Those who have experienced Brussels but also want to discover the surroundings of the Belgian capital can take a half-hour train to the beautiful city of Leuven, in the Flanders region.
This large university hub, located at the confluence of the Voer and Dyle rivers, is known for its jovial climate and for being home to the world’s most famous breweries, including Stella Artois.
Leuven has a population of about 100,000 inhabitants and can be covered in a day, either on foot or by bicycle. It has a very beautiful historic center, which highlights the striking building of the Town Hall, which spreads its Gothic beauty on the Grote Markt street.
Other must-see attractions in Leuven are: the Arenberg Castle, the Oude Market Square, St. Peter’s Church and a beautiful route of sculptures scattered throughout the city.
Next to St. Peter’s Church, on the Grote Markt (the main square of the city), stands the beautiful Town Hall, one of the unique buildings to see in Leuven. Taking a half-hour train ride from Brussels is worth it just to admire this building, built in the late Brabantian Gothic style in the mid-15th century. Many consider this building, which occupies an entire city block, to be the most beautiful City Hall ever built. Others also understand that the building is a true survivor (or has its own guardian angel), having been set on fire during World War I and nearly destroyed by a bomb, which passed within millimeters of one of the towers, during World War II.
Its three-story facade is frankly spectacular, with Gothic windows on three sides, more than 236 statues in niches and six towers topped with very fine spires. Inside, accessed by an elegant entrance staircase, works of art are displayed in its ornate Louis XV and Louis XVI style rooms. Every day at 3 p.m. guided tours are available for 4 euros, which can be booked at the Tourist Office (located inside the Town Hall).
It should be noted that the Grote Markt, governed by the Town Hall and St. Peter’s Church, has a third point of interest: the so-called American House. This is one of the few houses that the Nazis did not set fire to in their invasion of the city during World War II. And they did not do it because they thought that an American family lived there, a country that had not declared war on Germany until then.
Half an hour walk from the city center is another of the jewels to see in Leuven, the Arenberg Castle. It is a palace built during the 12th century in a Flemish Renaissance style, which is distinguished from afar by its brick facade with reddish tones.
One of the best things to do in Leuven is to have a picnic on the esplanade of the palace. As the castle is located within the campus of the Catholic University of Louvain (it was owned by the Dukes of Arenberg), it is very common to see students lying on the grass with their books and notes.
Another beautiful place to see in Leuven is the University Library. It is a Flemish neo-Renaissance style building that had to be completely rebuilt after the First World War (the original building dated from the 17th century). After that conflict, the United States made an important donation to rebuild the library, which was again destroyed during the Second World War.
Nevertheless, the University Library was rebuilt according to the original plans, which included a carillon with 63 bells, one of the most important (and certainly one of the loudest) in Belgium. Today, the building houses more than a million volumes and it is quite a plan to climb its tower, from where the views of the city are breathtaking.
The Oude Markt is one of the most important squares of the city and has a detail that makes it unique: it has the longest bar in the world. This rectangular square, completely filled with bars and restaurants, is framed by beautiful buildings rebuilt after the Second War and more than 50 houses that sell Belgian craft beer at their entrances to anyone who is thirsty and has the money to buy it.
The truly striking thing about this square, former residence of the Counts of Louvain, is that the bars form an endless bar. Every night, hundreds of students and tourists converge here and decree a general state of celebration until the early hours of the morning. That is why Oude Markt is called the biggest bar in the world.
Another attraction of the place is that for 40 years a music festival called Marktrock has been held in the Oude Markt, during the month of August, which attracts big rock bands from different countries. Also on July 31 is organized in this square a gastronomic festival called Hapje Tapje, in which dozens of food stalls and, of course, craft beer disembark.
A large number of sculptures are scattered throughout Leuven and it is a fun program to discover them. One of the most curious is the one on Monseigneur Ladeuzeplein square, called Totem: it consists of a long spire almost 25 meters high with a large green beetle pierced through its top.
