Bookstores are quiet and comforting refuges, places where readers can spend hours browsing through new and old tomes and find contentment among the stacks of books. But the best bookstores are destinations unto themselves. The nine shops below inhabit a range of locations, from centuries-old historical buildings and grandiose settings to casual neighborhood sites. Each is worth visiting when you’re in the area, or better yet, plan your next trip around these beautiful bookstores
Livraria Lello (Porto, Portugal)
Built in 1906 by the engineer Francisco Xavier Esteves, the Livraria Lello building is part bookstore, part architectural wonder. Stop in to browse its massive collection of tomes, and leave time to take in its various art installations and exhibitions. One thing you can’t miss is the bright-red staircase that forks its way through the space. Supposedly, the shop and its staircase inspired J.K. Rowling — who lived in Porto during the early ‘90s — as she constructed the visual world of Harry Potter.
Cărturești Carusel (Bucharest, Romania)
Spread over six levels and 10,000 square feet of a restored building dating back to 1903, Cărturești Carusel (carousel of light) is an all-day hangout you may never want to leave. The bright-and-airy space is packed with books, of course, but there’s also a bistro on the top floor, a multimedia space in the basement, and a gallery dedicated to contemporary art.
El Ateneo Grand Splendid (Buenos Aires)
Befitting its name, El Ateneo is both grand and splendid. Housed in what was once an ornate theater, the bookstore kept many of the original building’s old-world accents, including the theater boxes, frescoed ceilings, balconies and red stage curtains. If you can peel your eyes away from all the striking visuals, the store has thousands of books to fuel your time in Argentina.
Boekhandel Dominicanen (Maastricht, Netherlands)
First constructed as a church in the 13th century, the Dominican Bookstore is one of the world’s most beautiful shops to purchase a new book or just to sit and stare in awe. Converted into its current iteration in 2006, the venue kept several of the church’s details, like the vaulted ceilings, stained-glass windows, frescoes, and massive stone pillars. Even if you never make it to Masstricht, you can still experience the gorgeous shop by taking a 3D tour of the space.
Bart’s Books (Ojai, California)
Bart’s Books is the world’s largest outdoor bookstore, and it’s been serving its California community since 1964. Shelves bask in the sun and beneath shady trees, holding a vast collection of more than 130,000 new and used books. The reader’s haven is a comfortable spot to sit and stay awhile, so find a few books you like, then plant yourself at one of the tables and dive in.
Opened in 1797, Hatchards is the oldest bookshop in the United Kingdom and the official bookseller to the Royal Family. The latter might not mean much, but hey, if it’s good enough for royalty, it’s probably good enough for the rest of us. The five-story shop is anchored by a grand staircase and features dark wooden shelves and leather couches. It has everything you want, from the latest fiction and nonfiction to history and children’s books. Because many authors visit Hatchards for signings, it’s a great place to pick up a signed first edition for a special souvenir or gift.
Librería El Péndulo (Mexico City)
This local favorite bookstore has multiple locations throughout the city, each with unique accents. Most have restaurants, a few have bars, and there’s a common theme of living plants running throughout the stores. Poke through the shelves, have a drink or a snack, then settle under a massive palm tree and read your new book.
The Last Bookstore (Los Angeles)
At 22,000 square feet, the Last Bookstore is the largest in California. Housed inside of a former bank, the space is teeming with books, some of which they keep inside the old bank vaults, as well as vinyl records and graphic novels. Head up to the second floor to wander around the labyrinth of bookcases and to survey the space below, or swing through the attached art galleries to peruse some art.
Libreria Acqua Alta (Venice)
This eccentric spot is emblematic of its location: Venice, aka “the floating city.” To protect its books from rising rides and flooding, Libreria Acqua Alta, which translates to “high water bookstore,” keeps many of its books snugly packed into makeshift vessels, including bathtubs, bins and gondolas. The practice is effective, but it also makes the delightfully ramshackle store a fun and unique place for visitors, whether they’re looking for a vacation read or just a photo. Bonus: The store is a favorite hangout for friendly neighborhood cats.