Constance M, A Well-Read Wanderer
Boekhandel Dominicanen: Europe's unique cathedral bookstore
Should you ever find yourself in the charming college town of Maastricht, Netherlands, googling “bookstores near me,” you will be in for a surprise and an absolute treat: a grand, memorable bookstore housed inside a 13th century gothic cathedral.
Yes, you read that right.
The Boekhandel Dominicanen is one of the most beautiful book stores in the world, not to mention one of the most unique.
The words I uttered upon entering the Boekhandel Dominicanen were, “Well, this is my kind of church.”
It’s an indie bookstore that has it all: atmosphere, taste, and the ultimate treasure for an English speaker book shopping in Europe — English language books.
This has been one of my favorite indie bookstores I’ve visited in Europe, so I put together this visitor’s guide for any traveling book lovers like me.
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Whenever possible, I recommend purchasing books through Bookshop.org, so the sales of books you purchase go directly to independent bookshops.
The cathedral bookstore’s unique history
The Boekhandel Dominicanen in Maastricht has arguably one of the most unique histories of any bookstore in the world.
The gothic cathedral that now houses the indie bookshop was first built in the 13th century by the newly formed Dominican order, Priests of the Catholic Church. Until the end of the 18th century, the site functioned as a monastery for Dominican monks.
In 1794, the building’s use as a monastery came to an end when the French army invaded Maastricht. The city was held under siege for 45 days before capitulating, and France annexed the city. French soldiers reportedly used the former monastery building as a stable for their horses.
In the centuries that followed, the cathedral served an impressively diverse variety of purposes, including:
Bicycle storage shed (can you think of anything more Danish? They love their bikes, and I love them for that!)
In short, this bookstore had already been through a number of lives before becoming the unique bookshop it is today.
In 2005, the church underwent a massive renovation. In 2006, the cathedral bookshop was opened. The conversion from cathedral to bookshop wasn’t without its challenges, but the engineers got creative. When solving the issue of limited floorspace, the engineers designed an awe-inspiring solution: a multi-story, walk-in bookshelf.
At the time of opening, this iconic Maastricht bookstore was owned by a larger chain, which went bankrupt in 2014. Since then, the Boekhandel Dominicanen has operated as an independent bookstore, one certainly worthy of a visit for any book lover in Europe.
Visiting the Boekhandel Dominicanen
The Boekhandel Dominicanen is one of the most unique bookstores I’ve ever visited and deserves a place on any list of the most beautiful bookstores in the world. It's also one of my top recommendations of what to do in Maastricht, Netherlands.
At the Boekhandel Dominicanen you will find three floors of new and used books in Dutch, English, French, and other languages, as well as entire sections selling vinyl records, CDs, DVDs, and gift products.
The main floor children’s section is located in a beautiful alcove and carries books arranged by age and language, all in a dreamy and imaginative atmosphere that will leave any kid feeling inspired to cozy up and read.
The cathedral setting of this cool bookshop is impressive, to say the least. The three-story walk-in bookshelf affords visitors the opportunity to see the gothic architectural details up close and personal, in a way you can’t normally when you visit cathedrals from the ground floor only. You can see the intricacies of the gothic windows at eye level, as well as centuries old frescoes on the ceiling and walls, mere feet away from you on the top floor.
On the northern wall of the bookstore, you can still see a 14th century painting of St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the most famous Dominicans. This fresco is the oldest depiction of the religious icon in Europe.
If you’re someone who likes to take a break from book browsing to have a coffee or tea and start enjoying your reads, this is definitely a bookshop for you. Toward the back of the cathedral bookshop where the quire used to be, there is an in-house coffee shop, complete with an enormous, crucifix-shaped table. You can purchase a hot beverage and enjoy the books you found browsing the unforgettable indie bookshop.
The Boekhandel Dominicanen also hosts weekly events in their coffee shop, including book signings, lectures, musical performances, and more.
Time moves quickly in this bookshop with so much to see and explore. If you are a true bookstore lover, I’d allow yourself two hours here at minimum. Even then, you’ll be surprised how two hours can feel like a few minutes.
After recently visiting the famously beautiful Livreria Lello in Porto, Portugal, I have to say my experience browsing at the Boekhandel Dominicanen was infinitely more pleasant. Though the cathedral bookstore is undeniably and appropriately popular, it was far from crowded. I was able to browse for books comfortably and really enjoy and maximize my time here without fighting my way through crowds. I also found the books to be priced very reasonably, for both new and used. I can't speak to the music prices, as the bookstore closed before I even had a chance to venture to those sections (I told you, time flies!).
