Leuven, the capital city (and beer capital) of Flemish Brabant, is a small university town right on the doorstep of Brussels. It's the kind of place that punches well above its weight, though. It might only have 90,000 souls living within its municipal border, but that border also encloses the oldest and largest university in the Low Countries – the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven – and the largest brewing company in the world – AB InBev of Stella Artois fame.
Leuven is also considered one of the prettiest – and liveliest – of Belgium's small cities. As a thriving student town, gifted with ancient colleges, ringed by science parks and plagued by hordes of cycling graduates, it could be a Belgian version of Oxford or Cambridge. Just arguably with a nicer food, better beer (and a thick Flemish accent). Its small-town (and yet decidedly cosmopolitan) historical charm is all the more surprising, when you remember that Leuven is one of the places to have suffered most from the heavy hand of Germany's 'schrecklichkeit' (terror or 'hard measures'), in the First World War. Hundreds of civilians were killed, and the University library burnt to the ground, as the German Army sought to punish resistance (real or imagined) by the town's citizens in 1914.
The unlucky library was, however, rebuilt and restocked, and similarly much of the architectural glory of Leuven remains intact for the visitor's viewing pleasure.
Also very much laid out for the visitor is a friendly welcome, especially for those partial to a sip or three of Belgium's amber nectar. But while Leuven's big corporate brewer – and its Stella, Leffe and Hoegaarden brands – may dominate the bars and cafés, there's plenty else to distract and savour for the beer connoisseur.
And there's much else to watch and do, too, with beer in hand. This is city that has to keep its students entertained, after all. But the first visitors who came to this spot on the Dijle River, 1,200 years ago, didn't receive quite such a warm welcome.
In fact, that Viking army came very much to regret its trip to Leuven-to-be.
It was 891 AD when the Viking 'tourists' arrived. And their reception party came courtesy of a certain King Arnulf, the Frankish ruler of Carinthia, and his men-at-arms. They dealt a heavy blow to the marauding Vikings in the battle that followed – in fact it was said that the bodies of the slain Northmen blocked the flow of the River Dijle. And legend further has it that the red-and-white flag of the city of Leuven represents the river after that battle, foaming red with Viking blood. Following this rout, King Arnulf built a castle on an island in the Dijle – and Leuven was born.
Initially Leuven grew slowly, as the home-town of the Counts of Leuven, who took up residence here at the start of the 11th-century. But when the counts expanded their territory, and became the Dukes of Brabant, the town swelled in importance. As with many other Flemish cities, its streets also swelled with wool and cloth. By the 14th-century, Leuven had built its own Cloth Hall, a grandiose Gothic marvel, and had even given its name to a high-quality linen cloth (known as lewyn). However, aristocratic favour was a fickle thing, and when the Dukes moved to Brussels, they took much of the high-class cloth trade with them – and Leuven faltered a little.
That's when the those wily Leuven townsfolk had a brainwave – they would become a university town to compete with Paris, Vienna or Cologne. A petition was drawn up, Pope Martin V acquiesced, and 1425 the University of Louvain was born. The students have been a mainstay of the town's economy ever since. But even their presence couldn't help forestall the calamities of the 1600's: plagues, sieges and rebellion saw the town's inhabitants fall to less than 10,000.
The 18th-century was a happier time for Leuven, now part of the Austrian Netherlands. New roads were built, and a canal – linking Leuven to the Rupel and onto the Scheldt, near Antwerp – was dug and completed in 1763. That was funded by the town's brewers, who were thriving at this time. After the French revolution, Napoleon's armies came a-calling (in 1794), and Leuven became part of France for a while.
He closed down the University, but this interlude in its long history was relatively brief. It was reinstated in 1817, after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo. A darker period of occupation was to come, however, 100 years later, when the Germany army took awful revenge here, during the First World War.
Schrecklichkeit in Leuven
In August 1914, Leuven was a city right in the path of the German army advance through neutral Belgium. The German plan was to seek to outflank the French from the north, and so bring the war in the West to a quick end. The Germans needed to move fast, and were terrified of attacks by armed civilians – franc-tireurs they called them – and their commanders decided to deal harshly with any sign of resistance.
They made good on that on that threat in Leuven, on the 25th August, when a confused retreat by another German unit led to those German soldiers already in Leuven to think they were under attack by its citizens.
A systematic orgy of looting, destruction and shooting of unarmed civilians followed. For five days the town was terrorized. The police force was rounded up and shot, as was Leuven's burgomaster and the University's rector; hundreds of the townspeople were killed. Many more citizens were rounded up, humiliated and packed off into trains for Germany. Over 1,600 buildings were set alight, and important cultural landmarks were torched. These included the Sint-Pieterskerk (Church of St.Pierre), the Academie des Beaux-Arts, the Palais de Justice, the theatre, and many University buildings – most notoriously the University library.
