Leuven (French: Louvain) is a dynamic and thriving city of about 95,000 inhabitants in Flemish Brabant, Belgium. It's a true university town in which the town is more alive during the academic year (end of September till June), although there are a lot of events in Summer. The university, with about 35,000 students every year, is the oldest Catholic University in the world, founded in 1425. The historic centre is one of the most beautiful in Belgium.
It is also the ideal starting point to discover the rest of the country: Brussels is just around the corner, the Coast is only a 1,5 hour train ride away and Antwerp, Bruges, Ghent, Liège, Mechelen and Hasselt are nearby.
Lately, more and more tourists visit Leuven as the city has stepped up its efforts to make tourists feel at home.
You may find that the average age of the population drastically changes during the Academic Year, when it often seems only students stroll around the city. In general however, Leuven has everything to appeal to both young and old: A lively nightlife, interesting and sometimes stunning historic sites, the important and world renowned University and two seemingly endless shopping streets.
The city has a long and interesting history, being founded probably in the 9th century. It was particularly interesting because of the location, at the river Dijle and close to Brussels. Most of the city was thrashed and burned to the ground by the German invasion in World War I, and was again damaged during World War II. The historic centre itself however has been preserved and historic buildings like the University Library have been restored, partly with foreign relief funds.
Leuven is located just east of Brussels (20 km). It is the capital of the Province of Flemish Brabant in Belgium. This means it houses a lot of administrative services and the Province Building, where the province council is located. Its main industries are technology (due to the University) and beer. Important companies have their home base in Leuven, such as InBev and Imec
Leuven contains two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Groot Begijnhof (Grand Beguinage) is part of the Flemish Beguinages. The Belfry on St Peter's Church is a part of the Belfries of Belgium and France. The University buildings and the Historic Centre are also on Belgium's tentative list to become a World Heritage site in its own right.
Brussels Airport, which services Europe, America, Africa and Asia, is quite busy and also has a lot of low-cost carriers. You may take a suburban train to Leuven (13 minutes) for €8.80 (which is overpriced for a 13 minutes ride). It runs every half hour on weekdays and every hour in the weekend. Taxis wait at the arrivals area (20 mins with little traffic). You may also take a bus 616 from the airport bus station (1 hour, €3), which is roughly 3 times cheaper.
More low-cost carriers arrive at Brussels South Charleroi Airport but travel time to Leuven is considerably longer (1,5h). You can purchase a special bus+train ticket for € 11,40 that will enable you to take the bus from Charleroi airport to Charleroi railway station, and from there on to Leuven train station. There is no direct train link between Leuven and Charleroi; you have to change trains in Brussels. More information on the airport's website.
Leuven can be conveniently reached by car. The E40 highway runs from Brussels via Leuven to Liège, whereas the E314 highway links Leuven with the province of Limburg and with Maastricht and Aachen, at about 1 hour distance. The city has recently installed a Parking Guidance System that guides you to the larger parkings in the city centre. Look for the electronic signs on the city ring road.
It is advised not to start looking for a free parking spot on the street, since it's expensive and the many one-way streets can be a real maze when you're driving.
Note that the speed limit around the city is 50 km/h, or 30 km/h inside the ring road and in certain other areas. Your chances of getting a ticket when crossing the speed limit, even slightly, are close to 100%, especially on the ring road.
Leuven's railway station is one of the busiest of Belgium. There are frequent direct trains to and from:
- Brussels Airport (13 minutes)
- Brussels (Brussels North: 18 minutes; Brussels Central: 24 minutes; Brussels Zuid/Midi: 30 minutes)
- Mechelen (20 minutes), Lier and Antwerp (50 minutes)
- Ghent (1 hour) and Bruges (1 hour 20 minutes)
- The Flemish coast, with trains to Ostend, Knokke and Blankenberge (1 hour 30 minutes) and De Panne (2 hours and 30 minutes)
- Aalst, Sint-Niklaas and Courtray to the West
- Aarschot, Diest, Tienen, Sint-Truiden, Hasselt, Genk and Tongeren to the East
- Liège (1 hour), Verviers and Eupen (1 hour 30 minutes) in the eastern part of Wallonia
- Mons (1 hour 30 minutes), Nivelles and Soignies in the western part of Wallonia
- Ottignies-Louvain-la-Neuve, where there is a connection with the train to Namur and Luxembourg
Almost all cities can be reached by train through the Brussels North or Brussels Zuid/Midi hub. Thalys and Eurostar trains depart from Brussels Zuid/Midi.