Bookish travel tip: The Netherlands is simply one of my favorite places to shop for English language books while in Europe — these amazing Amsterdam bookshops all sell English language books and are worth a visit. Also on my favorites list are the many unique Paris bookstores.
Other info to know about the Boekhandel Dominicanen:
Boekhandel Dominicanen offers free shipping in the Netherlands for new books that meet the 17,50 minimum.
It's open 7 days a week (yes, meaning you can go to book church on Sunday)
Most days from 9-6, with later openings on Sundays and Mondays and stays open late on Thursdays.
The Boekhandel Dominicanen is located next to the Entre Deux shopping center
Travel tip: My favorite travel rewards credit card for European travel has been the Chase Sapphire Rewards card. Visa is widely accepted in Europe, and there are no foreign transaction fees on the card. Some of the travel benefits I love on the Chase Sapphire include free TSA pre check or Global Entry (worth it every time), an annual $200 travel credit, an annual $200 hotel benefit, built-in rental car and trip insurance, and points are worth 50% more when used to book travel. I travel around Europe a LOT, and I end up with many free flights and hotel stays from using my points on my Chase Sapphire.
What else to do in Maastricht
Maastricht, Netherlands is a fun stop if you're roadtripping through the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and/or Germany. Maastricht is also a great day trip or weekend trip from Ramstein or Cologne, Germany. It's also doable as an easy day trip from Brussels, less than 2 hours away.
Here are some other fun activities you can check out while in Maastricht:
Maastricht Cave tours
Underneath Maastricht is an impressive network of caves that date back centuries to when families supplemented their incomes by mining underneath their land for limestone. The elaborate tunnel network has served many purposes during the years, including during both World Wars.
On my guided cave tour of the North Caves, the guide showed us the place in the tunnels that was used as a vault for protecting valuable artwork during World War II, including Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. He also told us of how the tunnels were used in the wars for people fleeing one occupied country for a safer one.
I definitely recommend checking out a cave tour while in Maastricht.
Enjoy a Dutch breakfast
Breakfast is not a significant meal for much of Europe, something that sometimes disappoints Americans who are accustomed to hotel breakfast buffets and going out to brunch. The Netherlands are an exception to this rule, and their breakfast food is unmissable!
There's no shortage of breakfast places in Maastricht, but one I personally loved was So Delicious, which is attached to a bakery. They make all of their pastries and breads in-house and fresh, and you can certainly taste the difference. Everything my group ate here was delicious. They also serve an afternoon high tea. (If you’ve been around here before, you know that I love a good afternoon tea).
City walls and park
If the weather is nice, check out the Maastricht city park (Stadspark). You can see the former bear pit that once housed real bears, a statue of D'Artagnan (à la Alexandre Dumas), and a live animal park. You can also take a walk along the city walls, which have survived for centuries, and visit what's known as Hell's Gate.
3 countries, 1 point
A short drive from Maastricht, you can visit the point at which the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany converge. It also happens to be the highest point of the Netherlands (not hard in a relatively flat country).
There’s a great playground for kids to entertain themselves while parents sit at the adjoining outdoor cafe and enjoy snacks or a drink. You can also pay a few euros to find your way through Europe’s largest labyrinth, complete with dynamic water walls that threaten to soak you if you don’t time your passage correctly.
You can also pay to climb a tower for panoramic views of the adjoining three countries.
Where to stay in Maastricht
I almost always book my hotel stays on Hotels.com. I love that after every 10 nights of stays, you earn a free night, a benefit that’s not restricted to one hotel chain. This allows you to stay at a variety of lodgings, including smaller, locally owned hotels and apart hotels. You can search what’s available in Maastricht here, or read on for my personal recommendation.
This was the best experience I’ve had at a hotel in a long time. Everyone who worked there was so genuinely friendly and helpful. They greeted me upon checkin with a free glass of Prosecco or juice, and throughout the day offered complimentary pastries and even bread and soup and a nightcap in the evenings. In a day when more and more companies are doing the bare minimum, I was so impressed by the team at the Townhouse apartments. Rooms are spacious and clean, and you can reserve a parking spot in a private garage (make sure to call in advance though!).
Is the Boekhandel Dominicanen on your European bookstore bucket list? It should be! What other beautiful bookstores would you like to see me cover on my literary travel blog? Drop the names in the comments, or feel free to send me a message!
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