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Livraria Lello: Portugal’s most celebrated bookshop

September 26, 2016
Group posing for a selfie at the bookshop
the second level of Livraria Lello

View of the bookshop from the second level of Livraria Lello

Is it worthwhile to visit Livraria Lello in Porto? 

Livraria Lello is one of the major tourist attractions in Porto, Portugal, drawing visitors from around the world interested in books, architecture and history. Our recent Viking River cruise of the Douro Valley began in Porto, which gave us the opportunity to visit the city and spend some time there after disembarkation.

This bookstore has often been called one of the world’s most beautiful; the Porto Minister of Culture has classified it as a “monument of public interest.”

In a city that boasts many buildings that are architecturally impressive, this Neo-gothic one is a standout. The Art Nouveau elements on the façade are even more prominent in the interior. The two bold bas-relief figures above the door represent Art and Science.

Neo-Gothic facade of Livraria Lello

Neo-Gothic facade of Livraria Lello

Backstory

One of the oldest bookstores in Portugal, Livraria Lello (which opened in 1906) celebrated its 110th anniversary last January. Two brothers (Jose and Antonio Lello) spearheaded the development of the business, and cemented the bookstore’s central role in Porto’s social and literary circles.

On a more contemporary note, Livraria Lello is said to have inspired JK Rowling, who wrote some of the first notes for Harry Potter there on a napkin. (The author actually lived in Porto for 10 years and married a Portuguese man.) For this reason, the shop is also a mecca for Harry Potter fans who will find many of Rowling’s books on the shelves.

Getting there

Visitors to the bookstore usually have to wait on two lines, three if they decide to make a purchase. First, they’ll need to buy a ticket at the big red kiosk stationed across the street. (Be forewarned: During the busy tourist season, queues tend to be long throughout the day.) Then they move to a ticket holder’s line in front of the store.

The first line starts here, across from the shop

The first line starts here, across from the shop

This ticket system was instituted to control the thousands of people who visit each year. A 3€ per person admission fee is refunded with any purchase made during the visit.

Time tickets can also be purchased online in advance of a visit.

Coveted entry ticket to Livraria Lello

Coveted entry ticket to Livraria Lello

Once inside

The bookstore is visually stunning. The gracious spiral staircase at its center, painted bright red, leads to the balconied second floor. Other interesting architectural details include parquet floors with built in rails for the carts that were used to move books; elaborately carved balusters on the staircase; the colorful stained glass skylight on the ceiling, inscribed with the store’s motto (vecus in labore, meaning “dignity in work”).

Visitors pose on the famous red staircase

Visitors pose on the famous red staircase

Parquet floors with tracks for a bookcart

Parquet floors with tracks for a bookcart

Stopping for a picture on a landing of the famous staircase in Livraria Lello

Stopping for a picture on a landing of the famous staircase in Livraria Lello

Stained glass skylight with the store's motto

Stained glass skylight with the store’s motto

The walls and ornate plaster ceiling are painted to look like carved wood, a technique popular during that period to save money. (This technique was also used in the breathtaking Arab Room at the nearby Palacio da Bolsa).

Intricately painted ceiling at Livraria Lello

Intricately painted ceiling at Livraria Lello

Detail showing the painted plaster almost indistinguishable from wood

Detail showing the painted plaster almost indistinguishable from wood

Most of the books available for sale are printed in Portuguese although English-speaking patrons will find an ample number of selections to choose from, especially in the travel and gastronomy holdings. There are also many books that will appeal to children.

Children's book about the store and its history

Children’s book about the store and its history

The front windows offer striking views of the Clerigos Tower; at the rear of the shop, we noticed a vintage cash register on display.

View of the Clerigos Tower from the front window

View of the Clerigos Tower from the front window

Old cash register at the rear of the shop

Old cash register at the rear of the shop

Bottom line

Our hearts generally flutter when we visit a bookstore so we truly wanted to fall in love with this one. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

When we visited in late September, the bookshop was swarming with tourists taking photos or posing for them. We felt much like the local Portuguese sardines squeezed into those beautiful tins. The store was noisy and it was nearly impossible to look at books, or even to walk comfortably around the store—or up and down the stairs as the crowds jostled us.

Group posing for a selfie at the bookshop

Group posing for a selfie at the bookshop

Backpacked shutterbug capturing the ceiling

Backpacked shutterbug capturing the ceiling

Perhaps our expectations had been askew. Looking at the thousands of Google Images of the bookstore, as well as those in tour guides, the photos appear to have been taken with wide-angle lenses—at rare moments when the store was totally devoid of patrons. In actuality, the interior space was quite small. With no air-conditioning, although the weather outside was relatively temperate, the heat inside was oppressive. As much as we wanted to linger, we couldn’t wait to leave and get a breath of fresh air.

Is it worthwhile to visit this storied bookshop?

View we wish we had seen (Credit: Wikipedia)

View we wish we had seen (Credit: Wikipedia)

We were glad we visited and wound up finding a captivating book about the Douro Valley to purchase as a keepsake of our river cruise. Yes, we caught some pictures to share on this blog, too, almost all of them with people. The letdown was that despite the entrance procedure, crowd control efforts were inconvenient and ineffective, compromising the experience for any book lover.


IF YOU GO

Livraria Lello Porto, das Carmelitas 144, 4050-161 Porto, Portugal

Hours: Monday to Friday, 10-7:30PM, Saturday, 10-7PM, and Sunday 11-7PM.

  • Reply
    Laura
    September 26, 2016 at 8:18 am

    Wow,the staircase is absolutely stunning! Were you able to get a pic of both of you together on it?

    Sounds like this bookstore is more like museum than an actual functioning bookstore. I wonder if you get there early if it’s possible to avoid the crowds? I wouldn’t last long; I don’t like crowds or no AC. Despite the downsides, still an amazing experience to visit!

  • Reply
    Josie
    September 30, 2016 at 3:21 am

    Hi Irene,

    For our sake, we are glad you went and recorded the event and the place. It is stunning — and crowded all the time for good reason. The relief sculptures outside of Art and Science must have been beautiful, too.

    What a great trip!
    ~Josie

  • Reply
    Luxury Apartments Lady
    October 4, 2016 at 6:12 am

    It looks absolutely majestic, like something out of Harry Potter!

  • Reply
    Sand In My Suitcase
    October 4, 2016 at 10:24 am

    A line-up to visit a bookstore? Excellent! Here’s to the power of “old-fashioned” books! The store looks absolutely gorgeous — worth visiting just for the building alone, let alone all the books. George would be in heaven here — he’s a true book worm.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      October 4, 2016 at 10:29 am

      They sure don’t build bookstores like this one now! 🙂

  • Reply
    Shikha (whywasteannualleave)
    October 7, 2016 at 7:24 pm

    I can totally understand what you mean about this place. We spent a weekend in Porto in June this year and I felt the same way that it was really visually impressive and although it was good to see it, the way it was totally jampacked full of tourists blocking suitcases and spending a long time taking photos really took away from what should have been a quite charming feel to the place.

  • Reply
    Michele Legge
    October 12, 2016 at 4:33 am

    This is stunning I now regret not going in when we were in Porto. The lines were ling, the rain was coming down in buckets and we just thought it can;t be that good….you have shown me we should have waited. Thanks for sharing

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