There are bus lines from and to the cities around Leuven (Brussels, Tienen, Aarschot, Mechelen, Diest and Wavre). Buses are sometimes faster if you want to go to Herentals, Turnhout, Geel or other towns in the Campine region.
Licensed taxi's have yellow-and-blue (or the older red-and-white) colors on top. They can be found mostly at the airport. One-way to Leuven usually takes 20' (if traffic isn't dense) and costs about €55.
The city has recently installed several new touristic road signs and city maps at several locations, which make getting around in the city a lot easier. Don't be afraid to ask people on the street for information, as they are usually very open and helpful towards tourists - some will even walk you to your destination.
The public transport company De Lijn has a number of bus lines through Leuven. Centre of their network is the Train Station and the stop at the Fochplein. Since distances are not that big, you won't really need public transport unless you're going to Meerdaalwoud, Heverleebos, Campus Arenberg' or the hospital Gasthuisberg. There is no subway or tram line.
When arriving in Leuven by train, walk to the Martelarenplein in front of the Station and walk down the Bondgenotenlaan in order to get to the city centre: the Grote Markt (Grand Place) where the tourist information desk is situated. Discover the rest of the historic city centre from there. Note that you can also take the Diestsestraat, which is a pedestrian-only street.
The city has many special areas for cyclers and most - but not all (beware of police controls) - 1-way roads can be accessed in both ways for cycles. It's very easy and comfortable. Make sure to lock your bike to a fixed object or the bike will be stolen. You can also rent bicycles. More information at the Tourist Information Desk (near City Hall).
In the city centre, it will prove quite difficult to get around by thumb, since most streets and squares are car-free. If you want to thumb out of the city, pick a spot on the city ring road and hope for a quick pick-up. Be advised most traffic is local or headed for Brussels. The Koning Boudewijnlaan is a good spot as well, since it leads to the offramp to the E40 (Brussels-Liège) and the E314 (Limburg).
Remember to hold up a sign with your final destination, as most people will not 'just' pick up hitchhikers.
Licensed taxi's can be identified by the blue-and-yellow/red-and-white symbol and can be found near the Fochplein and the Martelarenplein. Although you probably won't need one, given the perfect railway connection, they're probably the easiest way to get to the Airport, for example at night.
You can get more information about these sites and more at the Tourist Information Desk, situated on the Grote Markt, near City Hall.
- Town Hall (Stadhuis). A richly decorated gothic building on the Grote Markt
- The small port of Leuven (Jachthaven). a port located at the end of the canal connecting Leuven and Mechelen. In this area a lot of industrial sites are being transformed in expensive apartments. It is the home of Stella Artois.
- University Library (Universiteitsbibliotheek), Mgr. Ladeuzeplein 21, B-3000, ☎ .
- Fonske. The "fountain of wisdom", on the Fochplein.
- Lakenhal. The administrative centre of the K.U.Leuven.
- Groot Begijnhof (Grand Béguinage) (South of the Grote Markt). This beguinage, the larger of the two in the town, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- St. Gertrude Church (Sint-Geertruikerk), St. Gertrude Court (Sint-Geertruihof) and Klein Begijnhof (small beguinage), located along a short street north of the Mechelsestraat.
- If you follow the river Dijle northwards from Brusselsestraat (near the Grote Markt) towards the area of the Klein Begijnhof, you will see a few Bruges-like scenes as the river passes by buildings.
- Park Abbey (Abdij van Park), Abdij van Park 7, 3001, Belgium, ☎ . 3 km east of the city by the Geldenaaksebaan
- Collegium Trilingue, near the Vismarkt
- The Law Court (Gerechtshof), in the Rijschoolstraat.
- St.Peter's Church (Sint-Pieterskerk), UNESCO world heritage on the Grote Markt.
- Castle of Arenberg (Kasteel van Arenberg). A château in the suburb of Heverlee, now a campus of the University of Leuven.
- British Military Cemetery De Jacht (Engels Militair Kerkhof); 5 km east of the city
- Old Market (Oude Markt), filled with bars and restaurants
- Botanical Garden (Kruidtuin) There are picnic tables in the South East cornerm left from the entrance gate.
- War Monument for those who have fallen in WWI and WWII, on the Martelarenplein.
- M (M - Museum). The city museum, located at the Vanderkelenstraat, close to the Ladeuzeplein and the Bondgenotenlaan. It has a permanent collection of medieval and modern art, and regularly hosts temporary exhibitions. Tickets give you access to the museum of th St.Peter's Church.
