Considering its history, it’s a miracle that Leuven possesses a quarter of its charm. Despite being smashed to smithereens in both world wars, some of Belgium’s most remarkable medieval buildings were unscathed.
Leuven is one of Belgium’s hidden gems and an easy day trip from Brussels or Mechelen. Make the most of your time there with these best things to do during one day in Leuven.
One Day in Leuven: Sightseeing Map
Do you find it helpful to map out your day? If so, here’s one with my pick of what to see in Leuven. For an interactive map, simply click here or on the image itself.
Over half of these attractions are clustered in Leuven’s historic centre. The remainder are closer to the ring road that circles the city, but the distances are modest. For example; walking from the central Grote Markt to the botanical garden will take you around ten minutes.
Best Things to Do in Leuven in One Day
1. ADMIRE THE BUILDINGS OF THE GROTE MARKT
The Grote Markt is the beating heart of Leuven.
Dating from the 14th Century, the square is lined with some magnificent Gothic buildings, not least of which is the Stadhuis (town hall). As there are plenty of lovely bars and cafes from which to choose, this is a good place to get your day in Leuven off to a good start with a coffee.
2. JOIN A TOUR OF LEUVEN’S STADHUIS
Let’s take a closer look at Leuven’s splendid Stadhuis. This magnificent 15th Century building is Gothic in all of its pointy perfection.
Its light and lacy exterior, crowned by fairy-tale pinnacles, houses no fewer than 235 statues. This is one fewer than intended, following the ejection of Leopold II due to his less-than-stellar record in the Congo.
Take time to take a look at the graphic stone sculptures on the lower levels at the side of the Stadhuis by Hotel the Fourth – Tafelrond. These depict biblical scenes intended to educate the illiterate masses.
Although the town hall is used mainly for weddings and other functions, you can visit its historic rooms on one of the daily tours. Whilst the tour itself was excellent, it’s safe to say that the Stadhuis is more stunning on the outside than inside.
3. ADMIRE THE LAST SUPPER IN ST. PETER’S CHURCH
Facing Leuven’s Stadhuis across Grote Markt is Sint-Pieterskerk (St. Peter’s Church).
This asymmetric, hulking late Gothic pile isn’t much to look at from the outside. Building began in the 1420s but wasn’t completed until the 17th Century, with many changes of heart, and architectural style, along the way.
The ambitious plan to erect three monumental towers fell apart in the face of collapsing funds and foundations. But even though they are incomplete – the main tower just peeks above the church roof and the remaining two are mere stubs – St. Peter’s towers are included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site Belfries of Belgium and France.
Unlike the Stadhuis, St. Peter’s Church is more magnificent on the inside than its exterior might suggest. Visiting it is also one of the best free things to do in Leuven.
There is an extraordinary Baroque oak pulpit depicting St. Norbert being thrown from his horse by lightning.
Take a look also at the intricately carved rood screen.
But the main reason for stepping inside the church is to see The Last Supper by Dirk Bouts. Painted between 1464 and 1468, this shows Christ and his disciples in a Flemish dining room.
4. VISIT LEUVEN’S UNIVERSITY LIBRARY
To say that Leuven University Library has been unlucky is an understatement.
Established shortly after the founding of the university in 1425, it lost its rare books and manuscripts to France after the French Revolution at the end of the 18th Century. During the First World War, German soldiers razed the building to the ground and, along with it, its rebuilt collection.
With American support, a magnificent new library was built after the war, complete with a bell tower. But there was more misfortune to come.
The library was destroyed again in World War II with only 15,000 volumes surviving the catastrophe. After the liberation of Belgium in 1944, the library was rebuilt brick by brick.
Despite this turbulent history, the library’s archives have been added to UNESCO‘s Memory of the World Register.
The library’s magnificent 44-metre-long reading room is worth the admission fee alone.
5. TAKE IN THE VIEW FROM THE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY’S TOWER
Your ticket also gives you access to the summit of the library’s 74-metre-tall bell tower. From here there are panoramic views across lovely Leuven.
This is one of the few universities with a bell tower, housing 63 bells. On its four clock faces, there are 48 gilded stars, representing the total number of American states prior to the inclusion of Alaska and Hawaii.
However, climbing this bell tower is not for the faint-hearted.
The top balcony is accessed by a series of seemingly endless staircases. Other than the initial sets of stone steps, all of these staircases are narrow and winding.
As you make your slow ascent, there are small exhibitions that chronicle the destruction of Leuven during World War II and the subsequent rebuilding. It’s well worth stopping to take a look at these if only to catch your breath.
It’s also worth knowing that this is a working bell tower and those bells dong on the hour. It’s perhaps not a great idea to be at the tower’s summit when they start ringing.
6. GET YOUR ART FIX AT MUSEUM LEUVEN
This is one of the best things to do in Leuven if you are a culture vulture.
Occupying a modern building on the grounds of an old mansion, Museum Leuven (M Leuven for short) is home to an eclectic collection of more than 52,000 artworks, with a focus on those from Leuven and Brabant. These works of art date from the Middle Ages to the 19th Century, and include those from Constantin Meunier, Jef Lambeaux and Georges Minne.
M Leuven also has a pleasant garden and roof terrace.
7. TAKE TIME OUT IN LEUVEN’S BOTANICAL GARDEN
At times, travel can seem like hard work. Flitting from sight to sight, trying to cram as much into your day as possible. You know what I mean.
