As long as books have existed, so too has the concept that reading one is like traveling without leaving your seat. Let us make the argument, though, for being transported both mentally and physically. In the age of Amazon, it’s nothing short of inspiring to see some of the most distinctively designed bookstores around the world thriving—clearly kept up by owners who treasure books as well as the bibliophiles who continue to visit and get lost in the shelves. We’ve gathered our favorites, the ones that we’re planning trips just to see and shop from. Checking out any of these offers a journey plucked straight from a novel.
Shanghai architecture firm XL-MUSE designed this futuristic bookstore in Hangzhou, and immediately after its opening in spring of 2016, images of its interior went viral. The spaceship-like setting blasts any preconceptions that brick-and-mortar bookshops are dusty, cluttered places, proving that it’s still modern and cool to find your reading materials in the real world.
You may recognize L.A.’s The Last Bookstore even if you’ve never been there—visitors love Instagramming from the tunnels and windows built from books throughout the huge store. Created by obvious die-hard book-lovers, these hidden gems punctuate a multi-level spot that one could spend days perusing, with shelves (and walls) full of books and records, used and new.
A short drive from the beach in Connecticut, The Book Barn is a cozy yet sprawling complex of used books that feels like a vacation in and of itself. Books on everything you can imagine fill creaky-floored houses and outdoor shelves all over the property, broken up by colorful gardens, shady umbrella tables, and even a pen with some goats. It’s book shopping with a country getaway twist.
Opened in 1732 and holding the Guinness record for oldest bookstore in the world, the Livraria Bertrand is full of more than just books: Its walls are packed with history, and decades of being a haunt for the Portuguese literati. It’s hard to pick its blue tiled exterior or medieval-esque arched interior as an aesthetic favorite, but either way, this shop is a must-visit.
Who would have thought that one of those mesmerizing cathedrals you find dotted throughout Europe would be the next place that bibliophiles could stroll in search of a good read? Architects Merkx+Girod transformed a 700-year-old church in the Netherlands into a lit hub, where frescoed vaulted ceilings soar over the buzz of book-browsing activity. Three stories of shelves climb the walls with the help of stairs and elevators, getting you ever closer to those Middle Ages-era details.
Known for secondhand stores throughout the city that raise money and awareness for HIV/AIDS issues, the charitable organization Housing Works has a book shop in Soho that’s so inviting, it’s become one of the most popular wedding venues in Manhattan. Judging by Instagram, snapping the scenery from the balcony is just as popular an activity there as flipping through books or sipping coffee.
You don’t have to wait for a wedding to indulge in bubbles while you read at Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar. The North Carolina spot celebrates the luxurious side of literature by making a book-filled room a day-to-night destination, decadently decorated with bold red hues, plush leather sofas, and gilded accents.
Mexico’s Cafebreria El Pendulo is an oasis in more ways than one. Yes, it has enough books to spend the next week sifting through. Yes, it has elevated dining on the first floor, casual dining on sofas on the second floor, and a bar on the third floor. It’s probably the lush greenery throughout the space, though, as well as the tonal and nature-inspired color scheme that make the store so calming and just plain lovely.
Belgium’s Cook & Book has a reputation for taking its decor as seriously as its comprehensive book selection. Genres are grouped into different rooms that are meticulously (and playfully) designed to capture the corresponding themes—a car in the travel section, a piano in the music section, light installations in the art section, Victorian furniture in the English section. There’s food and coffee, too, which is good considering it might be a full-day affair to explore every room.
Argentina’s Grand Splendid theater, built in 1919, got a second life when it was opened in 2000 as a vast space absolutely brimming with books. Many of the original elements are intact, from the frescoed ceilings to the gilded balconies to the rich red curtains. It makes for a captivating spectacle that a visitor would need time to take in before turning his or attention to the books.
Inspired by the academic gathering places of London, Florida’s Oxford Exchange is designed to be an intellectual hub. The space includes a thoughtfully curated book shop, a meeting space, a restaurant, and a home goods shop. While every room expertly balances an understated quality with artful detail, the bookstore feels especially well-appointed, like the living room of a chic countryside manor.
It seems simply wrong to end any bookstore roundup without the renowned Shakespeare and Company. A loving second home to many of the 20th and 21st centuries’ greatest writers (and, of course, even more readers), the literary pilgrimage destination perhaps has an unfair advantage in its interior: One can feel the stories that the walls have to tell, and that undoubtedly adds to the magic of weathered wooden shelves, rustic chandeliers, and oh-so-French tiled floors.
Have you visited a jaw-dropping bookstore lately? Share your experiences with us below!