The deliberate burning of the library – which saw over 230,000 books, 750 medieval manuscripts and more than 1,000 ancient printed books (called incunables) go up smoke – shocked the world as much as the human casualties. It was this incident, more than any other, that helped the Allies paint the Germans as destroyers of civilization – and led to them being called 'Huns' for the rest of the war. Some believe this notorious incident also helped bring the Americans into the War on the Allied side.
The Second World War also saw Leuven as a point of conflict, but nothing on the scale of First. Post-war, Leuven successfully picked itself up, dusted itself off and carried on.
The modern era has seen the city quietly getting on with the business it does best – expanding the minds of its students, growing the technologies of the future, and brewing the big brands that the world has come to know Belgium beer by.
Getting There & Getting About
Leuven is close enough to Brussels to make it easy to reach, but far enough away to avoid much of the congestion and transport hassles the capital is notorious for. If you want to fly in, the obvious choice is to come via National Airport, which is in Zaventem, 15 miles to the west. There's a direct train connection from the airport terminal to Leuven's central station.
Or if you'd prefer, the closeness of the airport makes taking a taxi a reasonably-priced, no-hassle journey. The Eurostar option is also a good one, as it's easy enough to get into Brussels from London, St. Pancras these days.
And the train from Brussels to Leuven gets there in about 20 minutes. If you're coming from elsewhere within Belgium, train travel works very well too – Leuven itself is a major railway hub, well-integrated to the rest of the country. Getting here by car – for example if you've come by ferry or the Chunnel – is simple enough too. Just follow the signs to Brussels.
You'll only be on the A3 a short while before you hook a left onto the E314, which brings you straight to Leuven town, and its all-encircling ring road. Once in Leuven, you'll find getting about is easy – the town is small enough that walking and cycling are sensible options, with cycle hires easy to come by.
And there are some great cycle paths that reach from the city centre to the leafy surrounding countryside. Local buses are operated by Eurolines and De Lijn, plying routes both within town and to the outer suburbs, and are reasonably-priced and frequent.
Despite its need to cater to the student market, Leuven isn't short of classy hotels set in some intriguing locations. Want to spend some time in the 16th-century home of Charles V personal secretary? Try the four-star Klooster's Hotel. Want to view over the Schouwburg playhouse? Try the three-star Theatre Hotel. Not all are as expensive as the locales may indicate, and there are plenty of good value and budget hotels further out.
Perhaps the real unsung gems in Leuven are its numerous B&B's in the centre of town, occupying a wonderfully diverse range of historical buildings. Some of these are kept to a level of furnishing and service that would shame hotels in other countries.
Quite a few are also on the basic side; 'kots' that serve mainly as student 'digs', but which will give you a down-to-earth Leuven experience that won't empty your wallet. And talking of budget, Leuven naturally enough is home to several hostels, two of which are to be found in the city centre.
For The Love Of Beer
It won't come as a shock to learn that in a city home to AB (Anheuser-Busch) InBev – the world's biggest brand-name brewery – you'll be hard-pressed to find bar or café without a Leffe, Hoegaarden or Stella Artois plaque prominent on the sign-age. But luckily for those who've come to sample the diversity, history and eclectic tastes of Belgian beer, the story of Leuven doesn't start and end with AB InBev's triumvirate of globe-hopping beers.
Though actually, Stella Artoiscould be said to have been their from the beginning.. but more on that later. No, the best place to begin with Leuven's beer is probably the heart of the self-styled 'beer capital' – the Oude Markt. Or as it has now become known, the 'longest bar in Europe'. This central square is home to around 40 bars, and in summer their outdoor terraces take over a long continuous slice of it.
Of course quantity doesn't equal quality, but tucked among the identikit tourist-traps, a few of Oude Markt's star bars shine out. Café Belge has a nice 'brown café' feel to, and a good selection of brews, including several of the local Domus beers. A bit further along, De Kroeg claims to be the oldest café on the square (but don't they all?); however it certainly looks the part. It also has an interesting beer range, that stretches from the usual suspects to the wider regional beers, such as the Karmeliet and Wolf 8. So bars-a-plenty in central Leuven. But when it comes to breweries, you may be slightly disappointed to know there are only 2 brew-slingers in town.
First, the mighty magnum of AB InBev, with the gleaming slab of modernity that is its Stella brewery. And then the pea-shooter micro-brewery of Domus, housed adjacent to the tavern where its beers are served.
