Aaaah, Leuven! Where to begin?
Maybe it would be good to start by saying that Leuven should be on top of everyone’s list when visiting Belgium. The spectacular town hall alone is worth a visit. There’s so much to see and do, and drink and eat; it’s kind of ridiculous.
For example, the city is home to AB InBev (I’ve mentioned them earlier, in the post about Dinant), the largest brewing company in the world. They’re the ones that brew Stella Artois – close to the train station in Leuven – and they also own Budweiser, Corona, Beck’s and Brahma. I just think that’s extremely cool.
What makes the city even cooler is the fact that the University of Leuven is the largest and oldest university in the Low Countries and the oldest still existing Catholic university in the world. 90,000 people live in Leuven, 25,000 of which are students. So… that’s the world’s largest brewer of beer and a big student population in a relatively small city. That’s just asking for fun! I know what I’m talking about; I studied there too.
Leuven is located 25 km (15 miles) east of Brussels in the province of Flemish Brabant. Its city center is small, easily walkable and chock-full of century-old buildings and churches. And of course there’s a beguinage too. It seems like every old city in Belgium has a beguinage (See Lier and Tongeren…). The city of Leuven appears in historical documents for the first time in 884, when plundering Vikings settled on the banks of the Dijle River. Entire books can be written – and probably have been – about what happens from then on until the present, but I won’t go into further detail here.
After all, this post, as well as all other posts in this series, is about the present-day highlights of this particular city!
And there are many…
I honestly think the Gothic Town Hall of Leuven is the most beautiful medieval building on the entire planet. This truly majestic piece of architecture stands at the Grote Markt (Great Market Square). Construction started in 1439 and it was finished thirty years and three architects later. Improvements were made up until very recently. In the 19th century 236 statues were added to the outside, each of them representing a local nobleman, scholar or artist.
It probably is my favorite building in the whole of Belgium.
The University was founded in 1425 by Pope Martin V. The formerly prosperous cloth industry was rapidly losing importance and by establishing a new Catholic university in the cloth hall the Pope pretty much saved the city. That prestigious first University Hall is still used today.
Many different colleges are spread out across the city. Most of them are housed in impressive 15th-to-17th-century buildings.
One of the most important and striking university buildings, however, is the library. Up until the First World War the university library was housed in the University Hall, but after it got destroyed by a fire during the war, a new library had to be built. Thanks to donations by American colleges and universities a completely new ‘old’ building was constructed in Flemish Renaissance style. This building, now housing over 3,000,000 books, is one of the most spectacular university buildings in the world.
There are two old beguinages in Leuven, the Small and Great Beguinage, located on opposite sides of the city center.
The Small Beguinage was built in the 13th century around the St Gertrude’s Abbey. It had few financial resources and buildings quickly fell into decay. The beguinage’s church was demolished in 1862 and in 1954 the infirmary had to make room for the expanding Stella Artois brewery. The remains of the beguinage are now restored and serve as houses in typical Flemish style.
The Great Beguinage, founded in 1232, is the quietest place in the city by far. It consists of dozens of cobble stone streets and alleyways, parks, gardens, squares and a church. 360 beguines were living in this beguinage during its 17th-century high days.
Nowadays the beguines are gone and have been replaced by students, foreign guest professors and employees of the university.
UNESCO declared the Great Beguinage a World Heritage Site in 1998.
Saint Peter’s Church
The massive St Peter’s Church stands at the Grote Markt, opposite the Town Hall. It is thought to be founded sometime in the 10th century, making it the oldest church in Leuven. That first church was replaced by a Romanesque church in the 12th century, which was again replaced by the present Gothic church in the 15th century. This Gothic church was built by the same architects who built the Town Hall.
The inside is definitely worth a visit. Highlights are the 15th-century crucifix, the wooden pulpit and several paintings by Dirk Bouts, one of the Flemish Primitives.
The 50-meter-high tower, although unfinished, is included on UNESCO’s list of Belfries of Belgium and France.
Also at the Grote Markt (Great Market Square), and between the Town Hall and St Peter’s Church, stands the Tafelrond. This beautiful building is a replica of the original 15th-century Guild Hall, which had to be rebuilt after its destruction during the First World War.
Saint Michael’s Church
The Saint Michael’s Church is a former Jesuit church, built by the Antwerp Jesuit Willem Hesius in 1650. The church was almost completely destroyed after the Second World War. Only the impressive Baroque facade – apt called ‘the altar outside the church’ – remained. The rest of the church was rebuilt.
Saint Anthony’s Chapel
The crypt underneath this small-ish church contains the tomb of Father Damien, the ‘leper priest’ of Molokai’. Father Damien was a priest on the Hawaiian island of Molokai from 1864 until his death in 1889, where he lived among outcast lepers. He was an actual hero, giving his life to help others, and was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.
People such as Mother Theresa, Mahatma Gandhi and Barack Obama have praised Damien, born Jozef De Veuster, for his work.
Beer and the Old Market Square
The Oude Markt (Old Market) has one of the liveliest bar scenes in Belgium, if not in Europe. This central square has dozens of bars and cafés, which is why it’s also called ‘the longest bar in the world’. Every single night there’s something going on. Thank the thousands of college students for that!
The rest of the city has plenty of bars and student cafés as well.
And did I mention that the world’s largest brewery has its headquarters in Leuven?
Besides the previous buildings and structures, there’s also a lot of greenery to relax in. There are several parks, including a nice botanic garden.
Outside the city center and surrounded by the Heverlee Forest lies the Arenberg Castle, which now is the faculty for Engineering Science and the faculty I used to study at.
This article is also available as a smartphone app, allowing you to use it as a reference when visiting Leuven. You can get the app right here!