World's Coolest Movie Theaters
Even as home entertainment systems get bigger, there’s a longing for the thrills associated with the heyday of glamorous movie palaces—for a communal experience that justifies the ticket price and inspires you to get off that sofa. Select new and classic theaters have responded by introducing advanced technology, cool events, and gourmet treats like bacon-fat popcorn.
University lecturer Ross Melnick welcomes this renaissance after years of bland shoebox-type theaters and megaplexes: “It’s all about trying to bring back the style of the past and marry it with the technology of the future.” He cofounded the fan site Cinema Treasures, which devotedly chronicles the world’s coolest movie theaters. “They’re cultural centers within a neighborhood,” says Melnick. “You can see them from a few blocks away—the lights, the marquee, the crowd, the show has already begun.”
Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood has one such theater, as does London’s Notting Hill, where the Electric Cinema screens both crowd-pleasers and obscure vintage documentaries while patrons recline on leather armchairs with footstools and sip champagne cocktails. For travelers, these theaters with personality are yet another way to get an authentic taste of a destination.
Innovators have adapted the moviegoing experience with these creature comforts and even physics-busting 4-D technology—available temporarily at a theater in Hong Kong’s airport and within a few aquariums and museums. Preservationists, too, have done their part, protecting old-school movie palace icons and making them cool for new generations.
When comic book editor and movie buff Greg Lockard moved to San Francisco, he was immediately drawn to the iconic Castro Theatre, where an organ plays medleys before evening screenings and the audience is the city’s liveliest. “I remember it having a touch of the Old Hollywood magic that I grew up on the East Coast daydreaming about,” he explains. “To my uneducated eye, it was the San Francisco of Alfred
Here are another 10 cool movie theaters where you’ll feel—as Hitchcock might put it—spellbound.
Colosseum Kino, Oslo, Norway
The largest cinema in northern Europe is also currently the largest movie palace in the world certified for THX—George Lucas’s premium audiovisual benchmark. Dominated by a squat gray-and-cream dome, it resembles a futuristic spaceship that’s crash-landed in Scandinavia, but it was actually built in 1921. Throughout its 90-year history, the Kino has kept up with technological advances, from pioneering Cinemascope in the 1950s to the late-1990s THX-aimed overhaul.
The Raj Mandir, Jaipur, India
This Bollywood-boosting movie palace is tucked away in Rajasthan’s gem-dealing capital—fittingly, the seating sections are named after precious stones (Emerald, Diamond). Yet the ticket prices remain a bargain at around $3 per person. Built in the mid-1970s and still considered India’s top theater, it is easily recognized by its jaunty pink façade, which dominates the street. Inside, the heavily ornamented lobby resembles a retro-Deco ballroom in ice cream–colored pastels. Look for testimonies to the cinema’s greatness from Amitabh Bachchan and other Bollywood icons pasted onto a column at its center.
Bhagwandas Marg Ashok Nagar; 011-91-141-2379372
Alamo Drafthouse, Austin, TX
This quirky indie movie chainlet has been known to kick out patrons for texting during a show. That’s a tip-off to the seriousness of the place, which also has an offbeat charm. The Drafthouse once showed the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy at an event called Hobbit Feast, where viewers ate only when the on-screen characters did; periodic screenings call for everyone to dress as a particular character—say, Will Ferrell in Semi-Pro. Founded 14 years ago in a former Austin parking garage, the Drafthouse has expanded to eight more locations in Texas and Virginia, each offering the same roster of eclectic programming and cold beers brought to your seat by black-clad waitstaff.
Sun Pictures Cinema, Broome, Australia
Haphazardly built from corrugated iron and jarrah wood in 1916 to entertain locals in this isolated outback town’s once-thriving pearl-diving industry, the endearingly rickety cinema is the world’s oldest operating outdoor picture garden (first silent film shown: racy racing drama Kissing Cup). Saved by a wealthy local businessman in the early 1980s, it’s been preserved almost unchanged. The seating is still made up of deck chairs and the lavatories are marked “Humphrey’s” and “Vivien’s” as a nod to early Hollywood stars. Watch the fairy lights strung along its wooden frame twinkle against the pitch-black desert darkness.
Kennedy School, Portland, OR
McMenamins is a local empire of brewpubs and entertainment venues, with more than 50 different spaces in the city, many artfully repurposing old buildings (church, farm, ballroom). The coolest is undoubtedly the Kennedy School, a onetime elementary school that’s now a 35-room hotel and restaurant plus an eccentric movie theater housed in the old auditorium. The 300-seat cinema shows second-run and repertory movies nightly, plus kid-friendly Mommy Matinees, with comfy armchairs and a full menu of McMenamins craft brews available at your seat.
ReRun Cinema, Brooklyn, NY
The cobblestoned streets of Brooklyn’s waterfront DUMBO district welcomed this gastropub theater (an extension of the dive ReBar) in Summer 2010. It spotlights undistributed or unfairly overlooked indie circuit films, projected from a DVD player on a 12-foot screen while cinemagoers recline on repurposed car seats (yep, there are seat belts too). Serious attention also went into upgrading the available snacks, which now consist of gourmet popcorn varieties (duck or bacon fat) and beer—making good on the promise of “indie cinema with a buzz.”
Cinémathèque Française, Paris
Freshly rehoused in a Frank Gehry–designed Cubist complex on the banks of the Seine, this landmark of French cinema helped cultivate nouvelle vague directors like Truffaut and Godard after World War II. What began as one man’s attempt in the 1930s to preserve a new entertainment medium has morphed into a sprawling setup that includes one of the world’s largest archives of film materials. The four screens on-site show a rotating selection from that library, as well as first-run flicks; show up early to check out the Musée du Cinéma.
The Castro Theatre, San Francisco
This gorgeous old movie palace is a Mediterranean Revival masterpiece by Timothy Pflueger—the interior even more lavish than the façade, with foamy balconies and wall-mounted busts of heroic figures. It offers foreign films, classic revivals, festivals, and the most enthusiastic audience in town. Come early for evening screenings to listen to the Wurlitzer organ; musical medleys always conclude with a rousing version of Judy Garland’s hit “San Francisco,” crowd merrily clapping along.
The Electric Cinema, London
Here’s a comfy, adults-aimed hideout within bohemian-chic Notting Hill; the neighborhood itself became a household name thanks to a movie (the 1999 Julia Roberts/Hugh Grant romantic comedy). The Electric's programming swerves pleasingly between similar crowd-pleasers and obscure vintage documentaries. Settle into overstuffed leather armchairs, complete with footstools with aperitifs from the champagne-stocked bar—or nab one of the secluded two-seater sofas on the back row to channel your inner teenager.
Cine Acapulco, Havana
Havana hosted more than 130 movie theaters in its hedonistic days; now just a third of those remain open. Each feels like a throwback to the golden era of the 1930s–1950s. The Acapulco stands out from the crowd; debuting in 1958, it was the last luxury cinema to open before Castro’s takeover. Designed in a modern style, with ornamental wood paneling and giant mirrors, it still shows movies today, albeit in a sporadically air-conditioned auditorium.
26th Street between 35th and 39th streets; 011-53-833-9573
The Cine de Chef, Seoul
The ultimate in VIP moviegoing, this jewel box–size theater seats just 30 people in roomy armchairs and caters to convenience-seeking couples who literally want dinner and a movie. Valet that car and take the private elevator to a Cordon Bleu café for a quick meal (the menu is modern Asian) before holing up for a film. The venue resembles a Hollywood A-lister’s private screening room, arrayed with cozy pairs of armchairs with footstools, convenient side tables, and a vast projection screen. Tickets start at about $54.