20 of the world’s most beautiful libraries

1. Admont Abbey Library, Austria

Admont Abbey Library (Alamy)

There is little that’s understated about the Benedictine abbey at Admont, 100km or so east of Salzburg. Museums stud the late-Baroque complex, showcasing Austrian art, religious artefacts and a surprisingly expansive natural-history collection. But the star of the show is the largest monastery library in the world. The seven vaulted domes of its 70m-long hall are adorned with celestial frescoes painted in 1776 by the then 80-year-old Bartolomeo Altomonte. Marble was used with lavish abandon, and seemingly every detail gleams gold, lending even the bookcases a Rococo flourish. Day visitors can take guided tours, peeking behind secret doors masked by dummy book spines, gazing at the 70,000 volumes on display and listening to tales of how all this grandeur was so nearly lost in the 1865 fire that devastated much of the monastery

2. Tianjin Binhai Library, Hebei Province, China

Tianjin Binhai Library (Alamy)

When is a library not a library? Designed and built in three years, practicality was thrown out of the window in favour of sci-fi grandeur at this marvel an hour’s train ride south-east of Beijing. The heart of its central hall is a giant white sphere around which undulating walls ripple skyward, textured like an enormous fingerprint bleached white. Its shelves rise six storeys, yet such was the speed of its build (and due to some strange town-planning quirks) that the upper shelves are inaccessible, with the book spines merely printed on; even volumes on lower levels are largely for show. The readable book collection lies hidden on the first- and second-floor reading rooms. But despite the deception – and social-media backlash when it opened in 2017 – it’s undeniably a true spectacle.

3. Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Alexandria, Egypt

Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Alamy)

Few haven’t heard of the Great Library of Alexandria, which was said to have contained all the wisdom of the ancient world. Likely established during Pharaoh Ptolemy I Soter’s reign (323–285BC), its destruction robbed us of untold knowledge. But, more than 2,000 years after fires lit by Julius Caesar’s forces sparked its decline, a successor appeared. Inaugurated in 2009, the modern Bibliotheca Alexandrina is a story in itself. The curved facade is made from huge granite slabs etched with languages spanning some 10,000 years, and a tilted roof shades its collection of some eight million books. Though its design bears little resemblance to descriptions of its predecessor, the tiered reading room echoes the amphitheatres of old. Tours in English (Saturday–Thursday) tell the stories of both libraries.

4. The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, USA

The Morgan Library & Museum (Alamy)

John Pierpont (JP) Morgan was a financial titan during the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, when unabashed displays of wealth were in fashion. Having amassed an array of beautiful books and manuscripts, he purchased a site on Madison Avenue on which to build a mansion and library housing his collection. Today, it includes one of the finest surviving copies of the original American Declaration of Independence, a manuscript of John Milton’s Paradise Lost and a handwritten score by Mozart. The building, completed in 1906, is every inch the rich man’s fantasy: an ersatz palazzo with walls draped in Renaissance art and a rotunda decorated with Raphael-inspired designs. A public institution since 1924, the expanded museum now incorporates Morgan’s mansion, and hosts exhibitions and concerts.

5. Piccolomini Library, Siena, Italy

Piccolomini Library (Shutterstock)

The black-and-white-striped stonework of Siena Cathedral is instantly recognisable. Inside, its vaulted ceiling is speckled with golden stars. But the brightest star here is the adjoining Piccolomini Library, commissioned in 1492 to house the book collection of the 15th-century Pope Pius II. Though few of his original volumes remain here – aside from some extraordinary illuminated manuscripts – Pinturicchio’s magnificent ten-fresco cycle depicting the life of the pontiff dazzles. It’s reputed to have been partly designed in the late 15th century by a young Raphael, who by tradition appears in one image. Pius II died of fever in 1464 while trying (and failing) to mount a crusade, but his story lives on in this incredible library.

6. Sainte-Geneviève Library, Paris, France

Sainte-Geneviève Library (Alamy)

French architect Henri Labrouste believed that buildings should reflect their origins. So, in the mid-19th century, when he was asked to create the first major library in France attached to neither a palace, monastery or school, he turned to its history. Bolstered by booty following the Revolution and Napoleon’s campaigns, the collection – originally a monastic library dating from the ninth century – had long outgrown the former abbey building in which it was housed. Labrouste created a cathedral of learning influenced by the architecture of Rome and Florence, resulting in an eye-catching blend of industrial guts and neo-Gothic grandeur, every bit as impressive as the architect’s other Parisian masterwork, the National Library. Visit on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 4pm for ‘Discovery’ tours (in French; booking required).

7. Strahov Monastery Library, Prague, Czechia

Strahov Monastery Library (Alamy)

Even in Prague, a city blessed with many beautiful buildings, few sights rival that of the Strahov Monastery, home to the largest monastic libary in Czechia. Sadly, today you can steal only a glimpse of its Baroque reading halls through their doors: access is restricted to maintain the atmospheric conditions needed to preserve their delicate frescoes. But you can get a feel for life in the monastery, seeing the old scribing desks at which the monks used to fastidiously copy manuscripts, and the rotating wheels on which texts were compiled. The 18th-century Philosophical Hall has the grander artwork, but pay special attention to the cartouches – part of an early cataloguing system – above the shelves in the older Theological Hall, built in the 1670s. Tickets can be bought on the door.

