World's Coolest Bookstores
Rumor has it J. K. Rowling was inspired by Livraria Lello while writing Harry Potter (and teaching English) in Portugal. It doesn’t take long to appreciate Lello’s potential as muse: a stained-glass atrium puts the spotlight on the bookshop’s deep-red staircase, spectacular enough to stop you in your tracks.
It’s one of the distinctive bookstores that—against industry odds—continue to thrive across the globe. For travelers, these shops go beyond well-curated selections of books: they pack in an abundance of beauty, quirky character, and local history within their walls. And they serve as community hubs, where you can tap into the creative pulse of a destination.
In Paris, the romance between Left Bank fixture Shakespeare & Co. and the city’s literary set dates back to the era of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. And it continues to attract luminaries like Zadie Smith, who recently read to a packed house.
Brooklyn, sometimes described as New York’s Left Bank, has become the borough of choice for many local writers—and for independent bookstores. One of the most intriguing is Powerhouse Arena, where readings, book launch parties, temporary art exhibits, and conversations with contemporary literary voices are hosted in an amphitheater-style seating space with soaring 24-foot ceilings.
As British author Neil Gaiman once said, “A town isn’t a town without a bookstore.” Our favorites live up to that assessment, whether located in a converted church, bank, home, or even a former bomb shelter.
Livraria Lello, Porto, Portugal
The neo-Gothic façade of this former library barely hints at the opulence inside: carved wood, gilded pillars, ornamented ceilings, and a gorgeous red staircase lit by a stained-glass atrium. The century-old bookshop features more than 100,000 different titles in several languages, including English translations of Portuguese talents Fernando Pessoa and José Saramago. You’ll also find magazines, CDs, antique books, and a large selection on Porto itself.
Barter Books, England
This Alnwick bookshop attracted attention for its role in discovering and producing the now ubiquitous World War II Keep Calm and Carry On poster. Housed in an old Victorian railway station, Barter Books has a cozy living room vibe, thanks to rugs, crackling fireplaces in the winter, toys for kids, a model railway acting as a link between the book columns of the central room, and comfy seats amid a vast selection of secondhand books on a variety of subjects. It’s even more irresistible once you hear the owners’ backstory: U.S.-born Mary and British-born Stuart Manley met on a transatlantic flight.
Powerhouse Arena, Brooklyn
Brooklyn has emerged as the center of New York’s literary scene, with notable residents like Paul Auster, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Jennifer Egan and flourishing independent bookstores. Begin your browsing at the PowerHouse Arena, which opened in DUMBO in 2006 and bills itself as a “laboratory for creative thought.” The industrial, modern space is dedicated not only to books, but also to hosting a variety of events—readings, book launch parties, temporary art exhibits, and conversations with contemporary literary voices in its amphitheater-style seating space with soaring 24-foot ceilings. Art books and children’s literature dominate the shelves.
Cafebrería El Péndulo, Mexico City
Shopping for books is almost beside the point at Cafebrería El Péndulo, which hosts live music, poetry readings, stand-up comedy, and other events in an attractive space with balconies and lush plants. While the chain has several locations throughout Mexico City, its Zona Rosa shop stands out for its vast selection of English titles, along with Bukowski’s Piano Bar, dedicated to poet and novelist Charles Bukowski and “all writers inspired by alcohol.” Café Baudelaire and vodka-infused Kerouak are among the writer-inspired cocktails on tap here.
Shakespeare and Co., Paris
Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and their literary contemporaries famously hung out at this Left Bank bookstore overlooking the Seine (it’s referenced in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris). Shakespeare & Co., one of Paris’s many icons, continues to be a bohemian refuge, attracting countless tourists and expats. Writers can even bunk here for a few days or weeks, in exchange for a couple of hours’ worth of work around the shop. Contemporary talents like Dave Eggers and Martin Amis have also found home at the celebrated bookshop, which hosts book readings, writers’ meetings, and Sunday tea.
