What to See in Leuven, Belgium

Leuven is both one of Belgium’s least known cities and one of its most interesting cities. It is one of the oldest university cities in the world and the world capital of beer brewing.

That last statement is by no means exaggerated. Leuven is the home base of AB InBev, which is by far the largest brewery in the world—it’s a so-called mega-brewery, first only producing Stella Artois, but now controlling the production of many, most, of the world’s most famous beer brands, including Budweiser, Corona, Beck’s and Brahma. An incredible one out of every type of beers in the whole world is said to be brewed by this Leuven-based brewery. Let that sink in for a second.

It’s easy to see why the combination of the presence of a gigantic brewery and a huge student population—35,000 of them—could be an interesting one. And indeed, Leuven is one of Belgium’s liveliest cities, its Old Market Square sometimes referred to as the “longest bar in Europe.”

Throw in some spectacular medieval buildings, a couple of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, long shopping streets, and some beautiful parks and you’ve got yourself a magnificent travel destination. The University of Leuven is a highlight in itself too, renowned around the world for its cutting-edge research and facilities and its long and rich history.

Leuven lies only 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) from Brussels and you can get there extremely easily by railroad.

Things to See in Leuven, Belgium

Town Hall

A truly majestic piece of architecture at the Grote Markt (Great Market Square), the striking Gothic Town Hall of Leuven may well be the most beautiful medieval building on the entire planet. 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 and an absolute highlight in Leuven’s historic center.

What to see in Leuven, Belgium: Town Hall at the Grote Markt
The magnificent Town Hall adorns the Great Market Square

Béguinages

There are two old béguinages in Leuven, the Small and Grand Béguinage, located on opposite sides of the city center. Both are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site “Flemish Béguinages.”

The Small Béguinage was built in the 13th century around St. Gertrude’s Abbey. However, because it had few financial resources, buildings quickly fell into decay. The béguinage’s church was demolished in 1862 and in 1954, the infirmary had to make room for the expanding Stella Artois brewery. What remains of the béguinage is now restored and serves as houses in typical Flemish style.

The Grand Beguinage is something else altogether. Founded in 1232, is the quietest place in the city by far. It consists of dozens of cobblestone streets and alleyways, parks and gardens, squares and a church. 360 béguines lived in this béguinage during its 17th-century heyday. Nowadays, the beguines are gone and have been replaced by students, foreign guest professors and employees of the university. The Grand Béguinage of Leuven is a major highlight in the city, a place that you really shouldn’t skip.

What to see in Leuven, Belgium: Grand Béguinage in Leuven
Leuven’s atmospheric Grand Béguinage consists entirely of brick buildings

Additional reading: 15 Essential Activities to Do in Belgium


St. Peter’s Church

The massive St. Peter’s Church stands at the Great Market Square, opposite the Town Hall. It is thought to be founded sometime in the 10th century, which makes 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 (164-foot) tower, although unfinished, is another World Heritage Site in Leuven. It is included on UNESCO’s list of “Belfries of Belgium and France.”

What to see in Leuven, Belgium: St. Peter's Church, Leuven
St. Peter’s Church is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Botanical Garden

Leuven’s Botanical Garden was established in 1738 by the University for its medicine students. To this day, the garden is used to grow herbs and study medicinal characteristics of plants. Additionally, it is also simply a beautiful green place where locals and visitors can go to get some fresh air, read a book and learn about horticulture.

Although this might just be the smallest botanical garden of any decently sized city in Belgium, it’s a wonderfully quaint place. If you have a bit more time to spend in the city, a stroll through the garden is definitely a nice addition to your visit. Visiting is completely free.

What to see in Leuven, Belgium: Leuven Botanical Garden
Crocuses in Leuven’s Botanical Garden

University

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 essentially saved the city. That prestigious first University Hall is still used today. Many different colleges are spread out across the city, most of which are housed in impressive 15th-to-17th-century buildings.

One of the most important and striking university buildings 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 undoubtedly one of the most spectacular university buildings in the world.

What to see in Leuven, Belgium: University Library in Leuven
The University Library is one of the world’s most beautiful library buildings

Additional reading: Why Visiting Ghent, Belgium, Should Be a Priority


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, as I mentioned earlier in this post, it’s nicknamed “the longest bar in Europe.” Every single night there’s something going on. Thank the thousands of college students for that!

As a major university city, Leuven also has countless other restaurants and bars spread out all over the historic city center.

What to see in Leuven, Belgium: Oude Markt, Leuven
Bikes and cafés at the Old Market Square

Arenberg Castle

The magnificent Arenberg Castle is a gorgeous château in a park just outside the city center. The first castle on the domain was built in the 14th century by the lords of Heverlee; the Croy family purchased the site, including the castle, in 1446. The current castle dates from the 16th century and was constructed in a typically Flemish style—brick walls, sandstone window frames and prominent corner towers.

Nowadays, Arenberg Castle houses the faculty of engineering sciences of the University of Leuven—this is, incidentally, where I studied for a year. The castle is the absolute star attraction on the domain, an area that’s dotted with other university buildings. Going for a walk in the park is absolutely recommended, a major highlight even, during any visit to Leuven. Visiting the castle itself, however, is only possible by appointment and with a guide.

What to see in Leuven, Belgium
The Arenberg Castle is the main attraction in a huge domain just outside the historic city center

For more information about visiting Leuven, I gladly refer to the city’s Tourism Board website.

I hope that these things to see in Leuven will be of help during your own visit to this amazing small Belgian city.

Have you ever been to Leuven? What did you think?

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!

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