Leuven is well known for its world-leading university, cobbled squares and Gothic architecture, but it’s also a city where real people live and work and its cultural menu reflects urban modernity too.
Coming up over the third weekend in September, the World Breaking Championships promise to bring together 250 nationally selected breakdancers from all over the globe, competing not only for the title of World Champion but also for Olympic Committee recognition before the sport makes its debut at the Paris Olympics. Side events will include afterparties on 23 and 24 September at Het Depot, crew battles on the Grote Markt on 22 and 23 September, 1-on-1 dance offs, as well as beatboxing and hip hop parties celebrating some of the best hip hop DJs from Belgium and beyond in a scratch showcase.
If that’s got your juices flowing, why not hit the streets yourself. You don’t have to cavort around on the floor or spin on your head. Just choose one of the street art walks Leuven has curated to allow visitors to discover some of the greenest or most historic corners of the city while taking in a selection of sublime public artworks that adorn the city’s walls and buildings. There are short ways round and longer routes, and itineraries suitable for children where you can ‘treasure hunt’ the works on show.
For a taste of how real Leuvenites spend their time and hang out, Hal 5 is a great spot, combining space to sit in the sunshine, play frisbee, craft shop, and meet friends, with local produce and a food court with the perfect offering for any time of day from pizza, to mezze to coffee and a cinnamon bun. Set in a transformed railway hangar that lay empty for years, Hal 5 is now a buzzing example of re-imagined urban space.
Another urban hangout is Stelplaats, which features in this round-up of activities to appeal to young people. A cultural space for young people in a former bus depot, Stelplaats offers a wide-ranging programme of events including club and DJ nights, a hall, kitchen, screen printing studio, a skate park, graffiti wall, sports hall, rehearsal rooms, bicycle workshop, and a child and youth psychologist as well as project work.
I was lucky enough to be shown around Leuven by a local and introduced to all her favourite spots. Vaartkom is one of the first stops we made. Once upon a time, it was the sort of place you might avoid, a run-down canal area characterised by former warehouses and brewery infrastructure and people you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. It’s now been utterly transformed into one of the city’s best-loved neighbourhoods, where green space meets the harbour. If you’re into architecture you’ll want to check out the Balk van Beel residential complex by star-chitect Stéphane Beel, hailed for its sustainability.
There’s culture at the former customs building, OPEK and you’ll be spoilt for choice by a great range of restaurants and cafes, such as the vegetarian buffet I filled my face with at Noordoever. You can picnic on the grass next to the old Stella Artois brewery which has become an impressive coworking and event space and restaurant. Or sit on a café terrace with a cocktail and admire the attractive facades of the old industrial buildings reflected in the water.
Budget and planet friendly
If that all sounds suspiciously like gentrification to you, it’s worth noting that many of the top things to do in Leuven can be enjoyed for free, including the university’s Botanical Garden and the almshouse neighbourhood of the Great Beguinage. Most of the city’s beautiful abbeys and churches are free to visit (as are the street art trails already mentioned). The Visit Leuven team has put together this helpful list of activities that won’t break the budget, proving that the city has something to offer every size of pocket.
And, if you’re looking for an art-themed overnight stay, M-Street Art Lodging is a groundbreaking hotel concept in the heart of the city, boasting green credentials galore and self-check-in to keep things simple.