Constance M, A Well-Read Wanderer
The World's Most Beautiful Bookstore: Visiting Livreria Lello in Porto, Portugal
Updated: Mar 9
I’ll say it: you can’t visit Porto without visiting Livreria Lello, one of the world’s most beautiful bookstores. If you do, you’ve certainly missed out. This beautiful Porto bookstore should be on every literary travel bucket list.
Livreria Lello is one of the most famous bookstores in the world for two reasons: (1) the common claim that it inspired Harry Potter author JK Rowling and the Hogwarts library (more on that later); and (2) that it’s found on countless lists of the world’s most beautiful bookstores.
I’d be lying if I said a visit to this unique bookstore wasn’t a factor when I decided to spend a long weekend trip in Porto, Portugal. I do love me some literary travel.
Porto is known as Portugal’s “second city,” as in, the second most important city after the capitol, Lisbon. Unsurprisingly, it has been important throughout Portugal as a well-positioned port city for trade. On this theme, Porto (or Oporto) is also where we get Port wine and the country’s name of Portugal. While Porto sometimes gets overlooked by tourists who visit Lisbon and the Algarve region further South, it’s well worth taking a few days to explore Porto, especially since it means getting to visit one of the world’s most beautiful bookstores.
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As with any of my blog posts, this post may contain affiliate links. This means at no additional cost to you, shopping from these links may generate small commissions that support the operations of this blog. But my readers know that I will NEVER push a product just to earn a penny.
Also, when buying books I always recommend trying to order from Bookshop.org so profits go to indie bookstores instead of giant corporations.
A brief history of Livreria Lello
Livreria Lello was first opened in 1881 by the Lello brothers, who wanted to bring some cultural commerce to the bustling trade town of Porto. The iconic building we know it as today was built and opened twenty-five years later in 1906. Its opening was accompanied with a lot of fanfare in Porto and many a celebrity guest.
Engineer Francisco Xavier Esteves designed the gorgeous bookshop, and he was neither architect nor designer, which kind of makes it all the more incredible. Esteves’s masterpiece of Livreria Lello didn’t take him far from his alma mater, as it’s located just across the street from the University of Porto.
The most famous and striking element of the Livreria Lello’s design is the unique, floating staircase in the center of the bookstore connecting the ground floor with the upper level of bookshelves. The Livreria Lello staircase has its own interesting history. Despite its all-wood look, it was actually made in concrete, giving it stability despite its light, floating appearance.
The staircase is also known for its eye-catching crimson color, but did you know that the red was actually a mistake? The original staircase was all brown, but during restoration work in the 1990s, the builder accidentally painted it red (not sure how that happens, but okay). Luckily for that builder, those in charge of Livreria Lello’s restoration loved the bright color and have kept it ever since.
Travel tip: When it comes to travel guidebooks for European destinations, I always check out the Rick Steves book for the country I'm visiting.
Did Livreria Lello really inspire JK Rowling?
Let’s get to the question that everyone keeps asking: Livreria Lello is known as the Harry Potter bookstore, but did the magical Livreria Lello really inspire the Hogwarts library?
It’s true that Harry Potter author JK Rowling lived in Porto, Portugal in the early 1990s when she was a young adult. She moved there after her mother’s death to teach English as a Second Language. During JK Rowling’s time in Porto, she taught classes at night and worked on her first draft of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s (Sorcerer’s) Stone by day. She also fell in love with a Portuguese journalist, and they married and had a child, Jessica.
Rowling’s first husband was controlling and abusive. Her first Harry Potter manuscript became a hostage in his hands to prevent her from leaving him. Rowling has talked about how she had to sneak herself, her daughter, and her manuscript out of the house and the country when she finally left him in 1993.
“And yet the manuscript kept growing. I’d continue to write. In fact, he knew what that manuscript meant to me because at one point he took the manuscript and hid it and that was his hostage.”
JK Rowling on her first marriage
So, knowing that Rowling did live and write in Porto, did Livreria Lello serve as inspiration for the magical Hogwarts library, or perhaps Flourish and Blotts, the bookshop in Diagon Alley? Sorry to disappoint, but the answer is no. Jo Rowling revealed on Twitter that she never visited this Porto bookstore while living there.
She has confirmed, however, having written in the Majestic Cafe in Porto, which she calls “the most beautiful cafe [she] ever wrote in.”
If you’re interested in more spots that may or may not have inspired JK Rowling in Porto, hang out at the nearby University of Porto and see if you spot a Hogwarts student. The University of Porto students have worn a black robe uniform for 500 years, and some claim this look inspired the Hogwarts uniform.
JK Rowling has also acknowledged that the inspiration for the name Salazar Slytherin, one of the founders of Hogwarts, came from fascist dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, who ruled Portugal from 1932-1968.
If you’re interested in other Harry Potter sites in Porto, or rather, what sites people claim may have consciously or unconsciously inspired JK Rowling in writing her Harry Potter series, there are a number of walking tours you can book during your visit to Porto. I opted for a self-guided tour, so I can't personally attest to any of these, but I'm sharing for those of you who like to minimize the amount of planning you have to do for your Porto visit.
