When it comes to Belgium, there are a few places that immediately spring to mind. Brussels and Bruges, and even Antwerp, are all places I’m relatively familiar with and have visited myself, albeit just for short amounts of time.
Not far from Brussels, you’ll find the smaller city of Leuven – a university city in Flanders, northern Belgium. At the beginning of June, I took a little trip on the Eurostar to check out Leuven for myself – and discovered there’s plenty to do within its borders. From brewery tours (and tastings) to interesting history and quaint, pedestrianised streets, the laidback feeling here makes it easy to explore at your own pace, whatever that may be.
Leuven is a great city to explore solo, as there’s enough to keep visitors occupied for a good weekend. Or, if you’re looking for a relaxed summer weekend with your favourites, it’s also a great European destination for couples and groups of friends. Basically, everyone should visit.
Especially if you like beer…
Beer, beer, beer!
There are, quite obviously, SO many beer related things to do in Leuven. You could take a tour of the Stella Artois Brewery (Saturdays & Sundays, 3pm, €8.50) or simply sit in the sunshine (fingers crossed) sipping on the thousands of beer varieties available in the city’s bars.
Just outside the city, I visited the Hof ten Dormaal brewery (open Saturdays 2-6 pm, free entry), to taste some of the amazing flavours on offer. I’ll be dedicating a whole blog post to this one, as I tried too many tasty things to mention here! Other nearby breweries that offer tours and tastings include Brewery De Vlier and Brewery De Kroon.
University Library & Tower
But Leuven isn’t just about the beer, and there are quite a few other awesome attractions to check out. One particular recommendation I received was the University Library, and I’d definitely pass it on as a great place to spend some time. The library has endured two fires in its lifetime, yet still stands today thanks to extensive renovation, with support from institutions all over the world
If, like me, you’re a big fan of sprawling city views, the climb to the top will be worth it, as the 36o degree viewing platform allows you to see Leuven and the surrounding countryside laid out before you. And the library itself also has an interesting audio tour, taking in both the history of renovation and also the art collections on display within the building.
There’s also a really interesting exhibit a couple of floors up, all about how books can sustain damage and what the library does to restore and preserve them. Definitely worth a look if you’re a fellow bookworm.
Opening times: Daily, 10am-5pm
Entry: €7, includes audio guide and tower access
The Groot Begijnhof (Grand Beguinage) isa definite must-see if you’re into walking around pretty streets (and getting some great snaps for Instagram). A beguinage is a small community for unmarried women, similar to nuns but without formal religious vows. Leuven’s Grand Beguinage originated around the 13th century, and is made up of almost 100 houses. A river runs through it, and there are also grassy spots where I found locals and visitors relaxing in the sun.
Feeling like a small, rural town in the centre of a city, the Grand Beguinage has an almost fairytale-like quality. With limited other people around, at times I walked streets completely alone, which felt like I had the place to myself – and allowed for some awesome, person-free photography of the quaint brickwork buildings and bicycles that line the streets.
I missed out on the tour ‘in the footsteps of a Leuven beguine’ (€6), which I’m gutted about as it looks really interesting, following a local beguine telling stories of both her own daily life and that of beguines through history.
Botanical Garden Kruidtuin
Anyone interested in nature, or just pretty flowers, should definitely pay a visit to the Leuven Botanical Garden Kruidtuin, the oldest botanical garden in the country and home to countless species of flower and plant life. Photographers will love the brightly coloured flowers, and regular exhibitions often take place on site.
Benches and grassy spaces can be found all around the garden, and its a great place to relax with a book, soaking up the atmosphere.
Opening hours: 8am-8pm (Jun-Sept), 8am-5pm (Oct-May) – opens at 9am Sundays.
Secondhand market shopping
During my trip, I managed to find a HUGE secondhand clothing and bric-a-brac market taking place along the harbour near De Hoorn Brewery. I’m not sure how often it’s on, but it’s worth a wander this way if you’re about at the weekend, as prices were pretty amazing!
Otherwise – there are plenty of shopping opportunities in Leuven, from big-name stores to boutiques. Check out this shopping map for more info!
Other ideas for things to do in Leuven
I didn’t get to do everything in a day, as I had limited time (and a bit of a well-deserved lie-in in the morning) to explore. However, some other recommendations given to me by local new found friends include:
Leuven’s major art museum, hosting collections old and new, inspired by the versatility of the city.
