We love books. We seek them at airport bookstores, scroll through bookstagram while commuting on buses and subways, find unique libraries around the world, and plan literary walking tours. The opportunities to interact with books are everywhere, and traveling to new cities is a wonderful way to let the imagination get a workout. There are 42 cities in 28 countries in the UNESCO Cities of Literature network, all part of the list because they honor the written word. These cities have a range of bookstores and libraries; they host literary events and publish diverse literature; and they promote a culture of respecting different forms of creative writing.
This kind of reverence permeates through well-read cities, so bibliophiles can soak into it and take an intangible part of it home. So, for the love of all things literature, pull out the map of Europe and plot the UNESCO Cities of Literature on it to make your next vacation across the pond a page-turner. For the purpose of this article, we’re focusing on Europe, but you can see the whole list of destinations and decide your next move.
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Included in the list in 2011, Reykjavík was the first non-native English-speaking country to be given this recognition. The country’s medieval literature is preserved in the capital city. Narrating the heroic tales of the Vikings families in the 9th to 11th centuries, The Icelandic Sagas are popular around the world. The Poetic Edda introduces readers to Norse mythology. The most important collection of manuscripts from Scandinavia—dating back to the 12th century—is also preserved in Reykjavik. The Arnemagnean Manuscript Collection is a part of the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.
Contemporary writers are also following in the footsteps of this legacy. Halldór Laxness was awarded a Nobel for his writings in 1955, and many others have been honored with the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize. Icelandic authors like Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Arnaldur Indriðason, and Lilja Sigurðardóttir have amassed a global audience with their crime fiction.
When in Reykjavík, visit the Culture House and the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies. Visit in the month preceding Christmas, and you’ll be able to participate in the Book-Flood-Before-Christmas (or jólabókaflóð). It’s a tradition where the city celebrates freshly-published books with events and readings, and you see them everywhere you go. Books are also the top Christmas gift in Iceland. There are also plenty of other literary events that happen in the city, including the bi-annual Reykjavík International Literary Festival.
And, if you’re a published writer from any of the other 41 Cities of Literature, you can apply for a free one-month residency and stay in the city free of cost.
An under-radar city with just 8,000 inhabitants, Kuhmo was given this recognition of UNESCO City of Literature in 2019. It is located in Eastern Finland and shares the border with Russia. Kuhmo has a deep appreciation for nature—nature lovers can treat themselves to a spot of fishing, skiing, hiking, canoeing, and sledding. Another passion of this Finnish city is its art and culture.
The Kalevala is a Finnish epic compiled in 1835 and regarded as an important piece of its national and cultural identity. The Juminkeko Foundation is dedicated to this epic and houses a collection of cultural heritage related to it. You must visit it if you’re planning a visit—there are many exhibitions and events that happen all year round. Kuhmo Arts Centre hosts music festivals and literary events, including the popular Sommelo Music Festival and Kuhmo Winter Festival.
Wroclaw is a thriving cultural city that has been through the wringer with wars and occupation. It has 27 universities and colleges, so it is a magnet for students from around the world. With a network of public libraries that can feed any interests, you may come with, the city is a haven for book lovers. You must also visit the Ossolinski National Institute, which has the second-biggest Polish book collection.
Plan your visit around one of its literary events—the International Short Story Festival, the International Crime and Mystery Festival, or the Silesius International Poetry Festival. There are also multiple residencies in Wroclaw, which includes one especially designed for persecuted writers.
No wonder the city was also the UNESCO Book Capital in 2016.
Tartu is the second-largest city in Estonia. The University of Tartu is the oldest in the country and its library has 3.7 million books. It was given the honor of the UNESCO City of Literature in 2015 and it established a City Writer scholarship the next year. A local writer gets the prestigious grant (it includes an amount that’s double the minimum wage of the previous year) and devotes time to literary events in the city.
Tartu is set to become the European Capital of Culture in 2024, so the university town will shake things up for visitors with events, performances, exhibitions, concerts, and festivals.
The Tartu International Literary Festival Prima Vista is the biggest literary event in Estonia that attracts 10,000 literature lovers. Along with lectures, readings, and workshops, it also features concerts, exhibitions, and film nights as a tribute to different forms of creative arts. A literary project that’s unique to Tartu is the Bus Poetry, where poems from Estonian and global authors are displayed as stickers on buses, so keep your eyes on the words on the walls. You can also go on a two-hour guided literary walk in Tartu that covers 16 sights.
Tartu, too, has a residency program for writers that allows them to stay in the city free of cost for two months with a scholarship of 600 euros per month and explore its local culture.
When over 50% of a city’s population owns a library card, you can call it a city of voracious readers. Interestingly, Barcelona is a city that not only delights its own residents but also spreads the joy of reading to the world. It exports Catalan and Spanish books to Latin America and Europe.
Barcelona is a happening city for book lovers all year. You have the BCNegra Festival in February, Barcelona Poesia in May, Liber Book Fair in October (it alternates with Madrid), and Manga Barcelona in December. Saint George’s Day on April 23 is a huge celebration of books in the city, where people go on the streets to buy books and roses.
Like Wroclaw, Barcelona is also a part of the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN). It gives a two-year residency to writers who are threatened in their own country. There is also the Faber Residency for creators, writers, translators, and scientists to exchange ideas.
The old town of Angoulême has a deep love for comics. Located 40 minutes from Bordeaux, there are murals painted all over the buildings in this French city, and nearly 200 cartoonists live here. There is also a comic strip museum in the city, and there are apps (Android and iOS) to discover street art as you walk on its cobblestoned streets. That’s not all—it hosts an International Comics Festival in January that brings 250,000 comic lovers, including writers, journalists, and publishers.
The bilingual city of Dublin has given the world many creative geniuses. Storytelling is a way of life here, and many prolific names such as W.B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, and James Joyce have called it home. With universities, bookstores, and libraries promoting a culture of reading, book lovers will find mutual appreciation for all sorts of literature.
Start your journey with the National Library and take it to the Abbey Theatre. There is a dedicated center for James Joyce that offers insights into the writer’s life and works, and you can learn the ropes of printing at the National Print Museum. And of course, there are bars involved: you can go on the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl for a swig of fun.
Additional must-sees in Dublin are the literary bridges dedicated to Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, and Sean O’Casey. The International Literature Festival in May and the Dublin Book Festival are two major literary events hosted every year, but no matter when you come, you will definitely pick up a book (or two) by Irish writers.
There are many other ways that the city pays tribute to its literary legacy and supports upcoming writers. The National Emerging Writer Programme and “One City, One Book” initiative (picking one Dublin-themed book a year and organizing events around it) are significant to the city. Dublin also has an annual Dublin Literary Award that awards Euros 100,000 to the winner.
WHERE: The Netherlands
In 2017, Utrecht became a City of Literature, and it was the first city in the Netherlands to get this title. The city is known for its Dom Tower, the highest and oldest tower in Holland that’s visible everywhere in the city. But there’s another claim to fame that put Utrecht on the literary map—the Utrecht Psalter. It is the most important manuscript from the medieval ages, also included in the Memory of the World Register, with 166 sketches and illustrations. Also significant is the fact to its history that the first book in the Northern Netherlands was printed in 1473.
Utrecht has given the world Miffy (Dick Bruna’s legacy), and the Diffy Museum is a must-visit for the rabbit’s fans. It also presents two giant events for bibliophiles: the Night of Poetry and the International Literature Festival Utrecht (ILFU).
WHERE: Czech Republic
Prague has an old soul. The city of spheres is so beautifully preserved with its dreamy architecture, its Disney movie castle, and the medieval Old Town. It’s a charming city–add to that its love for literature, and you’ve found a place you wouldn’t want to say goodbye to.
It got the designation in 2014 and it has honored the title with a residency program for global writers. There are book festivals, Book World Prague and Prague Writers’ Festival, that keep readers interested in the written word. Plus, there are multiple activities, events, and workshops all year planned by the Municipal Library of Prague.
Many words can be used to describe the Italian city: colorful, glamorous, vibrant, and cultural. And, it’s also bookish. The public library system has 25 branches with a collection of 1,350,000 books. Plus, what better than a mobile book bus, Bibliobus, to make way for an imaginative life.
Milan has seen notable authors from Alessandro Manzoni and Carlo Porta to Giovanni Testori and Maria Corti. The archives and centers have preserved their legacies and there is still dialogue about their works. To feel the vibe of this City of Literature, fly to Italy for BookCity Milano, a three-day event dedicated to meetings, discussions, shows, and readings.