Plan your day trip to Leuven, including top sites like Leuven Oude Markt, Grand Béguinage and more, with this comprehensive guide!
Is Leuven Worth Visiting?
Absolutely, and a day trip is just the right amount of time. Leuven is not a large city, so the significant sites can easily be explored in one day. The cities fewer sites does not mean less interesting! In this easily walkable area there are two UNESCO World Heritage sites to have on your must-see list. The oldest university in Europe – with a fascinating and moving history – is steps from the main square. And if you are into travel for the food, or beer, the Leuven Oude Markt’s line up of bars and the brewing history of the city will keep you learning and tasting.
What you Need to Know before a day trip to Leuven
- Leuven is called Louvain in French, and Lӧwen in German
- There are 3 national languages in Belgium: Dutch, French, and German. Leuven is located in the Dutch-speaking region.
- Most people in the city speak French and English fairly well.
- The Tourist information office is located on the side of the Town Hall in Grote Markt.
How to Day Trip to Leuven from Brussels
Brussels is the closest major city to Leuven, only 31km away. The trip is quick and easy whichever way you choose to get there. But if you’ve read any of my other day trip guides, you know I take the train if at all possible.
How to Brussels to Leuven Day Trip by Train
Getting from Brussels to Leuven by train is incredibly easy, and fast. So many trains make a stop in Leuven before continuing on to other locations, you’ll likely only have to wait a few minutes before the next one pulls into the station.
- Frequency: Many! Trains depart every few minutes to 25 minutes maximum
- Transfers: No transfers are required
- Duration: 17-27 minutes (trains that stop at the airport take a bit longer)
- Go to Belgian Railways site for specific times and prices, and purchase in advance
How to drive from Brussels to Leuven for a day trip
Again, driving from Brussels for your day trip to Leuven is also fairly quick and easy. I would likely still choose the train so I don’t have to worry about traffic and parking. Plus, driving takes the same time or longer, and will likely cost more as there is no free parking in Leuven center.
- Duration: Roughly 25-30 minutes
- Main Highways: E40 to E314
- Parking in Leuven: No free parking, best to keep car out of Leuven center. Best to use one of the paid car parks with a free bus to the center.
When to Plan Your Day Trip to Leuven
When to Visit Leuven is deeply subjective. One blogger is going to tell you spring is the best time to visit Leuven, while your aunt Judy will insist it’s Fall, and that friend from college will insist she went in June and it was absolutely perfect. Me? I love to be somewhere off season and avoid the crowds and heat, so I tend to do a lot of my Europe travel in the Fall. However, here’s some data to help make the decision for you.
- Hot months: June/July/Aug – high 72-76F
- Coldest Months: Dec/Jan/Feb – low 33-35F
- Most precipitation: Nov/Dec/Jan – 2.7-3.3”/mo
- Most Sunshine: May/June/July – 210-217hrs/mo
- As a university town, Leuven is often more crowded during the school year than in summer months.
Leuven Weekly Markets
If you love the Markets in Europe like I do, you may want to visit on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday to catch one of the Leuven weekly markets.
- Thursday Market: 1pm-6pm
- Flower and plant stalls
- Friday Market: 7am-1pm
- Food, textiles, flowers, & plants
- Mgr Ladeuzeplein & H. Hooverplein
- Saturday Market: 9am-6pm
- Artisanal market, antiques & brocante, food, flowers & plantsSaturday Market:
- Brusselsestraat, Parijsstraat, pensstraat, M. de Layensplein, & Mechelsestraat
Leuven Annual Special Events
- Leuven Innovation Beer Festival – Innovative beer breweries from around the world brought together
- Zythos Beer Festival – Largest Belgian beer sampling festival in Europe
- Hapje Tapje “snacks and taps” – foodie festival held the first Sunday in August
- Annual Fair – Monday after 1st Sunday of September
Getting Around Leuven
From the Leuven train station, it is a 1km walk, straight down Bondgenotenlaan to the center of the Grote Markt, beside Sint-Pieterskerk. It will only take about 10 minutes to make the walk, maximum. However, There are busses around the center, but historic area you are likely to be exploring is small enough it doesn’t really make sense to take one.
What is Leuven Known For?
Leuven is a university town with a large part of the population being students or somehow connected with Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. KU University is both the oldest university in Europe, and named the most innovative.
Leuven also has a strong and historic beer brewing industry. The Stella Artois breweries, the second largest breweries in the world, are located here. Leuven is home to the “longest bar in the world” and two annual beer festivals.
There are also two UNESCO World Heritage sites to add to you day trip to Leuven. Both the St. Peter’s Church and the Leuven’s Groot Begijnhof are on the list. Be sure to visit while you are in Leuven!
What to See on a Day Trip to Leuven
Leuven University Library
If you are a history lover, the Leuven University Library and bell tower are can’t miss sites on your day trip to Leuven.
Very soon after the start of WWI, Germany invaded Belgium. Just as the Germany forces reached Leuven, shots were fired at German soldiers. The Germany troops blamed the shots on Leuven civilians, while Belgians claimed the shots were between the German troops themselves in the confusion and panic of battle.
The Destruction of Leuven University Library
At the beginning of WWI, in retaliation for an alleged attack by the people of Leuven, German troops burned much of Leuven. By the end of this sacking, more than 2000 buildings were burned to the ground. Hundreds of civilians were taken to Germany in cattle cars and 248 had been killed. The entire event is horrifying.
In the midst of this destruction, the Leuven library was also destroyed including 300,000 books, and 1,000 manuscripts. Many of these were irreplaceable and of immense value as the Univeristy was founded in 1425 by Pope Martin V, so many valuable pieces had been collected.
