It’s been called the world’s most beautiful bookstore. Set in a former performing arts theater turned cinema that dates back to 1919, Buenos Aires’s El Ateneo Grand Splendid really is splendid. And grand!
And it may just live up to all the hype as the world’s most beautiful bookstore. Many of the nearly 1 million customers who come here each year to browse the store’s enormous 21,000 square feet think so. Here’s what makes it so remarkable.
Its History Is Interwoven With Music And Dance
When El Ateneo Grand Splendid was a theater and a cinema, it wasn’t just any theater and cinema. It played a crucial role in the history of music and dance in Argentina.
In its former life, it hosted tango legends like Carlos Gardel, Francisco Canaro, Roberto Firpo, and Ignacio Corsini. In fact, behind a locked door near the ceiling dome is the room where Gardel made some of his early recordings.
The building evolved into a cinema by 1929, and it became the first in Buenos Aires to show films with sound, which seems especially fitting for a building that was once bursting with music! And when silent films were aired, building proprietor Max Glucksman had a live tango orchestra perform to accompany the projections.
A Former Student And Theater Patron Saved The Day
Sadly, after its tour as a theater and cinema, the Grand Splendid was slated for demolition before it was saved -- in part by a former patron. Adolfo de Vincenzi had loved the building since his student days, when it served as a hideaway when he needed a break from his classes. Though the building was in rough shape, de Vincenzi found inspiration from all the theaters closing in the neighborhood. He felt the time was right to make a change and moved to acquire it for his company, El Ateneo, a popular bookstore chain. Under the vision of architect Fernando Manzone, the building was transformed into El Ateneo Grand Splendid in 2000.
Its Original Finishings Have Survived
While it was in rough condition, the building’s original finishings were saved. They include its original ceiling frescos by Nazareno Orlandi, ornate theater boxes, curved balconies, trimmings and finishes, and luxurious red curtains, all of which were saved and restored.
The Old Opera Boxes Have A New Role
The theater’s beloved opera boxes, once reserved for the Argentine elite, have a new role in the bookstore. They serve as snug hideaways! With plush chairs, great views, and a feeling of secrecy, they’re the coziest parts of the building.
Spanish Titles Are Prominent
This is first and foremost a bookstore, and there’s a reason why patrons are so loyal. It has thousands upon thousands of books, plus CDs and DVDs. The children’s department, in particular, is considered especially lovely. The majority of El Ateneo Grand Splendid’s titles are understandably in Spanish. However, there is a small selection of English titles for visitors to choose from. They’re mostly limited to best-selling romance and mystery titles -- imagine what you’d find in an airport kiosk -- but there are a few hidden gems as well, including large-format English language photo books.
You Can Enjoy Live Music While You Shop
The building’s history as a music and theater institution lives on. The former stage, once the haunt of tango stars, is now the bookstore’s cafe. And live music still floods the air, thanks to a lineup of players performing in the cafe. Note that the cafe can occasionally be busy -- some 3,000 people visit the bookstore every day! -- so if you dream of a pensive afternoon spent sipping a cappuccino while you read and write, you might want to come mid-week when it’s a little quieter.
Buenos Aires Is The Bookstore Capital Of The World
El Ateneo Grand Splendid may be the most beautiful bookstore in the world, but that’s not Buenos Aires’s only claim to literary fame. It’s also the bookstore capital of the world. At 25 bookstores for every 100,000 inhabitants, there are more bookstores here per capita than any other city in the world. (In case you’re curious, Hong Kong takes second place with 22 shops per 100,000, followed by Madrid and then London). For Buenos Aires, that translates into more than 700 bookstores, from giant sensations like El Ateneo Grand Splendid to tiny niche shops known only to their neighbors. Regardless of which shop you’re in, you’ll notice plenty of good deals. Books are exempt from Argentina’s standard 21 percent sales tax, making them an affordable souvenir of your travels. Time to discover some new authors!
Planning A Visit
El Ateneo Grand Splendid is open Monday to Thursday from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday to Saturday from 9 a.m. to 12 a.m., and Sunday from 12 p.m. to 10 p.m. It is located at Av. Santa Fe 1860, Capital Federal.
Visiting Argentina? Here are six things to know before you go. Interested in the tango? Read one solo traveler’s reflections on tangoing for the first time in Buenos Aires.