A bibliophile’s dream: my visit to Porto’s enchanting Livraria Lello

Livraria Lello bookstore in Porto Portugal

Since my earliest days as a reader, books have been a near constant and cherished companion of mine. When I found myself in Portugal in February I finally got the opportunity to visit a very special bookstore that has been on my ‘bucket list’ for years: the incredible Livraria Lello in Porto. (Livraria is the Portuguese word for bookstore.)

Cracking open a new book to take in the clean scent of its pages or entering a bookstore and realizing all the potential it holds are simple pleasures of mine. It makes sense, then, that I am naturally drawn to seek out bookstores when I travel, the more unique and beautiful, the better. I feel energized and inspired by the books that a shop chooses to curate. People-watching other visitors is a bonus. And I never leave empty handed.

With a reputation for being the most beautiful bookstore in the world, Livraria Lello is a must for anyone who loves books and appreciates architecture.

A bookstore as a popular tourist destination?

More than a million people visit Lello, annually, with around 5,000 visitors per day during peak season. In fact, it has become such an attraction the shop has begun selling admission tickets, timed at 30-minute intervals to help manage the number of visitors in the store at any one time. You can buy vouchers at the entrance or online as I did on my mobile as I was waiting outside in line.

Lello has an extensive collection of Portuguese and international books, with volumes reaching up to the ceiling on the wooden bookshelves. The collection includes rare and antique books, as well as modern titles in various languages like English, Spanish, Italian, and Russian to cater to the international tourist crowd.

And it does a brisk business: In 2018 it was selling over 1,000 books per day on average.

Stunning architectural features and fanciful staircase

Livraria Lello was founded in 1906 by the Lello brothers. Its stunning neo-gothic and art nouveau design has been captivating visitors like me ever since. One of its most distinguishing features is the large stained-glass skylight adorned with the Lello motto, “Honour in Work,” which dominates at the top of the stairs.

Stained glass ceiling in Lello bookstore Porto

But the bookstore’s most photographed spot, and the reason that I have wanted to visit Lello for so long, is undoubtedly the magnificent, curving staircase that connects the two floors. The staircase is straight out of a Gothic fairy tale. It features intricate woodwork and deeply cushioned red carpeting. It is truly magical.

The bottom of the staircase is located in the middle of the main floor. As you climb it splits into two ancillary stairways that ascend and curl over your head. Once at the top there is a spectacular view of thousands of books, wall to ceiling, in a collection that has few rivals among bookstores.

An inspiration for Harry Potter?

Livraria Lello gained international fame as many believe it to be the inspiration for the Hogwarts Library in the Harry Potter series. Fans of the books will recognize the winding staircase and ornate bookshelves which have been replicated in the movies. Some say that the bookstore’s stunning architecture inspired J.K. Rowling, who lived and worked in Porto as an English teacher for a time.

There are certainly similarities between the bookstore’s staircase and the moving staircase in Hogwarts, and the store’s interior design and the Flourish and Blotts bookstore in the series. But even if you’re not a fan of Harry Potter, Livraria Lello is an experience that will transport you to another world as soon as you enter.

And books, of course

In addition to managing the number of visitors inside at one time, Lello has another reason for its voucher system: to help achieve its mission to transform visitors into readers.

Lello has a vast collection of Portuguese and international books, as well as a special section for rare and antique volumes, reaching up to the ceilings on the wooden bookshelves.

Sky view of book cases at Lelllo library in Porto Portugal

In 2019, Lello purchased 49 rare books, manuscripts, and letters by renowned Portuguese authors like Fernando Pessoa, José Saramago, and Almada Negreiros at an auction. This was part of their efforts to build a significant literary legacy of national authors and rare editions.

Don’t mistake Lello as a dusty old museum; it is constantly updating its raison d’etre.  According to Lello’s website: “Since 1906, our daily routine has been made up of dreams and achieving them. We are bold and work according to the same value. We are proud of what we do and, just like Pessoa, yearn to set off down new paths. We place the book at the centre of all our attentions and actions…”

Naturally, I couldn’t leave this remarkable bookstore store empty-handed. My challenge was to limit the number of books I bought as I didn’t have much room in my luggage.

Visiting Livraria Lello: Good to know before you go

If you’re planning to visit Livraria Lello, here are some helpful tips that will save you time and make your visit more enjoyable.

Location and Accessibility

Livraria Lello is located in the heart of Porto, Portugal at Rua das Carmelitas 144.  It’s easy to find. Since parking can be a challenge, it’s best to take public transportation or walk, if possible. The nearest metro station is Aliados, about a 10-minute walk away. The bookstore is also accessible for people with disabilities. There is a ramp at the entrance, and the staff are happy to assist visitors who need help.

Tickets and Hours

Unlike most bookstores, you will need a voucher/ticket to enter Livraria Lello. They are sold at the entrance, or you can purchase them online. The price of the ticket is deducted from the cost of books you purchase.

Livraria Lello is open every day from 9 am to 7:30 pm.  Even during my visit in February, considered low season for European travel, the bookstore was swarming with visitors. In future, I would be more strategic in my timing. I would plan to arrive early in the morning or in the evening to avoid such crowds. Don’t let this put you off, however. It lends a certain excitement to the experience. My visit to Livraria Lello was definitely a highlight of my time in Porto.

You can find more information about the bookstore by visiting the Livraria Lello website.

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