Over the centuries, kings, presidents, monks, and other luminaries have constructed libraries as more than mere book repositories, but as symbols of knowledge, power, and wealth. Many of their structures propose commanding architecture and some even house works of art and cultural treasures. Here are twenty of the world’s most stunning libraries, from a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the mountains of South Korea to the modern incarnation of the legendary library of ancient Alexandria.-Laura Itzkowitz
Temple of Haeinsa
WHERE: Mount Gaya, South Korea
Tucked into the mountains of South Korea, the fifteenth-century, UNESCO-designated Temple of Haeinsa houses the Tripitaka Koreana, the most extensive collection of Buddhist texts in the world. Its Janggyeong Panjeon buildings additionally store over 80,000 woodblocks, used to print books before the invention of the printing press.
Insider Tip: Though the Tripitaka Koreana collection is not open to the public, you can still visit the temple complex and peek inside.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's South Korea Guide
WHERE: Venice, Italy
Built in 1564, the Biblioteca Marciana is one of the earliest surviving libraries in Italy. Set on Venice's Piazza San Marco, near the Doge’s Palace, Renaissance architect Jacopo Sansovino (who left an indelible imprint on Venice) designed the library, which took 50 years to complete. Sansovino and Titian chose seven Renaissance artists, including Veronese, to decorate the library with their paintings.
Insider Tip: Call ahead to arrange a free, guided library tour in English.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Venice Guide
WHERE: Rome, Italy
One of the first libraries in Europe to open to the public, the Biblioteca Angelica was originally built for the Augustinian monks in 1609. It contains nearly 200,000 volumes, including an important collection of Italian Renaissance works on the writings of Saint Augustine, the Reformation, and the Counter-Reformation. The main reading room, with its vaulted ceiling and bookshelves containing leather-bound books, was renovated in 1765.
Insider Tip: Stop by the nearby Antico Forno della Stelletta on Via della Scrofa for some of the best pistachio cookies in Rome.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Rome Guide
WHERE: Coimbra, Portugal
Portugal’s oldest library, the Biblioteca Joanina—named after the king who funded it—was completed in 1728. Underneath the elaborately decorated reading rooms and halls lies the old medieval prison of the Royal Palace, the only remaining medieval prison in Portugal.
Insider Tip: For a tour, stop by the lobby of the General Library, where tickets are distributed.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Coimbra Guide
WHERE: Oxford, England
A true architectural marvel, the circular Radcliffe Camera is part of the Bodlein Library of Oxford University. Dating back to 1602, it took so long to build that the original architect, Nicholas Hawksmoor, died before construction could begin. Architect James Gibbs completed the Classical masterpiece in 1748, affording an excellent example of Palladian architecture. Once inside, look up and admire the incredible domed ceiling and details like the Corinthian columns.
Insider Tip: Whether you wander the grounds freely or opt for a guided tour, keep an eye out for locations used to film Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Oxford Guide
Trinity College Library
WHERE: Dublin, Ireland
The dark oak bookcases full of leather-bound volumes and the arched ceiling inspire awe in the students and visitors who step foot in Dublin's Trinity College Library, which is the largest in Ireland and has a copy of every book published in the Republic of Ireland. The busts in the Long Room represent great philosophers, writers, and men who supported the college (like Jonathan Swift). The library exhibits the ninth-century Book of Kells, which attracts over 500,000 visitors a year and is celebrated for its gorgeous decoration.
Insider Tip: Take a a guided tour of Trinity College’s historic campus, which includes admission to the library.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Dublin Guide
WHERE: Admont, Austria
Nestled in the foothills of the Alps, the lovely library inside the Admont Monastery looks like something out of a fairy tale. It's one of the longest monastic libraries in the world, with a rococo design meant to proudly display the monastery’s collection of books (which were originally bound in white leather to match the walls). The library’s architect, Josef Hueber, was inspired by the ideals of the Enlightenment and remarked, “As with the mind, light should also fill the room.” There are no desks because the library was never intended for study—the monks would instead bring the books back to their cells to read.
