Libraries — some dating back hundreds of years — are woven into the fabric of communities. Many feature a robust customer base, while others are better known for their architectural achievements than what’s on the shelves (you’ve probably seen these on Instagram). Either way, they deserve a visit, whether you’re local or just passing through.
To motivate your next read, here’s a dozen of the world’s most inspiring libraries, from Baltimore to Switzerland.
George Peabody Library (Baltimore, United States)
Opened in 1978, the George Peabody Library is a research library at Johns Hopkins University.
It contains more than 300,000 books, with a focus on 19th century history, religion, art, architecture, and literature. For the best views, head for the stack room, which features five stories of cast-iron balconies leading up to a massive skylight.
Klementinum Baroque Library (Prague, Czech Republic)
The self-titled “most beautiful library in the world” lives up to its reputation. Dating back to 1722, this baroque building was built as part of the local Jesuit university. Today, it still features plenty of its original 18th century architecture — and even some of the books — and is a popular stop for visitors to Prague. If you make it, be sure to look up at the decorative frescoes painted on the ceiling.
Stuttgart City Library (Stuttgart, Germany)
This modern library opened in 2011. Shaped like a cube, the interior is stark white, save for the multi-colored books that line the shelves. The reading room pictured here covers nine floors and sports a dizzying array of staircases. Thousands of visitors come through each day — some to read and others just to walk the minimalist space.
The Royal Portuguese Reading Room (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
Built in the 1880s, the Royal Portuguese Reading Room was conceived by Portuguese immigrants as a way to preserve their culture in Brazil. The Neo-Manueline style building contains 350,000 volumes and has the largest collection of Portuguese works outside of Portugal. Note the intricate woodwork and arches, stained glass windows, and colorful ceilings.
Trinity College Library (Dublin, Ireland)
History buffs will like it here. The library, which is the largest in Ireland, dates back to 1592 when the college was established. Over the centuries, it has acquired quite a collection, and today it accommodates more than six million printed volumes, including books, manuscripts, and maps. The must-see spot is the 213-foot Long Room, which houses beautifully preserved stacks containing the library’s oldest books, plus marble busts and an arched, wooden ceiling.
Tianjin Binhai Library (Tianjin, China)
This newcomer was opened in 2017, but what it lacks in history it more than makes up for in architectural prowess. The entrance greets you with a giant luminous sphere, and floor-to-ceiling, terraced bookshelves cascade up toward the ceiling, creating a wave effect. There’s plenty to keep you occupied, whether or not you ever check out a book.
The Morgan Library and Museum (New York, United States)
The Morgan Library began as the personal collection of John Pierpont Morgan, the financier who founded J.P. Morgan bank. It was constructed between 1902–1906 as an Italian Renaissance-style palazzo, and has expanded over the decades into a multi-building campus, with the latest addition designed by famed architect Renzo Piano.
Abbey Library of St. Gall (St. Gallen, Switzerland)
The abbey’s history goes way back to 612. The library itself came to fruition in 1553, and was then relocated to its current space in the mid-1700s, where it was designed in the rococo style. It houses some of the oldest and most important volumes in Switzerland, and in 1983, it was designated a World Heritage site.
Admont Abbey Library (Admont, Austria)
Dubbed the world’s largest monastic library, Admont Abbey Library was completed in 1776. Its shelves are stocked with books and manuscripts, but more impressive to visitors are the visuals. Keep your head on a swivel for the intricate wood carvings, gold accents, and colorful ceiling frescoes.
Mafra Palace Library (Mafra, Portugal)
This library resides at the Palace of Mafra, which was completed in 1755. The rococo-style library houses thousands of old books in an ornate setting featuring hand-carved bookcases, balconies, and a vaulted ceiling. The valuable tomes are protected by a colony of bats that roams the eaves each night, eating insects.
Royal Library of San Lorenzo de El Escorial (Madrid, Spain)
The Escorial is a vast building complex located just outside Madrid that was conceived by King Philip II and dates back to 1584. It comprises a church, monastery, royal palace, college, and the library. The latter is lined with wooden shelves and adorned with colorful frescoes and paintings.
Library of Parliament (Ottawa, Canada)
Founded in 1876, the library sits on the Ottawa River and acts as the main research resource for members of Parliament. It was last restored in 2006, but much of its original architecture remains, including the massive flying buttresses, ornamental ironwork, and handcrafted details. Abundant natural light filters in through more than 100 windows.