The pages of a book can transport a reader to a magical place, helping them escape the world around them and experience how the impossible can become possible. A perfect place to dive into these literary depths is a library, as it has rows upon rows of books to satisfy all readers’ tastes! Libraries have been around since ancient times, and have always been a way for people to explore others’ lives and imaginations. You can read about the Oldest Libraries of the Ancient World to get a sense of how record- and book-keeping has spanned the course of time, providing us with knowledge and places of learning.
However, libraries did not just exist in antiquity. While some may view them as outdated or old-fashioned, there is much more to libraries than meets the eye. Wherever they are built, they become the center of communities — offering many different programs and resources for their patrons — and showcase a seamless blend of modernity and history coexisting together. Ten such libraries in Europe should be on the travel bucket list of every bibliophile: from their historical significance to modern beauty, these European libraries will guide you through the continent on an unforgettable trip that will nourish your mind and soul!
1) Biblioteca Joanina in Coimbra, Portugal
The first stop in this bibliophile’s travel guide is the Biblioteca Joanina in the city of Coimbra, Portugal. The Biblioteca Joanina is located within the University of Coimbra, and is a historical treasure in and of itself, in addition to the books it contains. Its name pays homage to Portugal’s King John V, and was constructed in the 18th century to be an archive for the university’s books. For this reason, all the books within the Biblioteca Joanina date back prior to the 20th century!
Resting on Remains
This library is built in the Baroque style, with lots of wooden bookcases, oil paintings on the walls, and grand decorative gold reminiscent of the wealth of the Portuguese Empire. If you would like to explore the empire’s history and legacy, visit here. An interesting fact is that the Biblioteca Joanina was built in the university courtyard, which sits on top of an old royal prison, meaning there are remains of the prison in the library’s basement. When visiting this library, you can join a guided or walking tour to take in its historic magnificence!
2) El Escorial Library in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain
Homage to Science
Moving from Portugal to its neighbor, we come next to Spain to explore the El Escorial Library. Even older than the Biblioteca Joanina, El Escorial Library (or Real Biblioteca del Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial) was built by King Philip II of Spain in the 1500’s. A lover of geography and science is sure to fall in love with El Escrioal as well! It’s purpose was to house texts not just on the arts and literature, but on sciences such as astronomy and geography. King Philip himself collected and stored an impressive globe, map, and armillary sphere collection within this library, which is part of the greater El Escorial monastery.
The Renaissance spirit of discovery and science is evident within the frescoes and paintings which depict scenes that celebrate the arts. The El Escorial Library is also the first library in the world to display its books in shelves along the walls, with the titles on the spines facing outwards! An innovative and cutting-edge library at the time of its construction, El Escorial embodies the pioneering spirit of the Renaissance Age.
3) Sainte-Geneviève Library in Paris, France
Paris is the city of love, cafés, museums, and…books? Do not be surprised, for there are some unforgettable libraries located in Paris — one of which is the Sainte-Geneviève Library. With a modern design that still retains a historical charm, the Sainte-Geneviève Library boasts exposed iron columns and arches which was a revolutionary design by architect Henri Labrouste in the mid-1800’s. The collection of books stored in the library originally came from the St. Genevieve abbey in Paris, and has continued growing into the millions ever since. You can learn more about St. Genevieve Abbey here! A visit to Sainte-Geneviève’s vast reading room, complete with shelves upon shelves of books and bright lanterns lighting up the long desks, will leave the reader in awe of both the library’s architecture and its dedication to preserving the literature of the past.
4) Biblioteca Marciana in Venice, Italy
If you’re looking for another library to blow you away with its architectural beauty, look no further than the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice, Italy! The fourth library in this guide to some of Europe’s most stunning libraries, the Biblioteca Marciana (or Library of St. Mark) was built as a dedication to the public. Efforts to promote civic engagement and spread knowledge of classical languages and texts are encompassed in the mission of the Biblioteca Marciana. Constructed between the mid- to late-16th century, this library is full of classical Greek and Roman influences: from its manuscripts to its ceiling art. In fact, some of the most renowned artists of the day, such as Titian and Tintoretto, painted the library’s ceilings. As you explore the archeological wonders of the Biblioteca Marciana while walking under its awe-inducing artwork, you will realize the true beauty of libraries!
5) Admont Abbey Library in Admont, Austria
The next stop in our library tour through Europe is the Admont Abbey Library in Admont, Austria. Located at the bottom of the snowy mountains of Gesause National Park, the Admont Abbey Library is the largest and oldest monastic library in the world! It is in the Baroque style like the Biblioteca Joanina, but its unique frescoes set it apart from the rest. These murals depict the stages of reaching divine revelation within human knowledge and understanding — apt for the setting of a library! Completed in 1776, the inspiration for the Admont Abbey Library was based off of the Enlightenment period, as it showcases statues and architectural designs related to the Enlightenment ideals of paradise, reason, and wisdom. Read about the Enlightenment period here. One enticing feature of this library is that there are no barriers to visitors, who can explore the space without a guide as they wish!
