Travel Report: Leuven, Belgium.
September 2005. The Belgian university town of Leuven will always hold a special place in my heart. I arrived in the autumn of 2004 feeling excited by the prospect of a fresh start. And while my personal life was about to unravel, Leuven itself proved so charming I ultimately decided to stay on.
I certainly fell for the city, with its cobbled streets, laid-back café culture and second hand record shops. Moreover, I spent many a memorable night here in De Oude Markt (The Old Market), Leuven’s main square.
June 2006. I loved The Old Market, a pedestrianised square stuffed full of stupendous Flemish architecture. Known as “the world’s longest bar counter”, in the summer the place is transformed into a giant open-air pub with tables, chairs and umbrellas spilling out from all the bars.
The above shot comes the summer of 2006 when my friends Steve (C), Steve (P) and Adam came to visit from England. That afternoon we found a bar with a big screen showing Euro 2004 football matches. The perfect place to kick back and watch England’s underwhelming 2-0 win against Trinidad and Tobago.
August 2006. Leuven’s Old Market Square was also home to one of Belgium’s most intimate music festivals, Marktrock. I was lucky enough to get a ticket for the 2006 event, which drew in some really big names.
In fact, the lineup included Pet Shop Boys, Starsailor, Iggy Pop, Stereo MCs and the hugely talented Belgian singer-songwriter Admiral Freebee. Sadly, the festival has been discontinued for the foreseeable future. However, there is still plenty of live music in The Old Market throughout the year.
September 2006. It would take you several evenings to have a drink at every Old Market bar. One of my favourites back in the day was Cafe Cadi 61, a classic Americana themed bar with a 1960s Cadillac theme. The pintjes (little beers) were an incredible 1 Euro apiece! Hence we had some epic nights out here. I’m delighted to hear that Cafe Cadi 61 is still alive and well.
September 2006. Another cool Old Market haunt was Cafe de Weerelt, aka The World Cafe. Check out the walls plastered with retro world maps and a nautical theme of classical ships, sea captains and antique compasses. Again the 1 Euro beer policy was a major pulling point, although it was admittedly too much to handle for some people…
August 2008. Leuven’s biggest city square is Ladeuzeplein, a much more peaceful prospect than The Old Market. Dating back to the early 1800s, the incredible building in the background is Leuven University Library. The building only dates back to 1921, despite its seemingly Neo-renaissance style.
The library inside was actually a gift from The United States after the city’s original was destroyed by the Germans during The First World War. Most important for me back then, Ladeuzeplein was home to Bilbo Records, Leuven’s most popular CD and Vinyl store.
August 2008. Leuven’s magnificent Town Hall (Stadhuis) is right up there with anything on offer in Bruges, the city that seems to get most of Belgium’s tourist love. Dating back to 1448, this giant wedding cake of a building is a sight to behold with its pointed Gothic windows and octagonal turrets.
Strategically placed pierced slits allow for some amazing passages of light throughout the day. To go inside you need to arrange a guided tour. This is Leuven’s definitive meeting point.
September 2008. There are more beautiful old buildings to enjoy in Leuven’s Old Quarter (Groot Begijnhof). The district is a well-preserved network of ancient streets huddled around the River Dijle.
Owned by The University of Leuven, many of the buildings are now used as student digs, classrooms and campus offices. With its little canals, stone bridges, brass fountainheads and gothic church, a visit here is like stepping back in time.
August 2007. During those Leuven years I lived on Muntstraat, a narrow, pedestrianised street home to a clutch of the city’s best restaurants. I took this shot out of my bedroom window during the annual Hapje Tapje world food festival.
As you can see, I had an Italian restaurant right on my doorstep. Consequently, we made sure to take advantage of their takeaway service for movie nights. One time the waiter even came up the stairs and set down our meals by the front door.
February 2009. One of Muntstraat’s best restaurants is a fantastic Japanese joint called Samourai. Mixing classic and fusion Japanese dishes that are “a pleasure for the eyes, a celebration for the taste buds”, S and I must have walked past this place a hundred times. “We really should eat here someday”.
In the end we only came to Samourai once when my old school friend Adam and his girlfriend came to visit from England. The whole experience felt really authentic, from the flowery traditional robes handed to us on arrival, to the Sumo-esque chef whipping dishes up right in front of us.
Their super fresh springy sushi is worth the visit alone, while I was also impressed by my rich, aromatic Teriyaki Chicken. For more info on Leuven’s Samourai Restaurant, have a look at their website here.
May 2006. My favourite music bar was also on Muntstraat, a cramped, smoky, indie-rock bar called De Libertad. This place was literally a 100-step walk from my apartment, thus we quickly became regulars.
De Libertad was also a good place for occasional live music and they also held their own quiz nights. One time the Belgian singer Admiral Freebee popped in for a live acoustic set, much to the amazement and delight of the modest crowd of drinkers. Check out their website here.
May 2005. Looking for a budget-friendly place to stay in Leuven? I cannot recommend Hotel Professor highly enough! Their location is about as central as it’s possible to get and while the rooms are simple, above all the place is comfortable and economical.
Back when I lived in Leuven, Hotel Professor did the best cocktails in town. I must have made a hundred or so visits here with friends over the years. I’m happy to say that a quick glance online tells me that their cocktail reputation is as strong as ever.
June 2006. Furthermore, Hotel Professor offered up some of Leuven’s best ice cream options. The above photo was from a night my mum and brother came to stay.
After a brief consultation, we decided to order the biggest ice cream monstrosities on their menu! To see the latest Hotel Professor room rates, let me kindly point you towards their booking.com page.
For a more personalised slant on my Leuven days, dive into my story collection Based In Belgium.
You can also have a look at my travel report on Brussels.
I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.