24 hours in Leuven: Belgium’s Hidden Gem

KU Leuven Library cover image

Updated On: March 21, 2024 by   Ciaran ConnollyCiaran Connolly

Belgium is a wonderful country with its own fascinating history, mesmerising architecture, delicious cuisine and a large variety of craft beer. From the fairytale city of Bruges to the scenic canals of Ghent and mediaeval Antwerp, there are so many wonderful cities to explore.

However, one city in particular is Belgium’s hidden gem: Leuven. It is a place bursting with character, just waiting to be discovered.

The Grote Markt, Leuven
The Grote Markt, Leuven

Leuven, a modern city with a small-town vibe, is located just under 30 kilometres, or 19 miles, from Brussels. Since it is only a stone’s throw away from Belgium’s capital, the city makes for the perfect day trip if you are planning to visit Brussels.  

In this article, we are exploring our favourite things to do in Leuven in one day, but you can easily spend a weekend here! Scroll down to read through the article, or click on one of the highlighted sections below to jump ahead!

Leuven cyclist
Leuven is perfect for cycling around!

How to Make the Most of Your Stay

Leuven is a Highly Walkable City

For many locals and tourists, it is much easier to explore the city on foot or via public transport than by driving their own car. In fact, the use of cars is even restricted on certain streets throughout the city during the day.

If you want to see even more of Leuven, we would recommend renting a bike for the day. Many locals get around the city on bikes, so it has to be one of the best ways to travel there! Additionally, due to the popularity of bikes in Leuven, the city has plenty of bike lanes, secure bike racks, and other infrastructure to allow cyclists to explore the city safely.

Visit on a Saturday

For the best tourist experience in Leuven, you should try to visit the city on a Saturday. Many attractions throughout the city are closed on other days of the week. In fact, some of the activities we have listed below are only available on a Saturday.

During the school year, Saturdays are usually quieter throughout the city. This is quite the opposite from many other cities throughout the world! Leuven experiences less crowded weekends because local students often go home or travel for the weekend.

Additionally, many shops and attractions are closed on Sundays in Belgium. With this in mind, Saturdays tend to be the best day to visit the city if you want to experience everything that Leuven has to offer.

The view of Leuven from the Belfry Tower.

Prepare for Any Weather

Leuven is known for its quick-changing weather. Locals describe experiencing ‘four seasons in a day‘ as a regular occurrence. With this in mind, it is a good idea to check the weather forecast for your trip to the city ahead of time and pack accordingly.

If you are travelling to Belgium outside of the summer months, make sure to bring lots of layers and an umbrella. A nice, sunny day can turn rainy and windy very suddenly, and you don’t want to be caught out!

Embrace the Local Language

Uniquely, Belgium has 3 official languages: Dutch, French and German. As the city of Leuven is in the Flemish region of Belgium, Dutch is the primary language spoken there. However, Leuven is a very tourist-friendly city.

Because of the city’s university, Leuven and its locals are used to a large influx of international students each year. As a result, the majority of people in the area speak English fluently, especially in shops, bars and restaurants.

However, it is still great for tourists to learn at least a few words and sayings in the local language, Dutch. Learning how to order a beer or breakfast in Dutch, for example, not only connects tourists with the local culture but also shows locals that you’re making an effort to speak to them in their native language.

Beautiful View of the University Library and Belfry Tower at night
Spectacular View of the University Library and Belfry Tower at night during the Christmas season

10 of Leuven’s Best Attractions for Tourists

It’s probably no surprise by now that we really love Leuven! The city is full of culture and exciting places to explore. What other locations do you think feature in our top 10 unmissable places to visit in Belgium? Let us know if we’ve missed your favourite destination!

With so much to see and do in the city, it can be challenging to decide how to spend a day in Leuven. To help you see the best of the city, here are our top 10 picks of things to do in Leuven. Keep reading to find out why they have made the list!

#1 Take the Stella Brewery Tour 

No trip to Leuven would be complete without touring the Stella Artois Brewery! Stella Artois originated in Leuven hundreds of years ago, and since then, it has become an internationally recognised lager.

Tours at the brewery only take place on Saturdays, and you have to book well in advance to avoid disappointment. You may also choose to take a private tour if you have a large enough group. Tickets cost €14 per person.

If you do go on a beer-tasting tour in Leuven, make sure to pair your ale with some traditional Belgian food. Chocolate, waffles, and chips (or fries) are just some of the delicious foods that the Belgians have perfected!

