If you’re a bookworm with a penchant for exquisite architecture, you likely already know that Europe has some of the world’s finest libraries.: a treasure trove of incredible spaces dedicated to the written word. From centuries-old monastery libraries filled with lovingly tended manuscripts and superb works of art, to modern, light-filled marvels of glass and steel, these are ten of Europe’s most beautiful libraries, each one a dazzling monument to the love of books:
The world’s oldest and largest monastery library is located within the walls of a Benedictine monastery in the Austrian town of Admont. Construction of the library began during the Middle Ages and was completed in 1776 – today it stands as a masterpiece of Baroque architecture that contains around 70,000 of the abbey’s total collection of 200,000 books, along with more than 2,300 ancient manuscripts, booklets and other printed materials. The 70-metre-long gallery is lined with double-height bookshelves in white and gold, illuminated by 48 windows and decorated with intricately carved wooden reliefs. The library is crowned by a ceiling of seven cupolas, each painted with spectacular frescoes that portray the stages of human knowledge.
Join a guided tour, take a self-guided audio tour or check for the next special event – ‘library at night’ and children’s tours take place regularly but must be booked in advance. Beyond the walls of the monastery, the town of Admont lies just a stone’s throw from Gesäuse National Park: an area of outstanding natural beauty that is renowned as a popular destination for hiking and river rafting.
Even in a city that’s renowned for its spectacular architecture, Prague’s Strahov Library is an absolute standout, containing one of Europe’s extensive collections of ancient literary works. Housed within the 12th-century Strahov Monastery, the oldest part of the library is the opulently decorated Theological Hall which is adorned with intricately painted ceiling frescoes and contains more than 18,000 volumes. The neighbouring Philosophical Hall has an ornate Rococo design, and houses a remarkable collection of ancient manuscripts and books, including the Strahov Evangeliary, a precious 9th-century illuminated manuscript.
Be sure to allow plenty of time to explore the monastery’s other delights, which include the Strahov Picture library and the delightful Museum of Miniatures. The library’s serene location atop Petřín Hill, across the Charles Bridge from Prague’s Old Town, is a wonderful spot from which you can enjoy breathtaking panoramic views over the city.
Switzerland’s Abbey of Saint Gall is a UNESCO World Heritage site that was founded in the 8th century on the site of an even older hermitage. It is prized as one of the oldest and largest monastery libraries in the world, with a collective of more than 170,000 books and manuscripts. However, even if you’re the most avid book lover, you’re likely to be distracted by the incredible beauty of the library’s interior. Its State Hall, constructed in the 18th century in a Baroque, Rococo-style of lavish white and gold stucco, features meticulously carved wooden bookshelves and incredible ceiling frescoes that depict the history of the Abbey and its namesake, Saint Gallen.
Along with the Abbey Library, entry tickets also provide access to the Abbey’s Vaulted Cellar and Exhibition Space. While you’re in St Gallen, pay a visit to the Textile Museum where you can admire examples of the elaborate embroidery and lacework for which this ancient town is equally renowned.
For a completely different take on library design, head to the German city of Stuttgart, Germany, where the main public library provides a blueprint for libraries of the future. From the exterior, the building seems unremarkable: a minimalist cube that blends in with the surrounding buildings. However, when you step through its front doors, you’ll find yourself in a sleek, white, futuristic atrium dominated by a central fountain that is flooded with natural light from the glass ceiling high above. Five storeys of balconies and staircases encircle the space, with each floor adding another layer of delight for book lovers, while the rooftop terrace delivers sweeping views over the city.
The library is located an easy walk from Stuttgart’s Central Station, where you can join one of the city’s three hop-on, hop-off bus tours, visiting other local highlights such as the Mercedes-Benz Museum, the Linden Museum. The most unusual stop is the Schweinemuseum (“Pig Museum”) – an entertaining collection of exhibits dedicated entirely to pigs.
Trinity College’s Old Library in Dublin is one of the finest university libraries in the world. It’s home to important Irish literary works such as the Book of Kells: an illuminated manuscript and Celtic Gospel book that is thought to have been created around 800 CE. The library’s main chamber, the Long Room, is a 60-metre long, double-height expanse of dark, polished wood and vaulted ceilings, lined with rows of bookcases and adorned with carved plinths holding marble busts of famous philosophers, writers and scholars.
A major redevelopment process is currently underway to ensure that the library and its collection are preserved for the enjoyment of future generations. As a result, its collection containing more than 200,000 volumes of rare and ancient books has been temporarily removed from the shelves, but the library itself is still open to the public – we recommend visiting as part of a guided tour of the University, as this will also allow you to view the ancient, illuminated manuscript known as the Book of Kells. Be sure to look out for the 15th-century Brian Boru Celtic harp, which appears on the Irish coat of arms. It also appears on Ireland’s most iconic logo, which you’re sure to recognise when touring Dublin’s Guinness Storehouse.