It is easy to forget to take time out and where better to do this than in the beautiful Leuven Botanical Garden (De Kruidtuin Leuven in Dutch)? Founded in 1738 by the University of Leuven, this peaceful oasis is the oldest botanical garden in Belgium. It covers an area of over two hectares and is home to a wide variety of trees, plants, flowers and shrubs.
Visit in April and a dazzling display of nodding tulips, fragrant camellias and delicate cherry blossoms will greet you. There is a sunken garden, a greenhouse complex that shelters tropical, sub-tropical and aquatic plants and a small orchard with pear and apple trees.
Just add birdsong. Admission is free.
8. EXPLORE THE WINDING LANES OF LEUVEN GREAT BEGUINAGE
The Great Beguinage (Groot Begijnhof) was one of the unexpected highlights of my day in Leuven.
A beguinage is an architectural complex, laid out much like a small town, which was created to house beguines. These were lay sisterhoods of the Roman Catholic Church, founded in the 13th century in the Low Countries.
The restored Groot Begijnhof of Leuven is it is one of the largest remaining beguinages in the Low Countries. With its labyrinth of cobbled streets, straddling two canals, and red-brick 17th Century houses, it’s a wonderful area to stroll around.
Leuven’s Great Beguinage was recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1998.
If you have time to spare, stop by Leuven’s Small Beguinage (Saint-Catherine Beguinage). Established in the 13th century, it is essentially one narrow street that once housed no more than 100 beguines.
9. HAVE A BEER AT THE LONGEST BAR IN THE WORLD
It’s gotta be done.
The long rectangular Oude Markt is one of the loveliest squares in Belgium. Lined with charming gabled houses and around 40 bars and cafes, it lays claim to being the longest bar in the world.
So pull up a chair and enjoy a Belgian beer.
10. A BREWERY VISIT TO THE HOME OF STELLA ARTOIS
Like it or loathe it – it’s known in the UK as “wife beater” – Stella Artois is one of the world’s most famous beers. The origins of this pilsner beer can be traced back to the Den Hoorn brewery in Leuven, which was founded in 1366.
Although it is now also brewed outside of Belgium, production remains firmly rooted in its home base. See where and how the magic happens on a Stella Artois brewery tour in Leuven.
You can book your ticket here.
Useful Tips for Visiting Leuven
#1 Make Visit Leuven, the tourist information office at Naamsestraat 3 (behind the Stadhuis), your first stop of the day.
Not only are the staff super helpful and friendly, but you can also pick up the excellent free city map and buy a ticket for the town hall guided tour. They will also book your town hall tour and entry slot for the university library.
#2 Leuven has a tourist card, the ILUVLeuven Ticket. This modest city pass will save you money if you are planning to visit its included sites.
#3 People often ask what language is spoken in Leuven. Belgium has three official languages: French, Dutch and German. In Leuven, people speak Flemish which is essentially a dialect of Dutch, with some different pronunciation and words.
However, many people will also speak French and English as a second/third language. That said, it’s always a good idea to have a few words and phrases in the mother tongue up your sleeve.
#4 Although Leuven is a compact city, there are many cobbled streets to negotiate. Leave the stiletto heels at home.
#5 Finally, rain is not unheard of in Belgium. Pop an umbrella in your daypack as well as a few layers.
How to get to Leuven
Most people spend a day in Leuven from either Brussels or Mechelen. This is easy to do (I visited on a day trip from Brussels).
Frequent trains travel between Brussels and Leuven. The journey time is around 30 minutes.
It takes under 30 minutes to get from Mechelen to Leuven. Again, trains are frequent.
Leuven’s train station is close to the Stella Artois Brewery, a pleasant 10-minute walk to the Grote Markt.
Is Leuven Safe for Solo Travellers?
Overall, Belgium is an easy country for those travelling alone even if you are a novice solo traveller. It has an excellent infrastructure, relatively affordable accommodation, a rich history and buzzing nightlife in the main cities.
Keeping safe when travelling alone is a key concern of female solo travellers. Leuven is considered to be a very safe and friendly city with locals, students and tourists enjoying its attractions, bars and restaurants.
But, as always, a little bit of common sense goes a long way. Watch out for pickpockets, especially in popular tourist areas and transport hubs. Remain vigilant and keep your belongings close to you. If you have a safe at your accommodation, use it to store valuables.
Is Leuven Worth Visiting?
Leuven is one of Belgium’s underrated treasures. This small city of just over 100,000 inhabitants punches way above its weight when it comes to attractions.
It is home to two UNESCO-listed sites, not counting the archives of its university library. Leuven’s Stadhuis is rivalled in Belgium only by that in Brussels. And to top it all, it has an exceptional botanic garden and a first-rate art gallery.
The locals are friendly and Leuven has a laid-back restaurant and bar scene. Best of all, the city attracts a fraction of the visitors descending on the tourist honeypots of Bruges and Brussels.
With just one day in Leuven, you can experience these and much more.
Ready to take a day trip to Leuven?
Leuven is a worthy addition to your Belgium itinerary.
If you have found this guide helpful and are planning further travel in Belgium, take a peek at my other articles.
Consider some of Belgium’s more under-the-radar destinations (I had a wonderful day trip to Mechelen). I also loved my day in Hasselt, which is home to the excellent Jenever Museum and De Kruidtuin Leuven, Belgium’s oldest botanical garden.
Bridget Coleman has been a passionate traveller for more than 30 years. She has visited 70+ countries, most as a solo traveller.
Articles on this site reflect her first-hand experiences.
To get in touch, email her at email@example.com or follow her on social media.