We know which we'd rather visit. And the quaint-yet-friendly atmosphere of the Huisbrouwerij Domus doesn't disappoint. The beers on offer are a red-amber tinted 5.8% ABV ale, Nostra Domus, and an unfiltered Pilsner 5% ABV lager, the Con Domus, plus a seasonal Christmas ale, Nen Engel (all darkness, sweetness and light frothy head – and definitely no angel). Tours of this crooked and quirky brewery are often led by the brewer himself, Gert Christiaens, and end with a generous in-house sampling.
Interesting, but if you want to dig deeper into the brewing of the region's characteristic beers, you'll have to step out of town. Leuven is, however, well-placed for visits to many iconic Hageland brewing spots, such as the De Vlier, Kortrijk-Dutsel and De Block breweries.
Talking of icons, what about that most iconic of Leuven's beers, the Stella? It was indeed here in Leuven that Sebastien Artois bought the iconic Den Hoorn brewery, back in 1717. It can track its brewing pedigree back to 1366. So Stella trumps all, in the longevity stakes at least. Den Hoorn is still in the city, though no longer a brewery – it is now a meeting space open for hire by 'creative minds'.
The founding of Sebastien's brewing family at Den Horn would culminate, in 1926, with an extra-carbonated version of their Artois, which was christened Stella. It caught on, and the rest is (beer) history.
Food & Gastronomy
Being the capital of Flemish Brabant, Leuven naturally does Flemish cuisine – and it does it well. But what's striking about this city is the wild diversity of its restaurants and eateries, which cover just about every flavour of international gastronomy imaginable. There are over 1,700 cafés, and 200 restaurants in Leuven: Chinese, Italian, Moghlai (Indian), Mexican, Thai and Spanish establishments complement the usual French and Flemish ones, especially in the student districts. It seems the students of Leuven are keen to have the world's foods and beverages easily to hand, to help fuel their studies.
If you want to go properly native, you can readily find the finest that the Brabant has to offer at restaurants like the Kokoon (round the corner from the Oude Markt) or the Improvisio, which has an excellent reputation for modern Belgian-French cuisine. Muntstraat, with its elegant 17th and 18th-century, houses, is a particular favourite for those looking out for the best in European dining.
A typical menu at a Leuven restaurant naturally includes the Flemish standards – such as the Flanders-redbruin infused stew, 'vlaamse stoofkarbonaden' or the mussels and fries of 'mosselen-friet' – but with plenty of fresh Brabant vegetables. Crisp endives, tender asparagus and locally-grown Hoeilaart grapes are popular for side-dishes and salads.
Delicacies specific to Leuven include the sweet aperitif wine, Livonia, the banana liqueur, Musa Lova and (keeping it sweet-toothed) Leuven Fonskes chocolates, miniatures cast in cocoa in the shape of the famous Fonske statue, found in the centre of town. And of course a meal in Leuven without at least one glass of Stella would be doing the town a disservice.
Shopping & Markets
Little Leuven may not have been a great market town in the recent past, unlike some of the grander Belgian cities. But it has forged its own shopping identity, thanks to the 30,000 students and university staff, who live, work and shop here. So rather than massive malls, and endless parades of top-brand stores, Leuven has developed lively community of independent shops and boutiques. Some of the more interesting of these can be found in the quarter around the Mechelsestraat, Vismarkt and Wandelingenstraat streets.
A decidedly artistic and eclectic bent can be discovered in their lanes, which specialise in original fashion, collectibles and antiques, artisan products and local foodstuffs. Belgian designers such as Dries van Noten, Kaat Tilley and Chine, are promoted by boutiques on the Mechelsestraat, with other shops purveying speciality cheeses, Leuven linens and creative gift ideas.
If you prefer you shopping mainstream, try the main shopping street of Bondgenotenlaan; along its length is where the main department stores of the town are strung. The large square of the Monseigneur Ladeuzeplein, overlooked by the town's library, is where Leuven's general market is held every Friday and Saturday. There is also an all-day antique and flea-market held around Mathieu de Layensplein and the lanes of the Mechelsestraat.
Sightseeing & Culture
An interesting and off-track approach to taking-in the sights of Leuven is to skip along a route that links its many individual (some would say distinctly odd) sculptural efforts. These are far from being just about the 'high-art', with many exhibiting a wickedly Flemish sense of humour. The starting point has to be the town's adopted mascot – the Fonske.
This quirky bronze, in the centre of the Grote Markt, is something of a commemoration to the student spirit coursing through the town.
It depicts a young denizen of the University, reading a book and literally pouring wisdom into his head, from what looks like a tankard. Whether this is meant to imply that the source of all knowledge is to be found at the bottom of a beer glass, well that's probably best left to the philosophers.. The Grote Markt itself is overlooked by the Gothic frivolity of the town's Cloth Hall, which is literally dripping in gorgeous stonework and sculptural excess – it's home to no less than 236 statutes (allegedly, one of them is nude..).
