Livraria Lello, A Beautiful Casualty Of Mass Tourism

Livraria Lello is the iconic bookstore in Porto. Enrique Vila-Matas, a famous Spanish novelist, called it “the most beautiful bookshop in the world.” Lonely Planet mentioned it among the world’s greatest bookshops. According to TIME, “rumor has it J. K. Rowling was inspired by Livraria Lello while writing Harry Potter (and teaching English) in Portugal.”

Livraria Lello
Livraria Lello has very strict policy concerning photography inside the bookshop. Use of flash is prohibited, and selfie sticks are strongly discouraged. We took all photos using iPhone under less than perfect natural light.

With these credentials, no wonder that this bookstore receives thousands of visitors from around the world. Naturally, while in Porto, we joined the crowd visiting this remarkable jewel of the neo-Gothic style.

Livraria Lello
The neo-Gothic façade of the bookshop. The two figures adorning the top window represent Art, on the left holding a sculpture, and Science, to the right.

Hats off to Francisco Xavier Esteves, a Portuguese engineer and a literature lover, for his wild imagination and tireless work that culminated in the construction of one of the most unforgettable bookshops in the world.

Livraria Lello, upper level
The upper level is less crowded

We wanted to leisurely admire the famous crimson staircase, the stained-glass skylights, every tiny detail of magnificent ceiling. We dreamed about unhurriedly browsing through rows and rows of books.

The ceiling
The ceiling
The oldest books
Above the ordinary bookshelves there are bookcases with sharp-pointed arches and glass doors holding the oldest and rare books.
The ground floor
The ground floor

Sadly, that did not happen. Unfortunately, Livraria Lello is a poster child for mass tourism phenomenon.

Livraria Lello
Inside the bookshop

According to official data from Instituto Nacional de Estatística (Statistics Portugal), 2015 was the best year ever for Portuguese tourism: the number of foreign tourists reached 10.18 million in 2015, a rise of 10% on the previous year. The interest in Porto is due to its wine production, the revitalization of its river district, and its vast cultural heritage. The city was named European Best Destination in 2012 and 2014 according to a survey by the European Consumers Choice organization, based in Brussels. In layman’s terms, nowadays Porto is overcrowded with tourists.

Livraria has a generous size for 110-years old establishment. However, it was not meant to accommodate thousands of visitors on daily basis. It has become a victim of its own popularity. By summer 2015, the situation deteriorated to the point where the bookshop started charging the entrance fee. Did it help? Frankly, I am not so sure.

Get in line to buy a ticket
Get in line to buy a ticket

We paid 3€ per person, got our tickets and a nicely printed brochure and entered the bookshop. If it were an ordinary store, I would say it was packed. I was determined to snap the staircase sans humans. Now I know how a hunter feels patiently waiting for a sure shot. Exhausting watch paid off, and I got my wish. What a pity! Thousands of shoes, boots and sandals robbed the poor staircase from all its glory. Only if it was worn out by eager scholars or men of letters or arts, but not hordes of tourists routinely visiting another “must see” spot in Porto.

The famous crimson staircase. Sadly, it bears marks left by thousands of curious visitors.
The famous crimson staircase

Overall, Livraria Lello resembled an overhyped uber-exhibition in some world-renowned museum. It was too crowded for any personable, intimate experience, but yet an occasional glimpse of exceptional surroundings reminded why all these people ended up there.

Interior details
The fairytale-worth interior details of the bookshop

I wholeheartedly agree that Livraria Lello is one of the greatest bookshops in the world. I am glad that I had a chance to visit it. Sadly, I was disappointed with the way it went.

The ceiling of Livraria Lello
The stained glass skyline is comprised of 8×3.5 meters panel. The writing is in Latin says “Decus in labore”(“dignity in work”). It reminded every employee, client or visitor of the company’s golden rule.

It is a no win situation. Without limiting admittance, Livraria can’t sustain ever growing flow of visitors. Limited admittance means that someone would miss an opportunity to see this magnificent place.

Built-in cart on rails
Rails are running along the central corridor. A built-in wooden that runs over them was used to move books round the bookshop and to and from the storage.

Rising entrance price is one way of dealing with this problem. Perhaps, honesty could be another solution? Some people are crazy about architecture, history, books; others – not so much.

The interior details
The interior details

Forget the fad and ask yourself why would you want to go there? If you are going to be glued to your smartphone and text all the time anyway, maybe, just maybe, you should skip the visit? BTW, this idea is a result of my amused observation of numerous humanoids inside the bookshop so deeply immersed in their digital activity that they missed to look around.

Livraria Ello
Livraria Ello

The rules (according to Livraria Lello brochure):

  • Livraria Lello is a place dedicated to books and reading. Please keep quiet and help preserve  a calm and pleasant environment.
  • If you are to take photographs, please do so in a way not to disturb other visitors and customers.
  • Due to its confined spaces, please try not to use selfie sticks and help to keep a free flow of visitors when using the staircase.

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Livraria Lello
Livraria Lello is the iconic bookstore in Porto. Enrique Vila-Matas, a famous Spanish novelist, called it “the most beautiful bookshop in the world.” Lonely Planet mentioned it among the world’s greatest bookshops. With these credentials, no wonder that this bookstore receives thousands of visitors from around the world.

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12 thoughts on “Livraria Lello, A Beautiful Casualty Of Mass Tourism”

  1. I’m a bookworm, so this is definitely something that I should have to go to! Thank you so much for sharing this with us; I have just taken note of this place for my future travels. 😀 It looks absolutely gorgeous!

  2. Livraria Lello certainly looks like something out of the magical world! I am very impressed that you got the photo without people on the stairs. Love it. How long did it take to get?

    • Thank you, Rachel. We spent first couple hours just walking around the place and looking at the books without even trying to take any photos. By the end of the day, there were fewer people left at the bookshop. Roughly half and hour before closing, it took about 20 minutes of waiting to get the staircase almost to ourselves (a few people kindly waited while we were taking photos).

    • A quick tip that might help to avoid the worst crowds – try to come either earlier in the morning(as soon as they open) or later in the day (about an hour before closing) 🙂

  3. We were in Porto last year and not being a book lover we skipped visiting this place. After reading your article i am glad we did. I agree with your sentiments people should not visit just for sake of visiting there should be a reason behind your visit that means something to you, not just to say i have been there.

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