Opening hours: Daily, 11am-6pm (closed Wednesdays, open until 6pm Thursdays)
Saint Peter’s Church
This 15th century church is a beautiful example of late gothic architecture. Inside, you can also visit the M-Treasury of Saint Peter, where you’ll see the painting ‘The Last Supper’ by Dieric Bouts.
Entry: Free (€3 for M-Treasury visit)
Leuven Town Hall
The incredibly eye-catching town hall building is a centrepiece for Leuven, and guided tours inside take place daily at 3pm.
Entry: €4 for guided tour and booklet
For €16, you can pick up an iLUVLeuven Ticket, which includes entry to University Library, M-Museum and M-Treasury of Saint Peter, as well as a Town Hall guided tour. If you’re planning on doing all four attractions, it’s definitely worth picking one up as the individual price of all four comes to €26, so you’ll save ten. Get yours from the tourist info office or online.
How to get there?
If you’re flying into Belgium, Brussels is the nearest airport, and Leuven is a short train ride away.
For my trip, we took the Eurostar to Brussels – actually my first ever time on the Eurostar, and I was so impressed by how fast, easy and comfortable it is. Prices start at £29 one way to Brussels, but if you pick up an ‘Any Belgian station’ fare starting from £34.50, your train journey to Leuven will be included too.
Where to stay in Leuven?
I spent two nights cosied up at the Park Inn Hotel, which is seriously conveniently located right beside Leuven train station. It was a short, 10-15 min stroll to the city centre area.
My room was spacious, with all the things you’d expect. It may not be boutique or luxury, but it’s of a great standard to provide a base for a weekend of exploring (and even a night in, like the one I ended up having on the Sunday. Because exploring is tiring!
Breakfast was included in my stay, and it was a brilliant spread – including these delicious smoothies that made me feel like a healthy-drinking travel goddess.
Getting around the city
Leuven is such a small city, the real best way to get around is on foot. I walk a lot anyway when I travel, so this was pretty normal for me – there are buses and taxis, but unless you’re going from one end of the city to the other, they aren’t particularly necessary.
Another enjoyable way to cover more ground in the city is by bike. And bikes are MAJORLY popular in Leuven, as I found out when I almost got in the way of quite a lot of them. With bike lanes on major roads and lots of car-free streets, you can rent a bike and pedal around to your heart’s content.
If you’re interested in having someone show you the way a little, there are plenty of guided walks and bike tours on offer too. Self guided more your thing? You can download a selection of themed walks, pick up the physical booklets from the tourist information office for €2 each, or download the Leuven Walks app for iOS and Android.
Where to eat in Leuven
At the De Hoorn brewery, the original birthplace of Stella Artois, you’ll find the Grand Cafe and restaurant. The restaurant itself is only open for lunch and dinner at certain times, but it’s definitely worth scheduling in a visit. I tried a Flemish style beef stew with chips from the specials menu, and it was delicious. I can’t recall the price, but it was around the €10 mark – great for a reasonably priced, enjoyable local meal.
Opening hours: Tue-Fri 12-2pm & 6-10pm (restaurant), 11am-11pm (cafe).
When in Belgium, you just have to have something that involves Belgian chocolate. And when the weather’s warm, ice cream is the perfect way to consume it. The perfect combo for me is Belgian choc ice cream, with raspberry sorbet. Picked up from Pinocchios, a small vendor in Leuven city centre, this is exactly what’s needed on a hot day. Or, well, any day, really.
If fine dining’s more your thing, I’ve got ya covered too. On my first night, I enjoyed a five-course tasting menu with paired drinks at Leuven’s Zarza restaurant. Courses ranged from spicy tomato and watermelon gazpacho to pigeon and chicken dishes, and everything was fresh, well-cooked and inventively flavoured and presented. Set menus are available from €56.
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Leuven was such a fun place to explore, and I had a wonderful time pottering around the streets and getting to know this small city with a lot of character! If you’ve been before, let me know what you liked – and if not, what activities would you love to do in Leuven?
See more: Leuven in Pictures
*Leuven’s tourist board provided with travel, accommodation, selected meals and an iLUVLeuven Card for this trip
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