The square also houses Leuven's main religious building, the equally Gothic, but more stalwart, Saint Peter's Church (or Sint-Pieterskerk). And if it looks like the church's tower is half-built, well that's because it is. The original tower was abandoned after a fire, and the grand vision of a 550-foot high tower, started in 1505, was also abandoned after the local soils decided they weren't up to supporting such a massive edifice.
From the somewhat whimsical Fonske, to the definitely tragic Fiere Margriet. This next sculpture of note is a dramatic nude of a poor young woman, murdered by robbers in the time of Henry, the Duke of Brabant. Her body was tossed into the river, but was miraculously transported back up the river Dijle by fish. When the Duke saw her corpse floating in the river, bathed in a holy light, he declared a miracle, and the legend of 'Fierce Mary' was born.
The sculpture at the corner of Muntstraat and Tiensestraat depicts Fiere Margriet floating in the river. Close by is the (imaginatively named) Museum M, Leuven's well-regarded home to Brabantine art and design – from Classic to Renaissance to Contemporary.
'Contemporary' is the word for the museum building itself, only completed in 2009, all jutting angles and clean cream lines. Apparently its exhibitions are insightful and creatively displayed. But if you tire of its well-meaning cultural parade, the roof of the Museum provides an excellent vantage point over the whole city. The last statue on our itinerary (though there many more, with over 30 sculptural highlights documented by the Leuven's tourist board!) is the wonderfully crude De Koeieschieter, or the Cow Shooter.
Halfway up the Brusselstraat (and not too far from the Kruidtuin botanical gardens, the oldest herb collection in Belgium) this broad, fat (and again nude!) man represents a fine upstanding member of Leuven's militia. Apparently, in 1691, this warrior band mistook, in a dense fog, a herd of cattle for invading French: these sharpshooters then put a heroic defence against the hapless herbivores. This little incident earned the Leuvens the nickname 'Koeieschieters', or the cow-shooters.
Activities & Entertainment
One thing you won't have difficulty in finding in Leuven is a crowded bar or club. The city has a lively night-life that spills out from the hotspots of the Oude Markt, and includes many small dance clubs, jazz-bars and student drinking-holes. It is not, however, the best place for mammoth night-club events – most go to Brussels for that. But Leuven does have its fair share of bigger party-time festivals throughout the year.
For the past few years Leuven has been host to the Zythos Beer Festival, which usually happens in April.
Zythos is the national beer-drinkers group that promotes the best in Belgian beer (a little like the UK's CAMRA), and over 100 breweries have attended, beers-crates in tow, in recent years. So this is a very good reason to red-line April in your calendar, for your visit to Leuven. In July there's the Rock Werchter festival, a great one for those who like it loud and proud.
A more laid-back music vibe can also be had throughout July, as part of the Beleuvenissen, which typically includes jazz, blues and classical performances. It takes place every Friday of that month, in a number of venues in the Oude Markt, Grote Markt, and elsewhere in Leuven. And in August there's the more general pop music festival of the MarktRock, which takes over much of central Leuven for a weekend.
Theatre is also a big draw in Leuven, with six theatres, ranging from the comedy of the Amusemente Theatre, to the serious drama of the Braakland Zhebilding, to amateur student performances at the Janus International Theatre. But if your interest in professional dramatics is more of the sort to be found on the football pitch, then the stadium of local Leuven team, Oud-Heverlee Leuven, may be more to your liking.
B2B & Conferencing
For those looking to meet and confer in Belgium, Leuven's central location makes it an ideal alternative to the often crowded – and expensive – venues of Brussels. And because Leuven is a renowned centre for medical research, top-flight ICT companies, and the Belgian biotech industry, it has developed a strong capacity for hosting events and conferences, for both academic and business purposes.
Because of its small size, Leuven makes for an superb location for those who want to ensure their guests and attendees can be immersed in all that Belgian culture has to offer. There's much less of a faceless and bland feel to the venues here (something often found in some of the larger cities).
For example, there's the creative meeting space of the former Artois brewery at Den Hoorn, the historic calm of the Faculty Club in the Grand Beguinage, and the stylish buzz of The Loft meeting rooms – just to name a few. The local Leuven MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conventions, Events) office is especially focussed on helping businesses to develop their convention, meeting and exhibition ideas in the city.
It can advise on the logistical side of organizing meetings and conventions, and suggest the best venues and locations. MICE Leuven will even help with enquiries on the availability of venues, and can help get discounts and special offers from hotels, convention and exhibition centres, and group-booked restaurants.