Leuven is a Flemish university town in Belgium with great Belgian beer, a picturesque old town and a lively atmosphere. It’s a perfect weekend destination for those who like good beer, historic old towns, nightlife and shopping.
Best of all, Leuven is only 25km from Brussels and can be explored easily in a few days by foot or bicycle. What more could you want?
We visited Leuven during the school break in November. So, the usually buzzing university town was less busy than normal and we were able to enjoy the bars, squares and old town without its normal crowds.
What to see and do in Leuven, Belgium
Leuven is the place to be(er)
Belgium is the home to beer and Leuven is home to Stella Artois. So, we got tickets to a brewery tour that afternoon and got educated about all things beer.
The Stella Artois brewery is a great way to spend 1-2 hours learning about their centuries-old brewing process. We had a great tour guide who was both entertaining and informative, and we got to sample the delicious, world-famous beer afterwards.
The Stella Artois brewery takes around 1-2 hours and is within easy walking distance of Leuven’s main train station and Old Market Square.
(It’s best to prebook the Stella Artois brewery tour via the Visit Leuven tourist office or online before you go. Guided tours cost around €8-10 per person)
The Domus House Brewery is another one of the few traditional breweries left in the historic centre of Leuven. Long pipes link it to a nearby cafe/restaurant where you can enjoy the beer on tap while sampling local fare.
(The Domus House brewery is open from 10am – 11pm Tuesday to Sunday. A 45 guided tour, with two beers, cost around €8-10 per person)
Sampling local beer in the Old Market Square
Often referred to as the longest bar in the world, Oude Markt (Old Market Square) is a large pedestrianised square lined with a great selection of bars, cafes and restaurants. The central square is a great spot for beer sipping and people watching, especially in the summer when the bar terraces spread out across the cobblestones in one continuous stretch of people and umbrellas.
In winter or summer, this is the place to be if you want to experience local life and sample Belgium’s globally-famous Leffe, Hoegaarden, Stella Artois beer or local Domus beers.
If you’re looking for local fare, many of the cafes in this area will serve modern Belgian-French cuisine or typical Flemish menus featuring vlaamse stoofkarbonaden (Flanders-redbruin infused stew) and mosselen-friet (mussels and fries).
During the school term, Oude Markt is buzzing with students and locals enjoying the beer and night life. The square has also been known to have free concerts, music festivals and an annual beer festival (of course!).
A tour of Leuven’s great architecture, history and gardens
The Visit Leuven tourist information centre (located on Naamsestraat, open from 10am – 5pm daily) is a great place to find out what to see and do in Leuven. The helpful and friendly people can help you book tickets for activities, such as the Stella Artois brewery tour, and had several self-guided walking maps. The self-guided walking tour took us to some of Leuven’s prettiest and historic places.
We started our tour at Grote Markt, a wide cobblestone street surrounded by a striking Romanesque church, Sint-Pieterskerk (St Peter’s Church), and 15th-century, Gothic-style Stadhuis van Leuven (Leuven Town Hall) decorated with spires & 236 sculptures on the external walls.
(Leuven Town Hall is open daily from 10am – 5pm. Guided tours take place at 3pm and cost €4)
(Saint Peter’s Church is open daily from 10am – 4.30pm and it’s free to enter. The M-Treasury of Saint Peter houses many statues, paintings and a collection of gold and silver pieces such as reliquaries, monstrances and chalices. Admission: €3)
We then walked for 15 minutes through the town to get the Groot Begijnhof (Great Beguinage).
A beguinage is a commune for religious women (not nuns) who wish to live apart from the outside world without taking vows. Leuven’s beguinage dates from the 13th century and had about 360 beguines at it’s peak in the 17th century. The Great Beguinage is made up of a series of quaint and history alleys, courtyards, gardens and parks with dozens of houses and convents built from traditional sandstone and was listed as UNESCO world heritage in 1998. It’s currently inhabited by students, foreign visiting professors and staff of the oldest Catholic university in Europe and you can visit it free of charge.
(The Great Beguinage is always open and can be visited free of charge)
Because it was on our walking tour map, we popped in to the Kruidtuin (botanical garden) and enjoyed a walk around the small gardens decorated it beautiful autumn foliage. Other than a green house with tropical plants and small turtles, and a large outdoor pond with very large fish, there wasn’t too much to see in the garden. It would be a lovely spot for a picnic in warmer months.
(Kruidtuin is open daily between 8am – 8pm and is free of charge)
Leuven also has many abbey’s, churches and university buildings that are well worth a visit if that interests you.
From University of Leuven’s library tower there’s also a great panoramic view and some exhibitions showing the history of Leuven.
(KU Leuven is open daily between 10am – 5pm and cost €5)
How to get to Leuven, Belgium
We caught the Eurostar from London to Brussels-Midi station in about 2 hours and 20 minutes. We booked around two months in advance and were lucky to get tickets on sale for £29.99 per person each way. Depending on how far in advance you book, Eurostar tickets from London to Brussels are usually between £50 – £180 (€60 – €200) per person each way.
Budget tip: The bus from London to Brussels will take around eight hours but is much cheaper at around £15 (€20) per person each way.
Leuven is conveniently located a 20 minute train ride from Brussels-Nord station and tickets are usually €5.30 (£4.50) per person each way, but are sometimes included in your Eurostar fare. A local bus will take a little longer and is around €2 (£1.50) per person each way
Alternatively, you can drive from Brussels to Leuven in around 30 – 45 minutes, but traffic is known for being pretty terrible in and around Brussels.
Looking for more weekend getaway inspiration? Check out my favourite weekend escapes here!