The next spotlight in my series is with my friend Sofie Couwenbergh who resides in the Belgium town of Leuven. Leuven, the capital of the province of Flemish Brabant in the Flemish Region, Belgium is known for two features travelers will enjoy – being a “student city” and having a lively bar scene. Leuven has the bragging rights of having the “longest bar” in Europe where dozens can be found jammed in the center square. This city has a rich beer culture, is known for its summer rock festivals, premiere orchestras and is home to the oldest Catholic university still in existence. Sofie, if someone is traveling through this historic city and wanted to experience local spots: where do the locals go?
TWT: Every destination has a local hotspot. What is the local hot spot in your area and would you please describe the atmosphere? Why do locals go there?
SC: There are several, but for me it’s De Werf. De Werf is a tavern targeting a student audience, meaning it’s pretty cheap. That’s not all that’s great about it though. Every meal and even every drink is presented in an original way and the tavern has a large terrace where you can sit in the sun in summer or under heaters in winter.
TWT: Your friend is flying into town for the first time and wants to experience the local food scene, where would you take him/her? What are some of the dishes you would recommend? How is the ambience?
SC: Well a typical dish all over Belgian is fries. Not just any kind of fries though, but fries from a proper “frietkot”, which is like a little shack (not a proper building) where they only sell fries and fried meats. If my friend is a beer drinker, she’d have to try Stella Artois. It’s the local beer of Leuven and you can even smell the brewery when you enter the city by train.
TWT: Travelers enjoy learning about the local art scene when they arrive in new locations. Are there local artists (musicians, painters, poetry writers, etc.) in your area that perform or feature their work? Where can travelers go for these experiences?
SC: There are two places, depending on what you like. Art Center STuK features a lot of contemporary artists who are active in different fields: installations, performance art, theater… Museum M exhibits work from more established artists, both of bygone eras and of the modern age.
TWT: What are some of the more popular festivals in town? Are they held annually, several times a year, once a month? What time of the year do they take place? Where can travelers go to find out more information?
SC: Very popular are the Beleuvenissen, although I used to like them better before. Before they were held the first four Fridays of July and each Friday would be a different theme: folk, rock, tropical, pop… On each of those nights bands playing the music genre of that Friday would play all over the city and you could walk from stage to stage. Now, however, they’ve made the festival much more mainstream. It now takes place on three different dates in summer and the artists performing there are mostly Belgian artists you can see on every other festival in the country. It’s a real shame.
TWT: If travelers want to experience recreational activities during their stay, what can they do and where can they go?
SC: It depends on what you mean by “recreational”, as that’s quite a broad term. Just outside the city center, in Kessel-Lo, there’s a provincial domain with playing grounds, a pond, a petanque field and more. When the weather’s bad you can go to sports center Sportplaza where you can follow all kinds of group classes, go swimming or work out in gym.
TWT: Many travelers pick destinations that offer voluntourism / eco-tourism / activism / volunteer opportunities. What types of opportunities exist in your area?
SC: There’s not one big organization that comes to mind, but most of the cultural centers in Leuven do work with volunteers. Even some of the sport centers do. If you’re interested in volunteering or something alike, best thing you can do is search for organisations that are active in the field that interests you and just ask if you can lend them a hand.
TWT: I know travelers like certain forms of transportation. Some like to walk and/or bike while others prefer to get around at a quicker pace. What is the best way for travelers to get around town?
SC: By foot or bike, really. With about 40,000 students as temporary citizens of Leuven, our small provincial town can get pretty crowded. The city also does whatever she can to keep cars out of the center and that center isn’t that big at all. You can easily walk to all the main sights or walk from one side of the main center to the other in about an hour.
TWT: For those who want to get away for a day for some peace and quiet, yet still take in the scenery, where are some areas that travelers can go to “get away from it all” and still enjoy the outdoors?
SC: We actually live right outside the city center, next to Heverlee Woods. This is a large forest where people come to walk their dog, go for a run or mountain bike. There’s not much to see as it really is just a forest with walking lanes, but that’s exactly what’s nice about it.
TWT: Travelers can get a sense of culture by observing their surroundings and people watch. Where can travelers go in your area to engage in this popular activity?
SC: Depending on what kind of people you want to watch and what kind of bars you enjoy, the Grand Place (Grote Markt) and the Old Market (Oude Markt) are where you need to be. They’re located practically next to each other, so you can just move from one to the other as well. On the terraces of the bars at the Grand Place, most people will be 35+. The taverns are a bit more fancy and all offer both food and drinks. It’s a popular spot to go for dinner as well. The Old Market is where the students and younger people go. You’ll mostly find real bars here, or places that also offer food but don’t focus on dining. The Old Market offers a bigger variety in bars: from reggae over rock and Belgian music to pop and from dark bars where people only order beer and cola to trendy places where cocktails and wine go around.
If you are traveling through the country, are on a budget and like the college scene while enjoying a quality beer, Leuven is the city for you. You can experience the city in a few days, but the lively food and drink scene may keep you here a few weeks. This is good because you will get to mingle with the locals which will enhance your traveling experience.
Sofie is a freelance writer and founder of the travel blog Wonderful Wanderings. After more than four years of working for the boss she quit her stable, full time job to create a career of her own and search for her place in this world. On that quest she explores her home country Belgium, where the roots of her old lifestyle lie, and compares her findings with what she finds around the world. That way she hopes to forge her own path and inspire others to do the same.