For travelers who love books and reading, there’s no place more enchanting than a big, beautiful library. Being surrounded by thousands of books is a dream for many, but there are some libraries that take things to the next level with their jaw-dropping interiors. These are the kinds of places that act like shrines to the written word, whether they are steeped in centuries of history or are the cutting edge of modern design.
To help you add to your bucketlist, we’ve compiled this list of the most beautiful libraries in the world, many of which could vie for the title of the world’s best library.
1. Admont Abbey Library
in Admont, Austria
There’s little doubt that one of the best libraries in the world is the glamorous Admont Abbey Library of Austria. Full of exquisite frescoes set within Baroque architecture, you only need to take one look at this library to see what makes it special. Pristinely decorated in white and gold, this Austrian library dates back to 1776, although the monastery itself is considerably older.
Besides its grandeur, Admont Abbey also holds the title of largest monastery library in the world, containing around 70,000 volumes. One detail that’s tough to miss is the series of frescoes by Bartolomeo Altomonte that cover each of the library’s seven cupolas.
2. George Peabody Library
in Baltimore, Maryland, USA
At a glance, one could easily mistake the George Peabody Library of Baltimore, Maryland, for a luxury hotel or venue. That should give you an idea of what kind of glamor we’re talking about with this library at Johns Hopkins University. Gazing up from its elegant marble floor past five tiers of balconies to its expansive skylights, it’s hard to believe this is a research-focused academic library and not something far more extravagant.
Interestingly, this library was funded in 1878 by philanthropist George Peabody as a resource open to the public. Today it houses nearly 300,000 volumes, earning it the nickname of “the Cathedral of Books” in Baltimore.
3. Mafra Palace Library
in Mafra, Portugal
It seems incredible that the Mafra Palace Library is said to be the highlight of a visit to this Portuguese palace. After all, we’re talking about quite an immense and stately royal palace with centuries of history behind it. But when it houses a Rococo masterpiece like the Mafra Palace Library, with marble floors, an intricate ceiling, and books on ornate shelves lining its 88-meter-long hall, that’s absolutely the case.
The library in Mafra dates from 1755, but the collection spans from the 14th to 19th centuries and even includes some volumes that were added only by special permission from the Pope, due to their “forbidden” nature.
4. Trinity College Library
in Dublin, Ireland
A beautiful library that really needs no introduction is the ever-popular Trinity College Library at the university in Dublin. One of the most famous libraries in the world, Trinity College Library is a classic Dublin tourist attraction, with crowds from all over the world visiting to see the stacked shelves of its iconic Long Room. The most impressive building of the library is the Old Library, where the Long Room is found, which dates back to 1592.
Beyond its gorgeous wooden architecture and arched ceiling, what makes the library so important is its vast collection, including the historic Book of Kells and a copy of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic, not to mention the incredibly symbolic Brian Boru harp.
5. Abbey Library of Saint Gall
in St. Gallen, Switzerland
Although St. Gallen may not be one of the better-known towns in Switzerland, it hides a pretty major attraction overlooked by many. This underestimated feature is the UNESCO heritage-listed Abbey Library of Saint Gall, a worthy contender for the title of world’s most beautiful library.
The Abbey Library of Saint Gall originated in 719 AD, and among its considerable archives lie thousands of books and manuscripts from the Middle Ages. But it’s really the striking carved woodwork and sublime Rococo ceiling that will make you fall in love with this library.
6. Royal Portuguese Reading Room
in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Few associate South America with enchanting libraries, and that’s part of what makes the Royal Portuguese Reading Room of Rio such a delightful surprise. Built in 1837 to store the largest collection of Portuguese literature outside of Portugal, it seems to have also adopted the Portuguese love of captivating libraries as well. Step into the main reading room of the Royal Portuguese Cabinet of Reading and you’re sure to be overwhelmed by the dark woodwork and golden detail of its three stories of bookcases, not to mention the chandelier and stained-glass ceiling overhead.
