Books can bring a place to life – and also be the life of a place. More than just a shop, a good bookstore is the stuff of legend. Whether it’s where famous writers penned their poems and entered into sordid love affairs, or a meeting place for expats, bookstores are social hubs and are of cultural and often historical significance.
It’s for this reason that we recommend that, if you’re visiting any of the following cities, you save yourself several hours of browsing time for the following places:
1. Shakespeare & Company in Paris, France
What list of famous European bookstores could begin without a nod to perhaps the most iconic: Shakespeare & Co, which sits on Paris’ Left Bank opposite Notre Dame. The original store doubled up as a library, publisher, and hangout for Ernest Hemingway and Anais Nin before being shut down by the Nazis during the German Occupation in World War II. The current incarnation is a wonderland of narrow book-lined corridors, hidden crannies and cubbyholes for readers, as well as a makeshift refuge for the ‘tumbleweed’ writers who work in the store by day before bedding down among the shelves at night while they work on their novels.
2. Bookàbar in Rome, Italy
If you’re after a bookstore that embodies the best of Italian chic – this is it. Located in an enormous interdisciplinary exhibition complex, this is one of the city’s largest art, architecture and design bookstores. Spanning three rooms and 450 square meters and stocking a stunning collection of Italian and international books, catalogs, CDs and DVDs, this is the perfect place to pick up a classier souvenir than your average plastic leaning tower of Pisa.
3. Livraria Lello in Porto, Portugal
Named by the Lonely Planet as the ‘Third Best Bookstore in the World’, it’s not hard to see why. Its grand neo-gothic design makes it worth visiting in its own right, with books stacked floor-to-ceiling against ornately decorated walls and pillars emblazoned with bronze literary reliefs. In the center, an art noveau red staircase ascends grandly up to the stained glass skylight above (not to mention a coffee shop ready and waiting with port and cigars).
4. Cook & Book in Brussels, Belgium
Hungry for a good read – or just plain hungry? No matter, that’s what Cook & Book is for. Part bookstore, part restaurant, here you can have your cake and eat it too (quite literally). The books on sale are available in a variety of languages, and cover a wide range of genres (not just cooking!). The interior is divided into nine separate spaces, each with their own character, as well as a terrace for eating and reading to your heart’s content.
5. Selexyz Dominicanen in Maastricht, the Netherlands
A bookstore in a 13th Century gothic cathedral – why not? Don’t worry, the building hasn’t served a religious function since Napoleon closed it in 1794. Now, the cathedral is home to a bookstore – part of the Dutch Selexys chain – and the books are stacked in a steel three-story walk-in bookshelf complete with aisles, staircases and elevators. The contrast between the modern black steel and the cathedral’s restored vaulted ceiling and frescoes is really something.
6. The Limited in Hay-on-Wye, UK
Perched on the Welsh side of the Anglo-Welsh border, the entire town of Hay-on-Wye is a literary goldmine, even outside of its legendary literature festival. I’ve highlighted The Limited due to its place in the town’s amazing literary history, but in fact you’re spoiled for choice – the tiny town hosts 38 bookstores and counting. The Limited was the flagship store of bibliophile and self-proclaimed ‘King of Hay’ Richard Booth, whose love of literature catapulted Hay-on-Wye into the official ‘town of books’ that it is today. While you’re in the area though, be sure to check out the Hay Cinema Bookshop (housed in an old cinema), The Poetry Bookshop, Murder and Mayhem (crime novels – and decorated to match), Rose’s Books (for rare and out-of-print children’s and illustrated books) and Boz Books (for your first edition Victorian favorites).
7. Ler Devagar in Lisbon, Portugal
Once a factory, now the center of the anti-e-book revolution, Ler Devagar occupies a corner of creative multi-story space LX Factory. It’s hipster heaven, with artistically displayed bookshelves filled with works both new and used, laid out beneath a white, winged bicycle suspended in flight.
8. Atlantis Books in Santorini, Greece
An international gang of fresh-faced graduates banded together to live their dream of starting a bookstore on a Greek island: “We found an empty building facing the sunset, drank some whiskey and signed a lease.” 10 years later, their shop – housed in the basement of a whitewashed villa on top of a cliff – has grown from strength to strength, and now hosts literary festivals, book readings, film screenings and dances, as well as its own publishing press.
9. Another Country in Berlin, Germany
A secondhand English language bookstore/library with over 20,000 books available to buy or borrow – simply buy the book, then return it after reading to receive the cost back minus a €1.50 lending charge. The bookstore also hosts readings, dinners, film nights and more, adding to its social hub status. According to the owners, Another Country is a place “of free speaking, discussing, liberal thinking and, above all, reading!”
10. Altair in Barcelona and Madrid, Spain
What Go! Girl Guide list of bookstores would be complete without a travel bookstore to whet your appetites? Altair is the largest travel specialist bookstores in Europe, stocking books in both Spanish and English, and spanning genres including nature, anthropology and sociology in order to “expand your knowledge of different peoples, cultures and regions of the earth”. The stores also host travel speaker events and readings, publish their own monthly magazine, and run an alternative travel agency. How can we say no?
Please – share your own bookstore recommendations or experiences below!