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Known for a lively student population with a “work hard, play hard” attitude, Leuven has carved out a spot for itself as a prominent academic hub since the 15th century. Add to that picturesque medieval landmarks, a thriving beer culture, and the most beloved Belgian statue besides Manneken Pis, and you’ve got a town worth a weekend getaway.
If Leuven’s small beguinage charms you with its tiny white terrace houses and turquoise shutters, its big sister is sure to knock your socks off. The grand beguinage used to be home to over 350 pious laywomen known as beguines and is a historic town all on its own. With its 100 red sandstone houses, narrow canals, and little squares and gardens, it’s one of the best-preserved beguinages in the Low Countries and an absolute old-school joy to stroll or bike through.
His real name is Fons Sapientiae (“source of wisdom” in Latin), but most prefer to call him “Fonske.” The strange little man pours water – or beer according to some – down his open cranium while reading, a metaphor for wisdom seeping into his brain. As an eternal student symbolizing the city’s thirst for knowledge, he’s the most beloved among all the Leuven statues. Local students even organize winter drinks in his honor.
Besides an eye-catching beetle spire by Jan Fabre, the spacious Ladeuzeplein also boasts the main university library. Though its neo-Renaissance façade tells another tale, the imposing building and its belfry only dates back to the 1920s, constructed after its ancestor (and loads of precious manuscripts) fell prey to Great War bombs. Inside you’ll find an entirely wooden reading room, and climbing the 73-meter-high belfry offers a splendid panorama of the city.
Nicknamed “the longest bar in the world” due to its abundance of pubs, the Oude Markt has claimed its rightful spot as party central time and time again. Thursday nights are traditionally jam-packed with students trying to forget they have classes the morning after, but sunny spring and summer days also draw out huge crowds that fill the terraces with chatter and laughter.
Widely considered one of the greatest – and certainly the most selfless – Belgians to ever live, Father Damien (Pater Damiaan in Dutch) has found peace in an ancient but modern-looking church in Leuven. St. Antonius is known as a haven of solitude and tranquility, and reading the story of the saint who gave his life to caring for the leper colony on Molokai leaves most visitors in quiet thought.
As befits an age-old Belgian city, Leuven has beer flowing through its veins. Not only does the world’s largest brewer, AB InBev – responsible for both the world-class pilsner Stella Artois and a faint malt scent that wafts through the air from time to time – call it home, but it also has a great artisanal brewery and pub in Domus. Fanatic samplers may want to time their visit to coincide with the Zythos Beer Festival, where a whopping 500 different Belgian brewskis are on offer, and the lesser known but hugely intriguing Innovation Beer Festival (hosted inside the old brewing halls where the first Stella was cooked up).
The Capital on the Grote Markt Square swung for the fences when it opened up its doors in 2013, with the promise of delivering the largest beer selection in the world. The claim meant that the pub went head to head with Delirium Café in Brussels, a beer-pouring legend that promptly had its collection of over 3,000 beers officially recorded. The Capital still hasn’t delivered a counterpunch, though its stock also counts specialty beers in the thousands. Record or no record, seeing a rare brewski make its way from the cellars to the café via an authentic industrial elevator will warm any beer enthusiast’s heart.
The Capital, Grote Markt 14, Leuven, Belgium, +32 486 21 90 18
While located on the already impressive Grote Markt Square, the most stunning thing about Leuven’s Town Hall is the wealth of intricate statuettes on its façade. There are 236 of them in total, all local dukes, scientists, and saints that got their place in the middle of the 19th century, and they are meant to elevate Leuven’s prestige in the eyes of the world. The City Hall had been coasting along with empty alcoves for four centuries before the fresh Belgian independence prompted this new display of grandeur.
South of the city core, in the commune of Heverlee, greenery and woods start popping up again, first in the form of the Arenberg Park. Guarded by a 16th-century sandstone château, the landscaped grounds, surrounded by a wide moat, are perfect for a picnic or fall walk. Fascinating tidbit: the Duke Lodewijk Engelbert of Arenberg was a fierce patron of the sciences, and it was from these lawns that the first manned gas-filled balloon ever took flight. It’s all the more fitting, then, that the castle now houses the faculty of engineering sciences (though, it’s still open to the public when accompanied by a guide).