Looking for the best sights in Leuven? Want to find out what to visit in Belgium’s main university town in corona times? Trot Op! investigated the matter, and returned with eight surprising tips for a weekend in Leuven.
Isn’t time a cruel mistress? The last time I was in Leuven for fun, is now more than ten years, ten pounds and several inches of receding hairline ago. I visited some local festivals, and before that I went for a couple of very hazy pub crawls with my Antwerp student fraternity. That was about it for me. Leuven proved a pleasant town for a night out in those days. The Old Market was one never-ending booze fest, the student-run pubs could get you drunk for a fistful of change and you could basically fall asleep on the sidewalk wallet in hand, and it would still be there in the morning. Wild times indeed, in the early 2000s.
A weekend in Leuven: eight surprising tips for a Belgian city trip
When I revisited Belgium’s student capital last weekend, it felt like not much had changed. The terraces were already pleasantly full, the skirts delightfully short and the city centre still one of the country’s cosiest. Not everything was like it used to be though – corona, you see. Every building owned by Leuven’s renowned university was off limits for non-students, and at one o’clock fun time was over and everyone was kindly requested to continue getting hammered at home. Stumbling from pub to pub from dusk till dawn will remain but a fond memory for a while longer still. In this light, it seemed a good idea to instead look for as many surprising and already accessible other things to do as possible. This way, you’ll be able to have a pleasant and corona proof weekend in Leuven, even in these strange times. Enjoy!
1. Leuven Leisure: fun and tailor-made guided tours
Want to discover all of the most interesting corners of Leuven, but too lazy to actually go look for them? Book a walking or cycling tour with Leuven Leisure instead! They have a team of friendly young guides and a lot of different themes on offer: from visits to the best bars and breweries to a tour connecting all the main sights with some hidden gems. You can even take a boat tour and discover the whole region from the water. My guide Bo was charming and very knowledgeable, and guided us through all kinds of secret shortcuts to places we would have never found otherwise. Their office on Tiensestraat is also used to rent bicycles and sell special local beers. One of them contains chicory and is actually pretty good. Go and try it! www.leuvenleisure.com
2. The Key Club: a secret speakeasy in the city centre
I think I’m going to surprise even some locals with the next entry. And since I’m only allowed to write about it without mentioning the address, you’ll have to find it on your own. Somewhere in the historic centre, a beautiful courtyard is hidden behind a door in a dark student bar. In it, you’ll find The Key Club: an atmospheric cocktail bar full of lights, plants and comfy chairs. The cocktails are great and not overly expensive, swing from the roaring twenties is played to get you in the right mood, and you can even order a fat cigar to smoke if that’s your thing. This is probably the only real speakeasy in Leuven. They even have a goldfish pond! Getting a reservation is recommended. www.facebook.com/TheKeyClubLeuven
3. Leuven’s hidden green spots
Leuven is much more than its university, its gothic city hall and its countless bars. There are for example, several beautiful parks to explore as well. And if you’re only here to party, you’ll probably miss all of them. Dijlepark is a peaceful oasis invisible from the street side, centred around an idyllic pond. Groot Begijnhof is one of Belgium’s largest and most beautiful beguinages, and the botanic garden is quite impressive as well. There’s a lot of nature to discover outside the main city too. The Bellefroid Ponds for example, have only recently been taken over by the city and are now open to the general public.
4. Act like a fool on national television
Leuven is home to the most famous celebrity chef in Belgium. Jeroen Meus hosts a daily television show on which he cooks classic dishes you can easily recreate. Everything is taped from his studio in the city centre. During the show, you’ll often see idiots peer through the window. This makes him drop what he’s doing, give them a little wave and run the risk of overcooking his tasty tasty food. It’s a friendly dude, what can I say? You too could be one of those idiots. All you have to do is walk past his Dagelijkse Kost window in Schrijnmakersstraat and hope he’s taping an episode. Your ugly mug on Belgian television! Who could have ever imagined?
5. Barbóék: grab a coffee while reading a book
No Jeroen to be seen? No panic! After all, Barbóék is right next door. This is a cosy bookstore also serving as a coffee shop. All over this surprisingly large space you will find comfortable little corners and sofas where you can start reading the books you just bought. It’s basically the ultimate hipster joint: you can pretend to understand War and Peace or some other overly complicated novel, while you sip your latte macchiato and wait for the right catch to walk by. Delightful find. www.barboek.be
6. Street Art Cities: an outdoor art gallery
There’s a whole catalogue of intriguing street art sprayed on walls all over Leuven, both in the city centre and further away. Want to discover it somewhat efficiently? Install the Street Art Cities app. It will guide you through the streets from artwork to artwork via a handy interactive map. Stroll from Heverlee, through Leuven proper all the way to the beautiful residential area of Kessel-Lo. Antwerp, Ghent and Hasselt can also be found on the app.
7. Hal 5: an industrial meeting place
Hal 5 is a new venue right behind the Leuven train Station. It’s located in the old railway halls. These were completely converted into a lively urban meeting place. The halls now house several restaurants, a bunch of food shops (including a splendid organic bakery), a couple of organisations supporting local community projects, a hall for parkour and an event space. Great location for when you want to be out of the busier parts of the city for a while. They have ice cream as well. www.hal5.be
8. Drink unique beers at Brewery De Coureur
You don’t have to limit yourself to the party scene to drink a decent beer on your weekend in Leuven. Brouwerij De Coureur is located in Kessel-Lo and was opened just a few weeks ago. It’s run by a friendly couple who discovered their passion for brewing when living in Chicago. When the first orange president was elected in 2016 – a historic occasion indeed – they decided to move back to Belgium and start a microbrewery of their own. They opened one in a spacious garage and decorated it to fit a cycling theme. The beers on tap here are impossible to get anywhere else. You can’t even buy them in bottles. Definitely worth checking out. www.brewerydecoureur.be
“You don’t have to wait out the corona crisis to enjoy a splendid weekend in Leuven. There’s plenty of stuff to do already.”
There, eight lovely tips for your next weekend in Leuven, and all of them corona-proof. Did I forget your favourite? Have some of your own to add? Did you fall asleep on the sidewalk too and did someone actually steal your wallet? Pour your little heart out in the comments below.
A weekend in Leuven: where to stay?
While in Leuven, I slept in the beautiful Pentahotel, near most of the main pubs and just a three minute walk away from the famous Old Market. This is a hip hotel for hip people, with a playful lounge, very spacious rooms and lots of fitness equipment for that rough morning after. The whole hotel is run in compliance with every Covid-19 regulation. They even gave them a funky twist with colourful signage and by offering free “take care” packages. Pentahotels also offers a special discount to anyone working in healthcare. This discount is valid until the end of 2020.
Want to discover some other parts of Belgium after your visit to Leuven? Read my articles on Gaume, Liège, Spa and Charleroi. There’s a lot to do in Antwerp, Bruges, Koksijde and Borgerhout as well. Prefer your trips a bit further away? Read everything I wrote about Aruba, Oslo, Taipei or New Delhi.