogeschoolplein, near Pope’s College. This was founded in 1523 by Pope Adrianus VI, who was once a Leuven university professor. If you still haven’t had your fill of academic heritage, this app also offers a more detailed walk.
Exceptional heritage site
After our interesting heritage walk, we will continue on to the city’s outskirts. Here, surrounded by greenery, is a very special place. Park Abbey is an exceptionally well-preserved heritage site which dates from the 12th century. Wander around this Norbertine abbey, of which the most important historical spaces are accessible to the public, and immerse yourself in its philosophy and history. Feast your eyes on its unique stucco ceilings and cloister with 20 marvellously executed stained glass panels. Both hail from the 17th century. The abbey site also houses the PARCUM museum, which focuses on the confluence of religion, art and culture. In addition to all that heritage, the Park Abbey is also just a lovely place to relax. You can spend all day cycling, jogging or walking in the park and around its many ponds. Be sure to pop in and visit the farm and sample its fresh products.
A refreshing farewell pint
Art and history, heritage buildings and sacred silence. These define Leuven, but the city has much more to offer. It is also a very modern place with a firm focus on the future. The Vaartkom reveals this side of the city in more detail. Once, it was a derelict industrial and brewery area by the canal. Today it is one of Leuven’s trendiest hotspots.
Stroll between the buildings to see the mingling of past and future. A former customs building has been transformed into OPEK, a haven for artistic organisations with a welcoming cultural café. Housing complex Balk van Beel is a textbook example of sustainable living arrangements. Other sights include a brand-new neighbourhood park and the De Hoorn complex, the former site of the Stella Artois brewery. This iconic brand is one of the most well-known contributors to our beer culture’s reputation. When this famous pilsner was first brewed in the early 18th century, it all happened here. The original copper brewing boilers have been preserved for you to admire. They are a unique piece of heritage and one best enjoyed with a fresh pint in hand.
This can also be obtained at the new brewery. Stella Artois is currently located only ten minutes’ walk from De Hoorn. Every Saturday, its doors open to offer visitors an interactive tour and a delightfully frothy glass of Stella Artois.
Evening has now fallen. The time has come to say your farewells to Leuven for now. It is the perfect conclusion to a wonderful two days.