Leuven: Fun, festivals and designer chic

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The Independent Travel

Tiny, lively Leuven is home to one of the oldest universities in Europe, founded in 1425. It is a picturesque place with a strikingly go-ahead atmosphere: its year-round run of festivals include BeLeuvenissen, a free celebration of music on Fridays in July; and Marktrock, an international rock event, in August; while Leuven's film festival takes place in late November

The town's highlights include the medieval church of St Peter, housing two 15th-century masterpieces by Dirk Bouts; the magnificent town hall; and, best of all, the Groot Begijnhof. Built as a convent-like retreat for women, this peaceful complex dates from the 13th century. Today it is part of the university, and open to visitors.

Leuven is also where one of the world's favourite beers, Stella Artois, is produced (on the fringes at Vaartstraat 94) while its historic heart contains the small brewery Domus, at Tiensestraat 8. You can sample Domus beers at the pub here, or head over to Oude Markt for a glass or two. Lined with cafés and pubs Oude Markt is said to be the longest bar in Europe. To catch more of the spirited local vibe, make for Stuk at Naamsesstraat 96 (www.stuk.be), a vibrant arts centre offering exhibitions and more.

Shopping is a serious pastime. You'll find the big-name stores, from Bulgari to Leonidas chocolates, along Bondgenotenlaan and pedestrian Dieststestraat. Enticing boutiques are clustered around Mechelsestraat and Parijsstraat. Profiel at Mechelsestraat 37 stocks Belgian designers from Anne Demeulemeester to Kaat Tilly. Zin at Vismarkt just off Mechelsestraat has a hip selection of fashion and homeware. Adjacent, at Wandelingenstraat 2, Nicole Cadine has a chic collection of clothes, perfumes and shoes.

There's a wealth of restaurants. Tres at Munstraat 20 (00 32 16 20 53 35; www. tr3s.be) is a sleek outfit behind the façade of a medieval townhouse. Hogeschoolplein square presents a number of eating options. The wacky De Werf (meaning "under construction") at number 5 (00 32 16 23 73 14; www.dewerf-leuven.be) is a café serving food and drink in lunch boxes and flasks. Couvert Couvert at Sint-Jansbergsesteenweg 171 (00 32 16 29 69 79; www. couvertcouvert.be), is a Michelin-star restaurant.

Accommodation includes Hotel New Damshire at Schapenstraat 1, with 35 bright, neat rooms (00 32 16 23 21 15; www.newdamshire. com; doubles from €128/£107 including breakfast). Or for a real treat make for Oude Brouwery Keyser Carel at Lei 15. This sublime B&B offers three charming rooms and a huge leafy garden (00 32 16 22 14 81; www.keysercarel.be; doubles from €115/£96 including breakfast).

More information from Leuven tourist office, Naamsestraat 1 (00 32 16 20 30 20; www.leuven.be/tourism). www.visitflanders.co.uk