Leuven, A Great Town to Visit Near Brussels

Located just a 15 minute train ride from Brussels International Airport, Leuven is a quintessential Flemish university town that isn’t overrun with tourists and bureaucrats. While Brugge is slightly prettier than Leuven, and its abundance of chocolate shops are delicious, it is further from Brussels if you need to commute back and forth.

We love Brussels, but some people find the city to be too big and bustling. While hotels can be reasonably priced on weekends, weeknights in Brussels can be pricey when there’s major events taking place.

So if you need to be in Brussels and hotels are too expensive during your stay, Leuven makes for an easy 20 minute commute. Trains between Leuven and Brussels are frequent, running every 30 minutes. It’s also a great way to experience a non-touristy smaller Belgium town.

Consider a Stay in Leuven Instead of Brussels

Leuven's Town Hall features typical Belgian architecture.
Leuven’s Town Hall (Stadhuis) features typical Belgian architecture.
Leuven Cathedral at Night

Consider Staying in Leuven When Brussels Hotels are Heavily Booked

On our recent 12 day trip to the Netherlands and Belgian, which saw us spending more time in the Netherlands for work reasons, we flew back to Boston out of Brussels Airport and had just a short time in Belgium on the return. We had previously spent time in Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent and Brugge, which are all fantastic. We then discovered that Leuven offers both beauty and convenience because of its close proximity to Brussels Airport.

We stayed at Huize Rafael which was pretty average. We neither recommend it nor do we disapprove of that guest house. The Monday night we arrived in Leuven was actually very busy because university was just starting and there was a big festival taking place. In our case, we didn’t stay in Leuven because it was cheaper than Brussels. It just suited our plans of experiencing a smaller Belgian town close to Brussels Airport.

Leuven Fair Monte Carlo
Modern carnival games and rides offer an interesting contrast to Leuven’s old world architecture
Leuven Full Moon Church
Full moon over Leuven

Leuven Cafes and Beer Halls

Cafe Leffe

In Leuven we ate delicious and reasonably priced pasta in the main square, covered with loads of quality Belgian cheese. We also ate tasty dishes cooked in beer at Cafe Leffe. The abbey style beer themed restaurant is affiliated with the largest brewery in the world, Anheuser Busch-Inbev.

We recommend their pork cheeks over the beef stew. Both dishes were tasty, but we thought the beer sauce in the beef was a little too sweet. We found the beer sauce in the pork to be more balanced and flavorful. It was a Tuesday night when we ate at Leffe, but it was still surprisingly quiet as there were just a few other tables occupied in the large restaurant. Perhaps too many people were hung over from the previous night’s festivities!

Cafe Leffe in Leuven. One of several Cafe Leffe's you'll find across Belgium from the world's biggest beer company, Anheuser Busch-Inbev, headquartered in Leuven.
Cafe Leffe in Leuven. One of several Cafe Leffe’s you’ll find across Belgium from the world’s biggest beer company, Anheuser Busch-Inbev, headquartered in Leuven.

We were a little worried Cafe Leffe would only have Anheuser Busch-Inbev products but to our surprise they had extensive alternatives including a large Trappist beer selection (monk made beer), with great offerings like Westmalle Tripel, Achel and Orval. We typically don’t eat at chain restaurants, but Cafe Leffe turned out to be a worthwhile exception. You can also find Cafe Leffe in Brussels and many towns around Belgium. Incidentally, Anheuser Busch-Inbev is headquartered in Leuven and now accounts for a whopping 25% of the world’s beer production!

The cafe terraces of Leuven are wonderful for dining al fresco.
The cafe terraces of Leuven are wonderful for dining al fresco.

Renting Bicycles in Leuven

We also rented bicycles from the train station, which is a great deal. It’s lovely to cycle through town and a bit safer than cycling through Brussels because it’s smaller and less congested. It was also quicker to bike into the countryside and enjoy peaceful forests, streams and wheat fields. From Leuven, It’s only about 9 miles (15km) to the border of Wallonia, which is the southern French speaking area of Belgium, making this a doable trip for anybody who’s in moderate shape. We didn’t plan ahead to do this, but we wish we had!

It doesn't take long to reach the Belgian forest by bike from Leuven.
It doesn’t take long to reach the Belgian forest by bike from Leuven.
Cycling by a Belgian wheat farm, just outside Leuven.
Cycling alongside a Belgian wheat farm, just outside Leuven.
Someday we'd love to cycle through more of Belgian. Maybe between Trappist breweries!
We’d love to cycle through more of Belgium. Maybe between Trappist breweries like Westvleteren and Orval!
Cycling through the streets of Leuven beats the congestion of Brussels!
Cycling through the streets of Leuven beats the congestion of Brussels!
Bell bicycle Leuven
Leuven’s beautiful Grote Market (Great Market Square)

More on Belgium

Asides from Leuven, Antwerp also offers a great alternative stay to Brussels. It’s just 30 minutes by train, with a very frequent schedule. It’s also really close to Brussels airport. Antwerp is a beautiful town with lots to do. Antwerp is a larger city than Leuven, but smaller than Brussels. Read our article on Romantic Day Trips from Brussels for more ideas on where to go in Belgium!


  • Alex&Bell

    Alex and Bell originally met while solo traveling after finishing university in 2002, in Brugge, Belgium. Alex grew up in the USA and Bell hails from Australia. During our nearly 20 year marriage we've lived around the world, including spending six years living in the Netherlands and Ireland. We have traveled to nearly 70 countries and enjoy giving readers authentic and quality travel tips. Alex is an award winning travel journalist and travel planner, who also freelances for other outlets. Bell is an award winning PhD scientist who currently works for a non-profit lung cancer advocacy research organization called Lungevity. Happy travels and if you have any questions leave a comment or drop an email!

4 thoughts on “Leuven, A Great Town to Visit Near Brussels

    1. Haha, yeah the carnival was a stroke of luck! And the cycling was great. Bell will sometimes cycle the streets of bigger cities but I’m not very comfortable with it. I was really comfortable cycling through Leuven though!

  1. I was curious out of all the cities in Belgium which one would you recommend to stay in if you only had a few days?

    1. Hi Joey. Tough one. Depends what you’re looking for- Brugge is wonderful but it’s a little touristy so if you want to avoid that and a big city (Brussels) then maybe Ghent or Antwerp which are medium sized. All the Belgian cities are great for beer and every place we mention has great architecture, but Brugge and Brussels are especially great for chocolate shops. The canals in Brugge are also lovely and it’s an especially romantic town so maybe Brugge. We do love Brussels as well (The Grand Place is amazing) and Leuven is a super short train ride to check out a cool town that isn’t touristy. Please let us know if you are looking for something specific or have any more questions. Thanks for commenting!

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