Most of us have a dreamlike idea of Christmas shopping. Snowflakes gently falling on our warm woollen hats while we stroll from twinkling emporium to cosy boutique choosing delights for our friends and family. Few places match up to this ideal, but Leuven, just a short trip from Brussels by train or car, is definitely one of them. Throughout the year, every first Sunday of the month the shops are open from 1pm to 6pm. Many shops are also open on Sundays throughout December. Just imagine! You could combine Christmas shopping and a charming daytrip and really be in the festive mood.
Leuven’s central squares, the Grote Markt and Oude Markt, are magical at this time of year, watched over by the tall onion-spires of the ornate Gothic Town Hall, the towering St Peter’s Church and golden figure of its quarter-jack automaton clock, as well as a Christmas card skyline of typical Dutch gables.
In nearby streets, mostly pedestrianised, there’s something for everyone. Let’s start with the obvious. You’ll find big chain stores and well-known Belgian brands like luxury leather goods store Delvaux in high streets like Bondgenotenlaan and pedestrianised Diestsestraat. In addition, the eye-catching independent boutiques and gourmet offers are in Brusselsestraat, Parijsstraat, Pensstraat, Mechelsestraat and Vismarkt. For a useful shopping map, check here.
1. Best for ethical shopping
With a focus on fair trade and sustainability, Harvest Club is where you’ll find clothing, shoes or beauty products for that planet-conscious person on your Christmas list.
Word on the street: If you need a quick pick-me-up before you carry on, try KOFFIE en STAAL just up from Harvest Club. As well as designing and making steel furniture and jewellery in their own local workshop, they do amazing refreshments and pie!
Another address for the ethical consumer, SWAY selects its fashion, accessory and toiletry brands with fairness and respect for the planet in mind.
Not far from Harvest Club, as well as international Scandi-style brands you’ll find the work of local jewellery designer Rooi in this cosy store with beautiful lighting. (And guess what? Whenever Rooi has a launch event for her new designs, Mixte is where she heads to find something to wear for the occasion. So there’s an endorsement for you!)
Insider tip! Mechelsestraat is one of my favourite shopping streets in the world, lined with gorgeous art nouveau shop fronts, Dutch gables galore, pretty florists . . . heck, even the paving underfoot is lovely. And just round the corner in Vismarkt (literally one minute from Mixte), you’ll find Zuut – one of the best-loved chocolatiers and patisseries in town.
2. Favourites for the style guru
Good-to-know – just 11 minutes on foot from Harvest Club. This menswear shop stocks effortless Scandi style for the man in your life, or the person who loves normcore gender neutral looks. Personally I have my eye on a pair of beautiful Samsoe Samsoe drawstring trousers currently in stock.
Belgian fashion design is renowned worldwide, and here, right next door to Mixte, you’ll find the big names including Dries Van Noten.
Almost on Vismarkt again. Have your savings at the ready. High end designer brands like Balenciaga and members of the Antwerp Six.
These two boutiques offer beautiful Belgian label jewellery. Vanlaere works with customers on bespoke future heirloom pieces that tell their own story. By appointment except Friday and Saturday.
3. Gourmet pleasures
Of course, chocolatiers are not lacking in most Belgian cities, and Leuven is no exception. Back on the main street, Bittersweet represents modern Belgian chocolate-making and confectionery at its best, combining traditional praline expertise with comic and imaginative genius. Be warned, the aroma as you walk in is irresistible. I personally am a sucker for the coffee-hit of Espresso Yourself or the poetry of absinthe-infused Skull. How about the Miley Citrus for a hit of grapefruit? Or, of course, caramel and sea salt in The One – for your loved one, unless you eat it yourself first!
Let’s just admit that ‘Cheesemaster’ is a job title we can all envy. And the work doesn’t sound so bad either. Up in the morning to Paris’s Rungis market to select the most distinguished cheeses, plus collaboration with Belgian cheesemakers, all to bring creamy, salty, piquant deliciousness to your table.
If your friends and family are anything like mine, they think it’s positively rude if I don’t bring them some Belgian beer when I visit. With a wide range of Belgian beers – Abbey, Trappist, microbrewery, you name it – you’re bound to find your new favourite tipple here.
Insider tip – Almost next door to Belgian Beer Shop sits Leuven Leisure, with another selection of Belgian craft beers. They do guided city excursions and specialise in beer tours!
3. For booklovers, stationery addicts and interior design
It feels special going through the black iron gates in front of Barboek’s little alley. Inside it’s a cosy yet spacious place, where the scent of printed pages and hygge reigns. Rugs and curios seem to invite you to snug lamp-lit reading corners and light filters in from the courtyard where tables are set out too. There are books for English, French, German and Spanish readers – as well as refreshments like coffee, cake and pie.
If there’s one independent boutique you should visit in Leuven, it’s this place. Jeroen Lemaitre is a young creative whose treasures are inspired by, and recycle, animals, insects and butterflies. Beautiful wrapping paper, unusual craft projects and unique objects will fill you with wonder. Trust me.
At Plek you’ll find cookware and cocktail glasses, soft and hard furnishings large and small, notebooks and handbags – all in chic muted tones and sophisticated shapes.
Meanwhile at L’Etude you can stock up on vintage and imaginatively-sourced objects for your home or for gifts. Colourful bowls and vases for dried flowers woven from baobab. Scarves from Barcelona. Exquisite Missoni fabrics. Tables, chairs, mirrors – from mid-century and beyond.
Aside from Zuut and Barbóék (see above) you’ll pass dozens of charming spots during your wandeling through the streets. If you just can’t stop shopping but need a quick refuel, Thelma on Vaartstraat is a concept store that does coffee and treats. And here are some hidden gems you might not otherwise find:
In an unassuming street tucked behind the university library, Sara’s offers plentiful and wholesome pasta and grain salads, warming soups, coffee, granola, muffins . . . When Covid restrictions are in place, Sara powers through, serving takeaway and on the terrace. Busy with locals at lunchtime.
For the coffee connoisseur, Onan roasts, blends and serves their own fairly-sourced beans. If you’re serious about good coffee, make this your mecca. Insider tip: Onan also supplies KUp KU the café in Leuven’s historic university hall in Naamsestraat.
And finally, if you’re staying for the evening after your shop, Nirvana Kitchen over on Monseigneur Ladeuzeplein is only a 10-minute walk from the shopping streets we’ve been exploring. Traditional Indian thali style food meets Belgian hospitality here. Sip on a lambic beer while chowing down on my favourite, lamb rogan josh. Vegetarian and vegan options aplenty.