Bored of standard recommendations for things to do in Leuven? I feel ya. After months in the area, here’s what I recommend to people visiting Leuven, Belgium.
The first few times I visited Leuven I was a tourist. These days, I’m its prisoner.
Just kidding. Sort of.
“Prisoner” might be a hyperbole, but the situation is real. Thanks to everyone’s least-favorite pandemic, my life of full-time travel came to a screeching halt. What began as a brief visit to my parents’ house in a small Belgian village stretched into more than half a year in the area. End date to be determined.
Being here for so long has been a shock in more ways than one. On a positive note, it gave me a chance to get to know far more about Leuven and its surroundings than I ever would’ve expected.
Once I (mostly) got over my initial self-pitying lockdown blues, I began channeling my traveler’s curiosity into exploring the area. Though Leuven and Belgium as a whole are much less off the beaten track than the destinations I usually frequent (I was supposed to be co-leading a women’s tour in Pakistan when lockdown started), there are still plenty of offbeat things to do in Leuven and its surroundings besides getting drunk at the supposed longest bar in the world.
Even better, almost all of my suggestions are free! Because ya girl hasn’t had real income in months. RIP travel blogging.
9 of my favorite offbeat things to do in Leuven
- See the city from above
- Hunt down a little beguinage
- Grab a beer at a Metafoorical brown cafe
- Escape to an organic abbey
- Enjoy homely Belgian bites
- Chill on medieval castle grounds
- Grab a gelato in the sun
- Head out to a floating castle
- Discover Belgium’s dark past
1. See the city from above at Keizersberg Abbey
Most visitors to Leuven head up the library tower in search of views, but did you know you there’s another place to check out Leuven’s skyline?
Keizersberg Abbey (Abdij van Keizersberg or Park van de Abdij van Keizersberg on Google Maps) sits on top of a hill overlooking the city. The abbey can only be visited by appointment, but I go there for the views, not the building itself. The hill it’s on isn’t a mountain by any means, but it’s enough to see out over all the buildings, and the view from the abbey is better than the library view in my humblest of opinions.
Old brick fortifications surround the Benidictine monastery’s park. They’ve been fenced off during my recent visits, blocking the best views… but every visit, without fail, I find a new hole or way around the fence. But you didn’t hear that from me.
(For the record, the park maintenance people don’t get too upset when they catch people on the other side of the fence.)
2. Hunt down the Kleine Begijnhof
Errbody knows about the UNESCO-listed Groot Begijnhof (Great beguinage) in Leuven, but did you know there’s a little beguinage in the city, too?
Head through the gatehouse and the hill from Keizersberg Abbey, and eventually you’ll end up near the Kleine Begijnhof. The easily-missed lane of historic buildings that once housed women seeking independent lives sans-marriage is now occupied primarily by students of KU Leuven (the city’s major university).
It’s not as sprawling as the Groot Begijnhof, but the scenic lane pairs nicely with a walk to the hilltop abbey.
Want to see more charming Belgium architecuture? Check out the lovely town of Bruges while you’re visiting Belgium as well.
3. Grab a metaphorical—but still literal—beer at Metafoor bar
Leuven isn’t wanting for places to get a beer—it is in Belgium, after all—but the terraces lining the popular Grote Markt and Oude Markt squares get old fast. They’re good for the views on sunny days, but that’s about it; I still can’t really tell any of them apart.
If you want a side of character with your drink, Metafoor is a warm Belgian-style bar: brown wood, small but cozy, friendly staff. Its beer selection is as choice as should be in Belgium, and it hops with both students and older clientele in the evenings. These days, it’s my go-to recommendation for people who want a beer with atmosphere in Leuven.
Still thirsty? If Metafoor is looking full, I’m also fond of Fiere Magriet (more expensive, but also atmospheric with even more beer on offer) and Café De Libertad (cheaper, small with live music, but less traditional Belgian feels).
4. Escape the city at Abdij van Park
Yep, another scenic abbey on the outskirts of Leuven. Technically it’s outside the city in a town called Heverlee… but everything is so close together, you’d never know.