Vienna’s Austrian National Library is Austria’s largest, containing more than three million printed works including manuscripts, books, maps and musical scores. Its Grand Hall measures almost 80 metres long and 30 metres wide, and features ornate marble floors and intricately painted ceiling frescoes. It is housed within the immense Hofburg Imperial Palace, which was the Imperial residence of Austria’s ruling Habsburg dynasty for hundreds of years.
There are five museums within the Hofburg Palace, including the Papyrus Museum and the Globe Museum, where you’ll find a collection of more than 600 globes, armillary spheres, planetary globes and assorted astronomical instruments. A Vienna Pass is a great way to see these and many more of Vienna’s greatest sights, including Schönbrunn Zoo and the Natural History Museum, as well as offering unlimited use of the hop-on, hop-off buses for the duration of the pass.
Located in the small town of Mafra, around 40 kilometres northwest of Lisbon, the expansive Palace of Mafra remains something of a hidden gem despite its UNESCO World Heritage status. As well as containing royal apartments, a basilica, a convent and a school of sculpture, the palace features an incredible library that houses more than 36,000 leather-bound books on ornately carved, Rococo-style bookshelves. A magnificent, tiled floor of rose, white and grey marble stretches the full 88-metre length of the space, but what makes this library truly unique is the preferred method of book preservation. Every night, after the library has closed, a colony of bats emerges from the shadows to hunt for the moths and insects that would otherwise damage the precious collection of books; library staff must spend the first part of each day cleaning up the after-effects of the bats’ nocturnal feast.
The Lisboa Card offers free access to the Palace of Mafra and many more of Lisbon’s most popular attractions, including Jerónimos Monastery, the Royal Treasury Museum and Belém Tower. It also provides unlimited free travel on the city’s network of buses, metro and trams.
In the heart of Copenhagen, the Royal Library is an architectural marvel of sleek black granite on the outside and open, light-filled spaces on the inside. Nicknamed the Black Diamond, it’s actually an extension of the original Royal Danish Library – together, the two spaces house one of the largest collections in Europe. The Black Diamond’s modern design is in stark contrast to its classical neighbours on Slotsholmen (Castle Islet), which include Christiansborg Palace and the Stock Exchange. The central atrium features expansive glass windows that flood the interior with natural light and provide incredible views of the surrounding canal, best enjoyed by the comfortable reading rooms on every floor.
Be sure to check out what’s on at the library during your time in Copenhagen, as it’s a popular venue for cultural and historical exhibitions as well as concerts and theatrical performances. The library is within walking distance of many of Copenhagen’s most popular historic sights, as well as the bars and cafes that line the Nyhavn.
Tucked away in a small town in southern Norway, the award-winning Vennesla Library is the epitome of Scandinavian design. Its innovative interior layout features large wooden arches in pale timber that draw their inspiration from the ribs of a whale skeleton: they curve from ceiling to floor to provide both seating for visitors and shelving for books. The effect is a warm, inviting atmosphere – an inviting and sustainable reading space that also contains meeting spaces and a cinema while providing a community hub for the town.
Southern Norway, known locally as Sørlandet, is still somewhat off the beaten track for international visitors, but locals refer to it lovingly as the Norwegian Riviera. It’s a spectacular coastal haven of scenic fishing villages and rocky islands, as well as the location for the Northern Europe’s first underwater restaurant: the aptly named, Under.
The Royal Library of the Monastery of El Escorial is located within the palace of El Escorial, which was constructed during the 16th century at the order of King Phillip II of Spain. It holds over 40,000 volumes including rare manuscripts, illuminated texts, and priceless early printed books, as well as maps, instruments of scientific learning, ornate globes and astrolabes. The library’s stunning reading room is adorned with ornate frescoes and intricate wooden bookshelves that will transport you to a different time.
The Palace itself is an architectural marvel of Renaissance and Gothic styles, and contains an extensive collection of artworks from masters such as El Greco, Titian, and Velázquez. Located just 45 kilometres outside Madrid, the Palace’s beautiful gardens and courtyards offer spectacular views of the surrounding countryside and the nearby Guadarrama Mountains, offering a peaceful escape from the city.
Whether you’re drawn to the grandeur of a Baroque masterpiece or the pared-back elegance of a contemporary design, Europe’s finest libraries offer something special for every book lover. Ask your personal travel manager for tips on ensuring that your next holiday is a real page-turner.