The Rebuilding of Leuven University Library
The outpouring of support from the world afterward was stunning. Other countries, and particularly singled out is the United States, raised funds to rebuild the library. Most moving, was that the funds came largely from schools, associations, teachers, and smaller groups of people who raised money just to help rebuild. The new University Library was built with carved stones throughout the structure naming each group that sent support. I was surprised and incredibly moved to find a stone right near the entrance naming the teachers of my own small hometown in Pennsylvania.
Visiting Leuven University Library Today
On your Leuven day trip, you can enter the main doors and purchase a ticket to take a self-guided audio tour of the library. If you choose to climb the bell tower, there are photos and displays telling the history and rebuilding at each level you ascend. At times the climb is a tight spiral staircase, but the bell tower is the highest point in Leuven, so the view is worth it.
- Location: Monseigneur Ladeuzeplein 21
- Hours: Always check KU Leuven Library Site for closings and exceptions
- Mon, Wed, Fri: 9am-5pm (last bell tower trip 4pm)
- Tues & Thurs: 2am-8pm
- Sat, Sun, Holidays: 10am-5pm
- Cost: €7 for audio guide tour. More details on KU Leuven Library Site
Leuven Grote Markt
The Grote Markt in Leuven is where the Town Hall, Church of St. Peter, as well as some restaurants are located. Most of the buildings surrounding are Gothic style, and and square has looked much like this since the 14th century. It’s a nice area to sight see, eat, and browse as the the immediate area is pedestrian only except for one bus line with permission to enter the square.
The Leuven Town Hall took the work of 3 architects from 1448 to 1469 to build it. It is built in late Gothic style, and is world famous for it’s strikingly ornate architecture. There are 236 statues in three levels of niches, covering the building. Statues of people important in local history are located on the first floor. The second floor is lined with statues of symbolic figures and patron saints. And the third and uppermost floor has statues of the Counts of Leuven and Dukes of Brabant.
- To Tour Inside: visit Visitors information office on side of Town Hall to purchase ticket
- Tours daily in English at 4pm, but events can change this, so check with Visitors information.
Church of St. Peter: Leuven UNESCO World Heritage Site
Sint-Pieterskerk, or St. Peter’s Church, is located in the Grote Markt in the center of Leuven. The first church was built here around 986AD, after a stone Romanesque iteration, the current Gothic building was begun in 1425. The same architects that built the city hall were involved in this project, which didn’t near completion until 1497.
The most interesting, and seemingly unfortunate, part of the building project came in a 1505 plan by Joost Matsys to add three impressive towers. If completed as planned, the church would have been the tallest structure of its time. Unfortunately for Matsys, funding became an issue, as did the foundation and ground stability. The tallest central tower had to be abandoned at less than 1/3 its planned height. Further future damage meant that today the tower is not even the 1/3 height.
Despite those setbacks, the belfry and bell tower were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List as one of the Belfries of Belgium and France.
Today, the interior is impressive with its soaring ceiling, and an oak pulpit that is a work of art in itself. The chancel and ambulatory have also been transformed into a museum.
- Location: Grote Markt
- Daily 10am-4:30pm (except some Wednesdays)
- Sundays 11am-4:30pm
- As hours can change, check St. Peter’s Church Website for details
- Entrance is free
- Visitors Guide with Digital experience on tablet: €5
- Digital experience on hololens: €12
Leuven Oude Markt: The Place to Pub Crawl or Dine
The Leuven Oude Markt, or “Old Market” was Leuven’s original Grote Markt. The current Grote Markt, with the Leuven Town Hall and St Peter’s Church, was built in the 15th century, and the city renamed the two locations. Sort of. The town may have officially changed the names, the people were much slower in making the switch. It took until the 18th century for the change of names to really take hold.
Through all that time, the now Oude Markt never lost its economic significance, and was still the center of much city activity. Weekly markets continued, the Grain Market was nearby, and military parades were still held here. Even nearly the whole Leuven Oude Markt was burned in WWI, it was rebuilt. It was bombed and destroyed again in WWII, and was again rebuilt.
Sometime in the 1980s the Oude Markt, was lined with 40+ bars and seating for over 4000 that spills well into the square, was coined the “longest bar in the world.” I could not find a record of who gave Oude Markt this fame, but the title has been embraced since. Ironically, the Oude Markt is today known as the lively student hangout, while the Grote Markt more traditional. It’s especially lively on Thursday nights, the student’s night to let off steam.
Groot Begijnhof/Grand Béguinage: Leuven UNESCO World Heritage Site
A begijnhof can be a single home, or a collection buildings, designed to house pious, single women formed their own communities. Some of the begijnhof, such as the many that are tucked away in our Haarlem day trip, are rows of townhouses surrounding a single courtyard. Leuven’s Groot Begijnhof (Dutch), or Grand Béguinage (French), forms what feels like a mini town in Leuven.
Leuven’s Groot Begijnhof was originally dates back to the at least the 13th century, with the oldest current house here built in the 16th century. The begijnhof covers 7.5 acres with two canals streaming through giving it a particularly peaceful and isolated feel. It has been beautifully restored and maintained after reaching a state of sad disrepair in the 1960s.
When visiting, keep in mind this is now KU University housing. You are welcome to walk through, read the plaques, and enjoy the space, but please be respectful of those who live here.
- Location: Schapenstraat, 3000 Leuven
- Hours: Always open as it is now KU Univerisity Housing
- Cost: Free
I hope, if you choose to day trip to Leuven, this guide helps you enjoy exploring all the city has to offer. If you know of something I should include here – please let me know!
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