Leuven packs a big punch for its size. Less than half an hour from Brussels by train, the city — home to a top university and a canoe-able river — could be described as Belgian’s answer to Oxford or Cambridge. Its lively student scene, international outlook and vibrant cultural offer make it well worth for a city trip. So, besides famous attractions such as the Groot Beguinage, St Peter’s Church and the Gothic town hall, what hiddens gems should be on your list?
1. Walk or cycle the city
Grab your striped scarf and swish through golden autumn leaves at your own pace. The city is compact and very pleasant to wander around. In addition there are mapped cycle-paths you can follow. Bikes can easily be booked in advance or hired directly at the city’s bike rentals. There’s one just outside the main station, just head left as you exit.
The VisitLeuven website provides suggested routes, with free Google links and information on where to get refreshments. I tried the Abbey circuit, taking in four of the city’s glorious churches. St Gertrude’s is in the middle of the city, at the heart of the ‘small beguinage’ – a quaint neighbourhood with restored traditional Flemish-style houses – inhabited until the 19th century by nuns. Others, like the Keizersberg Abbey, sit in their own magnificent parklike woodlands, ideal for picnics.
2. Park Abbey
Park Abbey merits a timeslot of its own in your day. Why not spend the afternoon exploring all the former working parts of the Abbey, almost unchanged since the 17th century, with a restaurant in the old mill, stucco vaults in the library and refectory, large fish ponds you can walk around (free maps are available at reception), as well as exhibitions and musical events as part of the three-month Leuven BANG! Festival.
Park Abbey cemetery is sometimes compared to Paris’s Pere Lachaise. Stop for a while and contemplate its attractive art deco typefaces and impressive statuary, and see the resting place of Leuven’s great and good, like singer Zjef Vanuytsel or former ministers Geens and Eyskens.
Through a ‘secret door’ in the cemetery back gates, you’ll find the Abbey’s farmland and ‘happy cows’, plus further signage for onward walking and cycling routes.
3. Explore the Vaartkom District
Time your trip right and you could eat lunch or drink evening cocktails in one of the cool eateries in this funky canal-side district. I do love the atmosphere of a regenerated industrial area. Look out across the water at the former Stella Artois warehouses with their immense grain stores and familiar horn and star insignia. Stella Artois has been brewed in the city since 1366 but now the De Hoorn building has been given a new lease-of-life as a cafe and restaurant, shared workhub and events space. Beautiful copper mash tuns are still in place and you can even hire the space for your wedding.
4. Shop the boutiques
Diestsetraat is the main commercial drag, but between the small beguinage and the centre, charming independent shops await you on pedestrianised streets, like Mechelsestraat. Good to know: shops are open on every first Sunday of the month. Stock up on delicious cheese at Elsen Kaasambacht and let your curiosity get the better of you at Animaux Speciaux, rammed with beautiful stationery, stuffed creatures, and craft projects.
5. Join an expert guided walk
All year long, guided walks take place around the city, for groups or individuals. And during the three months of BANG! you can see the place through the eyes of artists and scientists. Book the tour you want ahead of time, choosing between a focus on: famous theorist Georges Lemaitre and the conflict between his faith and his scientific work; the city’s fascinating links to the history of weights and measures; or an introduction to Leuven’s ingenious and often maverick professors – past and present.
‘Street art’ tours are also available via VisitLeuven, and you can self-guide using an app. See for example the impressive nature-themed street art towards Heverlee and Park Abbey, or the sleeping girl by Bisser (the Belgian Banksy) on the wall of a young women’s refuge.
6. Canoe the Dyle
Starting at Korbeek, you can rent a two, three or four-person canoe and paddle down Leuven’s meandering river for an hour and half to the beautiful grounds of Arenberg Castle. The neo-gothic castle complete with typical bulbous ‘onion’ domes, is where the university’s engineering department is based. Unfortunately it’s not usually open to the public, but the grounds are – and with their sweeping lawns, tunnels of trees and spectacular Castle views, they are a popular picnic spot.
7. Final stop? Hall 5
Before you leave, be sure to check out chilled out Hall 5, not far behind the train station. In a former railway locomotive shed, lies a community-led venue with indoor and outdoor seating and food stalls. As well as an organic bakery and local produce store, there’s a bar area, indoor circus and parkour training for older kids, and a soft play area for youngsters. Food and drinks available until 9:30 pm on a Sunday. Falafel? Pizza? Ice cream anyone?