7. National Library of the Girolamini Oratory
in Naples, Italy
The National Library of the Girolamini Oratory made headlines in 2013, although not for its rich interior or its status as one of the oldest libraries in Italy. Reports stated that the then-director and accomplices had looted the library, but fortunately most of the missing volumes were recovered following the arrests of the culprits. However, the news did rekindle a well-deserved interest in the 16th-century library. Rooms and halls inside the Biblioteca Girolamini vary in look, from modest rooms completely lined with historic wooden shelves to sublime chambers bearing magnificent fresco ceilings.
8. Seattle Central Library
in Seattle, Washington, USA
While there are plenty of historic libraries that are beautiful, it’s possible to find beauty in modern ones as well, as the Seattle Central Library proves. Easily one of the coolest libraries in the world, the Seattle Central Library opened in 2004 in the city’s downtown area with a hyper-modern design. Still eye-catching today, the building is made of steel and glass, with an abstract design that’s just as interesting from the inside as the outside. The diamond-shaped lattice that wraps around its box-like design lets in lots of light, creating an open, fresh, and inviting feel uncommon with most libraries.
9. Stuttgart City Library
in Stuttgart, Germany
It’s difficult to imagine a more bright and contemporary public library than the Stuttgart City Library in Germany. In fact, since reopening in its new location in 2011, it’d be fair to say that this Stuttgart institution is a true contender for the distinction of best public library in the world.
The cube-like exterior of the library has drawn some strong public responses, but few could argue with the gleaming, minimalist main foyer of the library and its large central skylight. Some might even see in the library’s geometric heart a reminiscence of the incredible, dizzyingly patterned stepwells found in India.
10. Library of Parliament
in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
With a monumental exterior and an elegant interior as well, the Library of Parliament in Ottawa easily earns a spot on lists like this. As its name suggests, this library in the Canadian capital is the designated repository and research center for Canada’s legislature, and has been since 1867 when the confederation of Canada took place.
A ring of flying buttresses around the outside help the Library of Parliament make a bold first impression, while inside you’ll find carved tiers of bookshelves and an eye-catching vaulted ceiling. It’s no wonder that this striking and symbolic Ottawa landmark is displayed on Canada’s ten-dollar bill.
11. Strahov Monastery Library
in Prague, Czechia
Resting on a hilltop overlooking Prague, the Strahov Monastery is a landmark that’s hard to miss. What’s not obvious to many visitors of the Czech capital, though, is that it contains a brilliant library just begging to be seen.
The section of the monastery that houses the Strahov Library dates from the 17th and 18th centuries, with the Theological Hall being its most stunning corner. There you have a magnificent stucco ceiling dotted with frescoes, an immense collection of books and manuscripts, and an assortment of old globes.
While you’re in Prague, be sure to check out another incredible library – the lavishly Baroque Klementinum National Library down by the riverfront.
12. Rijksmuseum Research Library
in Amsterdam, Netherlands
The Rijksmuseum is one of Amsterdam’s proudest museums and cultural institutions, thanks in part to its phenomenal library. Rather than serving as a general-purpose library for the Dutch National Museum, the Rijksmuseum Research Library revolves around art and art history, with a collection that’s been growing since 1885.
It’s only fitting then that a place focused on art also be particularly captivating. Spiral staircases connect balconies with ornate railings, providing a distinct Gothic look, while overhead a stunning Renaissance-influenced ceiling surrounds an arched row of skylights.
13. Biblioteca Joanina
in Coimbra, Portugal
As one of the oldest continuously operating universities in the world that is also set inside a former palace, you don’t need much more reason to visit the University of Coimbra in central Portugal. And yet your visit would be incomplete without stepping inside the university’s phenomenal Biblioteca Joanina.
Although from the outside the library looks similar to the other buildings around the main courtyard, inside it offers a lavish Baroque interior that dates back to the early 18th century. The collection stretches back hundreds of years before even that. It is no wonder that the Biblioteca Joanina is a cherished and priceless Portuguese National Monument.