- Monseigneur Ladeuzeplein and Herbert Hooverplein are two adjacent squares with a mixture of modern and older buildings. In a corner of Herbert Hooverplein is a monument depicting people traveling by hot air balloon.
- Abbey of the Keizersberg, at the end of the Mechelsestraat, with Leuven's own "statue of Liberty", a 15 meters high statue of the Virgin Mary overlooking the city from the park surrounding the abbey.
Culture and Landmarks
- Visit the historic centre, the University buildings and the St. Peter's Church on the Grand Place. Information and guided tours can be found at the Tourist Information Desk.
- Visit the Groot Begijnhof (Grand Beguinage), a UNESCO World Heritage site. Easily reachable by bus or on foot.
- Visit the historical Kruidtuin (Botanical Garden), at Kapucijnenvoer.
- You can go to the new city Museum M with a combination of modern art and work from the past centuries. Close to the Ladeuzeplein, in the Vanderkelenstraat. Artworks can also be seen in the St. Peter's Church and City Hall.
- Leuven has a cultural organization called 30CC  that organizes all kinds of cultural activities around the year, for example in the City Theater on the Bondgenotenlaan. Less frequent during summer.
- A City Tour Bus leaves for sightseeing around the city from the Fochplein, situated right next to the Grand Place and City Hall.
- Visit the summer events Beleuvenissen (Every Friday in July), Hapje Tapje (First Sunday of August), Marktrock (weekend of August 15) and Leuven Kermis (Leuven Carnival) )(September). The last weekend of July or the first weekend of August, M museum hosts a festival in cooperation with the cultural centre and Het Depot.
- Beleuvenissen is a musical and cultural festival on the squares in the city centre.
- Hapje Tapje is the one day in the year all bars and restaurants put stalls outside to promote their goods.
- Leuven Kermis is a carnival situated on the Ladeuzeplein and the Hooverplein (just next to it).
- Visit the Jaarmarkt (Year Market) the first Monday of September: The entire city centre is transformed into one big market. Cattle is also sold in the streets surrounding the Sint-Jacobsplein, 500m from the Grote Markt, which is quite the spectacle. Schools in Leuven are closed for this occasion, so expect a lot of visitors.
- Have a picnic in the Sint-Donatuspark in the city centre, 50m from the Ladeuzeplein.
- Visit the Kruidtuin or botanical garden on the Kapucijnenvoer, a side-street of the Brusselsestraat. The garden was founded in 1738 and is the oldest in Belgium.
- Make a walk or have a bike ride in Meerdaalwoud or Heverleebos, the green lungs of the city in the suburbs Heverlee and Oud-Heverlee easily reachable by bike or bus (15 minutes). Many good walking paths. Some parts of the forest are still untouched. For more information have a look at Ad's Path, describing many different possibilities for fun activities and how to reach them by public transport with the artwork (wood sculptures) made by Ad Wouters as the central theme.
- Take a boat trip down the Vaart, the Leuven-Mechelen channel. Step aboard in the small port in Northern Leuven, 500m from the railway station.
- Visit the market every Friday on the Ladeuze- and Hooverplein, flea market every Saturday in the vicinity of the Grote Markt (Mechelsestraat), and flower market in the pedestrian-only part of the Brusselsestraat (the street leading away from the Grote Markt), every Saturday as well.
- Visit the Christmas market and shop for Christmas gifts, taste local specialties and drink a glass of Glühwein or brandy. Annually in December (2010: 10–19 December) on the Ladeuze- and Hooverplein.
- Visit Inbev's main Belgian beer factory (Vaartstraat 94, ph 0032 (0)16 247 111, fax 0032 (0)16 247 497), which produces such famous names as Stella Artois, Vieux Temps and Leffe Radieuse.
- Sports. Can be practiced in the city Sports Centre, with a swimming pool (including small subtropic part with slides, sauna, steambaths and jacuzzi), fitness centre, squash courts and more.
- Cheer on the Leuven teams:
- Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, the oldest Catholic University still in existence in the world (founded in 1425).
- Group T
- Katholieke Hogeschool Leuven
Shopping in Leuven is easy: you can pick one of the two main roads both starting at the Train Station and ending at the Grand Place, near City Hall and St. Peter's Church. Stores usually close around 6PM, and at 8PM on Thursday. Supermarkets are usually open until 8PM, 9PM on Friday.
- The Diestsestraat is the most important shopping street in Leuven. It has been recently changed to be for pedestrians only for the total length of the street (about 1 km!). This street also has two small shopping malls, one of them housing the Kinepolis movie theatres.
