Welcome to El Ateneo Grand Splendid, One of the World’s Biggest (and Most Beautiful) Bookstores

Amble along the grand balustrades of this epic building — while reading a romance novel and sipping a coffee.Read More

Bienvenido a El Ateneo Grand Splendid. No applause necessary. (Source: Shutterstock / R.M. Nunes)

Looking for just the right bookstore to sate your book-peeping urges abroad? Don’t go hunting for Barnes & Nobles; it’s got nothing on El Ateneo Grand Splendid, the opulent and sprawling destination bookstore in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Anchored in the Recoleta neighborhood, this is a veritable temple to the written word. The space itself opened as a theater (Teatro Grand Splendid) in 1919, designed to serve the growing population of immigrants interested in the finer things. Baroque stylings — à la 18th-century flourishes, gilded balconies, and elaborate frescoes — mark the cavernous building as something akin to the Sistine Chapel of books. To match the ornate design of the ceiling and balustrades, wood pillars and accents dot the interior, adding a touch of warmth.

When theater and dance were its purpose (throughout the 1920s), the building hosted tango greats like Carlos Gardel and Roberto Firpo, paying due homage to the national dance of Argentina. By the end of the decade, however, the city was keen to convert the building into a cinema with room for tango orchestrations (films were silent at the time and begged for musical accompaniment). Its literary raison d’être had not vanished, however; in 1968, a series of author lectures were introduced across the city, hosted at spots like the Teatro, which ultimately precipitated the International Book Fair. That fair is still held annually in April.

Be sure you look up and marvel at the exquisite frescoes. (Source: Shutterstock / Petrenko Andriy)
Be sure you look up and marvel at the exquisite frescoes. (Source: Shutterstock / Petrenko Andriy)

Additional retro-fittings happened throughout the years until, by the late 20th century, the Teatro languished from lack of patronage. The city was ready to demolish the building when, gracias a Dio, investment firm Grupo Ilhsa swooped in in 2000 and bought the property. With the help of architect Fernando Maznone (and a cool $3 million Pesos, or about $50,000 USD), the building was converted to its current state as a bookstore and music shop.

There’s no question you could spend an afternoon just admiring the architecture of El Ateneo Grand Splendid, but we also love to find a niche book of history (most English books are in the romance/mystery vein) and claim a former luxury box as our reading nook. When we need to pause for reflection or simply want a break, we enjoy people-watching from our perch. You can also head downstairs and grab a coffee at the onsite café for a quick pick-me-up.

On the ground floor, you’ll find a wealth of CDs to peruse. Sure, this is a bit of a dated practice (what with streaming music services abounding), but it feels a touch nostalgic — in a delightful way. Oh, and if you have kidlets with you, there’s a designated children’s area with picture books and toys aplenty. Let them play and read as you wander, ogle, and lounge.

The one thing that’s frowned upon at El Ateneo, however: Breaking out into tango. You might disturb more sedate perusers, so just play those frolicking tunes in your head.

For more about the city and its multitude of treasures, like El Ateneo, check out our article on Buenos Aires.