A life without books is unthinkable for me. I can’t go to sleep without reading at least a few pages of my latest book. Call me old-fashioned, but no electronic device can equal the joy of holding a real book in my hands, admiring the cover and artwork, turning the pages, and even inhaling the scent of paper and ink.
The pleasure is enhanced if I can indulge in my love of books in a fabulous place: A sumptuous library, with volumes lovingly collected over centuries (even if some of the more valuable ones can only be admired under glass and not touched), stored in buildings that are works of art by themselves. On my travels, I can never bypass a library or a book shop for that matter. Luckily there are many beautiful libraries around the world, located in equally fascinating cities, monasteries, or as part of a museum or castle. Enter and you get a double treat: the books and the building. Here are my favorites, selected on how spectacular they are.
1. George Peabody Library
George Peabody was a wealthy philanthropist with a vision — to create a space of learning and culture accessible to the general public in his beloved Baltimore. The result was a “cathedral of books,” completed in the Neo-Greco style by famous local architect Edmund. G. Lind and opened in 1878. Over 300,000 volumes form the collection of the library that today serves as a research library for Johns Hopkins University. It was also America’s first musical conservatory, bringing together 18th and 19th-century literature, art, music, and history. Despite being part of a university, the general public can still use and enjoy the “cathedral,” dominated by a 61-foot high atrium, topped by a frosted glass skylight. Five tiers of ornamental, black cast iron balconies and gold scalloped columns contain stacks of books, while your feet walk on black and white marble floors.
2. Royal Portuguese Reading Room
Rio De Janeiro, Brazil
This library is another example of a private initiative to create its existence. In 1837, 43 Portuguese immigrants felt the need to bring their home country’s culture and literature to Brazil. The library, also known as the cabinet of reading, opened its doors to the public in 1887. Its ever-growing collection of 350,000 books from Portugal, including some rare nearly 500-year-old editions, is housed in a stunning building erected in the neo-Manueline style. The limestone façade is rather plain with some statues of past Portuguese explorers, but the interior makes you stare in awe. Three stories high, it contains all elaborately carved wooden bookcases and stacks, a beautiful chandelier and skylight allowing light. In the hall stands a silver, ivory, and marble monument, fashioned by goldsmiths in Porto and brought over to Brazil.
Pro Tip: Always ask permission from a librarian before touching any books.
3. Baroque Library Of Metten Abbey
Metten Abbey in Bavaria, Germany, is a Benedictine monastery, founded in A.D. 766. A small library was established in 1260, but it expanded over the centuries until reaching the Baroque glory you can see today. This was created on the initiative of an ambitious abbot between 1722 and 1726. The collection of books totals 35,000, with one of the most precious pieces being the Mettener Antiphonas, a collection of 15th-century music manuscripts. In true Baroque style, the vaulted ceiling is supported by allegorical statues and there are paintings of writers and philosophers reading their own works.
In 2009, a new library was added because of the growing collection of books, often resulting from donations.
Pro Tip: You have to take a guided tour and no photography is allowed. The current brethren will be happy to sell you images.
4. Library At Klementinum
Prague, Czech Republic
The Klementinum complex near the Charles Bridge in Prague is vast, the Baroque library only being a part of it. Established in 1722 as part of the Jesuit university, the library features ceiling frescoes by Jan Hiebl and remains intact since the 18th century. Apart from the book collection, many of them, not surprisingly of a religious character, you will be fascinated by a huge array of antique geographical and astronomical globes, many are works of the Jesuits themselves.
To see the entire complex, including climbing 172 stairs, take a 50 minute guided tour, conducted in English.
5. Bibliotheca Alexandrina
So far we have shown you libraries with a more or less long history. It’s time for a modern-day library, albeit built in a very historical place. In antiquity, the library of Alexandria was considered a wonder of the world although it isn’t included in the official list. In the third century A.D., it was destroyed by civil war and finally on the orders of Roman emperor Theodosius. The idea of recreating this enormous center of learning and culture has been around since 1974 and finally became reality in 2002. The modern library complex received a donation of 500,000 books from France and has shelf space for eight million books. The façade is covered with granite panels carved with all known alphabets. The reading room, topped with a glass roof, rises to 11 cascading levels. There are also four museums, cinemas, and art galleries. If you like, you can take a guided tour.
Pro Tip: There are many more beautiful libraries around the world. If you want to see and know more, take a look at Italian photographer Massimo Listri’s book. He has traveled the world to photograph the best libraries.
Historic libraries and museums are notable attractions in many cities worldwide: