Just 20 minutes west of Brussels, lies one of Belgium’s best kept secrets, the beautiful 10th century town of Leuven. Little known by tourists, you won’t encounter large crowds here, but instead throngs of locals and university students out enjoying the great food, local beer, long streets with quaint shops, and architecture that rivals anything you’d find in Brussels.
With roots as far back as 884, Leuven is full of history. It even held prominence over Brussels for a time. The history remains, but with it’s 600 year old university along side several more recent academic institutions, the throngs of students keep this town young and alive. It’s a good mix. Old, yet exuberantly youthful.
There is much more here than one can see in a day, but the two market squares are a good place to start giving you a taste of architectural treasures along side the famous brews.
- The Grote Markt at the end of Naamsestraat in the center of town is something you don’t want to miss. This is where you can see the old Town Hall, one of the most beautiful examples of Gothic architecture in the world and St. Peter’s Church, the oldest church in Leuven. It’s pretty much a straight shot from the train station, so you can’t miss it.
- St. Peter’s Church: Open all year except for Marktrock (this year 8-10 August)
- Historic Town Hall: Open all year with limited hours
- The Oude Markt is just southeast of the Grote Markt. It doesn’t have any prominent landmarks, but is full of restaurants and bars. Nicknamed “the greatest bar of Western Europe,” it had a young celebratory atmosphere. This is the location of the Markt Rock every year.
- On the Grote Markt, you’ll find several choices…
- Quasimodo’s Notre Dame across from the Town Hall is good — It serves typical food… pasta dishes and croquettes. The Croquette Monsieur is a very elegant way of asking for a grilled ham and cheese sandwich and is nothing more than that. Cheap and good for picky kids. The spaghetti bolognese is delicious and the portions are good. Kids will be able to get the basic chicken and fries that are decent. But, if you want some adventure… get the salmon and spinach lasagna. THAT is something special with large square green pasta layers filled a gooey spinach cheese filling and two large salmon steaks sitting on top. YUM!
- You can walk just a couple blocks to Tiensestraat 8 where you can drink beer piped directly from the Domus Brewery into the cafe taps.
- For a livelier atmosphere, go to the Oude Markt – the list there is endless.
- There are several ice cream/waffle stands littered around. You can’t go wrong there. Belgian waffles are the best. (If you have small children and think you want waffles, bring wipes. The little napkins are NEVER enough to clean up all that delicious sticky goo off little hands and faces.)
- Domus Brewery is on Tiensestraat 8 – drink beer piped directly from the brewery to the taps.
- Stella Artois gives tours Tues – Sat day and evening. Call for information. Tour website (http://www.breweryvisits.com)
- Marktrock concert is held every August bringing three days of music from some well known bands to the area. This year it will be held on 8-10 August. This is one of Europe’s biggest urban music festivals and has 26 bands slated for this year!
To me, the weekly market is one of the best parts of the town. The touristy stuff is nice, but it’s at those small local markets where you get the real pulse of a town… where you can see, smell, and taste the day to day life. The old ladies with their carts. Dogs. Young people. It’s real and unpretentious. Plus, if you don’t want to sit down for a three hour lunch, this is a great place to grab a quick snack for a lot less money!
- Weekly Market: you can enjoy the general market each Friday morning and all day Saturday on Brusselsestraat. A little different from the markets here, this has a nice mix of the Flemish and French foods making it another good place to grab a quick lunch if you don’t have the hours to sit for a proper European meal. You’ll see big white bowls filled with various types of uncooked snails, elaborate combinations of flowers, quiche, nuts, olives and garlic… breads, bakery items, produce… all tempting! (well… except may be for the snails that I was too terrified to try)
- Christmas Market:The holidays bring a beautiful Christmas market to Ladeuze square. Check the Leuven website or www.christmasmarkets.com for more info closer to the holidays.
- Antique Market: On Sundays, you’ll find an antique market on Mathieu de Layensplein and Mechelsestraat with a variety of things including mirrors and chandeliers. It’s not touristy, nor overcrowded and you may just find a treasure there.
- If there is more time in your day, walk to the opposite end of Naamsestraat to find the Groot Begihnhof, an UNESCO World Heritage site. Beguinages housed the women who were left behind when the men left during the crusades in the 13th century. Though there are several beguinages in Belgium, the Groot Begijnhof of Leuven, is the largest still in existence. It has the feel of a small town with it’s own collection of small houses and narrow streets built just outside the original town wall. Now housing university students and faculty, visitors can tour the church there between April and September.
- Ladeuze square: If you are walking down Bondgenotenlaan towards the train station, this will be on your right. The building is the University library and the bug… well, it’s art, more specifically, ‘totem’ by Jan Febre, or really giant fly stuck on the end of a sewing needle. The kids will love it. You gotta love the contrast here… beautiful building hundreds of years old, and a really big insect. They fit rather nicely together, don’t you think? P.S. This is the location of the Christmas market every year!
- Peruse this site… you’ll find every church, abbey, garden, and museum in the area… http://www.leuven.be
Getting there is easy. Take the train and walk the 20 minutes to the city center or drive and park at the beautiful new parking structure by the train station or one of any small lots around the market squares.
Located at the old Town Hall on Naamsestraat 1 in the Grote Markt, they’re open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m all year and hold the same hours on Sundays and public holidays from March through October.
For more information online go to: