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