Leuven is a town that only actual Dutch/Flemish speakers can pronounce. English speakers tend to say “LOO-ven,” but the Dutch say, “LOEV-ven,” with a dipthong. Whatever you call Leuven, it deserves a lot more attention both as a weekend destination and as a great place to live for expats. We road-tripped there recently because multiple expats had told us about this cool town that no one knows about. Well they should. And they will because we’re considering it for our next Best Cities for Expats list. It meets all the criteria we analyze on our list including KU Leuven, a world-class university that’s one of the oldest in Europe, a major tech research and development center in Imec and lots of career opportunities.
Leuven has a lot going for it, including the global headquarters of Anheuser-Busch InBev, which you see just as you’re arriving into town. And as you wander from café to cabaret, you’ll notice the dominance of one beer – InBev’s Stella Artois, which is okay with us. It’s a light pilsner that, unlike most Belgian beers, is manageably low in alcohol at 4.5 percent. So, a good choice for lunch.
So, what makes this mystery town – lost in the shadow of nearby Brussels – worthy of a Quick Trip?
We go to cities for five experiences:
• General hanging out
• Dining and drinking
• Museums, arts and culture
After a quick trip on a rainy June weekend, Leuven comes out with big scores for such a small town.
General hanging out (provisional) – 8 out of 10
On such a quick visit, it’s hard to judge. This is not a huge city like Düsseldorf or Rotterdam, so there’s less to do. That said, there’s still a lot to do and a chill uni buzz to do it in. We weren’t in town long enough to experience it, but the town has a great reputation for a music scene.
You don’t have to hang around long to realize Leuven stands out for its multiple big squares, such as Ladeuze Square, which, of course, all have cafés. And off the squares are ancient streets such as Jacobstraat with even more cafés and cool shops. There are beer walks and tours. This is basically a big and varied college town we’re you’ll never get bored.
Shopping – 7 out of 10
Leuven has a lot of the usual Dutch, Danish and German High Street shops such as Dille & Kamille and lots of the normal apparel in both big chains and small boutiques. There are also more thrift shops than in larger cities, which are fun in a college town … and full of bargains for the discriminating shopper. If you’re looking for the Belgian version of Königsallee, it’s a few minutes away in Brussels on Avenue Louise.
Drinking and dining – 8 out of 10
This is where Leuven shines. For a small city – population 100,000 – there are soooo many great bars, cafés and restaurants.
We hit Ellis Gourmet Burger for beers, burgers and fries. It was our late lunch, but the place was packed at 4:30 p.m. on a rainy Saturday in June. Lunch for three including 5.80 euro Stellas (a little pricey compared to 3 euros in the Netherlands) came to about 50 euros.
Ellis, founded in 2011, has at least 25 burger restaurants in Belgium, France and the Netherlands. It is part of the portfolio of GIMV, a private equity firm based in Antwerp. The Leuven store is in a great building at Naamsestraat 5. It’s the first place we’ve been able to order via our iPhones using a QR code on the table that takes you to the menu. Everything happened really fast. Big hit.
As with all the towns we love, we’ll go back to eat. And drink beer.
In addition to fast-casual, there are lots and lots of highly rated restaurants including EED, which has a Michelin star, and Zarza. Some of the best are casual and affordable and – this being a university city – plentiful.
Is this Rotterdam or Amsterdam or Antwerp? No, but it’s a small college town with an amazing variety of dining experiences.
Ambience and architecture – 10 out of 10
Leuven is a gorgeous little town, with every architectural style you find in Brussels, Bruges and Ghent. Most of it is rebuilt because of all the wars Belgium has hosted. But that doesn’t deduct from the charm.
KU Leuven is itself a collection of architectural jewels including the university library and tower, which are very much a landmark. You can tour both and this is another reason for Dispatches to return.
It doesn’t take a lot of research to discover that Leuven has a dozen notable building including the Stadhuis and Sint-Kwintenskerk. But what makes it so charming is the density of wondrous buildings … block after block invite you to explore.
Museums and culture – 8 out of 10
We can’t say it enough … university cities always have a little something. A cultural vibe from all the smart people who’ve come from so many different places. It’s what makes Europe, Europe.
Again, for a small city, Leuven is way ahead of, say, Bristol. Leuven’s main museum, Museum Leuven, has some important Flemish/Dutch masters along with avant-garde art in its 52,000 piece collection. How do we know that? We saw the YouTube vid above while we were drinking Stella Artois and eating hamburgers. But on our next trip ….
There are also multiple castles in the area, including the 16th century Arenberg Castle. Which, as part of KU Leuven, is open to the public. Park Abbey, which dates back to the 12th century, is also open to the public, and you can buy tickets here.
Thumbs up or thumbs down:
It’s a little unfair to use the same standards to judge small cities as we do for metropolitan destinations such as Düsseldorf or Antwerp. We get that. But our Quick Trip calculus is, “There are cities that must be explored (Paris, Berlin and Rome) and cities where you can have a terrific adventure in a few hours.” There are a few places that have flunked the test, such as Valkenburg.
Leuven gets a BIG thumbs up! This is one of those intimate yet complete experiences that – when you’re getting swept along by the tourist mobs in Amsterdam or Paris – you’ll be asking yourself, “Why didn’t we just go to Leuven?”
See Dispatches Quick Trips archive here for more great weekend adventure.
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.