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20 of the coolest, prettiest, and best libraries in the world

National Library of Austria

Before there were bookshops, there were libraries. Housed inside some of the most incredible buildings in the world, exploring a foreign library can be a wonderful way to enrich your travels. 

Learn about the local history, read ancient manuscripts and immerse yourself in jaw-dropping monuments. If you’re travelling with Contiki this year, check out some of the best libraries in the world you can visit along the way.

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1. National Library of Latvia – Riga, Latvia

Known as ‘the Castle of Light’, the National Library of Latvia, is one of the weirder-looking libraries on this list. In Latvian folklore, the Castle of Light is a metaphor for reclaiming wisdom. Similarly, the library’s design aims to represent how its locals have overcome war and embraced strength in rebuilding. With its huge ceilings and panoramic views, it’s also a fantastic way to see the city. 

Free to access for everyone, this cultural monument is a short walk from Riga’s old town. Aside from the magnificence of the building, you can browse the UNESCO-protected Dainu Skapis, a cabinet that holds thousands of Latvian folk verses. If you’re on the Best of Baltics trip, the Castle of Light is a wonderful place to discover more about Latvia’s contemporary history. 

2. The Bodleian Library – Oxford, UK

As one of the oldest libraries in Europe (and the second oldest in Britain), you can’t go wrong with ‘The Bod’. While there wasn’t any Harry Potter filming done at the Bodleian, you’ll undoubtedly feel like you’re wandering between the shelves of Hogwarts. The only way you’ll get inside (unless you’re a student), is through a guided tour where you can experience the 400-year-old history for yourself. You won’t be reading any books on your tour, but it is pretty magical to see Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, original illustrations from Tolkien’s Hobbit and souvenirs from the women’s suffrage movement.

If you’ve based yourself in London, there are plenty of literary options in the capital. At the British Library, you can see everything from the Magna Carta, to original Beatles lyrics, to Shakespeare’s first folio. For film buffs head to the BFI Reuben Library where you can uncover an enormous range of scripts, books, films, TV and journals all for free. 

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3. David Sassoon Library and Reading Room – Mumbai, India

An Eternal India trip will take you to the exciting city of Mumbai and its constant stream of activity. If you need a break from the sensory overload, the David Sassoon Library is situated right in the centre of town. One of the most famous (and beautiful) buildings in Mumbai, the library was originally founded by Albert Sassoon, the son of Baghdadi Jewish physiotherapist David Sassoon in the 1800s. 

Recently renovated in 2022, the building is equally impressive inside and out. While the library is undoubtedly elaborate, there are no stuffy airs and graces here. The ambience is warm and welcoming, with the recent restoration meant to promote active reading among its members. Admire an iconic building in an iconic city at the David Sassoon Library and Reading Room. 

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4. New York Public Library – New York, US

If you’re a New York Explorer, why not check out one of the best libraries in the country? With several different locations across the city, the library is actually spread across 92 different buildings throughout New York. However, if you’re looking to see the original (and most iconic) institution, head to the library on the corner of 42nd and Fifth Avenue. With opulent reading rooms, impressive rotundas and white marble galore, the New York Public Library is a visual spectacle.

If famous manuscripts are your thing you can see works by Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and JK Rowling. If (older) manuscripts are your thing, there are original copies of the Gutenberg Bible and the Declaration of Independence. With free entry, tours and audio guides, the New York Public Library is the perfect escape from the city madness. The library features regular lectures, readings, exhibitions and events, many of which are free to attend. Check out their website to see what’s on while you are seeing the sights of New York.  

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5. Alexandria Library – Alexandria, Egypt

While the original Library of Alexandria is long gone, the current one standing in Egypt is far from underwhelming. Shaped like a sun disk, this ambitious library is a fantastic way to learn about Egyptian history and to while away the hours. Library, museum and cultural centre all in one, Alexandria Library is located close to the site of the original building.

