L.A. Kennedy

Beyond the story

by Caitlin Morton

While we all know that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, this is one case in which evaluating something based on its appearance is not only accepted, but encouraged. From Seattle to Tokyo, these beautiful libraries are known for noteworthy exteriors—think soaring architecture and bountiful gardens—and interiors featuring designs like frescoed ceilings or walls made entirely of glass. And that’s nothing compared to the millions of books housed within their walls. So whether you’re a bookworm or an architecture lover, start adding these 22 libraries to your must-visit list.

This article was originally published in September 2014 and has been updated.

Beautiful Libraries, George Peabody Library

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George Peabody Library, Baltimore

Easily one of the most beautiful libraries in the U.S., the George Peabody Library (part of Johns Hopkins University) contains over 300,000 volumes stacked in five decorative tiers. The books are impressive, sure, but the cathedral like-atrium, marble floors, and wrought-iron details are the main draw here. Is it any wonder the library has become one of the most popular wedding venues in Baltimore?

Seattle Public Library (Central Branch), Washington

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Central Public Library Branch, Seattle

Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, the Seattle Public Library’s central branch building juts out of the downtown skyline. The glass-and-steel edifice stands 11 stories tall, and due to its location on a hill you can enter and exit on different floors. The inside pops thanks to a vivid green color used as a decorative touch on walls and in the elevator—fitting, since Seattle’s nickname is “the Emerald City.” Head to the 10th-floor reading room to take in views of the city, including Elliott Bay.

Vancouver Central Public Library, Canada

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Central Public Library, Vancouver

If the Vancouver Central Public Library looks familiar to you, that’s because it was modeled after another famous building: Rome’s iconic Colosseum. The nine-floor library complex takes up an entire city block, and includes office space, coffee shops, and retail on the ground floor. One of its most striking features is a rooftop garden designed by Safdie Architects.

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The Library of El Escorial, Spain

Not only is this Spanish library a work of art, it’s also part of a UNESCO World Heritage site. Originally commissioned by King Philip II in the 16th century, the library’s most dazzling feature is a series of seven frescoes that depict the liberal arts (music, rhetoric, astronomy, and so on). The town of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, which is about 45 minutes outside of Madrid, has long been a favorite of Spanish royals, and there’s plenty more to see here beyond the library, including a monastery, gardens, and the pantheons of former princes and kings.

Tama Art University Library, Tokyo, Japan

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Tama Art University Library, Tokyo

Completed in 2007, Tokyo’s Tama Art University Library may be modern in design—think concrete arches, glass walls, minimalist furniture, and tidy rows of computers—but it still manages to have a classic, almost ancient feel. Perhaps the 100,000 books add a touch of archaism, or perhaps it’s because the sleek structure sort of resembles a vaulted wine cellar. Either way, this complex structure certainly belongs on every architecture lover’s bucket list.

Denmark, Copenhagen, Museum, The Royal Library

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Royal Library of Denmark, Copenhagen

This particular temple to books was originally built in 1648, but was renovated to its current state in 1999. It’s colloquially known as the “black diamond” thanks to the shiny black metal segments on either side of the clear glass middle section. Inside, you’ll find a veritable treasure trove of European works with a special focus on Denmark (of course), with all of philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s original manuscripts and the original copy of the first-known Danish book. The building is also home to the national photography museum, a café, a performance hall, and a large abstract fresco by renowned Danish artist Per Kirkeby on the inside of the ceiling.

Strahov Monastery Library, Prague

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Strahov Monastery Library, Prague

The Strahov monastery in Prague was originally founded in 1143. Despite wars, fires, and other disasters, the order endured and built its library in 1679. The library’s best-known features are its remarkable ceiling, which is covered in Biblical frescoes, and the “compilation wheel” that turns to rotate shelves in order to make books easier to find without knocking any of them over.

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Royal Portuguese Reading Room, Rio de Janeiro

Yes, this is a library, but really, it’s more like a palace devoted to books. Its limestone exterior was inspired by the famous Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon, where it was built before being shipped to Rio de Janeiro. And the interior is just as stunning: There’s a red, white, and blue stained glass window letting natural light in through the ceiling, while a silver, marble, and ivory altar welcomes visitors into the building.

Beautiful Libraries, Tianjin Binhai Library

Courtesy MVRDV/Ossip van Duivenbode

Tianjin Binhai Library, China

If China’s Tianjin Binhai Library looks familiar, it’s probably because photos of the building’s futuristic design went viral when the building opened its door in 2017. (It received over 10,000 visitors per day back then, and continues to be Tianjin’s top tourist attraction.) Designed by Dutch firm MVRDV, the library features a huge luminous sphere (called ‘The Eye’) in the middle of an auditorium, cathedral-like vaulted arches, and undulating floor-to-ceiling shelves. There’s just one catch: The highest, inaccessible shelves don’t actually have books on them—instead, they hold aluminum plates printed with book images. But hey, smoke and mirrors can be beautiful too.

Stockholm Public Library, Sweden

Stockholm Public Library, Sweden

Stockholm’s public library was designed by Swedish architect Gunnar Asplund, who is also known for his work on the Skandia cinema and the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Woodland Cemetery. The round main hall has books in every Nordic language and a white, textured roof that was designed to look like clouds.

