Leuven, Belgium, might look like a small town on a map, but visiting, we found a captivating city filled with students, rich history, and great places to eat and have a locally brewed beer.
For centuries, Leuven relied on a steady influx of students to Leuven University for its culture; as a result, the city center has always been full of things to do for younger visitors like my sister and I. We visited the city in early September and spent three days being amazed by its history and its cuisine.
The great thing about most Belgian cities is their size. We stayed at a hotel near the train station, and it took us only a ten-minute walk to wind up in the city center. From there, we walked everywhere: almost everything in Leuven's city center is within walking distance.
What to do
There's plenty to see in this town if you're into history. A great way to spend an hour or so on a Saturday afternoon is to visit the famous gothic city hall, which alone makes a trip to the city worthwhile. You can catch a tour at the local tourist office for only a couple of Euros. In our case, our guide turned out to be a lovely lady of about eighty years old. She gave us a brief history of the great city hall with its rich exterior (in Dutch, French and English!). She threw in a bonus by showing our group the inside of the building: the lavishly decorated salons where Leuvians can get married and the former mayor's office.
Besides the many old universities and churches like St. Peter's Cathedral, another awesome piece of history is the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Great Beguinage. A short walk from the city center, this 13th-century neighborhood is a contrast from the rest of the city. These cobblestone streets are quiet; the little parks, bridges and old houses breathe an otherworldly kind of relaxation. Though in former centuries, beguines (pious women who didn't belong to a religious order and needed accommodation) lived there, nowadays lucky foreign exchange students get to reside in these cute little houses (top).
Where to eat and drink
For great food and beer, go to the Muntstraat when the weather allows outside dining. We were lucky when we visited: the small alley, filled with small bistros, restaurants and cafés, had chairs and tables lined up outside. Though this little street with its charming waiters might feel like a tourist trap at first, the street is actually popular among locals, too.
A great way to get to know the Belgian beer culture is offered by Domus, a small brewery just off the centrally located Grote Markt. If you're traveling with eight people or more, you can take a tour of the brewery. Otherwise, just have a seat in the cozy tavern, enjoy a snack and try their very own Domus beer. If you like a better view of the square, just sit down at any of the many cafes lining the perimeters – they all serve an abundance of Belgian beers in all imaginable sizes, flavors and colors.
A bit farther north of the city center, De Blauwe Schuit (The Blue Barge) offers a nice getaway from Leuven's hustle and bustle. Enter through an archway into a quiet courtyard for a lunch or aperitif. Don't be scared - as we were - by the house-peacock Joske. He strolls around the courtyard surprising guests. We were kind of startled when he just showed up at our table begging for our peanuts, but because he's quite friendly to customers, we actually grew fond of the quirky bird walking around a bar.
For a great time at night, turn your attention to the Oude Markt, just a five-minute walk from the Grote Markt. Here bars of all imaginable sorts line the square, which students lovingly call the "longest bar in the country." This place is full of fun every night. On weekdays, it's filled with students; on weekends, it's mostly tourists looking for a place to have a great evening.
Though less famous than Bruges and far smaller than Brussels, Leuven – with its great food, great people and an amazing story to tell – is definitely worth your visit.