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UNESCO Cities of Literature Every Bookworm Should Visit

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Patrons buy books in a shop in Óbidos, Portugal, one of UNESCO’s Cities of Literature.

Photo by Sonia Bonet/Shutterstock

Patrons buy books in a shop in Óbidos, Portugal, one of UNESCO’s Cities of Literature.

Make the most of your readerly passions at these 7 cities recognized for their vibrant literary communities.

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As I wander around the cobblestone streets and castle-like buildings of Québec City, it’s easy to imagine stories coming to life—especially when I come across a neo-Gothic church with a sign that says Maison de la Littérature. No longer a church, this literature center is much more than a library. Once inside, I discover various spaces to read and write, as well as exhibits on Québec literary heritage, an impressive modern library, and even a comic-writing workshop on the second floor. I learn that it’s the only center of its kind on the continent. I also learn that in 2017, Québec City was designated as a UNESCO City of Literature. 

As it turns out, UNESCO has a designation for cities that contribute to the literary pantheon in some way. It’s part of a wider Creative Cities Network, which also includes other creative fields like Crafts and Folk Art, Design, Film, Gastronomy, Media Arts, and Music. Started in 2004, the criteria for a city of literature include things like the quality, quantity, and diversity of publishing in a city; the quality and quantity of educational programs that focus on literature; the extent to which literature, drama, and/or poetry play a significant role in the city; whether literary events and festivals are hosted there; the number of libraries, bookstores, and cultural centers; and media’s involvement in promoting literature.

In other words, Québec City turned out to be a must-visit for readers, and it’s not alone. Here’s more about Québec City—and six other UNESCO Cities of Literature bursting with bookish appeal. 

Maison de la Littérature has plenty of light-filled spaces to relax in with a book.

Québec City

“. . . its giddy heights; its citadel suspended as it were in the air; its picturesque steep streets and frowning gateways; and the splendid views which burst upon the eye at every turn: is at once unique and lasting.” 

Charles Dickens, American Notes

French and English collide in this city that is the core of French-language literature in North America. Writers from Albert Camus to Charles Dickens to H.P. Lovecraft have been enchanted by the city, and it boasts over 100 guilds, publishers, and booksellers. Beyond the regular offerings at the Maison de la Littérature that I saw, in October, the center hosts the Québec en Toutes Lettres literary festival. 

Visitors can also take a number of literary tours, including the Our Writings walking tour of the Literary and Historical Society of Québec’s Morrin Centre; founded in 1824, it contains a gorgeous Victorian-era library. Mystery lovers might want to take the Bury Your Dead tour, which follows the trail of the fictional inspector from Louise Penny’s best-selling mystery novel of the same name. 

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Aux Anciens Canadiens, the former home of writer Philippe-Aubert de Gaspé, is a great spot for lunch, and afternoons fly by while browsing the many independent bookstores of the city, like the massive Librairie Pentoute and the new and used collection of Librairie Nelligan. For the best stock of English language books, La Maison Anglaise et Internationale is the place. Have afternoon tea at the 126-year-old Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, which has inspired many a writer, including Willa Cather when she wrote Shadows on the Rock. If you’re looking for a retreat to stimulate your own writing, book a stay at Le Monastère des Augustines, an old monastery-turned-hotel that emphasizes quiet reflection through culture and wellness.

The National Library of Scotland has more than 26 million items in its collection.

Edinburgh

“Piled deep and massy, close and high; Mine own romantic town.”

—Sir Walter Scott, Marmion

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Scotland’s capital was the first city to receive the UNESCO Literary Cities designation when the program was launched in 2004. Aside from being the birthplace of many famous writers (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for one), it’s also home to the world’s oldest circulating library, opened in 1725, as well as the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the largest literary festival on the planet.

Must-see sites include the historic National Library of Scotland, with its “Treasures” exhibitions displaying historic artifacts, cozy café, and 7 million books; the Scottish Poetry Library, housing an impressive collection inside an award-winning architectural marvel; the Writers’ Museum, which honors three Scottish writers (Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson) by displaying various artifacts and personal effects in a historic 1622 house; and the Scottish Storytelling Centre, a venue that hosts readings, theater and music performances, festivals, and various literature-themed exhibits.

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There are countless bookstores, cafés, and pubs (many host readings, salons, and workshops) that are significant to the city’s literary landscape, too. A few of the best include Oxford Bar, known as the favorite pub of crime writer Ian Rankin’s fictional Edinburgh cop, Inspector Rebus; Elephant House, where JK Rowling famously wrote her early books; the Elvis Shakespeare bookstore; and Forest Café for its open mic nights. Make time to explore the used bookshops on West Port in the historic Grassmarket area—some taverns there even served the likes of Robert Burns and William Wordsworth. Book a stay at the historic Balmoral Hotel, where JK Rowling finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in one of its suites.

The Old Capitol Building is a landmark on the University of Iowa campus, which is also home to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Iowa City, Iowa

“I will tell you what I really like: the looks and the feel of this town. The university is right in the middle of it, and the town exists only because of the university. The idea is medieval and exciting and beautiful.”

—Kurt Vonnegut, Letters

This unassuming Midwestern city is responsible for cultivating some of America’s best writing talent. As home to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, which established the first creative writing degree in the United States in 1936, Iowa City has hosted some of the country’s best contemporary authors, including Flannery O’Connor, John Irving, Ann Patchett, Raymond Carver, Curtis Sittenfeld, and countless others. Travelers can visit the Dey House, home of the workshop, peruse its library and archives, and attend a student reading. 

