One of life’s most beautiful cycles: reading introduces me to lots of new places I want to travel to, and while traveling I stumble into new bookshops, and it starts all over again. It’s basically science.
In all seriousness, though, as a literature lover I can’t help but build a lot of my itineraries around gorgeous bookshops and the homes of authors I love.
On one of my favorite trips, I met up with a friend who was studying abroad in England, and we made our way to Paris. We then proceeded to hit up waaaay too many secondhand bookshops, Victor Hugo’s Place des Vosges apartment, and, of course, the somewhat-crowded-but-still-gorgeous Shakespeare and Company.
Immersing ourselves in another country’s literary culture for a few days was almost like being the heroines in our own (super nerdy) adventure story. We found some hidden treasures, took in new sights, and ultimately felt reassured that there are people all over the world who get just as starry-eyed over a beautiful hardcover as we do.
In the spirit of that kind of bookish adventuring, I want to share some unexpected and lesser-known destinations around the world where you can get lost in a literary experience like none other.
Mafra Palace Library (Mafra, Portugal)
Of all the unrealistic romantic expectations Disney has given me, being gifted a Beauty and the Beast-esque library has always been at the top of the list. Well, I’ve decided visiting this one might be close enough.
About 45 minutes north of Lisbon, you’ll find this treasure trove of old-world charm (hellloooo Rococo!) and rare books, including the first encyclopedia. The palace also played an important role in Nobel Prize-winning author José Saramago's Baltasar and Blimunda.
But the most interesting thing about the library is what you probably won’t see during your visit: the bats.
During the day, they hide in the old bookshelves, where there are lots of perfectly dark crevices. Then they take over for the night shift, zooming around and keeping the books bug free.
No one knows exactly when or how the flying night crew arrived, but they’re happy to have them there.
How do they keep the books free of…well, bat stuff? Honestly, I have no idea.
There are also resident bats at the University of Coimbra, and they apparently use sheets? I would assume they do something similar in Mafra, but I guess we’ll have to go ask the librarians to find out for sure.
For something a little less…well, batty…the gorgeous Livraria Lello bookshop in Porto is also worth a visit.
Book and Bed (Tokyo, Japan)
Speaking of hiding in bookshelves…
This Tokyo capsule hotel might not be the most comfortable place to sleep, but hey, for those of us who stay up late reading into the night anyway, it’s perfect!
Thankfully, each of the “rooms” comes with a reading lamp, and you’ve got access to the selection of 1,700 books (a mix of Japanese and English) day and night.
You don’t have to stay overnight, either - you can just book (haha) a spot to read while the sun’s still shining. Sounds like a nice break from the noise of the city to me :-)
El-Azbakeya Wall Book Market (Cairo, Egypt)
Not many places in the world can claim a love affair with books as long as Egypt’s. While the Library of Alexandria and other ancient “Houses of Books” aren’t around anymore, the literary spirit is still alive and well. One of the best places to find it is in this bustling outdoor book market.
In the early 1900s Cairo booksellers started gathering by the El-Azbakeya Wall (near Azbakeya gardens, just off the Attaba metro stop), and ever since then customers have known that’s where to find cheap books.
While the sellers have had a bit of a rough time keeping the market going, they’re known for being incredibly friendly and working together to help customers find what they need.
That’s especially nice since their selection of second-hand books is huge (and includes volumes in a bunch of different languages).
The Bebelplatz (Berlin, Germany)
It’s the absence of books that make this memorial so powerful.
The square in Berlin is home to an art installation titled Library. Its underground bookshelves have enough space to hold the 20,000 books that were destroyed during the infamous Nazi book burning that took place in the square on 10 May 1933.
Along with the haunting memorial there is a plaque with the quote from prophetic 19th-century poet Heinrich Heine that reads, "Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen." ("That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people").
Every year on the anniversary of the burning, students at Humboldt University hold a book sale in remembrance of the event.
Armchair Books (Edinburgh, Scotland)
Their website says it all: “The dangers are manifold; our overburdened shelves groan like masts in a squall, our threadbare and quasi-oriental rugs may distractingly catch the eye or foot.”
Should you be brave enough to face these dangers, though, your reward is a cozy bookish haven with Shakespeare and Company vibes (minus the huge lines to get in).
Their collection is also worth venturing in for, with first editions (like this gorgeous Alice's Adventures in Wonderland) and signed books galore.
And the staff is clearly passionate about getting good books in readers’ hands - they even ship internationally, so no worries if traveling to Edinburgh for those rare volumes isn’t in the cards right now.
But as a UNESCO city of literature, Edinburgh has plenty of other bookish treasures to offer, including an international book festival.
Wuguan Books (Kaohsiung, Taiwan)
Imagine yourself in a dark room with nothing but books…floating books.
It sounds like a dream, but it’s a real bookstore in Taiwan’s second-largest city.
To get there, you can fly into Kaohsiung itself or into Taipei (it’s only a 3.5-hour drive between the two cities).
In an interview with CNN, store manager Su Yu-shan noted that the way the shop is set up doesn’t allow for a large selection, but it’s carefully curated.
Part of the appeal is the unique sensory experience, where distractions are eliminated and it’s just you and the books. But the dark atmosphere is also meant to give you freedom to explore hidden interests and fantasies without shame.
Since a lot of the content available isn’t exactly child-friendly, you have to be over 18 to enter. Flash photography and lights are also banned.
