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Lello e Irmao, the World's Third Best Bookstore

Updated on August 12, 2017

Decus in Labore is beautifully crafted in the Art Deco stained glass ceiling at the Lello e Irmao bookstore in Porto, a mid size town north of Portugal. It translates as "Honor in Work", which I'm not sure I agree with, but I certainly think there is honor in maintaining this wonderful bookstore in working order since 1881, in spite of it having become a tourist circus, hordes of folks traipsing around the beautiful space, camera in hand, without the smallest regard for the amazing surroundings, worried only about capturing a snapshot of the ineffable grandeur.

But who am I to complain, when I'm just another in the pile of hedonistic tourists that dropped in to experience the joys of the third best bookstore in the word, according to The Guardian.

"Decus in Labore", inscription in the stained glass ceiling at Lello e Irmao.
"Decus in Labore", inscription in the stained glass ceiling at Lello e Irmao.

An achieved quest

This visit to Lello e Irmao in Porto completes my quest to visit the three best bookstores in the world in the span of a calendar year. I'm so happy to have visited this exquisite establishment, this old-fashioned bookstore, after having been to the grandiose El Ateneo Grand Spendid in Buenos Aires, and the spectacular Selexyz Dominicanen in Maastrich. Lello e Irmao reminded me a bit of Posada, the best bookstore for art books and number 7 in The Guardian's list, this is genuinely a bookstore, was born as such and has been open for business during 128 years. Unlike Posada, however, there is nothing humble about the building that hosts it.

Front by night. I found it really soothing, after the hordes of tourists stampeding around the place during business hours.
Front by night. I found it really soothing, after the hordes of tourists stampeding around the place during business hours.

Just a tad of history

From the three top bookstores in the world, this one is definitely the most genuine. It was born as a bookstore and has remained one during its 128 years of history. Its one meaningful change, which over the years would bring it fame, thousands of visits a year and an equally impressive number of entries in the Internet, was to move, in 1906, to the building featured in the photos. Lello e Irmao's current location is 103 years old and, while this number isn't overly impressive in Europe, where buildings in current use and in fair to good condition date back centuries, it is still quite a feat for a business, books, that nowadays struggles to survive the unstoppable challenge of the electronic era.

100th anniversary poster of the bookstore in its current location.
100th anniversary poster of the bookstore in its current location.

A sour and sweet impression

While I'm ecstatic with the visit and the wonders of Lello e Irmao, I had a bout of guilt with what felt like an invasion. I visited the bookstore three times during my long weekend in Porto, once at night and twice during business hours. At night, the romance of the building, the great lightning of the exterior, took my breath away and made me all dreamy.

In broad daylight and during business hours, the first time I set foot in the bookstore I was shocked by the behavior of some of my "peer visitors". Some behaved like the space was akin to Disney World, speaking loudly, tsking obnoxiously for other visitors to move the hell out of the way of their planned photos, taking center stage in the staircase and posing for photos a la grand divas, effectively stopping traffic from other visitors that were just watching and enjoying the scenery.

That first visit was quite depressing, and I barely took any photos, I couldn't bring myself to stoop down to the same level with most of the tourists that were violating the space at the time. I left the bookstore really sad, and pondered about the democratization of tourism during all afternoon. Yes, snobbish of me, but I'm of the opinion that there is a limit to everything, and some people just don't ever see it and will stop at nothing for a photo, for their 15 minutes of fame.

Historic landmark from the city of Porto
Historic landmark from the city of Porto
The chaos of the first visit. Really shocking, but then I was part of it, and that's why I decided to take flight pronto.
The chaos of the first visit. Really shocking, but then I was part of it, and that's why I decided to take flight pronto.

The second visit

I couldn't bear to leave Porto (never to return, as the song goes) with that bad taste in my mouth. So my cohort and I decided that lunch hour was probably a good time for a new visit. We smartly deduced that sheep tourists would be doing their sheep lunch duty at that time, hence we agreed to stop by around 1pm.

I'm so glad! The second visit made out trip worthwhile, as well as restoring our faith in the decent travelers of the world! This visit was what I'd had in mind all along: People browsing around, snapping some photos, unobtrusively and definitely avoiding any impolite elbowing to other visitors, people ohhing and ahhing at the architecture, the ancient bookcases, the crafted wood ceiling, the staircase the likes of which are unseen the world over.

This was an exquisite bookstore, its number 3 rating by The Guardian is absolutely well deserved. I hope the photos will tell the tale by themselves. Notice that most of the photos are taken with an upward angle. I aimed not to bother other visitors, while still capturing the beauty of the establishment.