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Other literary highlights in the city include the Literary Walk, which features bronze panels along Iowa Avenue devoted to writers with Iowa connections; the Haunted Bookshop, which is the city’s oldest secondhand bookshop with over 50,000 used, rare, and out-of-print books stacked on floor-to-ceiling shelves; the Java House, a local coffee shop chain that hosts readings and art shows; the Iowa Writers’ House, which hosts workshops and events; and the famous Prairie Lights independent bookstore, which is located in the space where a local literary society in the 1930s hosted such poets as Langston Hughes and E. E. Cummings. 

It’s worth visiting during one of the many festivals the city puts on: Book Festival in October, the Summer Writing Festival in June and July, and Summer of the Arts, which from May through August includes Iowa Arts Festival, Iowa City Jazz Festival, and the Iowa Soul Festival.

Montevideo’s position as a port city with many cultural influences is evident in its literary history.

Montevideo, Uruguay

At the beginning of the 20th century, Montevideo rose to literary prominence and was nicknamed “the Athens of the Rio de la Plata.” Home to renowned authors like Mario Benedetti, Juan Carlos Onetti, and Cristina Peri Rossi, it’s also the cradle of Gaucho literature and the only UNESCO City of Literature in Latin America. It’s common for malls and shopping centers to have at least one bookstore (if not several) and a citywide program brings mobile libraries filled with hundreds of books to city parks and the beach. On Sundays, the Feria de Tristán Narvaja flea market takes over a long stretch of Tristan Narvaja Street in the Cordón neighborhood. Aside from produce, handicrafts, and antiques, there’s a massive area with long tables and crates overflowing with old books and magazines. Some of the best bookstores (many also have cafés or restaurants in them) include Las Karamazov, Diomedes Libros, Escaramuza, and Más Puro Verso, which is located in an art nouveau building from 1917. 

The monument to national poet France Prešeren depicts him with a muse above.

Ljubljana, Slovenia

“In the small central square of Ljubljana, the statue of the poet stares fixedly at something. If you follow his gaze, you will see, on the other side of the square, the face of a woman carved into the stone of one of the houses.”

—Paulo Coelho, Veronika Decides to Die

Ljubljana was named the World Book Capital by UNESCO in 2010, five years before being designated an official City of Literature in 2015. The Slovenian capital honors poet France Prešeren with a monument in the main square, and the Slovenian Writers Trail connects many author homes. The city also promotes literature and reading in various ways, including a vast library system, literary tours run by the city, and several festivals like Fabula Festival and the Slovene Book Fair, which has been going on since 1993. If you visit the city in spring or summer, be sure to stop by a Library Under the Treetops, which is what it sounds like—a selection of books and chairs set up in parks across the city. Other literary highlights include the Trubar House of Literature, which hosts readings and other events; the oldest publisher and bookstore, Celjska Mohorjeva Družba, operating since 1851; and Pritličje, which is part café, part nightclub, and part comic book shop.

The church-turned-bookshop Libraria de Santiago is a popular stop for visitors to Óbidos, Portugal.

Óbidos, Portugal

This ancient walled city on Portugal’s west coast 50 miles north of Lisbon drew international attention in 2012 when it transformed its Gothic church of Santiago into a massive library and a bookshop (now called Livraria de Santiago), cementing its commitment to literature and its dedication to creative urban renewal. From there, bookstores opened in places like an old fire station, a produce market, and a former wine cellar. Casa José Saramago, the headquarters of Óbidos City of Literature, named after the famous Portuguese author, has information on all the other cities of literature, including guidebooks and a library of Saramago’s works for sale in different languages. 

Óbidos hosts the annual FOLIO festival, an international literary event that brings authors from across Portugal and the world. Bookworms will dig a stay at the Literary Man, a literary-themed hotel with more than 65,000 books stacked throughout the 20 rooms and common areas. The dining room and gin bar incorporate books into their designs, and guests can schedule a “bibliotherapy” massage in the ancient wine cellar, which is, of course, lined with books.

Bucheon, about 15 miles from Seoul, was once the home of writers like poet Byeon Yeong-ro, who went by the pen name Suju.

Bucheon, South Korea

Located between Seoul and Incheon, the bustling literary city of Bucheon has been home to many famous writers, including Mok Il-sin, Yang Gui-ja, Jeong Ji-yong, and the American author Pearl S. Buck, who wrote two novels set in Korea and worked in 1960s Bucheon with orphans from the Korean War. Since 2006, the city has held a Pearl Buck Festival. Other literary festivals include the Bucheon City Book Festival and the Suju Literary Festival, celebrating the works of beloved native poet Byeon Yeong-ro (his pen name was Suju). It’s common for streets, bridges, and memorial parks to be named after authors in Bucheon, and if you wander the city, you’ll find that each of the above-mentioned authors and poets have several dedicated to them. Buck and Ji-yong have special literary trails that trace significant sites throughout the city. Visitors can peruse the Street of Poetry and Flowers, dedicated to the city’s poets, and enjoy book cafés like Café 21 Street, Café Kongbang, and Café Dongnae, all located on the street across from the Sangdong Library. The city also has a rich comic and animation culture, with the Korea Manhwa Museum devoted to the genre.

>>Next: The Trip Every Outlander Fan Should Take—and 7 Other Literary Journeys to Try in 2020

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