Related: If you enjoy visiting beautiful bookstores on your travels, check out my list of amazing Amsterdam bookstores.
What’s it like visiting Livreria Lello?
Okay, so Livreria Lello may not have inspired JK Rowling’s Hogwarts library. Once you get over that disappointment, let’s talk about why this gorgeous Porto bookstore is absolutely still worth a visit.
Livreria Lello’s humble exterior belies its over-the-top, breathtaking interior. The flowing, floating staircase commands the center of the bookstore, but everywhere you look is a feast for the eyes, from the dark wood bookshelves that run floor to ceiling, to the beautiful stained glass ceiling by Samuel Van Krieke that allows a moody sort of light in, to the ornate carvings all around the room, this bookstore is a visual feast for any book lover.
Livreria Lello absolutely deserves its place as one of the world’s most famous bookstores.
The merchandising department has really maximized on this: you'll find merchandise all over Livreria Lello with the moniker "the world's most beautiful bookshop." It's written across tote bags and even their own line of book editions (these editions aren’t cheap, but they can make a fun and unique souvenir from Portugal!).
All that being said, from the moment it opens until the minute it closes, Livreria Lello is CROWDED. As in, keep your elbows in, be ready to side shuffle around people and crane your necks over other visitors to see the books on the shelves kind of crowded. As in, wait in line to jostle amongst a crowd of people going up the famous staircase kind of crowded. As in, don’t expect to take a single photo without hundreds of people in it kind of crowded. As in, there’s a line down the block to get in kind of crowded.
There is no getting around it: this famous Porto bookstore is just plain crowded.
Do the crowds detract from the magic of this beautiful bookstore? Honestly, yes. I’d be lying to say it doesn’t, in the same way that the crowds take away some of the magic at Paris's famous Shakespeare and Company Bookstore. But it is still breathtakingly beautiful and a once in a lifetime literary travel experience to visit Livreria Lello. I recommend it to any book lover in Porto.
Tips for Visiting Livreria Lello
My first tip for visiting Livreria Lello is to manage your expectations. No matter how well you plan, you will be sharing this Porto bookstore with a crowd of other people. That also means your pictures will have lots of people in them, so if you're visiting to get a perfect instagrammable shot, you may be better off buying a stock photo online.
Second, buy your tickets for Livreria Lello online. Online tickets cost 5 euro, which can then be applied toward the purchase of anything in the shop. This is WORTH it, because there are two lines outside: one for ticket holders, and one for everyone else. With your pre-booked ticket to Livreria Lello you can breeze past those chumps in the other line like the VIP you really are and get inside the bookstore with much less wait time.
If you’re not pre-booking your tickets, check google maps to see the busiest times, because it’s not always what you’d think. For example, I visited on a Saturday evening one hour before closing, and while the store was packed with people, the line was relatively short compared to what I saw the following Monday morning, when the line went down the block.
Note that books aren’t cheap in Livreria Lello, something you could probably predict. The minimum price I saw on most books was 20 euro, and prices increased steeply from there. You can also buy a host of Livreria Lello merchandise, if that’s your kind of thing.
Travel tip: My favorite travel rewards credit card for European travel is the Chase Sapphire Reserve card (I also use the Amex Platinum, but Amex is not widely accepted in Europe). Perks of the Chase Sapphire include access to airport travel lounges, a $300 annual travel credit, free TSA PreCheck or Global Entry, and built-in travel insurance. Points are also worth 50% more when you redeem them for travel.
Where to Stay in Porto
Luckily, Porto is a relatively compact, walkable city (although be prepared for some uphill walks). It’s not difficult to find affordable accommodations in the center of Porto. Portugal is actually notably cheaper than many other Western Europe destinations.
I almost always book my hotels on Hotels.com, because I like their rewards program: after every 10 nights, you get a night free. This applies across hotel chains and even small, locally owned hotels, so you don’t have to be loyal to a particular hotel brand.
Here are a few options at different price points in Porto, or search for your own here:
Hotel Moon & Sun Porto
This is a 4-star Porto hotel for the cost of a 2-star! It's in a great location right next to Clerigo Tower and only a 3-minute walk from Livreria Lello. You'll have great views of Porto from your room or from the rooftop terrace. Guests love it, and it consistently gets outstanding reviews on Google and Hotels.
Cathedral Design Apartments
This is another well-loved 4-star Porto hotel that's nice and easy on the budget at prices less then $100 for many nights. Cathedral Design Apartments are located near the Duoro River, next to Porto Cathedral, and a 10-minute walk to Livreria Lello. This hotel is a great choice for families, because they come with small kitchens, so you can save money by preparing some food on your own.
Is Livreria Lello, the most beautiful bookstore in the world, on your literary travel bucket list? What other beautiful bookstores and libraries should I write about?
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