Central staircase landing on the way to second floor.
Central staircase landing on the way to second floor.

Photos that I took as unobtrusively as possible, swear to god and hope to die

© 2009 Elena.


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    • profile image


      2 years ago

      I was there today and you can definitely take pictures.

    • Elena. profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Madrid

      Hi Swedish visitor! Thanks for the comment -- In a way, I'm glad to hear that photos are no longer allowed, my experience there was a bit depressing, as I describe in the article, due to the amount of tourists elbowing everyone to get a snapshot without any regard whatsoever for the environment. Then again, I was there taking photos myself, so what can I say. Regardless, I'd gone anyhow, to experience the place for myself, ad just like you, I recommend a visit to anyone who's in Porto :)

    • profile image

      Swedish visitor 

      9 years ago

      I was there five weeks ago and you are no longer allowed to take photos. It was a fantastic moment and if you are in Porto, don't miss it!

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Hi all,

      If you have been to Lello, please answer this questionnaire.

      It's a survey aiming to improve customer experience even more.

      Thank you! (Please, disregard this message after May 20th)

    • Elena. profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Madrid

      Hi surfgatinho! To think I actually took a weekend trip from Madrid to see this one, and maybe some people in Porto don't even know it's there in all its glory :-) Anyhow, now you know, if you ever go back :-)

    • surfgatinho profile image

      Chris Leather 

      9 years ago from Cornwall UK

      This place is amazing! I can't believe I lived in Porto for a year and never even saw it. That was probably back in the days when it wasn't even on the tourist map. Doh!

    • billrobinson profile image


      10 years ago from CA, USA

      This is a nice hub, thanks for sharing this. Keep posting!

    • Elena. profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Madrid

      Right Bruno. That's just what I explain in this little article here :-)

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      Lello e irmao is the world's third bookstore according to the Guardian (a British daily newspaper). But Lello e irmao is considered by some as the best and as the most beautiful in the world. Opposing to "Lello e irmão", El Ateneo Grand Spendid in Buenos Aires wich was a theatre, and the Selexyz Dominicanen in Maastrich wich was a church were not conceived to be a bookstore.

    • Elena. profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Madrid

      Gorgeosity may not be a world in any dictionary, but we can make it one, I've certainly made up my fair amount of words round here, for example, "spectacularity" :-)

      It was an incredible place, and I'm glad we decided to go there a second time. Any business that survives the booming and aggressive internet marketplace is already "good" in my book, but a bookstore? Amazing!

    • Frieda Babbley profile image

      Frieda Babbley 

      11 years ago from Saint Louis, MO

      Sheep tourists, lol. What an amazing place. You are so lucky not only to have accomplished your mission, but to have been able to be a part of these buildings, even if just for a few days. This particular book store is amazing to say the least. It's like a gorgeous old church. So much history, so many books. Can you even imagine the books that used to be sold here? The smell of the papers? Ah! The photos, Eleni, are phoenomenal. Gorgeosity (is that a word?). =]

    • Elena. profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Madrid

      Ethel, your comment made me laugh :-) Guess you're right, to a point, but what if there's no bookstore (much less like this one) in your town? At least the internet will bring you books! :-)

    • ethel smith profile image

      Ethel Smith 

      11 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

      What a fabulous place. Internet bookstore's-bah humbug

    • Elena. profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Madrid

      Hello Cris! That staircase... I saw it first! Laugh! Ceiling, OK, I'll bag it for you, it's great for a while, but I don't think I'd be able t o sleep with that elaborate craved wood on top of my head :-) Thanks for the visit!

    • Cris A profile image

      Cris A 

      11 years ago from Manila, Philippines


      wonderful pics! next you come for a visit, please get me the staircase or the ceiling? and while you're at it, bag an alcove or two for me. Lovely hub, I could almost taste the ambiance :D

    • Elena. profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Madrid

      Bookshop, FP, since its first day! Don't be green now, just sit back and enjoy, there is something to be said for living vicariously :-)

    • profile image

      Feline Prophet 

      11 years ago

      Is that a bookshop or a church?!! I'm all colours with envy Elena...your jaunts into such delightful places are a treat to the senses! :)

    • Elena. profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Madrid

      Whoops, Sally, methinks I took for granted that little old Porto would be recognizable... for the Port wine if nothing else, but now I realize that may not be so. Added "Portugal" right after the first Porto occurrence, thanks! :-) (The tag is there for Portugal, but maybe it's too hidden to be of any help).

