Leuven, Belguim: What it's like to visit Belgium's fun-loving, beer capital

In a tourist Europe that concentrates on the lifestyles of the rich and royal, especially if they're long dead, I'm happy to be among the living students of Leuven. The university term has just begun, and youngsters are streaming out of Jubilee Hall, which has been registering new students since 1432. The hall has chequered floors, gothic arches and a bar supplying Hoegaarden beer in distinctive hexagonal glasses.

I follow the students down an alley, around a corner and into Oude Markt, the town's market square. Endless rows of cafe tables spill across the flagstones, occupied by flocks of chattering beer drinkers. This is the town's top student hangout. Look out for the Kotmadam, an art installation featuring a landlady on a bench in homage to the thousands of landladies who have housed students over the centuries.

Forty-two bars squeeze into Oude Markt's historic buildings, some associated with students from particular Belgian regions. One flows into another. Follow the noise to Barvista for pumping dance parties, to De Giraf for outrageously concocted shots, such as the fire-shooting Harry Potter, or to Plaza sports bar to watch live football games.

If you have the stamina, by the small hours you could be at Revue, meeting place for Leuven's bartenders at shift's end. At nine in the morning, customers still stumble out. An hour later, the middle-aged have taken over Oude Markt for quiet drinks in the sun.

Students and beer are Leuven's two biggest industries, and together they create a town of youthful enthusiasms, creativity and energetic nightlife. It's a delightful place to take time off from dutiful European sightseeing. The only must-see is the fabulously ornate town hall.

Some 50,000 students nearly double Leuven's term-time population, and the university supplies a few other architectural highlights. The University Library has a magnificent wood-panelled reading room and Renaissance-inspired tower. The World Heritage-listed Great Beguinage is nearby. Its atmospheric redbrick buildings and garden courtyards, founded to shelter pious medieval ladies, now house university students.

Leuven bills itself as Belgium's beer capital, although that reputation now relies solely on the giant Stella Artois factory, where you can take a tour. The beer was first brewed in Leuven in 1366 and is now owned by the world's biggest brand-name brewery. The town's many historical small breweries have been absorbed by such conglomerates.

The only boutique brewery now is Domus in the town centre, fronted by a busy, old-fashioned pub that pipes beer straight from the vats. Try its amber-coloured ale or the hoppy, bitter unfiltered pilsner. In winter, the brewery produces a dark, sweet Nen Engel, which has a chocolatey, malty flavour, like Christmas cake in a glass.

Unlike German beers, Belgian beers have a high alcohol content, so are generally served in small glasses, each a particular shape depending on the brand. Beers can also be flavoured, many with citrus or tropical fruits. With more than 240 breweries in Belgium supplying a reputed 240 pubs in Leuven, you won't be short of choices. The traditional beer accompaniment is bitterballen – beef croquettes served with a mustard dipping sauce.

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Where you go for your next beer depends on the time of day. The Sint-Maartensdal neighbourhood is for chilling out before the party really gets started and Muntstraat is for beer accompanied by food, especially if you can't quite decide whether you're after Mexican or Moroccan.

You're bound to end up at Oude Markt once more. You haven't learned anything about kings, or visited another stuffy palace, or stood in a tourist queue. Still, you can order up another beer and congratulate yourself on a day well spent.

TRIP NOTES

Brian Johnston travelled courtesy Visit Flanders.

MORE

traveller.com.au/belgium

visitflanders.com

FLY

Cathay Pacific flies daily from Melbourne and Sydney to Brussels via Hong Kong. Leuven is 16 minutes by train from Brussels airport. See cathaypacific.com

STAY

Martin's Klooster is a chic, contemporary four-star hotel inside a former medieval convent. Rooms from $190 a night. See martinshotels.com

TOUR

Leuven Leisure operates guided walks and cycling tours year-round, including beer tours with tastings and food pairings. See leuvenleisure.com

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