If you can’t find anything to read among the 8 million books, head to one of the library’s exhibitions where you can see ancient manuscripts, scrolls and antiquities. There’s also a Science Museum and Planetarium and permanent and rotating art selection, so you’ll have plenty to explore. Finish up your Egypt and the Nile trip in Cairo, before heading off to the port city of Alexandria to enjoy the marvels of the latest Alexandria Library as you learn all about this city’s remarkable literary history. 

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6. Beitou Library – Taipei, Taiwan

Taiwan’s first sustainable library not only resembles a large greenhouse but it’s also one of the top tourist attractions in Taipei. Spread across multiple levels, Beitou Library features a mammoth English section alongside its Chinese literature. Architecturally, you’re bound to be impressed by the library’s timber façade, deep balconies and large windows. Environmentally it’s just as notable. Collected rainwater from the library is used to water the garden and flush toilets and the building’s solar cells generate much of the library’s power. 

While you sit and read under the shade of a tree canopy, relax in Beitou’s calm ambience among nature. Located in the charming Beitou area, while you’re checking out the library be sure to visit the local hot springs. Highlights include the Beitou Hot Spring Museum, Ketagalan Culture Center, and Geothermal Valley which are all nearby. 

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7. Trinity College Library – Dublin, Ireland

Like the Bodleian, you probably won’t be reading many books at Trinity College. And if you are, it’s most likely one book: The Book of Kells, a preserved manuscript dating all the way back to the 6th century. We recommend buying tickets online in advance, or even a College tour where you can see the whole of Trinity College’s splendor. 

The library itself is an attractive place to wander, full of sliding ladders, floor-to-ceiling shelves and 18th-century busts. It’s also home to Brian Boru’s harp, a symbol of Irish tradition and the model for the Guinness stout. While the harp and the Book of Kells are permanent fixtures at Trinity, the rest of the library features changing exhibitions on Ireland’s literary history and traditions. 

8. Gabriel García Márquez Library – Barcelona, Spain

Opened in 2022, this library is a relatively recent (but already beloved) addition to Barcelona. García Márquez (once a resident of the city), described Barcelona as “a city where I can breathe”. The namesake library with its wooden architecture is designed to embrace open spaces, making it a warm and hospitable place to escape to. Inspired by the textures and shapes of piles of books, the unique layout of this library has resulted in widespread acclaim and plenty of design awards. 

While the Gabriel García Márquez Library may be one of the newer libraries on this list, its lack of pretentious, astonishing design and immense collection of Latin American literature makes it one of the best in the world. Free to visit and located in the Sant Martí neighbourhood, a trip to the Gabriel García Márquez Library is a fantastic way to see how Barcelona locals live. 

9. National Library of Brazil – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

For those interested in Brazilian history, the National Library is the best place to begin. The biggest library in Latin America (and the seventh largest in the world) the National Library of Brazil is located in the heart of Rio de Janeiro. After a devastating earthquake in Portugal in the 18th century (which destroyed Lisbon and the entirety of the Royal Library), Rio de Janeiro was chosen as the place to rebuild a new library for the Portuguese empire. 

With a focus on expanding national literature, Brazilian publishers are required to send a copy of every title they publish to the library. The library also features an extensive photography compilation that dates back to the 19th century. It’s free to enter, and one could easily spend a week browsing (but not borrowing) the library’s extensive collection. Rio de Janeiro is also home to the Royal Portuguese Cabinet of Reading Room if you want to see more of the city’s striking literary architecture. 

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10. Stuttgart City Library – Stuttgart, Germany

For art lovers and design fanatics, the Stuttgart City Library is guaranteed to tick some boxes. Positioned inside a giant white cube, the library is situated over seven floors (with the English section taking up most of the sixth). The open layout of the library (and its endless staircases) is designed to symbolise and encourage the sharing of knowledge and resources. Alongside its staggering collection of books and media, members can borrow artwork and musical instruments.

