For voracious readers, a library is as sacred as a church and as beautiful as a king’s court. Europe boasts libraries that have been part of important monasteries, famed universities, and opulent castles. In the 17th and 18th century, a beautiful library became a status symbol for Europe’s educated elite. Decors featured painted ceilings, gilded flourishes, and decorative statues in the Baroque- and Rococo-style. Lucky for us, they’ve opened their doors to the public! Take note: you might not be able to pluck a book from the shelves, as in some cases they’re extremely valuable. Feel free to feast your eyes on them; there’s a lot to take in!
Raise your sights to the sky, as the Baroque library of the Clementinum in Prague is painted to look like the ceilings have opened up to the heavens. Angels immortalized in paint guard over the 20,000 volumes of religious texts. Globes line the length of the library (also known as The Long Room) detailing the Earth and the known galaxy as it was known then. The management has now restricted access to the Long Room, so visitors only have a few feet to take in its splendor. It’s well worth it for a glance at this divine reading room, though. Augment your exploration of the Clementinum with our recommended read: “The Secret Miracle” by renowned writer Jorges Luis Borges. In his story, a man sought God on the shelves of the library—and found Him.
Mariánské námesti 5, Prague, Czech Republic
You’ll find a more intimate experience at the nearby Strahov Monastery Library. Book a private guided tour in advance and ask if they can take you into the library, else you’ll only be peeking from the doorway. Strahov Monastery Library’s two halls inspire many photo opportunities. Both have painted fresco ceilings, but the Theological Hall frames each subject with Baroque ornaments. On the other hand, the Philosophical Hall’s vaulting is an uninterrupted painting of scholars and divine figures in a tableau named “Mankind’s Quest for True Wisdom.” The books may be far from reach, but the scenes painted above tell their own story.
Strahovské nádvoří 1/132, Prague, Czech Republic
Continue your search for the divine in the collection of the Biblioteca Joanina in the University of Coimbra, Portugal. The library takes their preservation so seriously that they’ve enlisted the help of bats to ward off insects. You can still roam the Baroque halls in peace, though, as they’re fast asleep within the walls during the day. Stand dead center in The Noble Hall, take your camera out, and frame the golden archways in perfect symmetry. The national coat-of-arms hover overhead, leading visitors to a portrait of King John V—the monarch who sponsored the construction of the library. Remember to keep behind the red rope, as books have to be requested for reading in the Biblioteca Geral next door.
Largo da Porta Férrea, Coimbra, Portugal
Vienna, Austria • Recommendation •
Feel like royalty at the Austrian National Library! Initially built for the Habsburg royal family’s private use, Emperor Charles VI himself ordered the library’s construction into the Hofburg Palace. Pristine white statues, marble pillars, and a grand dome ceiling rise all around the State Hall in an overwhelming display of Baroque architecture. These days, students come on field trips, scholars pore over the timeless tomes, and the curious public visits to take in all the culture. There’s space for everyone as the Austrian National Library is one of the largest in the country, with over 7.4 million items in their collections. There’s always something new to discover and an endless stream of photos to take. (Hold the flash, please!)
Josefsplatz 1, Vienna, Austria
The Trinity College Old Library is a beloved cultural landmark in Dublin, Ireland. It hosts a collection of rare books, local literature, and the world-famous “Book of Kells” (a hand-drawn manuscript of the Gospel in Latin). Its Long Room, built in dark wood, is the library’s most photogenic spot. In the right angle, dead center, it looks like an endless room with infinite rows of shelves and arched ceilings. White marble busts of great philosophers, writers, and influential men flank each side of the hall like guardians of the knowledge within.
The Library of Trinity College Dublin, Dublin 2, Ireland
The architectural styles in the Bristol Central Library have moved on from Baroque, refining its grandeur to a more elegant and understated look. The library still has soft curving archways and column pillars in abundance, but there are cleaner lines and white spaces to refresh the eyes. It’s a classic English building, something you’d imagine straight from the “The Chronicles of Narnia.” The Bristol Central Library serves the public, with a few restricted areas. Feel free to get lost in the labyrinthine hallways as you explore its secret corners or throw yourself into another adventure between a book’s pages.
Deanery Road, City Centre, Bristol, UK
The University of Oxford’s libraries are some of the richest repositories of knowledge, and the Bodleian Libraries complex is its most beautiful. Some would even say these medieval buildings are magical. Seize the opportunity to visit Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry’s library; specifically, the Restricted Section. Book a tour with the Old Bodleian Library as there is plenty to explore: dark wooden dens filled floor-to-ceiling with shelves of books. Plus points if you're able to name which spots made it into other films. (Hint: “X-Men: First Class” and “The Golden Compass” were filmed here, too.)
Bread Street, Oxford, United Kingdom
Another library that bears a striking resemblance to Hogwarts, the University of Manchester’s John Rylands Library features vaulted ceilings, soaring pillars, stained glass windows, and moody candelabras. Though it never made it into the movies, it could easily pass as the Great Hall of Hogwarts. The library’s Neo-Gothic features make it look more like a cathedral. It works because any bibliophile knows reading time is sacred. Roam freely and snap away, the John Rylands Library’s first floor is open to the public. Researchers and scholars are busy at work upstairs, so keep a respectful volume.
150 Deansgate, Manchester, United Kingdom
Even before desk lamps, book lovers have been working out ways to read. The Handelingenkamer, or Old Library of the Dutch Parliament, was built with a glass dome. Generous light floods in, illuminating the four storeys worth of books. Climb the spiral staircase slowly for a few pictures as you ascend toward the light. Handbound books stand out perfectly with their golden spines. Cast iron, painted a deep red, is wrought in curly patterns on the railings of the staircase and the terraces. Keep an eye out for little details jutting out from the balconies—there are some fearsome dragons about! E-mail the office of the House of Representatives (or Tweede Kamer) ahead of time for a free tour of the library.
Tweede Kamer der Staten-Generaal, Lange Poten 4, The Hague, Netherlands
Following the sunlight to France, the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) Richelieu-Louvois Library has a beautiful dome that almost renders its reading lamps useless. In the Oval Room, you are surrounded by books in all directions as the shelves gently curve around you. The BnF is one of the largest in the world with over 10 million titles, ranging from topics like aesthetics to zoology. You know the drill: pluck a book from its shelves and settle into the Oval Room. When your eyes get a little weary, all you have to do is look up.
58 Rue de Richelieu, Paris, France
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