The El Ateneo Grand Splendid bookshop in Buenos Aires, Argentina has been called the world’s most beautiful bookstore. Bibliophile and literary travel lover Shelley Seale checks it out for herself.
I’m currently Trading Places in Buenos Aires, a city I’ve fallen in love with. It’s my first time to Argentina, and I’ve found Buenos Aires (as many people have) to be a beautiful city that is quite reminiscent of Paris — perhaps with a little bit of Rome and New York thrown in here and there. Wide boulevards, leafy streets, an energetic vibe and gorgeous architecture abound.
One of the places I had read about before coming here was the El Ateneo Grand Splendid bookstore, and I was excited about checking it out for myself. As a writer and major bookworm, one of my favorite places to be anywhere is a bookshop, and I love checking out bookstores and libraries when I travel.
The El Ateneo was also just named the “world’s most beautiful bookstore” by National Geographic in 2019 — this coming on the heels of being called one of the world’s most beautiful bookshops by The Guardian in 2008 and then again in 2015.
And so, on my first full day in the city, I headed straight for the El Ateneo. I’ll admit, after reading about it and seeing some of the glorious photos, like above, I had high expectations.
The El Ateneo Grand Splendid did not disappoint — and its lofty name is absolutely deserved.
It sits on the busy Santa Fe Avenue of the Recoleta neighborhood, known as the area where the early, wealthy, elite inhabitants of Buenos Aires built their mansions and palaces in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The exterior of the building itself is quite beautiful, but stepping inside is truly like stepping into a book lover’s fairytale fantasy land.
The building was originally a theater, built in 1919 during the glory days of Buenos Aires when it was one of the wealthiest, most important countries in the world. Called the Teatro Grand Splendid, the lavish interior is jaw-dropping with the original frescoed ceilings, ornate theater boxes, elegant rounded balconies, detailed trimmings, and plush red stage curtains. It remains as stunning today as when it was first envisioned by architects Peró and Torres Armengol.
In 1929, the theater underwent its first transformation to become a cinema, with the distinction of being the first in Buenos Aires to show sound film. It was converted into the bookstore some 15 years ago — before which it was scheduled for demolition due to Argentina’s struggling economy.
The thought of that actually makes me shudder. Just take a look at my photos! It would be a crime to have lost this gorgeous jewel of architecture. If you love literary travel like I do, you will definitely want to visit the El Ateneo, world’s most beautiful bookstore.
You can visit El Ateneo (if you come to Buenos Aires, I urge you not to miss it!), and even have a coffee and enjoy live piano music in the cafe that’s located on the very stage where the Argentinean stars of tango once performed.
Here’s a short video I took strolling through the El Ateneo, and a few more photos below. Incredible!