Free to enter, if you’re visiting Stuttgart as part of the German Christmas Markets trip, this library is the perfect retreat from the cold weather. While the other-wordly design of Stuttgart City Library will transport you to a sci-fi film, the building’s attitude towards freedom of information will make you ponder the long-held traditions of libraries.

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11. Bibliothèque Méjanes – Aix-en-Provence, France

Bibliothèque Méjanes’ love of books is big. Literally. The entrance to this library in the Côte d’Azur region is made up of three giant books: St. Exupéry’s The Little Prince, Camus’ The Stranger, and a collection of Moliere’s writings. As the birthplace of artist Paul Cezanne, it’s no surprise that Aix-en-Provence is also home to one of the world’s prettiest libraries.

There’s plenty to see in Aix-en-Provence: lavender fields, olive trees, provençal cuisine and the Côte Bleue are all attractive sightseeing spots. You’ll probably be too delighted by the city to spend much time in the library. But if the weather takes a turn or you have free time on your hands, head to the library. Even just for the photos, Bibliothèque Méjanes in France is worth a look. 

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12. The State Library of Victoria – Melbourne, Australia

As one of the first free public libraries in the world, the State Library is an iconic Melbourne institution. Embrace your inner bushranger and check out Ned Kelly’s famous armor which is a permanent collection in the library. Housed in an impressive 19th-century building, the library’s architectural highlight is the La Trobe Reading Room which features an incredible octagonal ceiling.

If the day is sunny, have lunch out on the green lawn where you can find local events, buskers, and catch up on some reading. If you’ve done the Ultimate Australia trip and are looking to go south, Melbourne is the place to immerse yourself in Australia’s arts and cultural scene. 

13. Helsinki Central Library – Oodi, Finland

Built to commemorate 100 years of Finnish independence, the Oodi Library opened in 2018 as a new major landmark for Helsinki. Libraries are the most popular public service in the country and with one of the highest literacy rates in the world, the Fins are proud advocates for reading. That being said, there’s plenty to do at Oodi. Sewing, video games, 3D printing, board games and of course, robotic librarians. In some ways, it’s less of a library and more of a community zone or peaceful space to catch up with friends.

If you’re sightseeing in the Finnish capital, Oodi is easily accessible. Close to Helsinki Central Station and the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, you can find Oodi a short walk from plenty of major tourist attractions including the Helsinki City Museum, Helsinki Cathedral and the Sibelius Monument. A stop-off at Oodi is a fitting way to embrace the Nordic fashion of playful, open and meaningful. 

14. Nakajima Library – Akita, Japan

If you travelled Japan with Contiki, head up north to the graceful city of Akita. With the mountains, lakes and celebrated hot springs, you’ll have a great time in one of Japan’s best-preserved Samurai regions. And if you’re visiting in the spring, you’ll get plenty of cherry blossom action. Oh, and the library is outstanding. 

Open to the public 24 hours a day, 365 days of a year (the only library in Japan to do so), the Nakajima Library is aptly nicknamed ‘the library that never sleeps’. Inspired by the Colosseum, the building’s semi-circular design will have you literally surrounded by books. This literary treehouse is fitting for a quiet afternoon and you’ll find loads of locals and students doing the same. Browse the shelves, admire its umbrella ceiling and spend some time in this remarkable part of Japan. 

15. National Library of Austria – Vienna, Austria

When exploring Vienna’s old town, you’ll no doubt stumble across Hofburg Palace. Head inside the palace and you’ll discover the National Library of Austria and its most impressive feature: the State Hall. At the State Hall, you’ll feel more like you’ve entered a cathedral. Gold-leaf and ornate frescos galore, there is plenty to admire (but not touch) at the State Hall. You’ll have to buy a ticket to check it out, but for bibliophiles looking to see one of the world’s oldest libraries (as well as the oldest in Austria), it’ll be worth every euro.