Bart’s Books (Ojai, CA, USA)
In the words of the LA Times, “If you can’t find a book anywhere else, chances are you will find it here.”
Inspired by the book carts on the banks of the Seine in Paris, Richard “Bart” Bartinsdale built some bookcases outside his Ojai home in the ‘60s, offering some of his overabundant collection for sale on the honor system.
The shop eventually took over the house, too, but to this day the mega cheap books outside (starting at 30¢) are available for purchase even after hours - just throw some coins in the slot and you’re golden!
But I’ll go ahead and read the question on your mind: What happens when it rains?
Fear not, concerned book lover. Not only does SoCal not get many rainy days in the first place (which also makes Ojai a great place for hiking and biking), but strategically placed tin sheeting protects the books when a few drops do fall.
Actually, the bigger issue, especially in recent years, is forest fires. The ash from the big ones in 2017 did take out some of the shop’s inventory, but it’s so beloved by the community that they stepped up to help.
You’ll find an incredibly kind and knowledgeable bunch among the staff, who are happy to give you a tour of the maze-like shop or help you find that rare book you’re looking for.
We can’t talk about independent bookstores in the U.S. without giving Powell’s in Portland a mention, too - along with being the world’s largest independent bookstore, it’s also got a staff that’s passionate about what they do - just check out those lovely staff picks.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez House Museum (Aracataca, Colombia)
I always check to see if I can visit the home of an author I love when I’m planning a trip.
Of course, this works best with authors that aren’t around anymore, though I can neither confirm nor deny taking a selfie in front of Stephen King’s (probably haunted) red mansion in Bangor, Maine. Apparently he recently moved to Florida? Talk about a big change.
There are lots of cool author house museums out there, but the home of this beloved Colombian author is especially magical because of its connection to his most famous work, 100 Years of Solitude.
The fictional town in the novel, Macondo, is based on Aracataca, which is about a 1.5-hour drive from Santa Marta. Many of the events were inspired by Marquez’s childhood living in the house with his grandparents and the stories they told him.
The actual house Marquez grew up in was demolished, but it’s been faithfully rebuilt as a museum in his honor.
You can get Marquez-focused tours of both the house and the town. Maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of an old man with big wings…
Museum of Miniature Books (Baku, Azerbaijan)
And now for the most adorable part of this list…a collection of fairy-sized books.
Make that the second-largest collection of fairy-sized books in the world. (It held the world record with 2,913 unique books until Indian mini-book enthusiast Sathar Adhoor beat it out). It’s also the world’s only museum dedicated to them.
Zarifa Salahova has been gathering her treasure trove of itty-bitty books for over 30 years. Her little library includes super rare pocket-sized editions of Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, and more. She also has a 17th century Quran on display. Some of the books have been donated by other collectors, and Salahova has even published some herself.
The museum’s home city, Baku, is known for its F1 circuit, Zoroastrian fire temple and unique flame towers. We know that some recent political turmoil in that area may put some people off from this one (at least for now), but that doesn’t mean you can’t still find yourself some super cute mini books.
Dujiangyan Zhongshuge (Chengdu, China)
Chengdu is another city that isn’t on everyone’s list, but it might be worth visiting (when we can again) just to get lost in this cathedral-like bookshop, which we’ve featured before on our Instagram:
To be honest, I’m not at all sure how easy it’d be to find what you’re looking for. For one thing, they have around 80,000 books. Then the mirrored ceilings make the collection look endless.
But I’m not complaining. Who doesn’t want endless books? This might just be one of those times when the search is the best part of the experience.
At least all the readable books are within reach. The ones close to the ceiling are actually fake and placed there purely for aesthetic reasons.
If you do ever find yourself in the city, you can also catch a glimpse of a giant panda, visit the Leshan Buddha, or check out another literary landmark: the 8th century poet Du Fu’s magical thatched cottage.
Strahov Library (Prague, Czech Republic)
When it comes to gorgeous old libraries, you really can’t go wrong with Prague.
One of their most stunning is the library of the Premonstratensian monastery at Strahov (a bit of a mouthful, I know). Prague’s tourist website boasts that it’s “one of the most valuable and best-preserved historical libraries,” with about 200,000 volumes, many printed between 1502 and 1800.
So if you love the look and smell of old books (I used to have a second-hand bookshop perfume, so…), prepare your senses for a feast.
The grand old halls are worth looking at all on their own, with some pretty cool 17th-century librarian technology and ceiling frescoes by Siard Nosecký and Anton Maulbertsch.
Thankfully for those of us who can’t get enough of Baroque libraries, we also have the option of touring Klementinum in the old town. Thanks for being an overachiever, Prague.
Word on the Water (London, England)
We couldn’t make a list about bookish destinations and not include London, could we?
There’s no shortage of literary pilgrimage spots (221B Baker St., anyone?) and great bookshops, but this particular one is a combination of two things that normally don’t go together. Just the audacity involved is already a point in its favor.
It’s not the only floating bookshop in the world (the largest one in the world actually might travel to you), but it’s definitely one of the hippest. Along with offering a boatiful shopping experience, it also occasionally hosts poetry slams and live music.
The shop started when its owner, down-on-his-luck street book vendor Jon Privetts, bought himself a barge to live in and then realized that he could combine his love of literature with his new amphibious lifestyle.
For a while, the shop had to move every couple of weeks due to city regulations, but thanks to community support they’re now permanently docked off Granary Square near King’s Cross, where you can find lots of good spots along the canal to sit and read your new books.