14. Bibliotheca Alexandrina
in Alexandria, Egypt
In the ancient world, the Library of Alexandria in Egypt was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and was the largest library of its time before the tragic fire that destroyed it. It would seem that the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in modern-day Alexandria has a lot to live up to. Happily, this smartly-designed library and cultural centre, which opened in 2002 on the city’s waterfront, has created a powerful reputation of its own.
The library features an immense footprint, a monumental carved granite exterior, and a spacious, light-filled interior. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina is very much a unique landmark that makes for a worthy successor of its ancient forerunner.
15. Sainte-Geneviève Library
in Paris, France
In a city so full of romance and beauty as Paris, you’d expect to find plenty of incredible libraries to choose from. And of course there are, but it’s fair to say that the Sainte-Geneviève is the greatest library in Paris.
Found across from the Pantheon, the Sainte-Geneviève Library’s legacy dates back to Clovis I in the 6th century. Today, the immense public library is set inside a captivating Industrial-era building, boasting a lofty twin-arched iron ceiling along its massive reading room. One can only imagine how amazed people were to see it at its completion in 1851.
16. Royal Library of San Lorenzo de El Escorial
in Madrid, Spain
Truly “fit for a king,” the Royal Library of San Lorenzo de El Escorial is a glamorous library in one of the more impressive historical royal residences of Spain. The library was established by King Philip II in 1563 inside this immense World Heritage-listed complex – comprising a monastery, palace, and university – simply known as El Escorial.
El Escorial actually contains three different libraries (to give you a sense of its scale), but it’s the Royal Library that you won’t want to miss. Full of Renaissance artwork within its vaulted ceiling as well as 40,000 volumes upon its historic shelves, the Royal Library is a sight to behold.
17. Morgan Library & Museum
in New York, New York, USA
Look about the Morgan Library & Museum in New York and you’d swear that it’s been around centuries and centuries. Vibrant frescoes adorn its ceiling, immense tapestries cover its walls, and stained-glass windows provide a little extra illumination inside. Clearly Renaissance-inspired, it’s surprising that this grand American library was actually founded in 1906.
Formed to hold the collections of wealthy banker J.P. Morgan, its bronze and walnut bookcases are lined with all manner of books, prints, and manuscripts. And be sure not to miss the drawings from era-appropriate artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.
18. José Vasconcelos Library
in Mexico City, Mexico
Beauty can mean different things to different people, and for some, the complex maze of books that is the José Vasconcelos Library in Mexico City is a true thing of beauty. It’s hard not to be dumbstruck when looking about the interior of this library with its endless expanse of floating shelves.
Completed in 2006 and stated to be one of the most advanced buildings of the 21st century, José Vasconcelos Library features an open plan, with a network of cantilevered metal bookshelves and walls of windows. The end effect of this design is something incredibly modern and a library that is wholly unique.
19. Austrian National Library
in Vienna, Austria
People call Vienna one of Europe’s finest cultural capitals, and when you see landmarks like the Austrian National Library in the city, it’s easy to see why. Set within the colossal Hofburg Palace complex, this library started out as the court library to the House of Habsburg. Today, it serves as both a repository for all publications appearing in Austria and also a home to several interesting museums.
While there’s a lot to see within the Austrian National Library, the most popular stop is the exquisite Prunksaal (State Hall) at the heart of the library. Lined with sculptures and two tiers of elegant bookshelves, as well as decorated with a marvelous ceiling fresco, it provides the old-world grandeur you’d expect from Vienna.
20. Tama Art University Library
in Tokyo, Japan
Even though the design of the Tama Art University Library building is quite minimalist, there’s no denying the powerful spaces that it creates on the university’s Hachioji campus. Constructed in 2007, this modern gem incorporates abstract colonnades of arches and slopes, lots of light, and a stark monochromatic decor to create a real work of art. But this isn’t an impractical architectural experiment – it’s a highly practical and functional academic library, with a focus on studies and research into design, architecture, and the creative arts.