For those travelling beyond Vienna, take a trip out west to see the jaw-dropping Admont Abbey Library, the world’s largest monastic library. And if you’re travelling to the Czech Republic on the European Trail, the Klementinum and Strahov Library in Prague are similarly stunning Baroque libraries. 

16. Biblioteca Vasconcelos – Mexico City, Mexico

Travelling around Mexico City can often feel like entering a different world. Biblioteca Vasconcelos is here to take you to a new dimension. From the outside, Biblioteca Vasconcelos doesn’t look like much. But once inside, you’ll discover why it’s considered one of the best contemporary libraries in the world.

Designed by controversial architect Alberto Kalach (who is responsible for several of the city’s modernist constructions), the library was built from the inside out over 18 months, and was made to feel like an “ark, a carrier of human knowledge, immersed in a lush botanic garden”. There’s no English section at Biblioteca Vasconcelos, however, it’s a great place to flee the Mexico City heat or wander around the gardens. If that doesn’t impress you, there’s always the giant whale skeleton hanging in the middle of the library. 

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17. Starfield Library – Seoul, South Korea

Embrace your South Korean Soul with the best library in Seoul. Situated in COEX, the largest underground shopping centre in Asia, Starfield Library is a labyrinth of books. While borrowing isn’t an option, a huge range of titles are available for you to read (with both paper options and iPads available). If you’ve shopped til’ you’ve dropped, Starfield’s got plenty of comfy couches, table seating and coffee to revive you. Free Wi-fi, air-conditioning and power sockets makes Starfield an easy spot to regroup.

Starfield Library hosts regular events including lectures, talks and exhibitions. It’s definitely not the quiet library you might be familiar with, but Starfield is bound to keep you entertained all day. 

18. Biblioteca Joanina – Coimbra, Portugal

While visiting Coimbra on our Portugal City and Surf trip, you’ll have the chance to see Portugal’s oldest library. Potentially one of the only libraries in the world where the books are cared for by bats, Biblioteca Joanina is a little different. Similar to Austria, Portugal boasts some spectacular Baroque libraries. Part of the University of Coimbra (the oldest university in Portugal), this library is not just home to rare, historical artifacts. At night, a colony of bats take flight across the library, eating any pests and insects that threaten to destroy priceless pages. Set on a hill, a ticket inside will also get you great views over the valley and city. Make sure you get a reservation, in the touristy months spots can get booked up quickly.

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19. Future Library – Oslo, Norway

Future Library is more like an art installation than a library. Started in 2014, every year one author is invited to deposit an unseen manuscript into the vaults of the Future Library in Norway. But here’s the catch: these books won’t be read until 2114. Invited authors have included Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Elif Shafak and Sjón. The mission is to collect 100 unread books by 100 authors over 100 years. 

Despite reading being banned, you can glimpse the title, author’s name and date in a space called The Silent Room (housed in Oslo’s main public library Deichman Bjørvika). It’s unlikely many of us will be borrowing or browsing at the Future Library. And yet, Future Library provides an intriguing philosophy on the passing on of stories. Create your own travel story on Contiki’s Scandinavia trip as we explore this incredible country. 

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20. Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque – Fes, Morocco

For those looking to immerse themselves in rich cultural experiences, a Moroccan Adventure through Fes will take you to another time. The world’s oldest library and university was founded in 849 A.D. by Fatima al-Fihri who created it to further her and her contemporaries educational pursuits. Extensively restored in 2016, Al-Qarawiyyin now primarily operates as a mosque, however, the library attached is open to the general public. With handmade tiles from the 9th century, a fascinating history, and a collection of ancient manuscripts, a visit to Al-Qarawiyyin is a chance to learn about a remarkable woman and the library that started it all.

If you’re dining nearby (and don’t want to leave your seat), you can glimpse Al-Qarawiyyin’s impressive courtyard from some of the nearby restaurants. Otherwise, head inside to see the spectacular library for yourself. 

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