You might not think to include libraries on the list of sights to see when on vacation, but these “temples of books” often are art and architectural feats, as well as keepers of centuries of the world’s knowledge, memories and culture. Here are libraries in the US and Europe that are just too good to miss if you happen to be visiting one of these cities…
Baltimore: George Peabody Library, Johns Hopkins, Sheridan Libraries & University Museums. The George Peabody Library is one of the prettiest libraries in the world. Built in 1878, it has a timeless beauty with sculpted arches, skylights and cast-iron balconies. The large reading hall and exhibition space often are decked out with string lights, bar tables and music for special occasions. American financier and philanthropist George Peabody donated the library to the citizens of Baltimore “for their kindness and hospitality.” Library.jhu.edu/library-hours/george-peabody-library/
Exeter, New Hampshire: Class of 1945 Library. This is one of the most incredible school libraries in the US. Public visits to the interior are limited to school breaks when classes are not in session and must be scheduled in advance (go to http://bit.ly/3C8XMrQ). Architect Louis Kahn designed the building in the late 1960s—he wanted to create an environment that supported creativity and curiosity. The angles and forms offer surprising perspectives, while the materials and symmetry of the interior evoke a feeling of stability. Exeter.edu/academics/library/about/visit-library
New York City: The Morgan Library & Museum. Financier John Pierpont (JP) Morgan built a fabulous palazzo next to his home on Madison Avenue in Manhattan to house his collections of precious manuscripts and art prints. His son later opened it to the public. With donations and the help of friends—including star architect Renzo Piano, who built a new exterior for the growing library—The Morgan Library has become one of the most beloved libraries in New York City. When you’re inside the library’s East Room, look up at the three stories of wood-paneled bookshelves and the incredible cathedral-style ceilings. TheMorgan.org
Queens, New York: Hunters Point, Queens Public Library. Escape New York City’s bustling streets, and enjoy a good read and a great view at the relatively undiscovered Hunters Point Library in Long Island City. The exterior is a white cuboid shape, and the interior is modern, sleek and flowing, and framed with enormous, irregularly shaped windows. Visit the reading garden, or climb up to a terrace overlooking the East River to see the stellar view of the Manhattan skyline. Insider’s tip: If you want to read quietly here, bring earphones. The library is popular with children and can be noisy from time to time. QueensLibrary.org
New Haven, Connecticut: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. If you are a book lover and/or architecture afficionado, visit this library on the Yale Campus. Sunlight shines through the semi-transparent modernist marble exterior façade into the interior, which has six stories of glass-enclosed book stacks. This library holds a precious Gutenberg Bible within its historical manuscripts collection. Entry is free, and along with rare books, you can view special exhibitions in the cathedral-like Exhibition Hall. Free guided tours are given on many Saturdays starting at 1:30 pm, no reservation required—call to confirm (203-432-2977).
Seattle: Seattle Central Library. This is an example of how modern architecture—in this case, by superstar Rem Koolhaas—works on several levels of perception. First, it has a deconstructed exterior, and if you look at it closely, you will notice that the building resembles a stack of books. Second, Koolhaas and his partner, Joshua Prince-Ramus, did extensive research to understand how visitors move about in libraries to create a structure that allows unrestricted browsing and public gatherings. SPL.org
Washington, DC: Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. Another must on your bucket list. Relax with a book in the beautiful rooftop garden, and browse through the permanent exhibition about African-American history in DC on the fourth floor. The original building concept from German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in the 1970s was updated by architects Mecanoo and Martinez + Johnson nearly 50 years later. There is a beautiful children’s space for young readers, and if you are lucky, you may be able to catch a cultural program during your visit. DCLibrary.org/MLK
San Diego: Geisel Library. The author of How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, The Cat in the Hat and other beloved children’s books, Dr. Seuss (aka, Theodor Geisel), donated his entire archive to the University of California, San Diego, library. The Geisel Library exhibits a form of brutalist architecture, a minimalist construction style that emphasizes function over aesthetics…exposed concrete, angular shapes and a monochromatic palette. The huge building houses many more tomes than seems possible at first glance—there are two subterranean floors filled with books. Set on the UCSD campus, the library is open to the public. Library.UCSD.edu.
Beyond the US
Twickenham, UK: Sir Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill House. Little and little-known but so pretty, this library is about an hour from Westminster in Central London. In the 18th century, writer and patron Horace Walpole and his illustrious friends designed and decorated the little castle called Strawberry Hill House in an edgy Gothic Revival style—the library is the most “Gothic” room. The villa was carefully renovated 10 years ago. You can visit Strawberry Hill and its beautiful library on a guided tour or on your own, and afterward enjoy an amazing view of the green premises and white castle. StrawberryHillHouse.org.uk
Maria Laach, Glees, Germany: Jesuit Library at Maria Laach Abbey. You feel like you are stepping into history at this monastery library, which features creaky floorboards, dusty bookshelves and Benedictine monks walking around. The wooden balconies, cast-iron stairs and stained-glass windows make a cozy home for more than 250,000 volumes. But don’t be fooled by its historical look…Maria Laach Library has a hyper-modern side—the monks are digitizing ancient manuscripts to preserve and share them with the world. Reserve a spot on a guided tour via the library’s website—spontaneous visits are rarely possible. Maria Laach Abbey is about a one-hour drive from Cologne and a two-hour drive from Heidelberg. Maria-Laach.de
Tilburg, The Netherlands: LocHal. The opposite of Maria Laach, LocHal is super-modern and set in a former railway station, with floor-to-ceiling windows. Located about an hour and a half south of Amsterdam, this library has an immense collection of books and is popular for its co-working spaces, exhibitions, workshops and bistro. It’s also about an hour and a half from Maastricht, where you’ll find one of Europe’s loveliest independent bookshops—the Boekhandel Dominicanen, housed in a former church. LocHal.nl
Dublin, Ireland: The Library of Trinity College Dublin (shown on page 13). This is one of the most famous libraries on either side of the Atlantic Ocean. Founded at the end of the 16th century, the Trinity College Library is home to the ancient Book of Kells, a beautifully illustrated manuscript dating back to the 9th century. You can marvel at two original pages of the book and see a facsimile in its museum. Don’t miss the Long Room, the main hall of the library—its vaulted wooden ceiling and two-story-tall bookshelves will take your breath away. TCD.ie/library