21. State Library of South Australia
in Adelaide, Australia
Many of the prettiest libraries and bookstores around the world end up drawing comparisons to Hogwarts from Harry Potter. But with the State Library of South Australia in Adelaide, the comparison with the Hogwarts Library feels spot-on.
Look along the historic Mortlock Wing of the library, and its wonderful colonial architecture does have quite the spellbinding effect. Decorative railings run along balconies in the central atrium, while golden lantern-light illuminates its old-fashioned wooden bookcases. And the Mortlock Wing, dating back to 1884, is just one part of the official library of the state.
22. Wiblingen Monastery Library
in Ulm, Germany
If one thing is clear from this list, it’s that monasteries in Europe are home to some of the most enchanting libraries in the world. Not yet convinced? Then set your eyes on the Wiblingen Monastery of Ulm in Germany, and you’ll be sure to agree.
The extravagant Baroque interior of this library is almost too much to handle, full of marble, gold, stucco, and a stunning fresco ceiling. While the original look of the monastery in 1093 was undoubtedly remarkable, you really can’t be disappointed by this 18th-century addition. And when you hear that the renovations were actually inspired by El Escorial in Spain and the Abbey of Saint Gall (also mentioned on this list), it makes perfect sense.
23. Tianjin Binhai Library
in Tianjin, China
A library that needs to be seen to be believed, the Tianjin Binhai Library is a prime example of what happens when you take modern architecture to the absolute limit. The building is nicknamed “the Eye of Binhai,” due to a large sphere at its center that looks like an iris when viewed from the outside.
Inside, the building features rippling levels of shelves that provide a futuristic look with their stark-white appearance. And although the Tianjin Binhai Library is home to over a million books, it gives the illusion of even more books – thanks to the printed images that run between the shelves across its five stories.
24. Richard J. Riordan Central Library
in Los Angeles, California, USA
Looking at this structure in downtown L.A., California, few would suspect that the colossal building is actually a library.
One of the largest libraries in the US, the Richard J. Riordan Central Library seems more like a City Hall building, with its mix of embellished Baroque and Spanish Colonial Revival styles. This combination certainly makes it stand out on this list, as does its centerpiece, the Rotunda. There, around an ornate bronze chandelier, vivid murals depict scenes from Californian history.
25. University Library of Leuven
in Leuven, Belgium
Part of the oldest university in the country, the University Library in the Flemish city of Leuven has remained a majestic icon of the city despite the odds. Once so massive and important that the city was known as “the Oxford of Belgium,” the University Library of Leuven was sadly burned down during both World Wars. Fortunately, after the Second World War, the library was faithfully rebuilt with stained-glass windows and gorgeous woodwork throughout its main reading rooms. The animals carved into the banisters are a nice touch, as are the city views from its lofty tower.
Other Superlative Libraries Around the World
While the above libraries are all incredible to visit due to their immense beauty, they are not the only important libraries around the world worth visiting. Here are some other noteworthy libraries worth mentioning:
- Saint Catherine’s Monastery Library in South Sinai, Egypt, is widely considered the oldest library in the world in continuous operation, dating back to around 548–565.
- Both the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., and the British Library in the UK lay claim to be the largest libraries in the world in terms of the size of their catalogs. Although both featuring over 170 million volumes, changes in the size of their respective catalogs make it difficult to work out which is actually the biggest library in the world.
- The Library of Ashurbanipal in modern-day Iraq is considered the first library in the world, or at least the oldest library on record, dating from the 7th century B.C. Understandably, it no longer exists, although its ruins were uncovered in the mid-19th century.
And there you have it – an incredible list of libraries from all over the globe that any bookworm would love to visit. You may find that leaving these treasured places is actually harder than getting to them.