Bodleian Library, Oxford, UK

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Bodleian Library, Oxford, England

The next time you’re in London, set aside some time to take a day trip to Oxford—specifically the Bodleian Library. The library has been in use since the 1300s (that’s practically a thousand years), and its 12 million printed items continue to attract researchers and travelers from around the world. Aside from housing museum-worthy tomes (like the first editions of Jane Austen’s Emma and Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species), the library’s many buildings are as beautiful as they come—make sure to stop by the 15th-century Divinity School and Old Bodleian Library.

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National Library of Finland, Helsinki

Located next to Senate Square and the Helsinki Cathedral, the National Library of Finland is easily one of the most stunning buildings in the country. The main building was designed in the early 19th century, with architect C.L. Engel pulling inspiration from Classicism with Corinthian columns, central rotunda, and halls coated with coated with stucco marble. Renovations in the 2010s restored the building’s wooden floors and ceiling murals to their former glory and added an underground kirjaluola (Finnish for “book cave”) to store some of the library’s three million books.  

Courtesy The Morgan Library

The Morgan Library & Museum, New York City

If you’ve ever wondered what a multimillionaire’s personal library looks like, look no further than the Morgan Library & Museum. Spread among three buildings once owned by financier J.P. Morgan, this Madison Avenue landmark includes galleries, libraries, a performance hall, and, of course, Morgan’s private book collection. Trust us, the library is worth the hype, with gold decorations, fresco-covered ceilings, and three floors of bookshelves—some connected by secret passageways.

Stuttgart City Library, Germany

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Stuttgart City Library, Germany

Situated in a concrete cube in the heart of southern Germany, this isn’t your average library. The main attraction—a five-story reading room shaped like an upside-down pyramid—looks more like an M.C. Escher drawing than a library, until you notice the hundreds of thousands of neatly stacked books, that is. Cozy? Not really. Beautiful? You bet.

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Cardiff Central Library, Wales

The Welsh capital has a long history of supporting libraries: Its first one was built in 1861, mostly with public money. The latest incarnation, completed in 2009, is patterned with tall, thin panels of blue, black, and green glass designed to resemble the spines of books. A steel sculpture called Alliance, which represents Cardiff’s journey from past to present, sits in front of the library. At night, the sculpture glows as words in Welsh and English are projected on it.

Trinity College Library

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Trinity College Library, Dublin

Dublin’s Trinity College houses the Book of Kells, a ninth-century manuscript penned by monks in amazingly intricate fonts and illustrations. Each page is like its own work of art. When you’re done perusing the famous tome, pay a visit to the library’s Long Room; staring down the 200-foot-long hallway stacked with 200,000 old books might just give you chills.

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Beitou Public Library, Taiwan

As much as we love them, printed books may not be the most eco-friendly things in the world. But everything else about the Beitou Public Library in Taipei, Taiwan, is ultra-green, thanks to a design meant to keep energy and water consumption at a minimum. The two-story wooden building’s slanted roof almost makes the library look like it’s winking at you. There are balconies along the sides, too, complete with rocking chairs where you can curl up with your favorite novel.

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Vennesla Library and Culture House, Norway

Located near the southernmost tip of Norway, Vennesla’s library is more than a collection of books—it’s a city cultural center and meeting place. The building hosts a coffee shop, open meeting spaces, classrooms for adult education courses, and a cinema. The long, thin wooden beams on the library’s interior were designed to look like the inside of a whale.

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Biblioteca Vasconcelos, Mexico City

Biblioteca Vasconcelos is truly something to behold. Inside, you’ll find more than 470,000 books stacked in hanging shelves, with curious details like see-through floors and a white whale skeleton on display. Outside, the 820-foot building (made of concrete, steel, and glass) sits in the middle of a lush botanical garden containing flora native to Mexico. So if you’re looking for a little nature with your culture, you know where to go.

Image may contain: Water, Outdoors, and Nature

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Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Egypt

Alexandria was once home to the most famous library in the world. Now, Egypt pays homage to its biblio-heritage with this sleek granite building. The circular structure, designed by Norwegian firm Snøhetta, is covered in carvings done by local artists and sits next to a large reflecting pool. Although there are plenty of books in three languages (Arabic, French, and English), there are also museums, a planetarium, and a lab dedicated to restoring and preserving ancient manuscripts.

State Library of South Australia, Adelaide

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State Library of South Australia, Adelaide

This library is a study in contrasts. On the outside, it’s an ultramodern glass box, but the inside of the building looks like it could have been a set on a Harry Potter movie. Located in Adelaide, this library places particular emphasis on Australian history, works by indigenous authors, and maps. For modernists, the library maintains a Flickr account where people can submit their own images of South Australian life.

Richard J. Riordan Central Library, Los Angeles

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Richard J. Riordan Central Library, Los Angeles

The Central Library is one of downtown Los Angeles’s most significant buildings. On the outside, it’s a prominent example of Art Deco design, but on the inside, there’s an elegant rotunda whose centerpiece is a bronze chandelier, a sweeping staircase that used to lead to the card catalogues (everything’s digitized now, of course), and decorative stencils depicting important moments in California history.

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