A city trip to off-the-beaten-path Leuven

Text: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

Only 26 kilometres from the Belgian and European capital Brussels, Leuven is a compact student town of 100,000 inhabitants, plus another 60,000 during the school year! Nicknamed the Oxford of Belgium, it competes – gently – against the 2.5-times larger university city of Ghent. Off-the-beaten path, the authentic and historical Leuven is vibrant, young and international, characteristics not often found in such compact towns: all the more reasons to spend a weekend in Leuven between discovering its brewing culture in one of its 240 pubs, exploring its interactive museums, and venturing by bike to some of its picturesque abbeys. For a perfect 48 hours in town read on to find out which places must be on your list!

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The city hall jewellery box

Started with the Duke of Brabant’s fortifications, Leuven was along the Roman highway that led to Bruges, contributing to its wealth in the start of the 1200’s. After ups and downs following the successes and failures of the linen industry, the university was established (1425), and plans for a new city hall were made: a jewellery box with its four towers at the corners in a symmetric and New Gothic style came out of the ground. If most of the statues are more recent, the original 15th century corbel pedestals are recognizable by the biblical scenes they depict, focusing on guilt and punishment to instruct and warn. To know everything about the hall of fame of Leuven, check out this article!

Inside the city hall, The justice of Otto the Third by the local celebrated painter Dieric Bouts (1410-1475) used to hang in the judgement room to remind judges to remain fair. Today, the original is kept in Brussels, and an excellent copy is still onsite, in the city hall of Leuven.

Saint Peter’s Church [and Museum]

For other Bout’s artworks, simply cross the square, and visit Saint Peter’s Church. More than a church, it also houses beautiful artwork that are greatly detailed thanks to the innovative and interactive Hololens experience.

Its highlights are the two most important masterpieces by Bouts that were commissioned for this very church in the heart of Leuven: The Last Supper and The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus. Not as widely known as Van Eyck, he nevertheless created the illusion of depth like no other Flemish painter. His linear perspective made him one of the founders of the northern Renaissance. His most important work, The Last Supper, also shows the main square of Leuven and city hall through the windows. His gruesome Saint Erasmus with his intestines being pulled out of his body may hide the layers of depth shown in the painting but taking a closer look reveals a perfectly executed perspective.

Other unmissable artworks include The Triumphal Cross by Jan II Borman, one of the best local wood carvers as well as a smaller-scale replica of the 1435 Rogier van der Weyden’s masterpiece Deposition from the Cross is exhibited in El Prado in Madrid, painted by an unknown local artist.

Museum M

The Museum M is a transhistorical museum, showcasing old and new, and an eclectic mix of arts between polychromes, contemporary art, portraits and paintings from different centuries. Interactive, the real objects shown in some classic paintings are also displayed to trigger the curiosity of the visitor.

The University Library

Burnt twice to the ground, it is a miracle that the 1636 library could be rebuilt, and mostly thanks to USA financial aid. In total, 1.2 million books burnt down, and a few survived and are showcased in the beautiful reading room that opened in 1951.

Insider’s tips:

  • Do go up the spiral staircase carried by a winged-dragon in Renaissance style to reach the carillon in the bell tower and to enjoy superb views on Leuven.

Exploring Leuven on foot and by bike

Biking the University Grounds

Beyond its library, the University of Leuven encompasses many buildings and student housings spread all over and around town.

One of the most enjoyable places to explore is the faculty of engineering, housed in an early 1500’s castle, and surrounded by the lovely Arenberg Park where it is nice to bike or run on a sunny day.

Biking back into town, one passes by the Leuven University Hospital. Its international reputation is such that the late Sultan Kabush, the beloved leader of Oman, decided to be treated there while he was renting the luxurious hotel The Fourth by the city hall, an exact copy of a fifteenth century building.

Headquarters of innovative start-ups that emanated from the university, such as Imec for nanotechnologies or Materialise for innovative 3D printing, are also located in the surroundings, attracting more and more young professionals to Leuven, often running in the Arenberg Park during their spare time.

Back in town, the botanical garden, if it is today managed by the city, was also created for the needs of the medical students of the University of Leuven in 1783. It has become a lovely place to unwind.

The cute Great Béguinage has been taken over by the university as well, and turned into student housing. It is not the fires set off by the Germans during the World Wars that were close to destroying this lovely and historical district, but a real estate development project. Instead, luckily, the oldest houses in town have been restored and maintained and its cobblestone streets are one of the cutest places in Leuven to stroll.

Initially located on the outskirts of the city to house women who wanted to live an independent life, it got included into Leuven as it expanded. The Great Béguinage was for women of means, while the Small Béguinage was for poor women. They would share a life of devotion, as single ladies living together, a tradition throughout medieval Europe that survived only in the Low Lands and that is now about to disappear.

Insider’s tips:

The Abbey Biking Loop

Four abbeys surround Leuven and are the perfect opportunity to go on a lovely bike tour in the rather flat environment. We created an exclusive and scenic loop going through the main religious points of interest of Leuven and passing by these abbeys as well as the Béguinages (check out the travel tips to download the GPS track).