6) Clementinum National Library in Prague, Czech Republic
Heading north from Austria to the Czech Republic, the Clementinum National Library awaits! Situated within the Clementinum, a complex of historical buildings in Prague, this library is also known as the Baroque Library Hall. It has been a center for knowledge and theological learning since the beginning of its long history: starting off as a chapel dedicated to Saint Clement in the 11th century, it became a Jesuit college, then a legal deposit library, and finally the National Library of the Czech Republic. The Clementinum National Library has a large collection of books spanning its time as a public and university library. Make sure you visit this library to experience how history can be preserved and relived within the pages of a book and amongst the shelves of a library!
7) Stuttgart City Library in Stuttgart, Germany
Libraries are not just old and musty relics of the past, as popular belief might suggest. This is never truer than in the Stuttgart City Library. Constructed in 1901, the library marks just one of the many amazing sights in Stuttgart, the capital of the state of Baden-Württemberg in Germany. If you are looking to explore this historic and beautiful state further, peruse this Travel Guide to the Enchanting Black Forest in Germany! Made out of glass bricks, the cube-shaped interior of the Stuttgart City Library is all-white and emits a modern vibe that attracts tourists from all around the world. These bricks make the exterior glow blue at night! But that’s not all that makes this library special. The design of the top five storeys of the building is a reverse pyramid, meaning that the higher up you go in the nine-story structure, the wider the floors get.
Center of the Community
The Stuttgart City Library shows how libraries have become the center of the communities they are located in. For example, it has a music library, a children’s library, an event space called The Forum, technology rooms, and even a rooftop terrace! This easy access to free resources and places of learning and growth allows people to connect more with their community. The Stuttgart City Library is a great example of how libraries rely on the community to stay modern and relevant. As long as people support the libraries that also support them, then the spirit of learning and reading will never die! On your way out of Germany, you might want to take a glance at the history and richness of the city of Luxembourg.
8) The Royal Library in Copenhagen, Denmark
Continuing the trend of modern and stunning architecture, we travel next to Denmark — the northernmost point in this library guide. Here we find the Royal Library, also known as “The Black Diamond”, in the city of Copenhagen. True to its nickname, this library has a black granite exterior which creates a sleek and polished appearance. Constructed in 1999, just before the new century, The Royal Library is also home to The National Museum of Photography, a trendy café, and a concert hall. A visit to this place is a day trip in and of itself! On the edge of the Strait of Øresund, library visitors can enjoy a guided tour with a waterfront view, or settle into the pages of a captivating book. The Royal Library is an extension of the old library, symbolizing how Denmark is moving into the future while celebrating the value of literature.
9) The Codrington Library in Oxford, England
What comes to mind when you hear the word “Oxford”? Definitely “scholarly”, if not “educational hub”. Libraries are at the center of this city’s intellectual reputation, and one such library is the Codrington Library. Bringing us into England and near the end of this guide, the Codrington Library is part of All Souls College, within the University of Oxford. It is most well-known for the dark green color of its bookshelves, creating a pensive and peaceful atmosphere for studying and reading. In addition, intricate marble statues also decorate the library. The modern collections of the Codrington Library are especially focused on law, the history of Britain and Europe, and military history. While open to visitors, it is also used by students within the College and University of Oxford as a place of study. So be sure to keep the golden rule of libraries when visiting: No Talking!
10) Trinity College Old Library (Dublin, Ireland)
The final stop in this tour of stunning libraries in Europe is Dublin, Ireland. While famous for many things (including its pubs), a trip to Dublin is not complete without a look at the Trinity College Old Library. It is the largest library in the entirety of Ireland, and has a book collection to live up to its size. One treasure within this collection is the Book of Kells, a Latin gospel manuscript which dates back to 800 A.D. and is much older than the 400-year-old library. Other attractions within the library are the dark wood paneling, arched ceiling, and the Long Room – as per its name, a long room within the library containing busts of many different philosophers and famous personages associated with the university. A fitting end to this bibliophile travel guide, the Trinity College Old Library is a mix of modernity and antiquity that is timeless!
Places of Power
From Portugal to Ireland and everywhere in between, this European travel guide lets you experience firsthand the power that libraries have on the people that visit them. It is not just the power of learning and reading, but that of preserving the past and changing for the future. No library remains stuck in the past — despite their age or long-standing history, they all continue to adapt to the modern world and all the transitions it brings. These ten libraries demonstrate how libraries can be rooted in the past but still serve a modern population. Museums also do this — check out a Travel Guide to Top Museums in the World. By keeping records of human history and knowledge, they allow us to learn from others’ lives and stories. So the next time you want to plan a trip to Europe, look to its libraries for a fulfilling experience!