- Look for smaller shops around the Brusselsestraat, Mechelsestraat and the Parijsstraat.
- The Bondgenotenlaan also features a lot of shops, but is also the main road between the railwaystation area and the centre.
- Leuven has a lot of clothing stores, jewellers, some fine bookshops and of course a few chocolatiers where you can buy genuine Belgian Chocolate.
- Seasonal sales provide discounts up to 70% in January and July. Expect the city to be extremely busy, especially on week-ends.
In general, you'd have to really make an effort to find a horrible meal in Leuven. Almost all restaurants are tasty and relatively cheap, given the student population.
- The cheapest choice are student cantines called Alma, which serve quite decent food for the whole meal less than €10
- There are many good eateries and a great atmosphere (eating outside during the Summer is a can't-miss!) in the Muntstraat, very different styles from classical French Belgian cuisine to "Mexican", Italian, Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese. Consult the brand new website for more information.
- More common, bigger restaurants can be found right next to City Hall on the Grand Place.
- The area around the Oude Markt (Old Market) and Parijsstraat has many smaller restaurants and bars, the Old Market is sometimes called the longest bar in Europe.
- The Martelarenplein houses a lot of restaurants and bars just a stone's throw away from the railway station.
- Look for cheaper restaurants on the Old Market, as that's where the student population mostly enjoys their meal.
- Try fresh North Sea Mussels, during their season (roughly August–March). Every year, you'll see the big signs announcing their arrival in front of many restaurants.
- Many Belgians enjoy French fries and snacks in a Frietkot if they're looking for a quick and cheap bite. Don't leave Belgium until you've tried it!
Smoking is not allowed in restaurants.
In Belgium, the legal drinking age in bars and cafés is 16 for beers and 18 for spirits.
Bars and Clubs
Leuven is truly a beer city, with the world's largest brewery Inbev being founded here. Try the many tasty beers, but beware, some have much higher alcohol levels than in the rest of the world! Bars are mostly entrance-free and prices are relatively low.
- You can visit the many bars around the Old Market every night, but expect a lot more ambiance on Wednesday and Thursday during the Academic Year, when the student population is in the city (late September - early December and early February - end of May).
- The area around the Tiensestraat, where there are bars owned by student organisations:
Other bars filled with young people are
- Café Belge. Has a wide variety of Trappists, Abbey beers and special beers. In the day it is a normal cosy bar, during nighttime the bar is more filled with a younger and more progressive crowd.
- Giraf. If you are a fan of shots, this is one of the places to be. With over hundreds of kinds of shots going from classics like a B52 to dared combinations like a Chilly Willy (drink at your own risk!), this is a perfect place to get a little buzz going. Giraf has been mistakenly associated with a left-wing crowd but when you enter you will immediately notice that this is a sad cause of prejudice.
- The Seven Oaks. located somewhat strangely in an alley, but with a great atmosphere and nice music. Lots of students. "Party hour" varies, but usually Seven Oaks is a safe bet after twelve if you want to have fun.
- Ron Blacks. You can find drinks at very low rates here.
- Alegria. (Oude markt, Old market): very popular with college kids and high school students alike.
- Domus. small homebrewery and tavern, the beer they brew is only sold there for consumption.
Most parties take place in clubs in the city centre (and require a small entrance fee, €2-€4):
- Club Montréal (Naamsestraat, 100m from City Hall).
- Lido (Bogaardenstraat, right next to the Ladeuzeplein).
- Musicafé (Muntstraat).
- Albatros (Brusselsestraat, 100m from City Hall).
Larger venues are situated outside the city centre, and have a slightly higher entrance fee (€5-€9) and drinks cost a bit more.
- Club Room (about 8km from the city centre in the suburb Herent). Open on Friday and Saturday, offering theme evenings such as a gay-friendly evening every first Friday of the month. Take a taxi or a nightbus.
- Youth Hostel Blauwput. The Hostelling International youth hostel in Leuven. It's very modern and new, with a bar, a lounge, a terrace during summer. From €19,50 per night.
- Leuven City Hostel. The brand new independent backpackers hostel in the centre. Nice and cosy, small hostel. Including breakfast and free coffee/hot chocolate all day. Free Wifi Internet available. Shared and private rooms available. Beds from €18.
- Many Bed&Breakfasts can be found on the official tourist site. Relatively low price (starting from €30).
- Hotel La Royale, Martelarenplein 6. Cosy hotel with relatively cheap rooms, in front of the station. From €50 per night.
- Begijnhof Congres Hotel, Tervuursevest 70. Luxurious business hotel near the Grand Béguinage. More suitable for businessmen. From €115 per night.
