When to go
It is thanks to its nearly 600-year-old university that pocket-sized Leuven has the vibe of a larger metropolis. Students constitute a third of the population and keep its cafés, bars and restaurants both busy and affordable. And with a central district that is just 2km across, it is easy to tick off all the sights in a few days.
Unusually for a university hub, it is not at all raucous at weekends, as many students return to their hometowns. The same is true for the Easter, Christmas and summer holidays, so it is least crowded during most other cities’ peaks. July and August, when some bars and restaurants close, are quietest. Find more information at visitleuven.be.
Where to stay
Digs don’t come much more historic than Martin’s Klooster (martinshotels.com) (1), a 500-year-old former convent that is now a 103-room hotel. Turrets, beams and lattice windows endow it with character. Doubles from €99 (£85).
In keeping with Leuven’s uni credentials, a bar fills Penta Hotel’s lobby (pentahotels.com) (2), but giant beds, walk-in showers and design-on-a-budget style make rooms feel grown-up. Doubles from €80 (£69).
Fully embrace the student theme at Leuven City Hostel (leuvencityhostel.com) (3), which sits in the shadow of the library’s bell tower. Doubles from €53 (£45).
How to get around
Leuven (or Louvain to French-speaking Belgians) is the capital of Flemish Brabant. Its train station (4) is 30 minutes from Brussels Midi (itself a two-hour train ride from London) or 20 minutes from Brussels Airport. It is little more than a 10-minute walk to Grote Markt (5), the central square. Buses (including the 358) cover the distance for €2 (£1.70) each way. Otherwise it’s all walkable; or rent a bike (leuvenleisure.com) for €20 (£17) a day.
Start the day
Come as close as you can to opening time (10am) to be sure of a table at Bar Jérôme (barjerome.be) (6), which serves decent coffee and draws a crowd for its brunchy salads and charcuterie.
Hit the shops
Leuven’s retail appeal lies in smaller streets around the main square. Both Mechelsestraat and Parijsstraat are good for boutiques such as Mixte and Belva, both of which focus on Belgian designers. For a true taste of Leuven, stock up on craft beers at Hops ’n More (hopsnmore.com) (7). For more gourmet treats, the central streets fill with market stalls on Saturdays.
Brooding over Grote Markt, St Peter’s Church is a Gothic beauty whose lofty arches and stained glass interiors set a stage for priceless artworks. Flemish Primitive Dieric Bouts is the big name here: his works depicting the Last Supper and grisly martyrdom of St Erasmus were painted more than 500 years ago to hang in this very church.
Time for a drink
Stella Artois has been made in Leuven since 1926, but it is not the only brewery in town. Learn about local pilsners, tripels and blondes on a walking tour (€30/£26p, leuvenleisure.com), with tasting stops in five pubs. Then sample more of the ones you like (Café Belge alone serves 100 different brews) in the dozens of outlets on Oude Markt (8), nicknamed “the longest bar in Europe”.
Set within a converted townhouse, fine-dining restaurant Zarza (zarza.be) (9) celebrates the seasons with its elegant yet accessible menus. Dishes such as sea bass tartare or veal wrapped in cabbage are presented with fancy foams and froths, but refreshingly little fuss. A four-course tasting menu starts at €59 (£51).
Go for a stroll
Climb the spiral staircase to the top of the University Library’s landmark tower (€7/£6) (10), which was built in the 20s in the Flemish Renaissance style to replace the original library destroyed in the First World War. Then cut cross Herbert Hooverplein and take Tiensestraat to reach Grote Markt. Opposite St Peter’s is the over-the-top Town Hall, its Gothic façade decorated with turrets and statues.
The all-day brunch menu at Bar Leuv (barleuv.be) (11) is perfect for lazy Sundays. Locally roasted coffee provides a kick while you peruse the menu of breakfast bowls, soups and open sandwiches, including vegan options.
Time to relax
Only a half-hour stroll from Grote Markt, Park Abbey (abdijvanpark.be, closed Mon, €12/£10.30) (12) feels a world away. The 17th-century abbey complex is one of the Low Countries’ best-preserved monasteries and sits within sprawling greenery. Tour its interiors (the 3D ceiling reliefs are amazing), wander trails past fields and fish ponds, and pause for lakeside cake in a renovated water mill.
Have a treat
You can’t leave Belgium without eating a waffle. The best in town are served at Pinocchio (13), a waffle shack in the shadow of St Peter’s. Having it plain is best to appreciate its crispy/chewy balance.
Get out of town
Leuven sits squarely on the Art Cities Route: a cycle trail connecting Brussels, Ghent, Antwerp and Ostend via countryside, canals and centuries of Flemish history. Charming Mechelen (reached by bike or a 20-minute train ride) sits halfway between Brussels and Antwerp and makes a handy day trip for its 300 protected monuments. Or try Tervuren; it is closer to Brussels and easy to reach by bike, taking in Arenberg Castle and a 1,000-year-old church en route.