Let this list of 29 beautiful libraries of the world blow your literary mind with cultural and architectural treasures, all centered around books. When traveling, I always make a point of stopping in at libraries around the world. Visiting them can give you a local history lesson, architectural education and peaceful respite from a busy itinerary. I’ve visited many of these cool libraries myself and others are sitting on my bucket list, just waiting for me to get there.
So, whether are you an armchair literary traveler, or you are looking to go out into the world, check out the following list of the world’s most lovely libraries.
29 of the Most Beautiful Libraries in the World
John Rylands Library, Manchester England
Manchester England is a UNESCO City of Literature…and no wonder, because the city is positively stuffed with beautiful libraries. John Rylands was a textile millionaire in the 1800’s. His third wife, Enriqueta had a charitable nature and she built the library in his honor as a gift to the people of Manchester. They have over 1.4 million items in their collection and one whopper of a Gothic reading room.
“Read in order to live”–Flaubert
Chetham’s Library, Manchester England
They didn’t use Chetham’s library for a Harry Potter movie, but it sure feels like they could have. This medieval building dates back to the 1420 when it was a college for priests, and most of the books date back to that time. In 1653, Humphrey Chetham purchased the building and set it up as a Hogwarts-like school for boys (minus the magic). Chetham believed strongly in making books available to the public, and he made the building one of the very first free public libraries. It’s said that Marx and Engel passed a summer in the reading room, cooking up all sorts of social theories.
Duke Humphrey’s Bodleian Library, Oxford, England
The Bodleian first opened to scholars in 1602, incorporating books donated by Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester. Since then, it has expanded slowly, and it now has 31 libraries in the network. The Duke Humphrey library is one of the loveliest and it also had a starring role as the “restricted reading” section in the Harry Potter’s movies.
Some of the libraries aren’t open to the public, but many are. Check out this list of other beautiful libraries at Oxford and pick a few to visit.
British Library, London England
The British Library may not be the prettiest, but it is certainly one of the most famous libraries on this list. It still gets a great deal of use from the general public, as evidenced by the worker bees above. The desks surround a central stack of special collections that shoots out of the atrium like a literary monolith. The library also has an amazing set of collections for public viewing, including: a Gutenberg Bible, works by Shakespeare, the Magna Carta and musical notes from the Beatles.
Gladstone’s Library, Howarden Wales
The library was founded by William Gladstone, a long time UK Member of Parliament and Prime Minister during the 1800’s. He had a vast appetite for books, accumulating over 32,000 volumes in his lifetime. His library is the UK’s only Prime Ministerial library and one of a very small number of residential libraries. This means that the best thing about this library, is that you can sleep there!
Read more about my literary pilgrimage to Wales and my sleepover at Gladstones.
Long Room at Trinity College, Dublin Ireland
Dublin is another UNESCO City of Literature and for good reason. They have a strong (and sometimes contrarian) literary history, and the city is filled with beautiful libraries, cool bookshops, and bookish museums. The jewel in Dublin’s literary crown is the Long Room at Trinity College, which is one of the most famous libraries in Europe. It was built in 1712 and comprises the main chamber of the library. It houses 200,000 of the library’s oldest books. If you are like me, you will audibly gasp when entering the room. The light streaming in from the windows illuminates row after row of books, all connected together by a beautiful curved ceiling.
Marsh’s Library, Dublin
Marsh’s Library is not as popular or well known as the Long Room, but it’s just as beautiful. It’s an eighteenth century time machine and ALL of their books are at least three hundred years old. Their rare manuscripts, maps and prints are available for serious researchers but the library is also open to the public for visits. The staff there is beyond friendly and will happily answer your questions about their collection and the Dublin literary celebrities who have visited there.
National Library, Dublin
But wait, we aren’t finished with Dublin yet. Ireland’s National Library collection includes materials on Ireland’s history and heritage. As a researcher, you can work on family genealogy or review Ireland’s printed history. The ground floor has an exhibit on Yeats and the main reading room is a quiet contemplative space.