8. Abbey Library of St Gall, St Gallen, Switzerland

Abbey Library of St Gall (Alamy)

The finely polished walnut and cherry-wood bookcases of the 18th-century library in St Gall Abbey have a hint of a gentlemen’s club about them. But gaze towards the ceiling and the building’s Baroque soul starts to sing. Within crackling, swirling stucco frames beneath its domes spread frescoes as dramatic as any in Europe. The book collection – the largest in Switzerland – is no less impressive. Only a fraction of its 170,000 volumes are on display, with treasures including manuscripts dating back to the mid-eighth century when this was a hub for monks practising their art in the scriptorium. Among the curiosities is a 2,700-year-old Egyptian mummy brought to St Gallen in the 19th century. Daily guided tours visit the library; changing exhibitions are hosted in the vaulted cellar.

9. Royal Portuguese Reading Room, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Royal Portuguese Reading Room (Alamy)

A literal translation of the name of this grandiose library is the Royal Portuguese Cabinet of Reading, which better evokes its astonishing appearance. A sense of nostalgia for the old country pervades the building, its facade reputedly inspired by Lisbon’s Jerónimos Monastery. That’s perhaps unsurprising: it was created in 1837, at the dawn of Brazil’s independence, by Portuguese immigrants wanting to preserve memories of home. What they built was spectacular: three storeys of dark-wood shelves soar up towards a stained-glass dome, flanked by dusky blue walls edged with gold detail. The library’s collection of Portuguese texts – the largest outside the home country – approaches 400,000 items including manuscripts, folios and books. It’s amazing what a little homesickness can elicit.

10. Royal Library of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain

Royal Library of San Lorenzo de El Escorial (Alamy)

The Spanish have an expression, ‘La obra de El Escorial’ (The work of El Escorial), for something that takes a long time to finish. No wonder: the palace, monastery, tomb, basilica and university complex at El Escorial, commissioned by King Phillip II in 1563, took 21 years to complete, eventually comprising the world’s largest Renaissance building. Tours explore treasures including a fine collection of Spanish Masters. But it’s the palace library, completed in 1584, that really catches the eye. It’s packed with globes, armillary spheres, thousands of handwritten manuscripts and some 40,000 books. The walls are decorated with magnificent frescoes and other works designed to inspire appreciation of the arts; however, after just a few minutes here, you’ll need little prompting.

11. Seattle Central Library, Washington, USA

Seattle Central Library (Alamy)

In approaching the design of Seattle’s Central Library, co-architect Rem Koolhaas examined how such places had changed by the turn of the 21st century. No longer were they dusty repositories lined with shelves, now hosting lectures and classes, serving communities seeking not just books but all forms of information. The resulting building – resembling a tilting pile of glassy books – reflects this idea. Audio and self-guided tours explore its design, including the central Books Spiral, its shelves twisting up through the floors via ramps. The show-stopper is the lobby ‘living room’, in which angled walls of cross-hatched windows seem to lean on readers below. The library welcomes more than 2 million visitors a year – about the same as Mount Rushmore – suggesting Koolhaas was onto something.

12. Rampur Raza Library, Uttar Pradesh, India

Rampur Raza Library (Shutterstock)

Eight turmeric- and saffron-coloured minarets flank the Hamid Manzil, a dazzling palace built in the early 20th century within Rampur Fort, about 180km east of Delhi. The library’s 250-year-old book collection was seeded long before the building was dreamed up, amassed by a succession of scholarly nawabs (state rulers) from the late 18th century. It survived pillaging during the British Raj, when many of India’s treasures were looted or scattered to the breeze, and was moved to its current location in the palace as recently as 1957. Visitors can admire some of its 17,000 prized Indo-Islamic manuscripts, 60,000 printed books, paintings and diverse artefacts, together comprising a resource unlike any other found in India or elsewhere.

13. Bishan Public Library, Singapore

Bishan Public Library (Alamy)

What better inspiration for a public library in Singapore, the ‘Garden City’, than a treehouse? This was the design spark behind Bishan Public Library, from which cantilevered protrusions of coloured glass jut like Cubist branches. Visitors to these pods –quiet spaces for reading or working – dangle above the street, much as a child might clamber up through a tree canopy to find a bit of peace. The design metaphor even extends to the natural light that filters through the atrium and into each of the rooms, like dappled sunshine leaching through boughs down to the forest floor. In a city of remarkable green spaces, this deconstructed treehouse is still a unique treat – surrounded by urban bustle, yet also an oasis of calm completely removed from it.