The Stella Artois Brewery in Leuven
The Stella Artois Brewery in Leuven

#2 Climb the Belfry Tower at the University Library

Leuven is home to Belgium’s largest university, KU Leuven. The university opened its doors in 1425, making it the oldest Catholic University in all of Europe.

If you want stunning views of the city of Leuven, climbing the Belfry Tower of the old University Library will yield the most rewarding results. While you will have to climb a few sets of winding stairs, the dizzying climb is worth the view of Leuven from the top of the bell tower.

It may surprise you to discover that students still go to this library to study for exams among the many tourists taking photos of the ornate rooms. Some say that walking through the library feels like strolling through Hogwarts castle – though others argue that Trinity College in Dublin is a more direct inspiration for the wizarding school!

Unfortunately, the library was heavily damaged during World War II. Whitney Warren, a famous architect and part of the Warren Wetmore practice, restored the University Tower after it was destroyed in WWII. Warren’s firm also designed the Grand Central Terminal in New York.

While exploring the building, eager historians will notice the engravings of the coat of arms of many American universities on the exterior of the library. All of these were donated and contributed to the restoration of the building after WWII.

Artistic Interpretation of the Belfry and University Library Leuven
Artistic Interpretation of the Belfry and University Library Leuven

The library is just one part of KU Leuven. Leuven University has its faculty and student campuses scattered around the heart of the city. It is easy to walk past a building without realising that it is actually the entrance to the large campus!

#3 Visit the Oude Markt

Have you ever wondered what the longest bar in Europe is? The Oude Markt proudly claims this title, with over 20 bars making up the square. If you’re lucky, there may even be a concert or event going on in the Oude Markt during your visit!

On a warm summer’s day, the outside terraces in the square will fill up quickly, creating the atmosphere of a large beer garden. In the winter, you can grab a blanket and sit under the outdoor heating or in one of the temporary cabins to enjoy the outdoor scenery.

While you’re here, make sure to head inside to see what each pub has to offer. From dancefloors and DJs to live music and karaoke, there is something for everyone at the Oude Markt!

Although most nights out in Leuven end up at the Oude Markt, there are plenty of other worthy bars and restaurants scattered around the city if you want something a bit more low-key and less crowded.

A quiet morning in the Oude Markt
A quiet morning in the Oude Markt

#4 Explore the Beguinages, a World UNESCO Heritage Site 

The Beguinages are a fascinating part of the history of the low countries (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg). These female-only residences offered young women from the countryside an opportunity to live and work in the city without having to get married or take religious vows. 

Beguines were lay women who lived in these religious communities without retiring from the world or taking vows of marriage. They were free to leave and marry if they chose to, and they did not have to give up their land or wealth to join the order.  

The Beguinages were a walled/gated community inside of the city, and the lay women often contributed to the economy through charitable work and, notably, with their involvement in the textile industry. There are 2 beautifully preserved Beguinages in Leuven that you can explore during your stay!

Today, some of the buildings in the Beguinages are used for new purposes. The Groot Begjinhof, for example, provides accommodation for visiting professors as well as KU Leuven staff and students.

#5 See Saint Peter’s Church  

Saint Peter’s Church is one of the most magnificent buildings in Leuven – and that’s really saying something! Art lovers will particularly enjoy a visit to the church to see the amazing architecture, sculptures and paintings that have been preserved in their original location.

Amazing drone footage of Leuven featuring Saint Peter’s Church, pictured on the left

Built in a late Gothic style, the belfry of the church was declared a world UNESCO heritage site and is another example of the amazing history and culture preserved and celebrated throughout the city. It is a must-visit location during any trip to Leuven.

One of the most famous paintings in the church is Dierec Bouts’ ‘The Last Supper‘, which was created for the chapel nearly 600 years ago. If you’re visiting the city, make sure to stop and see this world-famous piece of art and history.

#6 Snap a Photo at The Great Market Square 

In the Grote Markt (Great Market Square), you will find yourself surrounded by intricate architecture, including the old town hall. While administration functions have moved to a different part of the city, ceremonial functions still take place at this location. For example, you may see a wedding photoshoot being held outside of this ornate building!

It’s no surprise that the old town hall is still so popular, as its elaborate and delicate architecture makes the perfect backdrop for a special photo. Statues are carved into the pillars of the wall, depicting local figures and saints as well as scenes from the Bible; every possible part of the building has been decorated to perfection.

As a bonus, the town hall is located right beside Saint Peters Church and the Oude Markt, so you can see many of these locations in just a few minutes!

Grote Markt Leuven
Grote Markt Leuven – The Town Hall and Saint Peter’s Church.

