Tuesday 6 May 2014

Belgium: Leuven, Brussels, Oostende

Grand Place
A (very) belated post about my trip to Belgium last year...

One of the few good things about my (awful) first year accommodation was that it's very popular with students doing a year abroad in Bristol, which meant I made a lot of friends from other countries. Last year, I visited musicologist Ruben in Leuven, a university town rich in history.

Getting there

I opted for the Eurostar from Kings Cross St Pancras, which was a lot cheaper than flying. You can currently get a return to Brussels for just £69. Conveniently, this ticket is also valid for up to 24 hours after you arrive at Brussels for onward travel to other Belgian stations, so I took a short train ride to Leuven station. Planning rail journeys in Belgium is really easy; Belgian Rail has an informative website that caters for multiple languages, including English.

Accommodation and travel

I was lucky to be able to stay in the spare room at Ruben's in Heverlee, which is a deelgemeente of Leuven (equivalent to a borough). There are plenty of hostels in Leuven but a quick search seems to indicate that a night in a hostel is around €20 - €25, which is the same price range as a hostel in Brussels itself. So, you may as well stay in Brussels if you've not been there before.

If you can find cheaper accommodation in Leuven, it's only 15 minutes on the train from Brussels. You can get cheaper train tickets for €6 if you're under 26. If you're staying a bit longer and want to explore other parts of Belgium, the discount train tickets are pretty useful!

There are plenty of buses in Leuven so getting around is easy. If you buy 10 tickets in advance it's cheaper and you can split them up between you if you're travelling with other people so you don't end up buying more than you actually need.

Palais du Coudenberg


Right, on to the fun bit! I was in Belgium for six days, which gave me plenty of time to explore a small part of it. First, Ruben and I took the train to Brussels to spend the day being massive tourists there.

We mostly wandered around looking at landmarks, like the Palais du Coudenberg, which is a former palace of Brussels. It houses a museum and there are archaeological ruins to explore, but we didn't actually go inside since we were trying to pack as much as possible into a single day.

Ruben works part-time at the Musée des Instruments De Musique, so I got my own personal tour of the museum! It's packed with different instruments from all over the world. Admission includes an audio-guide, which I would definitely recommend using, because it plays music from a selection of the instruments on display. It's really interesting to hear what some of the odder-looking things sound like. Once you've finished looking at the exhibits, you can go up to the roof terrace to see amazing views of Brussels.

The rest of the day was taken up by walking around Brussels and looking at the beautiful architecture. If you're like me and you enjoy taking photos, there is plenty to see. There are lots of little shops and market stalls as well.


Back in Leuven, there is lots to see and do. Heverlee itself is home to a War Cemetery that contains nearly 977 Commonwealth burials from the Second World War. The cemetery is right in the middle of the countryside, which makes for a nice walk on a summer evening.

Leuven has all sorts of events on throughout the year. When I was there in June, there was a music festival in Oude Markt, which is known as the longest bar in the world. Oude Markt is a big square with tons of bars and cafés surrounding it - appropriate for a country well known for its quality beer!

Not being much of a beer drinker (being in Bristol has converted me to the cause of cider), Ruben suggested I try Kriek, which apart from being "a drink for 14-year-olds and women" as he (er) eloquently put it, is a sour beer made from cherries. Definitely worth trying, but be aware that different brands may balance out the sour flavour with additional juice after brewing, so there are some varieties that may be a bit more of an acquired taste!

As with Brussels, Leuven is packed with ornate Gothic-style architecture. There's also some interesting art installations which are worth looking at.

Stadhuis van Leuven
Universiteitsbibliotheek KU Leuven
This is not art. This a friendly octopus telling you
children may be crossing the road.


Instead of doing more sightseeing, we decided to make the most of the sunny weather and took a train to Oostende, a city on the coast. One hour and forty minutes later, we found that half of Belgium seemed to have had the same idea (unsurprisingly) and the beach was full of people. On the bright side, it was a lovely sandy beach and I had a good book to read, so it was a nice rest from all the walking I'd done during the rest of the trip!

You could easily spend an enjoyable week in Leuven without going on any excursions, as there's plenty more to check out - from the Scouts and Guides Museum to the Stella Artois Brewery, or even the nearby Rock Werchter festival.

For more information, check out the official Leuven Tourism website.

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