- Mecure Leuven, Alfons Smetsplein 7. 50m from the Grand Place. From €65 per night..
- Klooster Hotel, Predikherenstraat 22 (Entrance and parking via Onze-Lieve-Vrouwstraat). Modern high quality hotel just outside the city centre, nearby the old market. Situated within an old cloister.
- Novotel Leuven, Vuurkruisenlaan 4. Modern hotel about 250m from the station. Easily accessible by car. From €115 per night..
- IBIS Leuven, Brusselsestraat 52. Cheaper hotel about 100m from the Grand Place. From €65 per night..
- Hotel New Damshire, Schapenstraat 1. Cosy, somewhat business-like hotel about 100m from the Oude Markt in a quiet street. From €108 per night.
- Park Inn Leuven, Martelarenlaan 36, ☎ . Primarily a business hotel connected to Leuven Central Station via a pedestrian bridge. Modern well furnished, reasonable breakfast. Public parking under the hotel.
- Theater Hotel, Bondgenotenlaan 20. Small and somewhat luxurious hotel, 100m from City Hall and the Stadsschouwburg (Theatre Hall). From €99 per night..
- Hotel Binnenhof, Maria-Theresiastraat 65, ☎ . Comfortable hotel 300 meters from the railway station and in the neighborhood of the Ladeuzeplein and the arts faculty. From €90 per night.
Leuven is a very safe and clean city, with very low crime records.
In general, there are no unsafe spots in the city best avoided. The streets are safe, even at night, although you better avoid public gardens at night. Even though most of them have closing hours which vary throughout the seasons. Of course, it is advised to take the precautions tourists are urged to take everywhere (e.g. to avoid pickpocketing). If you have a bike, make sure it is secured with a decent lock as students tend to 'borrow' bicycles. Similarly, jackets left unattended in bars may be at risk.
The city centre police station is located next to City Hall at Grote Markt. Don't hesitate to walk in if you have questions. Police usually patrol by car and on foot, and most of the times anonymously instead of walking around in uniform (especially at night). Try to avoid the area around Sint-Maartensdal and De Bruul (located in between Brouwersstraat and Pereboomstraat). There are also some spots in the suburb Kessel-Lo which are better avoided at night.(Casablanca and Vredespleintje)
Beware that police are especially harsh on traffic violations (also the ones made on a bike!), violent behavior and public disturbance.
Note that Belgium and the Netherlands have different drug regulations! Smoking pot (marihuana) is officially not allowed, although it is tolerated when done indoors. An adult can never have more than needed for 'personal use'. Expect any more to be confiscated if they are found by police and you risk being penalized.
Useful phone numbers:
- Police: 101
- Emergencies: 112 (can be used from mobile phones).
- Local police: 016210611 (+3216210611 from abroad).
Leuven has two larger hospitals. The Academic Hospital UZ Leuven Gasthuisberg  is the largest hospital in Belgium and is located just along the ring road. The Regional Hospital Heilig Hart  is located in the city centre. As always, dial 112 when you are in distress. You will be taken to either of both hospitals.
For smaller health problems, Belgians usually go to their family doctor, who are often in a group practice in city areas. Ask your hotel, hostel or guide for information on the nearest doctor. Going to the Emergency Room for small health problems will not only cost you, it will also take longer to get help (~45 minutes).
Leuven literally has a pharmacy at every corner. You can not buy medication in a supermarket.
- Belgians don't like to talk about their income or politics, but they love to talk about beer and chocolates.
- The Flanders-Wallonia question and the high number of separatist and extreme-right votes in Flanders are controversial topics.
- Most people enjoy helping tourists, and a lot of people speak, apart from Dutch, also English, French or German (especially the students). Don't hesitate to ask locals if you have a question.
- Throwing garbage or gum on the street is frowned upon - don't be surprised if someone talks to you if you do. You'll soon notice Leuven is a very clean city and locals respect this and try to keep it this way. Use the many bins.
- Giving tips shows that you were content with the service given, but you are certainly not obliged to do so. It is sometimes done in bars and restaurants. Depending on the total, a tip of €0,50 to €2,50 is considered generous.
- Leuven is a student city, and therefore has had a history of minor vandalism (garbage being thrown around, throwing beer cans) and public drunkenness. Lately, this situation has improved when talks between locals, student organizations and police were installed. Stewards now keep things organized and make sure the party is kept inside instead of in the streets. It is therefore advisable to keep a low profile in the streets at night, as police and stewards will act.