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The best places in the world for book lovers

Helen Alexander

Senior Contributor

From libraries to literary destinations and full-to-bursting bookshops, these cities are sure to delight readers who love to roam the world.

Best for mind-bending modernity: Mexico City

With its labyrinthine aisles, transparent walls and floating shelves that are suspended from the ceiling, Biblioteca Vasconcelos in Mexico City’s Buenavista neighbourhood resembles the perception-skewing buildings that flipped and folded in Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed film Inception. This futuristic ‘mega-library’, named after one of the country’s greatest reading advocates, was designed by local architect Alberto Kalach and took three years to complete. Stand on one of the balconies and gaze down at this book behemoth and then, for an altogether more intimate reading room, head to Casa Bosques to find art, design and fashion titles in a stylishly renovated house in the chic Colonia Roma area. 

Best for grand interiors: Buenos Aires

For a bookshop with some serious bling, it was to be El Ateneo Grand Splendid in Recoleta. Named the ‘world's most beautiful bookstore’ by the National Geographic, this glitzy destination opened in 1919 as a cinema, radio station and performance space and many of the original features – like the striking ceiling frescoes by Italian artist Nazareno Orlandi – have been preserved. Head to the café that’s situated on the former stage to catch up on your reading while sipping a traditional Argentine submarino – a dark chocolate bar that’s been melted into a glass of hot milk.  

Best for historic manuscripts: Dublin

Samuel Beckett, James Joyce and, more recently, Sally Rooney. The city has hosted a long line of literary talent over the years and that might have something to do with its inspiration-packed Trinity College Library. Visit the Book of Kells exhibition to see the world’s most famous medieval manuscript and walk through the Long Room, which houses 250,000 of the institution’s oldest books. Continue to step back in time by walking over to Marsh’s Library, which opened in 1707 and where the original oak bookshelves are filled with rare ancient volumes. On your way, stop at Chester Beatty Library to see its collection of rare Islamic and East Asian manuscripts.

Best for socialising: Seoul

You might not expect to find more than 50,000 books sitting beneath a shopping centre, but then two-storey Starfield Library in the buzzling capital of Seoul is not your average literary destination. With its comfy chairs and communal seating – combined with speedy WiFi and plenty of power points – Starfield channels a friendly co-working atmosphere, while regular book clubs, art exhibitions and evening events add a social element. More than 600 magazine titles (many of them in English) are available to browse, while you’ll find more overseas offerings at Paper Muse in Itaewon, where foreign fashion magazines attract the city’s most stylish set. Meanwhile, a collaboration between former fashion designer Jina Lee and illustrator Noh Jun-gu has resulted in another great independent bookshop, Veranda Books, which sells illustrated titles for kids and adults alike and host regular events. 

Best for travel inspiration: London

The city had a reputation for selling guides to globe-trotters long before a certain blue door on Portobello Road became famous. That said, the inspiration behind the film’s location – The Notting Hill Book Shop on nearby Blenheim Crescent – continues to be the site of countless of selfies. For less hype but plenty of journey-planning help, make your way to Daunt Books. Sitting in a handsome Edwardian building, the Marylebone venue is the most attractive, with a basement that’s bursting with travel guides and atlases. Having recently reopened at a new site in Covent Garden, Stanfords has been equipping explorers with globes, journals and great travel writing since 1853. Then there’s the British Library, which is home to the largest collection of maps in the world – 4.5 million of them – some of which are more than 2000 years old. 

Best for poets and performers: New York

For creative inspiration, it has to be the city’s Morgan Library & Museum. The private collection of banking magnate J.P. Morgan includes drawings by Da Vinci, Picasso, Michelangelo and Rembrandt, while songwriters can see the scraps of paper on which Bob Dylan devised the lyrics for Blowin’ in the Wind. Artistic artefacts also include sketches for Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince, a first draft of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and manuscripts by John Steinbeck. Meanwhile, the Billy Rose Theatre Collection at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts boats one of the world’s largest collections of works about the performing arts, and Poets House in Battery Park City entices rhymers (and non-rhymers) to revel in its 70,000-strong collection of poetry books. Pick up an arty souvenir from Assouline on the Upper East Side – their coffee table books are seriously covetable – while crush-worthy covers are available at Strand Books, where volumes can be curated by colour. 

Best for walking in writers’ footsteps: Paris

Some of the most famous writers in the world are buried in the city’s Père Lachaise Cemetery, including Marcel Proust, Honore De Balzac and Oscar Wilde, which makes Paris the perfect place to soak up some literary lessons. One of the most famous bookshops on the planet, Shakespeare and Company, situated on the Left Bank, is where literary greats like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein used to swap stories during the 1920s. Nowadays, people come here from around the world thanks to its friendly café, range of English-language titles and regular events. 

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