I must admit to having a book problem. Not only do I read all the time, but if I like a book, I love to keep it. My home resembles a library. And then there are bookstores. I can spend hours browsing, reading the backs of books, and can’t wait to start reading all the new additions in the to-read shelf. I am not fussy when it comes to new or second-hand books, but I am a sucker for a lovely store, which adds to the browsing pleasure.
When it comes to travel, I not only like to take books with me that are set in or written by someone from my destination, but I also look out for special bookstores which might be worth visiting wherever I go. The same goes for libraries, book-inspired hotels, bookstore-cafes, and settings that take me back to books I enjoyed.
If you suffer from a similar affliction, then you will enjoy my list of destinations that are a must-see for any bookworm. It is an eclectic mix of all things book-related, and it is only a short list, because if I listed all my favorite spots, then they would fill a book…
1. Oxford, England
Oxford is an ancient city of learning where you can, quite literally, find a bookshop or library around every corner. But one of the most exciting places I have ever visited is the Bodleian Library. The main research library in Oxford, and second-largest library in Britain after the British Library, with some 13 million manuscripts, including two copies of the Gutenberg Bible — the first printed book in history and most valuable book in the world — is simply magnificent.
Founded by Sir Thomas Bodley in 1602, after the Reformation destroyed most libraries and ancient manuscripts, he dedicated his fortune and connections to not only building a library whose architecture is stunning, but also bringing together documents, manuscripts, and books from the learned world — including ancient papyrus scrolls from Egypt, some 3,000 years old, to hand-printed books in Latin.
You can visit as part of a tour, learning more about the architecture and history, including the Divinity Hall, famous for doubling as the Infirmary in the Harry Potter films, which as one of its quirks, has a door by Christopher Wren, an architect of the famous St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
Pro Tip: Pop into Blackwell’s Books, just across from the library — set in an old building, the outside belies the cavernous inside and vast selection of books. Be prepared not to emerge for a few hours.
2. Buenos Aires, Argentina
I kid you not, as soon as I arrived in Buenos Aires, this place was my first stop on a long to-do list. But while I came to love the city, and there is much to recommend, this remains a firm favorite. Opened in 1919 as a theatre, the place evolved into a cinema in 1929, but over the years fell into disrepair and was threatened with demolition. Luckily it was saved and underwent the most magical reinvention of them all: it turned into reportedly the most beautiful bookstore in the world, the Ateneo Grand Splendid. Every bit of the former theatre is filled with books, the stage is used sometimes as a café, sometimes for events, the former boxes are reading nooks, and the overall product does not only make any reader’s heart beat faster, but is also hugely photogenic.
Pro Tip: Buenos Aires is a city full of great bookstores. Do also visit Libros del Pasaje, a café-cum-bookstore in hip Palermo.
3. London, UK
London is a city for book lovers, period. It starts with Sherlock Holmes being present everywhere, including his own museum, to Charing Cross Road — which is not only the star of the superb book 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Banff, but it is still home to many bookstores today — to my all-time favorite bookstore, Daunts in Marylebone. But one tiny little lane hidden off Charing Cross Road, not far from bustling Leicester Square and pretty much hidden from sight, lies simply the best book-lover destination: Cecil Court. Nicknamed Bookseller’s Row because of the 20 odd antique book stores all right next to each other, this short alley is also thought to have been the inspiration for Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley.
Pro Tip: If you love travel, pop into Stanford’s, just a five-minute walk away, which sells maps for every spot in the world, travel guides, travel knick-knacks and, yes, books.
4. Bath, England
The city of Bath, with its honey-hued Georgian architecture, could come straight out of a Jane Austen novel. That is because not only did the author live here, but she also wrote several books in Bath. You can go on walking tours visiting the best addresses and there is the Jane Austen Centre, where you can learn more about the writer and her life, or you can walk around and soak up the atmosphere. I love visiting Sydney Gardens which lie directly opposite 4 Sydney Place, where Austen lived and worked, or you can visit the Assembly Rooms, which are featured in her books and many of the later film versions.
Pro Tip: For a step back in time, why not go for a sumptuous afternoon tea in the period Regency Rooms.
5. New York, USA
When you travel, chances are you will have to stay somewhere for the night, and where better than a hotel that is home to more than 6,000 books? The aptly named Library Hotel in New York makes leaving the hotel difficult. Even walking from one end of the corridor to the other might take some time. Books are everywhere, in the rooms, the lobby, the Writer’s Den, and, obviously, the Reading Room. You might just miss out on exploring New York City.
Pro Tip: Like a good whodunnit? Head straight to the Mysterious Bookshop which is stocked floor to ceiling with crime and mystery novels.
6. Zurich, Switzerland
If you have worked up a thirst, or indeed an appetite, why not head to the Wine Library in Zurich? Part of a hotel, the Wine Library is a room which doubles as a breakfast room, lounge, and wine bar, and has an entire, very tall wall full of books. The building, a former brewery, is stunning, mixing old with modern, but the Wine Library is one of the most beautiful places in Zurich to sit back and relax, or meet a friend — with a glass of wine and book in hand.
Pro Tip: If you don’t speak or read German, and need some reading material, pop into Pile of Books, a picturesque little bookshop dedicated to English books.
7. Bucharest, Romania
Bucharest is one of those capital cities that does not see many overseas visitors, but it should. An ancient city with a horrendous, more recent history, it is full of interesting places worth discovering. And here I discovered what I think is, after the Ateneo Grand Splendid in Buenos Aires, one of the most Instagram-able bookstores ever: The beautiful Carturesti Carusel, located right in the old town. Over three floors, linked by a stunning white spiral staircase, you find books, presents, even a café and reading hideout, and a good English book section. You can also get some lovely bookmarks when you make a purchase.
Pro Tip: Not far from the bookstore, have a coffee at Dianei 4, a rather nice and unusual café.
8. Hay-on-Wye, Wales
The little town Hay-on-Wye sits close to the border between England and Wales and is known around the world as the “Book Town.” Countless bookstores line the streets, there is even one open in the street, with an honesty box attached, should you want to take one of the books.
Then there is the Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival which takes over the town for two weeks every June, welcoming the biggest and most interesting names in literature for readings, talks, and book-signings.
Pro Tip: When you come to Hay, make it a Thursday, when the 700-year-old market takes place. It features fresh produce and useful odds and sods, all in a lovely setting.
9. Paris, France
Paris has so many places associated with writers who lived and created here, from Hemingway to Fitzgerald, from Henry James to Oscar Wilde, that searching out their special places would, and does, fill books. Then there are the iconic bookstores, such as Shakespeare & Co which is so popular that it has turned from a bookstore into a sideshow. But there are other, hidden book-lover’s places, which you can enjoy away from the crowds. For example, the National Library, Richelieu-Louvois, is right in the heart of the city and is so beautiful it makes your heart sing. You can either join to read there, or simply stand and look at it for a while.
Or, for English books, go to the lovely, if rather crammed full, Abbey Bookstore, where the owner Brian usually offers you a coffee.
Pro Tip: For a bookstore with a difference, visit the houseboat L’eau et les Rêves, Water and Dreams, moored by Canal de l’Ourcq. On deck, you’ll find a café bar, while under deck there are books and regular art and literary events.
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