10 of the Most Beautiful Libraries and Bookshops to Visit on Your Travels

Sightseeing is an essential part of traveling. While museums and monuments are the staples that tourists visit in many cities, there are many more buildings that are worth seeing. Whether you are a bookworm or not, libraries are often distinguished architectural landmarks and can provide deeper insights not only into a country’s literature, but also its culture and history as a whole. Moreover, what’s great is that, more often than not, they are open to the public. Here are 10 libraries worth visiting on your travels.

Vancouver Public Library (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada)

The beginnings of the Vancouver Public Library date back to the beginnings of Vancouver as a whole, back in 1867. This year marked the construction of the area’s first sawmill, the Hastings Mill. Over the years, the area around the Hastings Mills became the location of the Hastings Literary Institute. A Central Library was constructed at 750 Burrard Street. This building, however, became outdated and overcrowded, and eventually led to the creation of the Library Square, a new central library. Architects Moshe Safdie, Richard Archambault and Barry Downs won the design competition for the new library, which was opened in 1995.

Today, the Vancouver Public Library, which includes the Library Square, is the third largest public library system in Canada. It has over 373,000 cardholders, who borrow more than 9 million items annually. Vancouver Public Library is accessible to all citizens of Vancouver and moreover, has an extensive virtual library collection. You can find information on visiting the Central Library, including opening hours, here.

>>Check out other free things to see and do in Vancouver

Royal Danish Library (Copenhagen, Denmark)

The Royal Library in Copenhagen is the largest library in the Nordic countries. It serves both as the national library of Denmark, as well as the university library of the University of Copenhagen. Its collection includes various historical treasures. To be exact, all the books that have been printed in Denmark since the 17th century are archived here. The first Danish book, which dates back to 1482, is also deposited here.

In 1906, Hans Jorgen Holm constructed the first building, located at the Slotsholmen site. This building’s central hall is a copy of the Charlemagne’s Palace chaped in the Aachen Cathedral.

The newer building (pictured above and located adjacent to the old one) is called the Black Diamond. It was designed by Danish architects by Schmidt hammer lassen. It holds the name of “Black Diamond” because of its outside cover of black marble and glass. In addition, it is worth noting that it contains a concert hall in addition to the library, both of which are open for visits.

>> Find flights to Copenhagen or look for Copenhagen hostels

Austrian National Library (Vienna, Austria)

The Austrian National Library is the central academic library of the Republic of Austria, and as such, spans a rich history and tradition that dates back all the way to the 14th century. Its mission is to serve as a “centre of information and research oriented toward serving the public, as an outstanding national memory institution and as a many-side centre of education and culture.”

The part especially worth visiting is the Baroque State Hall, which prides itself as being one of the world’s most beautiful historic libraries. It was Emperor Charles VI who ordered it to be constructed as his Court Library. Architect Johann Bernard Fischer von Erlach planned its construction, and it was built from 1723 to 1726 by his son Joseph Emanuel. Court painted Daniel Gran, in turn, can be thanked for the beautiful ceiling frescoes. Admission prices and opening hours of the State Hall are listed here.

>> Read our Vienna travel guide

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National Library Singapore (Singapore, Singapore)

 The National Library of Singapore dates back to 1823. At that time, it was very much linked to the founding of Singapore’s first major educational institution, The Singapore Institution. Much time has passed since then, and this institution is now known as the Raffles Institution.

The National Library, too, has undergone great evolution; at the beginning it only served the needs of a privileged few but nowadays it is aimed at reaching out towards all Singaporeans. The National Library Building houses the Lee Kong Chian Reference Library and the Central Public Library. Opening hours are listed here.

>> Get inside tips on visiting Singapore

Law Library of the University of Zurich (Zurich, Switzerland)

Some libraries are known for the great architects that built them. The Law Library of the University of Zurich is one of them. It carries the famous name of Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, who has his main office in Zurich.

The library was opened in 2004, after 15 years of planning and construction. The original building dates back to 1908, and Calatrava’s extended version cannot actually be seen from the street. The library’s collection itself holds about 170,000 books and 700 magazines.

>> Book flights to Zurich

Great Court and Reading Room, British Museum (London, United Kingdom)

If Calatrava is the name associated with the Law Library of the University of Zurich, the architect that made the Great Court famous is Norman Foster. He and his team of architects transformed the British Museum’s inner courtyard into the largest covered public square in Europe. Enclosed by a spectacular glass roof, we find the world-famous Reading Room at its centre.

Since the Reading Room is officially part of the Museum, it is open for visits. You can find opening hours and admission prices here.

>> Read about visiting the British Library

Philological Library of the Free University (Berlin, Germany)

The Philological Library of the Free University in Berlin is another work of Foster and Partners. Since the end of World War II, the Free University has been not only of the city’s symbolically most important institutions, but also one of the leading universities in Germany as a whole. It oocupies a central role in the capital’s intellectual life. Its redevelopment, in turn, includes the restoraction of the university’s Modernist buildings and the construction of the new Philology Library, which was built from 1997 to 2005.

>> Find cheap flights to Berlin

Lello Bookshop (Porto, Portugal)

A bookshop is not a library per se, but it certainly qualifies as a place where books are stored (and sold). The Lello Bookshop, called Livraria Lello in Portuguese, is notorious for its windy staircase and vibrant pink color. It was built in 1906 by an engineering professor, Xavier Esteves. Packed with old and new books, it provides a wonderful experience for book lovers and architecture aficionados alike.