      Technicalities aside, I'm glad you see it my way. Ahem :-) I mean, nothing can replace the feel and ambience of a bookstore, much less replace what a book lover may feel in one like this.

      Looks like Kyoto could be the next stop in The Guardian's list. But we're having a bit of a sissy fit here about going to Malaysia first. We'll see. Either way, postcards will be forthcoming :-)

    • Sally's Trove profile image


      11 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      I loved these photos and the telling of your experience. I confess, I had no idea where Porto was...Google helped me out with that, and then I found the Guardian list.

      There is a love of the feel of books and the ambiance of a book seller which will never be replaced by kindle or any other electronic means. Thank you so much for helping to keep this love alive.

      Looking forward to your next adventures.

      Besos y abrazos!

    • Elena. profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Madrid

      My pleasure, Jill! This bookstore, and the other two top rated by The Guardian, are certainly a worthy quest :-)

    • jill of alltrades profile image

      jill of alltrades 

      11 years ago from Philippines

      Wow! Thank you for these beautiful photos! They made me wish I could be there right now! I'm certainly glad you decided to go back.

      I love bookstores too! And if they are as beautiful and full of history (and books of course!) as this, then ...definitely heaven!

      Again, thank you very much for sharing!

    • Elena. profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Madrid

      Linda, that's the thing with these incredible bookstores listed by The Guardian: you DON'T need to choose! You've got both your loves in one single package :-) Besos back at you!

      Iphigenia, don't knock Carnforth until you try it... All right, *maybe* you can knock it, if you're going to compare with the third best bookstore in the world :-) It was heaven, but I really felt bad after the first visit, I'm glad I went for seconds.

      Violet, indeed you'd go "OMG!" IF you'd have any speech capacity on you! Laugh! These spaces tend to make me somewhat mute, it's probably caused by sensory overload :-)

    • Elena. profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Madrid

      Good day, everyone!

      It is spectacular, it's not every day that you'd stop by a bookstore like this one :-) You're right about cozy, its size is small enough for one to to feel overwhelmed, like one can feel at El Ateneo or Selexyz. Here you feel pretty much in communion with the space and the books.

      Storyteller, my pleasure and good for you! It's a very worthy goal, I've managed 4 of them and I'm thinking where/how to take this further :)

    • VioletSun profile image


      11 years ago from Oregon/ Name: Marie

      If I were visiting, I too would be as unobtrusive as possible. The photos had me saying, "OMG!" over and over again- I just so looooOve old buildings and beautiful architecture, and combined with books, I am in heaven.

      Thanks for sharing this! :)

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      Those stairs and arches and landings. Those curves and phallic columns makes it very sexy. Seductive. The conceoption of this building is just out of this world. And THEN to fill it with books .... heaven, despite the tourists. I doubt Carnforth will live up to this !

      Thank you for forcing yourself into a second visit - that must have been hard ....

    • Storytellersrus profile image


      11 years ago from Stepping past clutter

      This hub has given me a new goal: to visit the top ten bookstores in the world! I didn't even know bookstores like these existed. I am completely dazzled. I am indebted to you, Elena. Humble thanks!!!

    • dohn121 profile image


      11 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York

      This is absolutely spectacular. I always feel welcome and right at home at bookstores and libraries. This doesn't or wouldn't seem any different. Although it's grandeur is a bit overwhelming, I think that it's cozy enough for me! Thank you for the wonderful pics and great depth.

    • Elena. profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Madrid

      You're right, G-Ma, things were made to last. In Europe we're so lucky to have multiple displays of great buildings that were made to last :-)

    • G-Ma Johnson profile image

      Merle Ann Johnson 

      11 years ago from NW in the land of the Free

      People used to put so much pride in their work...and made it to last also...wonderful shots and wonderful place...Thanks.:O) Hugs

    • Elena. profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Madrid

      Hola, Teresa! Beautiful it certainly is. I guess you're right, it deserves to be open to all publics, I just wish there was a magic wand to suppress obnoxiousness while in the premises :-)

    • Teresa McGurk profile image


      11 years ago from The Other Bangor

      It's beautiful! I want to go there right now! Thanks for the great photos (I'm glad you went back for the second trip during the day) and the history of the building. It is indeed unusual for such a business to survive, but it's a glorious building and deserves to be open to the public (even the obnoxious tourists). I think I'd find the quietest time to visit, too. . .


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