Posted on September 10, 2021 at 6:00 am
Whether you’re planning an actual trip or simply want to travel in your imagination, you’ll find exciting places to add to your literary travel itinerary in this post!
I’m sharing some of the oldest, most beautiful, and most unusual libraries and literary landmarks in Asia, Africa, Continental Europe, and Latin America. (TIP: If you read this post in the Chrome browser, Google Translate will offer to translate the linked webpages that don’t load in English.)
St. Augustine is quoted as saying:
“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”
I love this metaphor because books and travel both open us up to new ideas and new opportunities.
For anyone embarking on a physical journey, it’s best to start preparing international travel a year or more in advance. It’s also important to research requirements for re-entering the United States. Visit the U.S. State Department’s webpage on International Travel for details.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend delaying international travel until fully vaccinated against COVID-19. For official information on travel restrictions and guidelines, visit:
There’s no better place to start a world tour of book destinations than where paper, woodblock printing, and moveable type were all first invented—China.
The oldest Chinese library still intact today is the Tianyi Ge (Tianyi Pavilion) in Ningbo. Built in the 1560s, its fire-resistant design became so highly respected that the Qianlong Emperor sent officials to study it in the 1700s. The result was the Wenyuan Ge (Hall of Literary Profundity), built in 1776 in Beijing’s Forbidden City (a.k.a. Palace Museum). According to Trip.com, you can hire a local expert to take you to Wenyuan Ge in the compound.
The National Library of China boasts a state-of-the-art 2008 building, is the third largest library in the world, and holds the largest collection of Chinese literature and historical documents worldwide. Its ancient book collection preserves oracle bones and rubbings too.
Across the China Sea in Taipei, Taiwan, the Beitou branch of the Taipei Public Library is the country’s first green library. Gorgeous wood construction from managed forests combines with large windows and rooftop solar panels.
In Japan, green libraries include the Gifu Media Cosmos with a beautifully latticed, wooden ceiling and giant umbrellas that define spaces and regulate air flow. The green Yusuhara Community Library features multifunctional terraced spaces that serve as seating, book stacks, and performance spaces.
Anyone who loves children’s books will want to plan to visit the International Library of Children’s Literature in Tokyo. If you enjoy Japanese history, you won’t want to miss the Toshodaiji Temple outside Nara. Originally built before 756 CE, its ancient sutra repository shows how religious texts were once stored.
Seekers of the unusual can head to Seoul, Korea, to revel in the Yeodamjae Library, which is built in an abandoned Buddhist temple, and the Byeolmadang Library, which is built inside a shopping mall (with escalators, art displays, and a Starbucks nearby).
The gorgeous Raza Library in Rampur, northern India, was built by the royal family that once controlled the area. Its collection includes manuscripts in several languages, thousands of miniature paintings, one of Asia’s finest collections of Islamic calligraphy, and rare astronomical instruments including a 13th century astrolabe.
On India’s west coast, the David Sassoon Library is one of the oldest libraries still operating in Mumbai. Its collection also includes rare books. For a quick virtual tour, watch this video on YouTube.
In Jerusalem, Israel, the Israel Museum displays the Qumran Scrolls (Dead Sea Scrolls) in its Shrine of the Book. The unique architecture of the Book Hall where they’re held reflects the curvature of the urns in which the scrolls were discovered.
The most famous receptacle for ancient scrolls was Egypt‘s Library of Alexandria. Constructed most likely in the 3rd century BCE, it was sadly destroyed by the 3rd century CE.
However, a new Bibliotheca Alexandrina (BA), built between 1989 and 2001, now sits on roughly the same site. Its enormous reading room spans seven terraced floors. Exterior stonework displays ancient and modern languages, paying homage to Alexandria’s lost monument.
St. Catherine’s Monastery on the Sinai Peninsula has continuously safeguarded manuscripts since at least the 4th century CE. Today, its library contains ancient manuscripts and early printed books in Greek, Arabic, Armenian, Coptic, Hebrew, Georgian, Persian, Aramaic, and other languages. While the library itself is closed to the public, some of its treasures are publicly displayed.
Often considered the best book destination in West Africa, the Balme Library in Accra, Ghana, contains a United Nations Depository library, an Arabic library, an Africana library, and a reference collection for students at the University of Ghana. It’s also celebrated for its re-appropriation of a colonial building structure for postcolonial use.
South Africa used to have two national libraries, Cape Town’s South African Library (founded 1818) and Pretoria’s State Library (founded 1887). In 1999, the two combined to create the National Library of South Africa. Tasked with preserving all published documents emanating from or relating to South Africa, it also maintains a special collection with rare books, manuscripts, and maps.
