Leuven: Unsung city with a brewing tradition is cheapest to visit at the weekend

“We have all the attributes of the best-known cities in Flanders, but on a [smaller] scale – this is a living and working city where you don’t have to elbow your way through tourists to get through the street,” says Jo Celis, an engineer-architect whose passion for history led him to become a tour guide.

“Although you might have to negotiate groups of students during term time – there are around 50,000 of them,” he adds, with a smile.

We are sitting in the café in Leuven’s University Hall, a vast space with a high wooden ceiling supported by stone walls and arched columns. Built in the early 15th century for cloth traders, the hall was given to the university upon its creation in 1425.

Bicycles parked next to the walls of old houses in Grand Beguinage of Leuven
Leuven is a university city with a college system similar to Cambridge and Oxford (Photo: Getty)

“Everything except the façade was rebuilt after the First World War, when most of the city was destroyed by fire,” explains Celis.

I can’t tell.

Given that Bruges and Antwerp each received more than one million visitors last year, and Ghent more than 800,000, I’ve come to Belgium’s tenth-largest city in Dutch-speaking Flanders, less than half an hour north-east of Brussels, to see if I can have a Flemish experience on a smaller, more relaxed scale.

Thanks to the university’s tech company spin offs, most visitors are in town Monday to Friday for business meetings and conferences – there were only around 260,000 tourists last year. As a result, hotel prices are cheaper at weekends than weekdays, and February has the best-value rooms, according to the data analysis by Lastminute.com.

KU Leuven, which celebrates its 600th birthday in 2025, has been named “Europe’s Most Innovative University” by Thomson Reuters. Like Oxford and Cambridge, it is made up of colleges. Heritage tours (€10/£8.60) of various parts of the campus take place on Sundays, some in English.

Celis and I make our way down the cobbled street, past a couple of vegan and vegetarian cafes, and stop in front of city hall. It was built in the first half of the 15th century to rival its counterpart in Brussels. The 236 statues on the three-storey façade were added in the 1850s and celebrate the great and good from the local area. The building will close next autumn for a five-year renovation.

Town Hall in center of Leuven at sunset, Belgium
Leuven’s town hall (Photo: Getty)

I’m struck by the lack of cars in the city centre – it seems that bikes are the main form of transport. Celis explains that motor vehicles have restricted access to the city centre, one of many initiatives to help Leuven achieve its aim of becoming climate neutral by 2030. While bike hire is available at the railway station, the city centre is walkable.

On the opposite side of the square, Grote Markt, is St Peter’s Church – the grey building dates from the same time as city hall and its belltower is a Unesco World Heritage Site as part of the Belfries of Belgium and France. The main reason to visit the interior is to see two paintings by Dieric Bouts. The Flemish Primitive artist, who lived in Leuven and whose works are the focus of an exhibition in the city’s museum, M-Leuven, until 14 January, 2024, was one of the pioneers of linear perspective and landscape painting.

I don’t know who dubbed Leuven “the beer capital of the world”, but the title is not without merit. Aside from a brewing tradition dating from the 1300s, Stella Artois was created in the city in 1925 and its now owner AB InBev, the world’s largest brewing company, has its headquarters here. Unique beers from around the world are showcased at the city’s Innovation Beer Festival each May.

Situated in the regenerated Vaartkom district by the canal, the original Stella brewery is now a cavernous bar-restaurant called De Hoorn, but we head to Malz, a small, contemporary craft beer bar in the city centre offering local beers on tap – and a selection of cheese, charcuterie and chocolates with which to pair them.

The ILUV Leuven Ticket (€17), saving €7 on entry to the main attractions, includes a visit to the neo-Flemish-Renaissance university library, built with donations from the United States in the 1920s following the destruction of the original library in the University Hall in the First World War. We climb to the top of its belltower for views across the city.

I tell Celis how nice it is to explore a Flemish city as if I lived there.

“And you haven’t even seen all the sights or been to a chocolate shop or friet stall yet,” he quips.

Getting there

A return Eurostar ticket from London St Pancras to Brussels starts at £78; the ticket can be used to continue to Leuven and back by train free of charge.

Staying there

Rooms at four-star Martin’s Klooster, a 16th-century former convent, start at €119 including breakfast.

Victoria Trott was a guest of Visit Flanders and Visit Leuven.