Books for Cooks, Melbourne
Indulge your inner MasterChef (or at least light the spark) at this independent Fitzroy bookshop with a mix of new, secondhand, antiquarian, and out-of-print classics as well as the latest celebrity-chef blockbusters, biographies, and collections of food criticism. In other words, anything you want to read about food can be found here. The cherry on the cake is the wonderful service, which should be no surprise: Books for Cooks is owned and run by food lovers and chefs.
Bart’s Books, Ojai, CA
When owner Richard Bartinsale’s collection of books became so large that there was no room left in his house, he began arranging them as a few shelves on a footpath. Customers left payment in coffee cans. That was in 1964. Nowadays, he runs a full-fledged open-air bookstore, with courtyards, couches, coffee, and sunny SoCal weather to boot. It’s a labyrinth of mostly used books, including the delightful “kitchen” area of Bartinsale’s former home (for cookbooks, naturally) and a “gallery” with art books.
Dominicanen Bookstore, Maastricht, Holland
This heavenly bookshop-in-a-church is truly an inspiring space, with soaring grand stone pillars, alcoves set up as reading nooks, and views from the top shelf along the nave of the church. Settle in with a good book at the café (where the former choir sang)—just be prepared to be distracted by the ceiling’s ornate medieval frescoes.
Book Lounge, Cape Town
Book Lounge has become a focal point of Cape Town’s literary community since opening in the East City district in 2007. The bi-level bookstore’s beautiful interior is graced with chandeliers, comfy couches, large windows overlooking the street, and shelves of volumes by local and international authors. It hosts regular events—including weekend readings for kids—and keeps bibliophiles fortified with a menu of tea and cupcakes.
El Ateneo Grand Splendid, Buenos Aires
The poetry of Jorge Luis Borges and the rhythms of the tango come together at El Ateneo, which has played many roles: first a theater that hosted tango legends like Carlos Gardel; then a cinema; and now a seller of books and music. The majestic interior of the nearly century-old building retains its original rounded balconies, ornate trimmings, frescoed ceiling, and a stage (now a café) with plush red curtains.
The Last Bookstore, Los Angeles
After a decade of selling everything from cars to clothes on eBay, in 2005, Josh Spencer decided to focus on his true love: books. This downtown shop has since become the largest independent bookstore in California, buying and selling used and new books as well as records. You’ll find everything from well-kept vintage and rare books to new and secondhand books in a spectacular space with marble pillars and high ceilings that once housed a bank.
Libreria Acqua Alta, Venice
This one-of-a-kind bookstore keeps its American and Italian classics in traditional Venetian gondola boats—with overflow stacked on chairs and bathtubs to protect them when the shop floods during high tide. It overlooks one of Venice’s many canals, and the smell of old books permeates the air. Opened in 2003, Acqua Alta is impressive not only in its ambience and character but also in the selection it carries—art, cinema, sports, food, and comic books.
Librairie Avant-Garde, Nanjing, China
Bookstores have turned up in converted churches, banks, homes—and here, a vast underground parking lot that was once used as a bomb shelter. The quirky Librairie Avant-Garde covers roughly 43,000 square feet, with a checkout counter built out of thousands of old books. The bookstore houses a sizable collection of social science and humanities volumes, runs a coffee shop, and doubles as a sort of public library, with more than 300 reading chairs. It’s no surprise then that the shop has a serious following among students and Nanjing’s literati and has become a destination for tourists, despite its limited selection of foreign language books.
The Academic Bookstore, Helsinki, Finland
The flagship Academic Bookstore is one of the works of famed Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. And his design is reason enough for a visit: the interior is lit by geometric glass skylights and surrounded by shiny white marble. It houses the largest bookshop in Scandinavia, with a wide-ranging selection of titles in English, German, Italian, and other languages (more than 400,000 in stock). Café Aalto on the far balcony offers pastries, pies, and savory lunch items.
This revered Covent Garden travel bookstore stocks an impressive selection of maps, including replicas of vintage maps dating back to the 1800s and available for sale. The ground floor is covered with a giant National Geographic map of the world, the first floor with the NG map of the Himalayas, and the basement with a map of central London. It’s a one-stop shop for volumes that inspire journeys as well as for practical guides. Patrons past and present include Florence Nightingale, Bill Bryson, and Michael Palin.