Like Asia, Europe has a rich book tradition. On Turkey’s European coast, the Celsus Library remains the most intact ruin of any ancient library. Built in the 2nd century CE, it stands in the archeological excavation of Ephesus and is regularly open for tours. Nearby in Istanbul, you’ll find the Museum of Innocence, created by writer Orhan Pamuk in tandem with his 2008 novel and winner of European Museum of the Year in 2014.
Heading northeast to Russia, Moscow’s Russian State Library boasts 47 million items and 36 reading rooms. The country’s oldest public library is the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg and was founded by Catherine the Great. Its Neo-Gothic niches and world-class Voltaire collection are worth an in-person or virtual visit. St. Petersburg is also home to the Alexander Pushkin Memorial Apartment, where the poet lived before dying from a duel.
The Banned Books Museum in Tallinn, Estonia, preserves banned, censored, and burned books from around the world. Exhibits explore gray areas around free speech and its limits.
Lovers of absurdist literature and existentialism won’t want to miss The Kafka Museum in Prague, Czech Republic. Lovers of Baroque architecture will also want to see Prague’s Strahov Library with its highly adorned and frescoed halls.
Many of Europe’s most beautiful libraries hail from the Baroque period when architecture, paintings, and furniture coalesced into a “Gesamtkunstwerk,” or total work of art. One is Austria’s Austrian National Library, which began as an imperial library in the Middle Ages. Another is Spain’s El Escorial, with a collection said to include books confiscated during the Inquisition. Another is the Joanine Library, one of Portugal’s oldest libraries and one of only two libraries in the world to use bats for insect control.
Italy’s Malatesta Novello Library in Cesena holds the record for oldest public library in Europe and oldest Western library to retain its original fittings and collection. Opened in 1454, its codices (hand-written books) still sit “where they have lain for the past five centuries.” You can view videos and/or book your visit. Then, stop by the circa 1609 Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan with adjoining art galleries and academy.
Visitors to Germany can learn about 500 years of book printing at the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz. The world-renowned Kupferstichkabinett (Engraving Cabinet) museum in Berlin focuses on print media old and new. Pay tribute to poet and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe by visiting his childhood home in Frankfurt am Main and the Goethe National Museum in Weimar. Or, take a break from history and visit the sleek cubic Stuttgart City Library that opened in 2011.
The Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, France, won the European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture in 1996. But to glimpse the romance of Paris, visit the Sainte-Geneviève Library with its beautiful Beaux-Arts cast-iron arches that span its reading room. Then visit the Maison Victor Hugo to learn about the famous writer’s life. For a taste of French countryside, visit enlightenment writer Voltaire’s estate, the Château de Voltaire à Ferney.
The Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking Americas offer travelers magnificent book-related places to visit. In fact, the oldest public library in the Americas still stands in Puebla, Mexico. Held in a gilded 18th century building, the collection of the Biblioteca Palafoxiana dates back to 1646 when Bishop Palafox y Mendoza donated his personal book collection for public use.
One of the world’s newest and most innovative book destinations also resides in Mexico. The massive Biblioteca Vasconcelos in Mexico City sits next to a major rail and bus station, surrounded by gardens. Named after writer and politician José Vasconcelos, the library is designed so that the book stacks actually hang from the ceiling.
Colombia is birthplace to the “library park,” a combination library and green space intended to boost conditions in underprivileged urban neighborhoods. The Spanish Library Park in Medellin is one of the most famous and unique, with architecture that mimics giant boulders on a hillside. While not a “library park,” the Virgilio Barco Library in Bogotá is also known for innovative architecture that incorporates the landscape.
The Royal Portuguese Reading Room in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, contains the largest collection of Portuguese books outside Portugal. Its Neo-Manueline architecture is also a feast for the eyes. To see for yourself, take a virtual tour. The National Library of Brazil, also in Rio de Janeiro, wows visitors with Neoclassical and Art Nouveau architecture. It’s the largest library in Latin America and one of the ten largest libraries in the world.
Founded in 1546, the Library of the San Franciscan Monastery sits in the historic core of Lima, Peru. Now part of a UNESCO World Heritage site, the monastery offers regular tours. Its library collection includes texts that predate Spanish subjugation of the Incan people.
The 1925 building that houses the National Library of Chile in Santiago, Chile, is much newer than the 1813 founding of the National Library or its 1820 status as the legal deposit for Chilean publications. For a more intimate look into Chilean book culture, visit the museum houses of poet Pablo Neruda, one of Latin America’s most beloved writers.
There are so many amazing literary destinations to discover around the world that I couldn’t possibly include them all in three posts. Hopefully, this sampling inspires you to discover more!
Whether you’re daydreaming or seriously planning, let the library help. We have the following guides and resources:
No matter where you go, or how you arrive—by car, boat, train, plane, or the wings of your imagination—I wish you happy reading and happy travels!