The first must-stop is Park Abbey. It belongs to the order of the Norbertines, named after the followers of Saint Norbert who took his vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in 1121. This was the year when Norbert, living in luxury, got struck by lightning and decided to turn his life around as an itinerant preacher. Within a few years, he gained traction and Nobertine abbeys popped up. His followers are not monks as they do not live a secluded life, but canons and fathers open to the outside world, farming, trading, and fish farming.

The twelfth century abbey was rebuilt and what we see today dates back mostly to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the abbey reached its peak during the counter reformation and was given a Baroque makeover. In the early seventeenth century, the Leuven glazier Jan de Chaumont crafted delicate stained-glass windows for the cloisters describing Norbert’s life. In the 1670’s, Jan Christiaan Hansche created three-dimensional stucco ceiling decorations for the refectory and library that are simply stunning and a must-see!

The abbey grounds are also worth visiting, and biking around the ponds that were dug by the Nobertines to fish-farm offers the best view on the abbey. It also puts you on the way to your next stop, the Vlierbeek Abbey.

Passing off-the-beaten path neighbourhoods where daily life unfolds, the itinerary continues mostly through parks and forests with grazing cattle on the grounds of Vlierbeek Abbey.

Right before heading back to the city centre, it is worth walking up to the Keizersberg Abbey in the homonym park with commanding views on Leuven.

Before getting back to the heart of town, the loop can be extended to include the picturesque Small Béguinage by Saint Gertrude Abbey (Geertrui abdij) as well as the Great Béguinage after following the Dyle River and finishing via Saint Donatus Park making your way amongst all the students on bikes.

Insider’s tips:

  • It is very easy to make the Brewery De Coureur a stop on this loop (see below)…

Where to recharge [lunch & dinner, coffee & beer!]

Brewery De Coureur

As in many other cities in the area, brewing was one of the most prominent medieval trades in Leuven, and all the more that water was unsafe to drink. Surrounded by fields of grains, there were more than 50 breweries in town! Drunk locally, the beer was also exported via the river, greatly contributing to the wealth of the town. Today, microbreweries pop up in the city that hosts the Stella Artois plant and the headquarter of world’s largest beer manufacturer. The Oude Markt in the city centre has been nicknamed Europe’s longest bar. There is even a beer professor at the renowned Leuven University!

A true passion for brewing emanates from the Brewery De Coureur. “If you had no financial pressure and still wanted to do a job, what would it be?” Ine asked to her husband, Bart, on a Sunday morning as he was about to turn 40. And very naturally, out of true passion for brewing, they dropped their high-profile jobs in the USA and moved back to their hometown of Leuven to start De Coureur brewery (“The Cyclist” in English), paying tribute to Belgian’s favourite sports. Their low-key and homey warehouse-type tap room has become a neighbourhood’s hangout where patrons play board games and share the food they brought in to have along the homemade popcorn and beer snacks made from leftover grains with onion tapenade. Bart’s experience and extensive research visiting countless microbreweries all over the USA has led to three signature beers and two seasonal ones that are found exclusively on the tap at De Coureur (and at a few selected restaurants in Leuven).

Insider’s tips:

  • Make sure to taste the three signature beers as well as a seasonal beer in the tasting flight. More specifically, the Souplesse is a blond Tripel – a Belgian favourite – with a sweet and soft hoppy aftertaste and the Kuitenbijter, an IPA with a hint of passion fruit and pineapple.

Bar Leuv

Just a stone’s throw away from the city’s main sights such as the city hall and Saint Peter’s Church, Bar Leuv is one of these low-key coffee shops and lunch spots serving a mix of healthy colourful fares and crisp and light local waffles, best enjoyed with a local beer or delicious hot Callebaut chocolate milk.


Elisa is low-key coffee shop and breakfast and lunch spot is a local’s favourite. Generous sandwiches are served on a delicious homemade bread, also accompanying hot dishes in a naturally lit covered courtyard. The available fares are displayed in the counter making it hard to choose: from dishes to freshly baked cakes, it all looks so yummy. As it is hardly possible to skip on a sweet, the smoothies make up as a healthy choice!


The dining sharing concept seems to have taken Leuven over! Forget about getting a table at Baracca without a booking. The Italian inspired, yet fusion fares, are brought as inviting and colourful sharing platters enjoyed by locals and tourists alike. In terms of drinks, Italian wines steal the show.

De Hoorn

If you want to keep your drink list more local, check out De Hoorn in the up-and-coming Vaartkom neighbourhood. The former brewery where the first Stella was brewed has been turned into a bar and restaurant. It is not so much for the originality of the food but for the low-key atmosphere and industrial vibes that locals keep visiting the restaurant, and it is definitely for the beer list they keep coming back to the ground-level bar.


Leuven is a lovely city, deeply rooted in its long history while looking at the future. Original fourteenth century locks or historical industrial buildings are perfectly integrated into new compact neighbourhoods designed around sustainability. With the objective of becoming climate-neutral by 2030, there is no doubt that the culture of innovation that has been fostered by the university over the centuries will continue to be an invaluable asset for the charming Belgian town.

Travel tips:

  • Visit Leuven is also a great source of info to help prepare your trip.
  • To stay in style in the heart of Leuven, the Fourth Hotel is your best bet.
  • To explore the city by bike, you can rent bikes at Leuven Leisure.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)!

For more highlights of Leuven & Belgium, click on the images below:

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