A Bibliophile’s Guide to the World’s Most Beautiful Bookstores
A good novel can transport you to every corner of the globe, and beyond, immersing you in the most fantastical of utopias. In these bookstores, however, you don’t have to rely solely on your imagination. Serving as a historical experience, an architectural attraction, an artistic source of inspiration, a library and a boutique of books and other paraphernalia all at once, these literary pit stops will render every other destination on your itinerary pointless. It’s time to plan a trip around these bucket list bookstores, where a temple of knowledge awaits.
Libreria Acqua Alta (Venice, Italy)
Stepping into Libreria Acqua Alta is like entering a fairy tale wonderland—one that is quite literally brimming with books. Opened in 2004 by Luigi Frizzo, the bookish gem stacks piles of American and Italian titles into bathtubs and indoor Venetian gondolas. As a way of protecting their inventory of classic tomes from regular floods, these eccentric features ended up becoming a whimsical attraction.
At the back of the boutique, gorgeous piles of vintage hardbacks (complemented by the building’s red brick façade and cobblestone pavement) form a staircase that leads to a canal. Besides its mammoth collection of magazines, novels, postcards and other curiosities, Libreria Acqua Alta is also home to a substantial group of stray cats, adding to its soporific, old-world charm.
El Ateneo Grand Splendid (Buenos Aires, Argentina)
Recently named the most beautiful bookstore in the world by National Geographic, this monument of a building boasts resplendent interiors, complete with ceiling frescoes, ornate gilded trimmings, and marble columns. A rare, palatial bookstore situated in a defunct 100-year-old theatre, it’s no surprise El Ateneo Grand Splendid is found in Buenos Aires, a city known for its abundance of bookstores per capita.
The decision to retain the building’s original architecture and design (the work of architects Peró and Torres Armengol) was a masterstroke, which in turn, creates a one-of-a-kind browsing experience. Visitors are free to lounge in one of its theatre boxes with a paperback in hand, or sip on coffee while savouring a live piano performance on the same red-curtained stage shared by tango celebrities of yesteryear.
Boekhandel Selexyz Dominicanen (Maastricht, Holland)
If you thought El Ateneo Grand Splendid was steeped in history and heritage, get a load of Holland’s Boekhandel Selexyz Dominicanen, a gothic, ethereal 13th century (that’s more than 700 years) catholic Dominican church turned 21st century bookstore. Spanning three storeys, this ancient establishment provides an unparalleled backdrop of picturesque naves, high ceilings and stately columns that set the stage for your literary fix.
Here, you’re not simply reading about the history of the world, but also experiencing what it’s like to be inside the hallowed halls that have lived through the post-lightbulb eras. Before it became a treasure trove of books, the building went through multiple makeovers, starting with Napoleon Bonaparte who purportedly used it as a storage space. It had been abandoned for years before it was given a new lease of life by architecture firm Merkx+Girod in 2007, who won a Lensvelt de Architect Interior Prize for their revamp efforts.
The Last Bookstore (Los Angeles, California)
A gravity-defying arch of books suspends over you, stealing your attention briefly from the traditional box-beamed ceiling in green, red and gold—that is, until you realise the entire mezzanine floor of The Last Bookstore is decorated with idiosyncratic literary sculptures. With 22,000 sqft of space, you’ll find an assortment of second-hand titles and rare vintage reads sprawled across this Californian institution, which happens to be a bank in its previous life—can you sense a pattern here?
OCD-afflicted bibliophiles will love its colour-coordinated corners; adventure seekers will get to uncover its hidden alcoves; budget shoppers will swarm towards its $1 section. But the most appealing feature of The Last Bookstore is its lack of categories for fiction books, encouraging readers to dive in, explore and stumble on unexpected finds.
Livraria Lello (Porto, Portugal)
Continuing on our discovery of bookish beauties, the final stop arrives at the classical paradise of Livraria Lello. Beyond its obvious opulence, it carries a possible connection to the world of Harry Potter that every reader adores. A favourite haunt of J.K. Rowling, this Portuguese bookstore supposedly influenced her description of Hogwarts.
The brainchild of brothers José and António Lello, Livraria Lello opened its doors in 1906. Besides its intricate neo-gothic façade and majestic stained glass windows and skylights, its jewel in the crown has to be its surrealist undulating stairwell—an architectural marvel that sits at the heart of the establishment.