On a bustling commercial street in the fashionable Recoleta neighbourhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina, you can visit a serene temple of books. The lighting is soft, with accents that showcase the best in early 20th-century craftsmanship. Conversations are hushed, as if in a grand library, yet the space is so warm and welcoming that the raised café at the back of the cavernous room is filled with patrons reading and sipping cappuccinos and chocolate submarinos.
You’ve entered the Ateneo Grand Splendid bookstore, which blogs and guidebooks often dub “the world’s most beautiful bookstore.” They may not be wrong. The sprawling shop is housed in a beautifully preserved antique theatre. Only instead of tango dancers and singers, the stars are now the printed word.
The building opened as a theatre in 1919, when Buenos Aires was booming as a major port and centre of commerce. A flood of recent immigrants, particularly from Europe, helped fuel a rich cultural and arts scene, including the birth of tango. Like the surrounding blocks and the city itself, the theatre brims with both old world flourishes—such as the gorgeous frescoes on the soaring ceiling—and Latin flair, such as the friendly staff, great coffee, and relaxed pace.
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PHOTOGRAPH BY HEEB/LAIF/REDUX
Ateneo Grand Splendid opened in the space at the start of the 2000s. It offers up thousands of books, CDs, DVDs, and more to the more than one million people who drop in a year. Travellers find a wonderful experience browsing the colourful shelves arranged artfully in the former orchestra and mezzanine sections. Former luxury boxes offer quiet nooks, with stunning views, to peruse a book or take it all in. The café is actually set on the theatre’s former stage, so you can imagine your name in lights as you tuck into a pastry.
Argentina is a famously literary country, publishing tens of thousands of titles a year. Buenos Aires is among the cities with the highest number of bookstores per person in the world, with more than 700 brick-and-mortar establishments. Ateneo Grand Splendid is worth a visit as an attraction in its own right, though the city has many other inviting bookstores to browse.
For the little ones
Ateneo Grand Splendid has a wonderful and lively kids’ section in the heart of the building, where youngsters excitedly flip through the latest titles. Anglophones beware: Spanish offerings only.
Limited English section
For adults, the store does have a small shelf of titles in English at the front, but the offerings are slim, mostly romance novels and drugstore thrillers. A few of the large format photo books are available in English.
Best spots for selfies
The store is so gorgeous that many people stop in just for a look, including tourists. And the staff seems completely comfortable with that. Head to the stunning view from the top balcony, particularly a little off-centre to either side. That allows travellers to avoid the small line of people taking selfies at dead centre. Shooting from the stage café is another popular option.
When to visit
The stage café can get busy, so if you want to avoid waiting for a seat, come at an off time, particularly during the week. January and February are the most popular months to visit Buenos Aires, followed by October (remember the seasons are opposite those of the Northern Hemisphere). June tends to be the least busy month. Regardless of when you go, Ateneo Grand Splendid is more than a bookstore. It’s a piece of history breathing new life.
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