Insider Tip: Once inside, note the amazing ceiling frescoes that depict man’s exploration of the sciences and biblical revelation.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Austria Guide
WHERE: Paris, France
Designed by Henri Labrouste, the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève was completed in 1850, as architects were discovering the incredible properties of cast iron. Thanks to its strength, it could be used both structurally and decoratively, as in the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève’s main reading room. The high, barrel-vaulted ceiling and rows of uniform wooden desks with green lamps make this library, next to the Panthéon, a gorgeous place to study. It’s popular among students of the University of Paris and the law school nearby.
Insider Tip: You’ll need a student ID to study here, but you can arrange a tour by appointment Monday through Friday, between 9am and 10am.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Paris Guide
Bibliotheque Nationale De France, Site Richelieu
WHERE: Paris, France
Originally built in the eighteenth century, French architect Henri Labrouste renovated the Bibliothèque Nationale’s Richelieu site from 1854 to 1875, after he completed the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève. The Labrouste reading room now bears his name. The library’s collection includes rare books, illuminated manuscripts, prints, photographs, musical scores, and coins and medals that once belonged to French kings. Since the construction of the Bibliothèque Nationale François-Mitterand, the Richelieu library—undergoing a massive renovation through 2017—now hosts temporary exhibits, often culled from its impressive collections.
Insider Tip: Guided tours will get you access to the library’s more historic sections and the museum of coins and medals. Check the library’s calendar of events to see what exhibits are on view.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Paris Guide
Rijksmuseum Research Library
WHERE: Amsterdam, The Netherlands
The Rijksmuseum Research Library is one of the most important art libraries in the world, and has been collecting continuously since 1885, when it was built. Consistent with its museum, which displays masterpieces by Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Frans Hals, the library’s strength lies in its impressive collection of important works on Dutch art, prints, and drawings. The museum and library were recently renovated, turning the library into a stately 19th-century reading room.
Insider Tip: Don’t leave without seeing Vermeer’s Milkmaid and Rembrandt’s Night Watch in the Rijksmuseum.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Amsterdam Guide
WHERE: Baltimore, Maryland
The Peabody Library in Baltimore is known for its beautiful reading room with high vaulted ceilings and cast-iron balconies. The columns, capitals, balconies, railings, and even the ceiling are all made of iron, decorated with gold flourishes. Noted Baltimore architect Edmund Lind designed the library for Johns Hopkins University with funds from philanthropist George Peabody. The library also has a notable collection of Civil War ephemera.
Insider Tip: The library is only open to readers and visitors from Monday through Friday.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Baltimore Guide
Connemara Public Library
WHERE: Chennai, India
Though the Connemara Public Library was built by the British Empire and named for Lord Connemara, the Anglo-Irish governor of India's Madras State, the building is inspired by traditional Indo-Saracenic architecture. Inside, teak arches are carved with intricate floral patterns, stained-glass windows filter the sun’s rays, and the original marble floors remain intact. It is one of four National Depository Libraries in India, and receives a copy of every book published in the country. Note: Only the main entrance is open to the public.
Insider Tip: Librarians once delivered books to people’s homes on bicycles; now they send them out on mopeds.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's India Guide
New York Public Library
WHERE: New York, New York
When the New York Public Library’s main branch on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue was completed in 1911, it claimed the title of the largest marble building in the United States. The architecture firm of Carrère & Hastings, who were a part of the City Beautiful Movement, built this Beaux-Arts masterpiece, and E. C. Potter sculpted the famous lions in front of the building. The Rose Main Reading Room is nearly two city blocks long and features celestial ceiling murals that depict billowing clouds
Insider Tip: Visitors can freely circulate the library’s main rooms and settle into the reading rooms (there's even free Wi-Fi).
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's New York City Guide
Boston Public Library
WHERE: Boston, Massachusetts
Touting more than 50 institutions of higher learning, Boston rightly has a reputation as a scholarly city. Copley Square reflects just that, where architect Charles Follen McKim, of famed firm McKim, Mead & White, designed the Boston Public Library in the Italian Renaissance style, calling it his “palace for the people.” The library opened to the public in 1895, filled with colored marble, murals by John Singer Sargent, and sculptures by Louis and Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Frederick MacMonnies, and Daniel Chester French. The arcaded courtyard, which is a replica of the one in Rome’s Palazzo della Cancelleria, affords visitors a quiet place to sit.