>> Check out other things to do in Porto

Bibliothèque Nacionale de France (Paris, France)

National libraries are national landmarks. In France, the National Library is located in the capital: Paris. Its origins trace back to the royal library founded at the Louvre by Charles V in 1368. In 1998, the French president Francois Mitterand ordered the construction of a new building, which contains more than ten million volumes. An exhibition space is also part of the new building.

>> Find more free things to do in Paris

Biblioteca Nacional de España (Madrid, Spain)

The National Library of Spain didn’t always carry the name of National Library. It was founded by Felipe V at the end of 1711 and opened its doors in March of 1712 as the “royal public library.” In 1836, it passed from being royal property to belonging to the government, and then, first became known as the National Library of all of Spain. As is the case with the national library in Paris, this building is also an exhibition space and houses temporary exhibitions that are open to all.

>> Find more cheap and free things to do in Spain

Read more about literary sights and adventures around the world:

Photos: Anomieus, Guille., Patrick Theiner, Kirk Siang, yago1.com, svenwerk, wallyg, watz, Gilzee, marcp_dmoz.

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Leave a Comment

  • Norna Jo Caffee said at 2011-12-31T16:08:49+0000: Libraries are some of my favorite places. These are beautiful! I wish I could visit them all.
  • Theresa Bulger said at 2011-10-12T18:39:13+0000: I encourage people to visit the Chincoteague Island Library. It is a beautiful, unique building, with amazing views of the water from most windows. Plenty of comfortable seating, and a bike rack out front. There are also five bookshops (Sundial Books, Bookhounds, Neptunes Books, upstairs of Main Street Cafe and the Kite Koop) within a block of our charming waterfront town. If Chincoteague sounds familiar to you its because you first read about it in Misty of Chincoteague and the series that followed. Affordable, safe, friendly, picturesque and cozy are the qualities that make our town beautiful!
  • Patricia Calef said at 2011-12-22T23:57:29+0000: I do not like modern libraries. My favorite is the Thomas Crane Library in Quincy, Ma.
  • Mary K. Furness said at 2011-09-27T15:51:47+0000: A great library here in the U-S is the Library of Congress, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. It's huge, and comprises several buildings; the reading room is a glorious piece of architecture, and the music recordings, periodicals and books are a wonderful timeline of American History. Visitors rarely think of it when they come to Washington--the museums and monuments always seem to take precedence--but I believe it's worth the visit. http://www.loc.gov/index.html
  • Melanie Wynne said at 2011-09-27T17:22:57+0000: What a cool list! My favorite bookstore anywhere is Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C., but I have to give a shout-out to the Beverly Hills and Central libraries here in L.A. -- they're full of amazing books and art.
  • Richard Reitman said at 2011-10-13T07:16:14+0000: I'd like to add, Pilgrims books in Kathmandu. A great place to find out of print books on Asia. They also are online!
  • Kathleen Gilligan said at 2011-10-01T19:10:44+0000: Was pretty disappointed in my stop at the library in Paris. Nobody we encountered spoke any English, and there were very few signs. (I know obviously the national language is French, but I'm afraid my French is simply not good enough, and was hoping for a little help.) What I thought might be the store was also closed, so I left without any souvenirs and only a quick picture of the reading room. I was the one who urged my group to stop there and nobody, including myself, was very impressed :( It paled in comparison to my visit to Trinity and the library in Dublin, Ireland for example.
  • Marilyn Terrell said at 2011-09-30T17:28:17+0000: Great roundup! Here's one I'd include as well: former movie palace Librería El Ateneo Grand Splendid in Buenos Aires http://on.natgeo.com/rboA4b.
  • Noel Erik Simon said at 2011-09-27T13:26:22+0000: I'm more than shocked that all of these 'beautiful' libraries are only from 'Western' countries. What about the Bibliotheca Alexandrina? http://worldalldetails.com/sightview.php?pic=Bibliotheca_Alexandrina_Egypt_Interior_view&view=76 It's one of the most impressive libraries that I've ever been in. Not only is its goal to have a copy of every book ever published, but it also has a computer that takes a 'snapshot' of every single website on the internet every day.
  • said at 2011-09-29T06:30:45+0000: I will be visiting Portugal next week. Its a holiday package from traveluniversally.com. As there will be hardly any time to visit and browse the library there. Could you please tell me if I can find Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem's there? Please.
  • Victoria VanZile said at 2011-10-01T12:39:51+0000: This made me swoon a little! So gorgeous.
  • Lois Joy Hofmann said at 2011-09-27T15:01:09+0000: We often overlook libraries as places to visit when traveling to other countries, but they provide a wonderful insight into the local culture.
  • Elvan Savkli said at 2011-10-01T23:38:37+0000: i love visiting and taking their pictures.
  • Sara Cruz said at 2011-10-13T19:13:31+0000: what about Coimbras library?!? it's one of the most beautiful i've ever seen... and I'm not "just saying" 'cause I'm from Coimbra. Take a look at it, please... http://www.viaggiaresempre.it/0006PortogalloCoimbra.jpg