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Surviving the Livraria Lello Bookshop in Porto


October 15, 2019 by Andrea Szyper

The Livraria Lello is one of the most famous bookstores in the world, and it is for good reason. Tucked into the attractive, atmospheric pedestrian shopping zone of Carmelitas, it is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the charming town of Porto. Numerous travel magazines and websites have named it the world’s most beautiful bookshop. Its popularity means you’ll need to approach it carefully to truly enjoy the experience.

The Lello bookshop was founded in 1906 by the Lello brothers, José and António. After years in the neighborhood book trade, they purchased this site and its archives from Frenchman Ernesto Chardron and had the building renovated by Francisco Xavier Esteves. A pioneer in the use of reinforced concrete, Esteves was an engineer, not an architect, though you would never know it from the beauty of his design.

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The shop’s neo-gothic design stands out, even in the pretty streetscape, and a rehab in 2016 restored some of the bright glory to its facade, art nouveau style paintings, and stained glass windows. You can understand the stir and celebration the shop created in 1906, when artists, merchants, writers, and the well heeled gathered to toast its glamorous opening.

In the years since it has continued its mission as a “bookshop to the world” and promotes Portuguese writers to an international audience of visitors. It sells books in multiple languages and its interior is an exquisite visual mosaic of book spines and woodwork.

Perhaps the bookstore’s most notable feature is its dramatically sculptural central staircase, with its fluid lines and bright red carpet. J.K. Rowling lived in Porto, and it is said that this staircase inspired her descriptions of the magic staircase of Hogwarts in her Harry Potter series. This association is one of the reasons the shop draws so many visitors.

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Here are some things you should know to enjoy your visit.

You’ll need to buy a ticket to enter. Admission is 5 euro, and the ticket can be purchased online or at a storefront at the end of the block. This 5 euro can be refunded toward the purchase of a book, should you choose to shop.

There will be a line to get into the shop. It may stretch around the block. At busy times, the shop is full of tourists taking selfies, which zaps the regal interior of its magic. Do your best to arrive early or late in the day, when crowds are thinner. (If you are staying in Porto on an Untour, you can easily monitor the crowds and drop in when the line has diminished.)

If you do shop, look for translations of Portuguese writers like Eça de Queirós and Camilo Castelo Branco. Here’s a rundown of notable Portuguese writers. Whatever you buy, check out on the second floor, where the cashier line is normally much shorter.

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Check out the website for Livraria Lello before your visit. This is one of many draws for our Porto Untour, and part of the atmosphere that makes this town magic.

Join us on a Porto Untour and you can case the shop and visit at off-peak hours, like in the evening when you can scan the shelves and comb the stacks at leisure. (That’s when UnTours president Brian Taussig-Lux visited and took these photos.)

See you in Porto!