Biblioteca de Convento de Mafra, Mafra, Portugal
The grand library at the Palace in Mafra is a 260 year old roccoco masterpiece. It was completed in 1755 and houses 36,000 volumes, including rare books that were hunted during the Inquisition. In an unusual bit of organic pest control, the library employs bats to keep paper eating critters out of the stacks.
You can visit the palace as a pretty easy day trip from Lisbon, and it takes only an hour by bus.
Biblioteca Joanina, Coimbra, Portugal
This richly decorated library was founded by Dom João V in 1755. They have 300,000 volumes dating from the 16th to the 18th centuries. The ceilings were painted with a trompe l´oeil effect and the shelves themselves are made from exotic woods. Like Mafra, there are also resident bats in this library.
Coimbra is an easy stop on the train between Lisbon and Porto. When in Porto, you can find more historic sites and some contemporary exhibits in this Porto museum guide.
Stiftsbibliothek Admont, Admont, Austria
If I visit this library, do you think they will let me lay on the floor so that I can soak up that gorgeous ceiling? I ask, because the seven ceiling frescoes are masterpieces of the Enlightenment, painted in 1775-6 by Bartolomeo Altomonte. This is billed as the world’s largest monastery library, and looking at the picture, that does not seem like any kind of hyperbole.
” …Rejoice, the ancient spirit thrives again. For those who read a word or two, there’s hope”–Trai Nguyen
Stiftsbibliothek Kremsmünster, Kremsmünster, Austria
The Kremsmünster Abbey was founded in 777 CE, making it one of the oldest on this list of libraries around the world. Its holdings include the Codex Millenarius, a famous 8th-Century manuscript of the Christian Gospels that depicts Saint Luke as a flying ox. Despite raids in the 10th century, the library largely managed to escape sacking and raiding. Like the Gladstones, you can also stay at the Abbey in one of their modest guest rooms.
The Library of El Escorial, San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain
The El Escorial palace complex is the most important architectural monuments of the Spanish Renaissance. The building was conceived by King Philip II and was intended as a multi-purpose shrine to his late father. The palace site is sort of like a Spanish nesting doll, with the library inside the monastery inside the palace.
Stiftsbibliothek Sankt Gallen, St Gallen, Switzerland
Like the Kremsmünster, this Abbey library is very old. It was founded in 719AD and is one of the most richly appointed libraries in the world. The library has been a scriptorium where Benedictine monks worked on illustrated manuscripts. Over time, they came to specialize in collecting manuscripts from the Middle Ages and even have an old Egyptian mummy lurking about the grounds.
KU Leuven University Library, Leuven Belgium
This lovely library needed a serious repair job after WWII. But they have lovingly restored the warm reading room filled with globes, dictionaries and lots of place for study. You can also climb 300 steps to the top of the bell tower for great views of Leuven.
You can visit the library and more in just a weekend in Leuven.
Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, Paris, France
The Sainte-Genevieve has had many iterations, starting from the 6th century. But its current iteration was born in in 1855, when it became the first library in France not to be connected to a school, Abbey or palace. The unique wrought iron ceiling has gives the library a Victorian train station sort of vibe.
The Stadsbiblioteket, Stockholm Sweden
Modernism was definitely at work in 1924 when Stockholm’s city library was designed. The movement for a new library was in part, influenced by Carnegie’s movement in the US to democratize libraries (as seen below in Nashville). The rounded main reading room is a three tiered layer cake of books with wide open shelving and an airy feel.
See more of Sweden with these awesome images of Stockholm.
City Library, Stuttgart Germany
Who says that a beautiful library has to be old? I haven’t been to Stuttgart since 1984 on a study abroad trip, but with the construction of this modern wonder, I’m going to need to go back. It rises up out of the ground like a modern crystal cube. It’s also intensely modern in its function, with an event space, loan-able art, an animation library and a rooftop deck.
Go to Stuttgart during Christmas and, in addition to the library, you can enjoy regional Christmas markets and offbeat museums.
Oodi Central Library, Helsinki Finland
In another intersection where totally modern design meets contemporary life, the Oodi in Helsinki is “living meeting place”. It’s been designed to complement nearby public spaces like the contemporary art museum and the music center. This ingenious building offers traditional library services as well as work spaces, a maker lab, film screenings and food.
Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Alexandria Egypt
The original ancient Alexandria library in Egypt was one of the earliest (and greatest) libraries in the world. It’s said to have burned to the ground in 48BC, leaving behind only ashes and myth. In 2002, Alexandria decided to resurrect the library for the modern age, building an architectural stunner with cultural purpose. In addition to traditional library spaces (such as reading rooms), they host a research center and three museums.
Include the library on a bucket list itinerary including these other landmarks in Egypt.
State Library, Melbourne Australia
Melbourne is yet another City of Literature. They not only have a ton of local literary events, great indy bookstores and prolific authors, they have one of the most beautiful libraries in the Southern Hemisphere. Built in 1864, it’s Australia’s oldest library and they are charged with preserving Victoria’s heritage by collecting items of historical and cultural significance for future generations.
“Writers speak for those who are kept in silence”–Isabel Allende
José Vasconcelos Library in Mexico City
This library looks to me as if an Amazon distribution center evolved from being a place where you shove books out the door, into a place where you can read and love books. It’s modern, it’s modular and it makes me wish that my Spanish language skills were more up to par so that I could read all of the books there.
Real Gabinete Português de Leitura, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
The awkward website translation for this incredible library refers to it as a “lusted convergence”. I don’t even know what that means, except now I want to go there. The building architecture is in a particular Manueline style found in places like Lisbon’s Belem. The building looks kind of churchy on the outside, but the inside is one big lusting convergence for books.
George Peabody Library, Baltimore Maryland
This architectural achievement from 1857 rains light down six stories of wrought iron railing onto books books books. The building was funded by George Peabody, a philanthropist who gifted the library to the citizens of Baltimore in appreciation for its “kindness and hospitality”.
Mid-Manhattan Branch at Bryant Park, New York City, NY
The main branch of NYC’s library system was its first public library. Until 1895, other libraries had been privately built. It took sixteen years to finish, but they finally opened in 1905 with 1 million books in the collection. It’s still a busy library today, circulating books out to Manhattan’s many neighborhood libraries.
Main Branch, Nashville Tennessee
We have Dale Carnegie to thank for Nashville’s main branch as well as 2,509 public libraries around the world. He provided seed funding to support cities like Nashville as long as they demonstrated a true interest in the project and who were willing commit to maintaining the libraries. This lovely branch in downtown Nashville opened in 1904.
Stop into the library as part of a long weekend itinerary to Nashville.
Seattle Public Library
Seattle is yet another UNESCO City of Literature, known for great book stores and Amazon. Their library system started in 1891 with a reading room on Pioneer Square. They have since upped the ante with this new main branch. The architecture is cool on the outside as well as in, and they offer many of the same amenities as the Oomi and Austin (just below).
Central Library, Austin Texas
Austin’s new main branch is one of the coolest libraries I’ve ever visited. It offers a modern design in both form and function. Yes, they have books that you can check out. But they also have a full service restaurant (which, brilliantly, also houses the cookbook collection). They have kid’s play spaces with over-sized chess pieces and tons of lounges. There is a top floor atrium which not only offers great views of Austin lake, but it also doubles as a busy co-working space for digital nomads.
Harold Washington Library, Chicago Illinois
Harold Washington was Chicago’s first African American mayor, and one of its most beloved. Building a library as a tribute to him is far better than some static statue on Michigan avenue. This main branch is a fully functional public library that has been pumped up with literacy programs, sculptures, cultural history exhibits and a maker space.
These libraries represent the best of a bookish spirit that values form and function…knowledge and beauty. A quote by Germaine Greer featured on the wall of Melbourne library reads:
“Libraries are reservoirs of strength, grace and wit, reminders of order, balm and continuity, lakes of mental energy.”
True that, Germaine. I hope you use this list of beautiful libraries around the world to help you fuel your own reservoir of strength and lake of mental energy.
In the meantime…..
READ MORE BOOKS!
Start with this list of the very best travel books. It includes great reads about how travel is transformative, offering wacky tales of derring do, epic quests and stories of authentic travel.
You should also check out the following series of book lists for specific destinations:
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