Insider Tip: After admiring the library’s architecture and artwork, stay for lunch or a cup of tea in the Courtyard Restaurant or Map Room Café.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Boston Guide
Los Angeles Central Library
WHERE: Los Angeles, California
The Los Angeles Central Library is a masterpiece of art deco. Architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue was inspired by ancient world accents, especially the Egyptian pyramids and Byzantine mosaics. The personification of history, philosophy, and other muses decorate the building, while in the main rotunda, which once housed the card catalog, colorful murals by Dean Cornwall depict California’s history. Behind the library is a public plaza with pleasant fountains and landscaping.
Insider Tip: The library gives docent tours, and it’s also a stop on the Los Angeles Conservancy’s historic downtown walking tour.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Los Angeles Guide
Beinecke Library, Yale University
Where: New Haven, Connecticut
One of the most striking twentieth-century libraries, the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale was built using Vermont marble. On the outside, it looks like a white gridded rectangle on stilts, but on the inside, the sunshine creates a golden glow, while the marble protects the books from harmful rays. Six floors of stacks house the books, and the library has a Gutenberg Bible and some special collections, like the Alfred Steiglitz/George O’Keefe archive, early American maps, and Gertrude Stein’s papers.
Insider Tip: The library's ground floor and mezzanine exhibition spaces are always free and open to the public. The reading room on the lower court level is for dedicated researchers, whether from Yale or elsewhere.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Connecticut Guide
WHERE: Seattle, Washington
Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and American architect Joshua Ramus designed the spectacularly modern Central Library in Seattle in 2004. The diagonal grid pattern made of concrete, steel, and glass not only looks impressive, but also protects the building against wind and earthquakes. Inside, the enormous, light-filled reading room measures nearly 12,000 square feet. There is also a 275-seat auditorium, plus, 400 free public computers, meeting rooms, and library stacks with an automated handling system.
Insider Tip: Ride the escalator up to the 10th floor for spectacular views of Seattle, and don’t miss the public art on display by artists like Ann Hamilton.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Seattle Guide
Utrecht University Library
WHERE: Utrecht, The Netherlands
The Utrecht University Library touts a completely black design scheme except for the red furniture, glass windows etched with patterns of tall grass, and splashes of color provided by the books. A wide range of study spaces provide plenty of room for students and visitors to stretch out and study. Special collections include Utrecht city history and maps, illuminated manuscripts, and medieval medical manuscripts.
Insider Tip: Utrecht University's University Museum and Botanical Gardens are worth a visit, as well.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Utrecht Guide
Kanazawa Umimirai Library
WHERE: Kanazawa, Japan
Six thousand small, round windows filter light into Japan's super sleek Umimirai Library. The polar opposite of the Utrecht University Library, the Umimirai Library is completely white, except for the books. The architects describe the building as a “cake box,” and its clean, rectangular shape indeed resembles one. The enormous reading room, with balconies, provides a tranquil space to read and relax.
Insider Tip: The library is about a twenty-minute drive outside Kanazawa’s city center, so plan accordingly.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Kanazawa Guide
WHERE: Alexandria, Egypt
A fire, or perhaps several attacks, including one by Julius Caesar, may have destroyed Alexandria’s original library, but the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina certainly evokes the glory of the one of yore. The reading room is tilted toward the sea like a sundial, and the glass-paneled roof allows plenty of light to flood in. The facade is covered in characters from over one hundred different languages; its fitting, since the library’s collection comprises books in English, Arabic, and French. The building also contains a planetarium, four museums, ten academic research centers, and fifteen permanent exhibitions.
Insider Tip: Visitors must purchase a ticket for entry, which allows access to the library’s facilities, guided tours, and exhibitions. Tickets for the planetarium are sold separately.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Alexandria Guide