When you plan a trip to or through Belgium chances are that you are going to visit Brussels (home of the European parliament), Bruges (famous of the film “In Bruges”) and Antwerp (the Diamond city), but I invite you to hop on a train in the direction of Leuven and travel 20 short minutes east of Brussels. I am going to take you on a tour visiting the places that became points of reference for me in this frequently overlooked Flemish pearl. Leuven is my alma mater and one of the most enchanting little cities in the world with some stunning UNESCO heritage.
The first time I got of the train in Leuven
I was struck by the smell of frituur (fresh Flemish fries). The square in front of the station was under construction and I felt a little lost. I was a poor aspiring student, with just enough money for two nights in a youth hostel in an unknown town that had to become my home for the next five years.
At the time there was only one YMCA hostel on the abandoned north side of the train station. As you can imagine that didn’t help me to feel welcome. I dropped my bags and set out to discover. Nowadays there are many cute Bed & Breakfasts and several hostels in the city center. If you are about to book your stay in Leuven, make sure to find an accommodation inside of the city center ring.
In Leuven there is no subway but it is served by a good bus network. I spent my first days walking around getting to know the town. I suggest you do the same. It’s the best thing on a sunny autumn day. The colours are beautiful and ought to be admired. You could also explore the city by bike (they are for rent at the station), but the rules for biking in Leuven are pretty strict. Due to the large amount of students, the police hands out fines for cycling in the wrong direction or without lights as if they were fun stickers.
From the station a short stroll down Bondgenotenlaan brings you to Fonske. A little statue. This little statue repres
ents a student who pours water (a metaphor for wisdom) in his head whilst reading a book. Like Manneken Pis in Brussels, also Fonske frequently gets dressed
and is the mascot of Leuven.
Two passes further you will get struck by the amazing beauty of the town hall and the cathedral on the Oude
Markt Square. On Oude Markt you can enjoy a cup of coffee or glass of cava (sparkling wine) in style next to the town hall of Leuven. I personally like to look up and admire the frontage of the buildings. They tell many stories about other times. It is one of those places where old meets new. The other big square called Grote Markt, is in the afternoon the place to be for a beer (or at night for partying with the locals). It is called the longest bar of Europe due to its connected terraces where everybody enjoys a drink.
A glass of mineral water usually costs more than a pint of beer in Leuven. To order a beer you can just show your pinky finger to the waiter and he’ll understand immediately you are in need of a fresh Stella. Leuven is the home of inBev, the brewer of Stella Artois and this makes bee
r an important part of the local culture. In the area there are also many other abbeys and artisan brewers. One of my favorite streets in Leuven is the Parijsestraat just behind the Grote and Oude Markt where you could get a nice pasta at the window pasta man l’inzio and take it with you for a delicious beer while you play a boardgame with friends at de Metafoor. Most of the bars in oude Markt and Parijsestraat serve only drinks and allow you to bring your own food. Beers you must taste are : Kwak, Duvel, Kriek, Westmalle and Westvleteren.
Fresh Flemish Fries
Leuven is more than beers and terraces. When you are discovering the city stop for a minute and buy some frituur or try the beef stew. In foreign countries people eat “Amsterdam” branded fries, but actually the best fries are Belgian (they fry them twice!). Most of the live in town evolves around the University. Between September and July you see students everywhere.
The university campus was found in 1425 and possesses some important historic buildings such as the Beguinage quarter (UNESCO heritage). The historical neighborhood was established in the 13th century. The houses were originally destined to semi religious single women. Nowadays it’s property of the university and resides their visitors and staff.
The central university library is another one of the high lights you must not miss. During the first and second world war an incredible amount of books out was destroyed and there was not much left of the building. It got rebuild with help of foreign funds. A peak inside is definitely worth it and will provide you with a full Harry Potter experience. The tower of the library provides a breath taking panorama.
Speaking about magic experiences, if the weather allows it a walk through the Heverlee sports campus towards the Castle of Arenberg is a must do. During weekdays you can take a break at Alma3 and have a student meal (unlimited refills of fries) .
And what do you think about the classic student residences such as the Pauscollege? Not only oxford has a charm. On the hogenschoolplein behind the residence you find the best chocomouse of the city at the Werf in a cute green square full of students.
From Monday to Friday the streets of the city center are crowded. During the weekends it is significantly less populated. Many Belgian students spend their Saturdays and Sundays in the cities where they come from and in during the weekend locals take possession of the terraces. Leuven is also well known for its beer culture and ‘gezelligheid’. Gezelligheid is a Dutch word that is difficult to translate in English. It represents a general sense of coziness and togetherness, which is part of the air you breath in Leuven and made me feel at home.
Let us know what you liked best about Leuven!