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Summer staycation in Belgium: Leuven
Leuven is a diverse city with an academic bent. The full name of the little statue standing in front of the monumental Saint-Peter’s church is Fons Sapientiae, Latin for ‘source of wisdom’. Fonske represents a student at the largest and oldest university of the Low Countries, KU Leuven, merging the wisdom of books with the pleasure of beer. Welcome to Leuven, a city thirsty for knowledge, and more.
The 63 clocks of the carillon, housed in the tower of the university library, weigh 35 tons, making for the second heaviest carillon in the country. Every 15 minutes, it lets out a short series of chimes, based on the traditional Flemish song Reuzegom. During the academic year, there’s a performance every Tuesday evening and Wednesday at noon. You can even sign up to climb the tower and watch the concert played live by the carillon player.
But in fact Leuven is home to four carillons, and during the summer there are afternoon and evening concerts in all of them in a festival known as Leuven Bells.
Opek is a former customs warehouse turned into an arts centre. On your way you can see the Stella Artois brewery, with tours at the weekend, and the small marina at the end of the Mechelen-Leuven canal. Drop in for a drink at Café Entrepot, before a walk to hidden gem and rural haven Park Abbey, which has a shop, farm, ponds and walking paths (pictured above).
No visitor can ignore the gothic grandeur of Leuven's Town Hall, built between 1448 and 1469 and updated in the 19th century. It was one of the city's few buildings that resisted both world wars. Tours inside the magnificent building are available.
From the roof of Museum M, worth a visit for its mix of old masters and contemporary art, you get the best view of the city’s other landmark building, the university’s Central Library. After the ravage of war – in which a lot of books were burned – it was rebuilt and restocked with financial support from the Americans. The scarab pierced by a 23-metre-high steel needle on the square in front of the library was created by contemporary Flemish artist Jan Fabre.
Many people don't even realise that Leuven has a botanic garden, but it's worth the short jaunt down Minderbroedersstraat from Oude Markt. It's a lovely place, with thousands of species, a multitude of walkways, a Japanese garden, an orangery and ponds.
Drink, eat & sleep
There’s no escaping the distinctive odour hinting at why Leuven is known around the world: Stella Artois is brewed here. In fact, the world’s largest brewer, AB Inbev – which owns Stella – is based in Leuven. It is the beer capital of the world.
Locals refer to the collection of lively pubs in the Oude Markt as the longest bar in the world, and the city’s hotels offer special beer arrangements. According to budget, the options run from De Blauwput youth hostel to the four-star Begijnhof Hotel.
Still thirsty? Try a house-brewed Con Domus or Nostra Domus in the brasserie of the same name (pictured above). Check out Barboek for coffee and books, the cosy De Blauwe Kater for blues and beers, De Werf for its colourful summer terrace and yummy wraps and chowders, and STUKcafé for drinks before and after visiting the cultural centre it’s housed in.
Photos, from top: ©Karl Bruninx/Visit Leuven, ©Marco Mertens/Visit Leuven, ©Karl Bruninx/Visit Leuven, courtesy Domus