Leuven 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.
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 (20km). 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.
Land at Brussels Airport, which serves Europe, America, Africa and Asia. The airport is quite busy and also has a lot of low-cost carriers.
There is a train and bus station in the Airport itself - follow the signs! Suburban trains to Leuven (a ride of 13 minutes) run every half hour on weekdays and every hour at the weekend. Taxis wait at the arrivals area.
Travel time to Leuven is about 20min by car (with little traffic) and 13min by train.
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 is on the airport's website.
Leuven can be conveniently reached by car. The E40 motorway runs from Brussels via Leuven to Liège, whereas the E314 motorway links Leuven with the province of Limburg and with Maastricht and Aachen, at about 1 hour's distance. The city has recently instaled a Parking Guidance System that guides you to the larger carparks 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 in and around the city is 50km/h (about 30mph), or 30km/h (about 20 mph) in certain areas. Your chances of getting a ticket when crossing the speed limit, even slightly, are close to 100%, especially on the ring road.
There are bus lines from the cities around Leuven (Brussels, Tienen, Aarschot, Mechelen, Diest and Wavre), but connections by train are usually faster and cost about the same. 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 20mins (if traffic isn't heavy) 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.
Visit the historic centre, the University buildings and the St. Peters 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) 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. A good starting point are the "Zoete Waters" - a series of small lakes in Oud-Heverlee. Take bus line 337 at the Train Station and ask the driver to tell you when you've reached your destination.
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.
The end of the Diestsestraat, near St. Peter's Church.
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 1km!). 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 Muntstraat, with a lot of cosy restaurants.
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.
Domus, on the corner of Tiensestraat and Eikstraat, is a cosy bar-restaurant renowned for the house special 'Retro Spaghetti' and the howebrewed beers 'Con Domus' (blond) and 'Nostra Domus' (amber), which are only sold here.
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!
A cheap and tasty option is Kiekekot (Mechelsestraat 46, 100 mt North of the Cathedral; Mon-Sun 10-22; 0476 56 62 37 ); Çetin Simsek, a Kurdish-origin activist of the Flemish Socialist Party SP.a. will welcome you and provide with fresh beers and roasted chicken with herbs (5€ half chicken, 9€ whole chicken).
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:
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.edit
't Elixier, Tervuursevest 60. It's the home for the engineering students and a nice place to have a drink. When they organize a party the atmoshpere is great and there are are in contrary to popular belief a fair amount of girls. It's located right between the center and the Heverlee Faculty, close to the Schapenstraat. edit
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.edit
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.edit
Ron Blacks, . You can find drinks at very low rates here.edit
Alegria. (Oude markt, Old market): very popular with college kids and high school students alike. edit
Domus, . small homebrewery and tavern, the beer they brew is only sold there for consumption.edit
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). edit
Lido, (Bogaardenstraat, right next to the Ladeuzeplein), . edit
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.edit
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 Wi-Fi available. Shared and private rooms available. Beds from €18 per night. edit
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. edit
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 (eg. 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:
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.
This is a usable article. It has information for getting in as well as some complete entries for restaurants and hotels. An adventurous person could use this article, but please plunge forward and help it grow!