This real Sculpture Route offers many surprises such as the Fountain of Wisdom (Fons Sapientiae), in the vicinity of the Grote Markt, which symbolizes the learning process of a student. Also worth mentioning is the sculpture of Kotmadam, in the Oude Markt, which represents a landlady of a student residence.
St. Peter’s Church
St. Peter’s Church is located next to the Town Hall, in the Grote Markt, and is the most important temple to see in Leuven. From the outside it surprises its bell tower, which was destined to be the tallest in Belgium (almost 170 meters) but was never completed. The temple also had Romanesque towers, which collapsed in a fire in the mid-fifteenth century.
Its interior, which enhances the virtues of the 15th century Brabant Gothic style, has two masterpieces worth appreciating: the Last Supper and the Martyrdom of St. Erasmus, by the Flemish artist Dirk Bouts. The church is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., except Wednesdays.
Another of the fascinating places to see in Leuven are its four must-see abbeys. The first, perhaps the most beautiful of all (and certainly the best preserved), is the Abbey of the Park or Abdij Van Park, which is located in a large green space of 42 hectares, with peaceful gardens to stroll for hours.
Secondly, it is recommended to visit the Benedictine abbey of Vlierbeek, one of the oldest in Belgium, built in 1125 in a gigantic park; or also the majestic Keizersberg Abbey (which offers great views of the city) and St. Gertrude’s Abbey, with its unique Gothic tower.
The Great Beguinage is a complex of more than three hectares, composed of numerous houses (about a hundred) where the bequines, women who had sworn vows of chastity without being nuns, lived. The Great Beguinage is located on the banks of the Dijle River and is a real jewel of Leuven, with its courtyards, small streets and the coquettish church of St. John the Baptist as its flagship. The complex has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Stella Artois factory
It is difficult to enumerate the number of breweries and craft breweries that have their headquarters in Leuven. It is estimated that 30 breweries operate in the Brabant-Flemish region, producing more than 250 different types of craft beer. Undoubtedly the most renowned brewery is Stella Artois. Visitors to the brewery, located in the old industrial area of Leuven (which is starting to become fashionable, with recycled buildings with avant-garde designs), will discover the origin of this alcoholic beverage and its production process.
In 1336 there was only one brewery in the city, whose name was Den Hoorn. Almost four centuries later, in 1708, a young brewmaster named Sebastian Artois joined Den Hoorn to give life to the most widely drunk Belgian beer in the world. The brewery tour teaches you how to serve the beer on tap, with the foam flush with the glass (as it should be). The brewery can be visited every day from 9 am to 7 pm.
One of the recommended museums to see in Leuven is the M-Museum. It is a museum that surprises before entering. It is located in a beautiful building with columns that merges architectural concepts from different centuries. Inside, it has a beautiful central courtyard and in the various rooms houses collections of paintings, late Gothic sculptures and antiques from the Middle Ages to the last century. To end the visit it is recommended to go up to the terrace and enjoy the views of Leuven.
One of the best things to do in Leuven is to discover the various colleges scattered throughout the city, mainly located on the Naamestraat. You can start the tour at the Pope’s College (Pauscollege), whose original building was built in the sixteenth century and today houses a student residence for boys. It is notable for its gigantic courtyard, jealously guarded by two lion sculptures.
Then, you can continue to the Koningscollege, on Naamestraat, and also pass by the College of Arras, which in 1921 was the first to house only female students. Here you will find the Tree of Sorrow, so named because it was the place in the courtyard where the students would say goodbye to their boyfriends at seven o’clock in the evening, to return to their rooms.
The last two colleges are: the Van Dalecollege, which operates in the oldest Renaissance building in Leuven, founded in 1569, and the College van Premonstreit, where the priest Georges Lemaître, one of the scientists who contributed weighty evidence to the theory of relativity, taught (he has also been nicknamed the father of the Big Bang).