Can you spot the statue in the picture above? Officially called ‘Fons Sapientiae’ (‘Source of Wisdom’), this statue is known affectionately as Fonske by locals. The unique fountain depicts a student pouring water onto their head while reading.

The meaning behind the statue is often debated. Many claim that the water is meant to symbolise a thirst for knowledge, while others argue that the diligent student is clearly holding a Belgian beer in celebration, to symbolise the vibrant student life! What do you think the message of the fountain is?

#7 Stroll Through the Botanical Gardens 

Nature lovers should visit the botanical garden during their time in Leuven. Created for medical students by the University of Leuven in 1738 and known as Kruidtuin (which means ‘herb garden‘), the botanical garden is another part of the city with a rich history. It is home to a diverse range of flora.

The park is free to enter, but, unfortunately, dogs are not allowed. Group tours are also available, weather permitting. If it’s a nice day, why not have a picnic at the botanical garden and immerse yourself in nature?

About a 50-minute drive from Leuven (just under 60km) is Hallerbos, the fairytale bluebell forest. While it’s not strictly related to Leuven, you can find out more information about it on our list of the best things to do in Belgium, such as the best time to see the flowers in bloom!

A video exploring the best things to do in Brussels, Belgium.

#8 Visit the weekly market

Every Saturday, you will find lots of stalls set up along the main streets of Leuven. These stalls sell everything from local cuisine and artisanal dishes to homegrown produce, plants, flower bouquets, old records, and even vintage clothes!

If you are looking for a laid-back start to your morning, grab a snack from one of the stalls and browse everything that local traders have to offer. The market attracts locals and tourists alike. Many people spend their morning sitting outside cafés with a coffee or a glass of wine and a charcuterie board, watching the hustle and bustle from afar.

Alternatively, visitors can hit the high street for a day of shopping. There are plenty of fashion boutiques, designer shops and everything else that you would expect to find in a big city. As a bonus, traffic is restricted in most shopping zones of the city during opening hours, which makes getting around on foot so much easier.

#9 Visit M Museum Leuven

It is evident from the building itself that M Museum Leuven is a place where classic meets contemporary. The museum hides a modern entrance behind the facade of a traditional arched wall. Designed by Stéphane Beel, the museum itself symbolises the love for art, old and new.

You will find lots of art from Leuven within these walls, with some dating as far back as the Middle Ages and up until the 19th century. Be sure to check out the temporary exhibits on display while you are there!

Take a quick tour of M Museum Leuven!

During the Summer, the museum opens its rooftop garden/terrace bar, so you can sit back and enjoy a refreshing drink in the sun after a day spent admiring art. This is a perfect way to spend a relaxing day taking in the culture and history of the city and its people.

#10 Try Some Authentic Belgian food 

Belgium has some delicious cuisine that you must try during your visit. One of the most popular snacks in the area is Belgian fries, which are the perfect snack to get on the go. They’re traditionally paired with mayonnaise, and you are usually given a generous portion.

For dessert, there are many Belgian chocolate shops to choose from, and each is known for its own unique flavours and combinations. Alternatively, we would really recommend trying a Belgian waffle! It’s a classic known around the world and an amazing dessert to enjoy on the go. You can drizzle it with rich Belgian chocolate, load it with fresh fruit or sweet caramel sauce, or enjoy it plain!

Belgian Waffle
Enjoying some delicious Belgian waffles is an iconic thing to do while in Leuven.

Leuven is a Wonderful Destination to Explore

Belgium is an amazing country to visit. Whether you’re on a city break, on Erasmus, or Interrailing around Europe for the Summer, Leuven is the perfect place to experience Flemish culture at its finest. It is a great location for history, architecture and art lovers, as the mediaeval city is so well preserved.

Leuven is a city that takes great pride in its appearance, and walking down its tidy streets will prove this. The city is walkable, with many attractions to explore during the day, from local markets to the wonderful M Museum.

On the other hand, Leuven is known for its great nightlife scene. The Oude Markt is the perfect place to unwind with a coffee during the day or enjoy a night out in town, exploring its many bars. Whether you’re travelling with friends, family, or solo, you’ll have an amazing time exploring all that Leuven has to offer.

Now that you have plenty of ideas on how to spend your stay in Leuven, why not brush up on your general knowledge by checking out our top 10 interesting facts about Belgium? If you have enjoyed this article, you may also like our other articles on destinations around the world, including:

The Best Bars & Pubs in Ireland | Les Vosges: A Green Heaven in the Northeast of France | The Full Travel Guide to Rotterdam: The Gate of Europe | Best Things to Do in Cologne for an Enjoyable Vacation

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