14. George Peabody Library, Baltimore, USA

George Peabody Library (Alamy)

Size can be hard to gauge from a picture alone. It’s only when standing on the monochrome marble floor of its soaring atrium that you understand the scale of the George Peabody Library, established in 1866. Greco-Roman-revival columns soar to the skies, detailed in gold leaf. Throw back your head to admire five tiers of cast-iron balconies glinting in the light; peer even higher to spy the pièce de résistance – the atrium’s 18m-high skylight that runs the length of the interior, bathing it in a buttery glow. The size is overwhelming, befitting the largesse of one of America’s earliest philanthropists, George Peabody, who ploughed his banking wealth into the arts. The library’s collection of some 300,000 volumes contains 18th- and 19th-century treasures such as first editions of works by Poe, Hawthorne and Melville, yet remains free to explore, as its founder wished.

15. Wiblingen Abbey Library, Ulm, Germany

Wiblingen Abbey Library (Alamy)

Germany isn’t short on fairy tales, yet even the Brothers Grimm would struggle to dream up the library in Wiblingen Abbey. Its Rococo exuberance is like something from the imagination of ‘Mad’ King Ludwig – and that was rather the point. In 1740, the abbot wanted a building that would inspire his monks. The resulting 23m-long hall of frescoes, painted statues and rose-pink and blue highlights certainly sets the eyes dancing – you could almost be in a royal palace. Plans to rebuild the entire abbey, by then very wealthy, in grand Baroque style ebbed away during the 18th century, and such ambitions were finally sacrificed to the Napoleonic Wars, along with much of its 15,000-strong book collection. Today, the library provides a glimpse of how that re-imagined abbey might have looked.

16. The Black Diamond, Copenhagen, Denmark

The Black Diamond (Alamy)

The largest library collection in Scandinavia is split between two buildings in Copenhagen that could scarcely be less alike. One is red-brick and stolidly early 20th century, the other seemingly dropped from outer space onto the waterfront in 1999. This latter extension to the Royal Danish Library, clad in 2,500 sqm of obsidian-black polished granite, is known semi-officially as The Black Diamond. Its interior is no less striking: visitors slide between the two buildings on a long escalator and, entering the lending section, pass beneath a 210 sqm ceiling fresco resembling a cross-section of fossil-studded rock. In the basement you’ll also find the excellent National Museum of Photography, its collection including Danish and other images captured since 1839.

17. Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, Toronto, Canada

Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library (Alamy)

Though its Brutalist concrete exterior isn’t to everyone’s taste, the interior of the building that houses the rare and special collection of Toronto University is all ‘wow’. A wall of bookcases sky-rockets to the liquorice-black-and-red ceiling, showcasing an 800,000-strong collection. With a wide selection of texts on philosophy, theology and the history of science and medicine, its highlights include a 1623 Shakespeare First Folio and some astonishing glimpses of antiquity. As well as hundreds of early manuscripts, the oldest piece of writing here takes the form of a Sumerian cuneiform tablet from Ur, created around 1789 BC. Visitors can request to see any item, though regular exhibitions offer an easier way to explore this dense and incredible resource.

18. Trinity College Library, Dublin, Republic of Ireland

Trinity College Library (Alamy)

Serving the university founded in 1592, Ireland’s largest library has strong Hogwarts vibes. At its centre stands the Long Room, an early 18th-century hall replete with chocolate-dark wood, vaulted ceilings and blank-eyed marble busts of history’s sternest thinkers. It also houses some of Ireland’s finest treasures, including the Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript from the turn of the ninth century that survived Viking raids, theft and the unwelcome attentions of Oliver Cromwell. Other gems include the medieval ‘Brian Boru’ harp, oldest of its kind in Ireland. Though not the legendary instrument traded by that Irish king’s son to the pope in exchange for absolution for his brother’s murder, it was the model for the Guinness logo.

19. National Palace of Mafra Library, Portugal

National Palace of Mafra Library (Alamy)

This Rococo library is the pride of Mafra Palace, an overwrought jewel polished with ill-gotten wealth prised from Brazil by the ‘Portuguese Sun King’ Dom João V. When it was commissioned in the mid-18th century, however, one imagines that ‘bat-infested’ wasn’t a phrase included in the specs. No one knows how long a colony of flitting mammals has roosted in the library’s 84m-long barrel-vaulted interior, but eviction hasn’t been a priority. In fact, the bats feed on bookworms and moths that pose a bigger threat to the library’s 30,000 or so leather-bound volumes, some filled with hand-stitched manuscripts dating back to the 14th century. At night, sheets are laid out to protect the interior from guano; in the morning, the marble floor is polished anew in time for palace tours, while its guardians slumber unseen.

20. State Library of South Australia, Adelaide, Australia

State Library of South Australia (Alamy)

Curiously, the story of this library perhaps pre-dates even the founding of South Australia. Before leaving England for the long voyage south in 1836, a group of settlers gathered the makings of a subscription library, which survived the journey to Australia – only to tumble into a river upon arrival. Having been rescued, dried out and given a home on the city’s North Terrace, it shared this location with the state’s museum and art collections until these were decanted into neighbouring buildings. The library expanded, too, but its highpoint remains the 1884 Mortlock Wing (pictured), built in French Renaissance style with an interior reflecting the Victorian passion for iron and dark wood. Tours, exhibitions and lectures are staged in this jewel of the state.