A series of man-made ponds surround the 12th century abbey, as do a handful of wooded walking trails. You can roam through the abbey grounds for bit of historical context—if you reserve in advance you can go on a guided tour of the abbey for €5—then go for a walk around the ponds to the sounds of rustling leaves and duck calls. From Tuesday to Saturday, a small farm shop sells local organic produce, beer, and ice cream made from local milk.
If the abbey shop is closed when you visit, never fear! There’s also a small brasserie attached to the abbey with a scenic terrace overlooking the water, if you’re in the mood for a beer or a bite to eat during your wandering.
5. Sink your teeth into Belgian cooking at the family-run Julia en Elias bistro
Hidden away in a small courtyard away from the road, this little bistro is run by an older couple. The kitchen is small and open, and there are only a handful of tables (in another outdoor courtyard now because, y’know, COVID). The owners’ aim was to create a restaurant that feels like eating at a Belgian grandmother’s house, and I gotta say: they succeeded!
If you’re looking for an offbeat Belgian dinner option in Leuven—or want to eat somewhere with a homely touch—I recommend making a dinner reservation at Julia and Elias.
6. Chill out on medieval castle grounds
The grand Arenberg Castle to the west of the city is a popular spot for students to hang out in the evenings. A small collection of wooded walking paths lead from the city center to the castle grounds, where you can sprawl in the grass in the presence of one of Leuven’s grander structures.
Unfortunately, the castle is only open to students or groups on special occasions. Trust me, though: it’s pretty enough to be worth the walk.
7. Grab a gelato in the sun at Carambola Gelato
An ice cream in the sun is good literally any day of the week… and homemade gelato from a food truck is even better. In my opinion, anyway.
During warmer months, the Carambola Gelato truck is parked in the grassy square outside of the Hal 5 factory (home to a handful of restaurants, including one of my favorite vegetarian restaurants in Leuven).
They serve variations on crowd favorites like vanilla and chocolate, but also offer more unusual flavors like passionfruit, sesame, and then some. Choose your flavor of the day, pick a spot on the steps or in the grass, and enjoy the simple things in life.
8. Strike out to see a floating castle in Horst
If you have a bicycle, car, or don’t mind the idea of a 25-kilometer round trip, Horst Castle in Holsbeek is one of my favorite castles in the area.
“Connected” to land by a stone bridge, the castle appears to float atop the water surrounding it. You can visit the interior of the castle between 10:00 and 17:00, though many people come just to walk on the trails in the area or fish for carp in the castle ponds.
For the most surreal views, try to coordinate your visit to see sunrise or sunset. Golden light illuminates the castle, and on calm days the floating castle reflects perfectly in its still waters.
9. See a dark side of Belgium’s history (… or enjoy nature) in Tervuren
If you’re willing to head out further afield on a day trip, grab your bike (or bus ticket) and head to Tervuren Park to the west of Leuven.
The clumsily-named Africa Museum (older official name: Royal Museum for Central Africa) sits in an old palace at the center of the park. Though pretty, the estate has hosted some ugly racist acts, including but not limited to a human zoo of Congolese people coordinated by the genocidal King Leopold II at the 1897 World Fair.
The popularity of the human zoo led to the palace’s conversion into a museum about the Congo, but in recent years, Belgium has attempted to acknowledge its horrifying colonial past. In 2019 the museum reopened after years of remodeling, and though there are still some concerning displays throughout, it’s a clear attempt to acknowledge the atrocities Belgium committed in Central Africa.
I highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the history of Belgium… but also understand if you’re not in the mood for a dark dive into colonialism. If you’d rather enjoy the pleasant nature than unpleasant reminders of human nature, Tervuren Park is still worth your while. Walking and cycling paths stretch through lush forests for kilometers; you can easily get lost in its extensive path network. It’s been my go-to for long-distance runs during lockdown, and I’m 97% sure I owe what remains of my sanity to its wooded ways.
Have more recommendations for things to do in Leuven? Feel free to share in the comments—I’m always happy to learn about new places.