The World’s Most Beautiful Bookstores
These bucket-list bookshops are worth planning an international trip around
I love traveling, though sadly I suck at planning my trips. Whenever I get home whether its from another state or another country, I unpack my bags, settle in, then immediately hear of some fantastic attraction I was foolish enough to miss.
Some things I don’t mind skipping out on. Base jumping is always a pass since I’m terrified of heights. Fashion doesn’t really strike my fancy either. But there are few things more tragic than knowing I strolled through the streets of a far off city and walked right past a book attraction I may never get the chance to see again. How was I to know that inconspicuous, little doorway held a literary landscape beyond my wildest imaginings? Why couldn’t I have heard of it sooner?
I write this list with a heaping spoonful of regret. This is a collection of bookstores that got away. Each one is a marvel that I gather now in hopes that awareness of these outstanding bookstores will keep you from making the same mistake next time you travel.
Cărturești Carusel, Bucharest, Romania
Built back in the 1860s and later transformed into the headquarters for the Chrissoveloni Bank, this Romanian bookstore holds more than 10,000 square feet of library area, a bistro, and gorgeous white columned architecture that could put many art galleries to shame.
Shakespeare & Company, Paris, France
A lovely independent bookstore on the Rue de la Bûcherie in Paris, Shakespeare & Co was founded by an American George Whitman in what was originally a 17th century monastery. Fun fact: it was made to be a retreat for the literarily inclined, and early in its life, the bookstore welcomed Tumbleweeds — wandering writers, poets, and intellectuals — to sleep over on the store benches in exchange for mini autobiographies.
Merci Used Book Cafe, Paris, France
The menu might seem pricey, but their signature tea time scones and massive wall-spanning bookshelves make it all worth it. With a 10,000 used book library, guests are free to snag a book, munch on snacks, and enjoy the Parisian ambiance.
Livraria Lello, Porto, Portugal
The Lello brothers, José and António, were such big book nerds that in 1881 they opened a bookstore and publishing house of their own. Later redesigned by famous bookshop engineer Francisco Xavier Esteves, Livraria Lello’s beauty is almost overwhelming with elaborate wood carvings, stained glass, and busts of famous Portuguese writers.
Cafebrería El Péndulo, Mexico City, Mexico
Although two stories chock full of books and a delicious cafe are appealing, the real draw to this Mexico City bookstore is the greenery that sets a naturalistic mood. Leaves and vines curl around the shelves, giving visitors the experience of reading in the middle of a forest.
Libreria Acqua Alta, Venice, Italy
New and used books pile up in literal gondolas in this boat-themed book shop. And if a boat for a bookshelf isn’t wacky enough for you, then make your way to the back where you can find a tall stacked staircase of books—with a paddle for a handrail, of course.
El Ateneo, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Between the ceiling frescos, balconies, and luxuriously red curtained stage, books take the place of an audience in this repurposed theater. Renovated by architect Fernando Manzone in 2000, the book and music was once home to tango performances, a radio station, and a cinema before settling into its current form.
Boekhandel Dominicanen, Maastricht, Netherlands
Located in a 13th-century Dominican Church, which happens to be a national monument in Maastricht, the “book flat” covers two floors and nearly 200 feet of bookshelves almost as tall as the Gothic style ceiling itself. Don’t forget to grab a drink by the coffee corner in the choir.
Poplar Kid’s Republic, Beijing, China
Definitely bring your hyperactive little ones along to this playground of a bookstore. Opened by a Japanese children’s book publisher, Poplar brings to life all the reading room fantasies I had as a kid with its rainbow decor and odd reading nooks.
Zhongshuge Bookstore, Hangzhou, China
It would be easy to get vertigo in this strategically designed bookstore. Constructed with purposeful optical illusions, height-based aesthetic, and mirrored ceilings, Zhongshuge gives the impression of an infinite space composed only of books (and conveniently placed cushions for plopping down with a book).
Albertine Books, New York, U.S.
Hidden inside the French Embassy in New York, this tiny bookstore features books in French, French books in translation, and upstairs, the most beautiful ceiling east of the Sistine Chapel. Regardez les étoiles!
Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, New York, U.S.
Nestled in the heart of Soho is this hidden gem that features a grand spiral staircase, decorative columns, and rows and rows of donated books illuminated under the warm glow of fairy-lights. The bookstore cafe is staffed entirely by volunteers and 100% of their proceeds go towards benefitting the homeless living with HIV/AIDS.
The Last Bookstore, Los Angeles, U.S.
The largest new and used book and record store in California, The Last Bookstore’s name is a call out and a promise that classics like vinyl and (gasp) paper books will always be in style. The bookshelf labyrinth on the upper floor gives “getting lost in a book” an entirely new meaning.
Bart’s Books, Ojai, U.S.
As the largest independent outdoor bookstore in the U.S., Bart’s has so many books that the cases comes spilling out onto the sidewalk for passersby to browse. If you find something you like, feel free to drop a few dollars in can outside, and take it merrily on your way. No need to wait in line.
Atlantis Books, Santorini, Greece
With a tagline like “A Decade of Amateur Bookselling” you know this is a shop with personality. On top of an amazing view, Atlantis organizes numerous readings, screenings, and even dance parties.
Daunt Books, London, U.K.
Built in an Edwardian style and made for an antiquarian bookseller, Daunt prides itself on catering to travelers. With shelves organized not by fiction or nonfiction but by country, the main gallery provides a wonderfully unique browsing experience that feels like a tour around the world.
Barter Books, Alnwick, U.K.
An open fire may not be the best idea in a bookstore, but it sure does feel great in the winter time. Finding a home inside an abandoned Victorian railway station, this giant second hand bookstore is remarkably cosy for its size and will tempt visitors to sit back and relax after spotting the reading material of their choice.
Word on the Water, London, U.K.
This floating bookshop was in danger of shutting down not too long ago, but after six months of drifting around, the barge has set its anchor near Kings Cross in London. Books, jazz, and a friendly dog are always ready to greet those meandering by the water.
Leakey’s Bookshop, Inverness, Scotland
Another bookstore in a church, Leakey’s boasts of a fantastic cafe and rare prints. One of the largest bookshops in Scotland, the woodburning stove and two floors of stacked literature is ideal for visitors who wander in.
Book and Bed, Tokyo
Those of us who fall asleep while promising just one more chapter will feel perfectly at home in this “accommodation bookshop.” This hostel doesn’t sell books—it sells shelves and bunks for the ultimate “night in the bookstore” experience.