D.C.'s Best Bookstores and Libraries

Regularly ranked as the most literate city in the US, DC houses attractive independent and used bookstores for the bibliophile. Let’s not forget to mention that DC is home to the Library of Congress, the world’s largest library, which comprises of three buildings containing over 158 million items (36 million of them books in 460 languages) and the Folger Library, the world’s largest Shakespearean library. Definitely plenty of shelves and stacks for the literary nerd to get lost in.

1517 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC 20036, USA
One of Washington’s most beloved independent bookstores, Kramerbooks & Afterwords Café is just as much a D.C. institution as the city’s historic monuments. Opened in 1976, Kramerbooks was the first bookstore/café in the United States to feature espresso, cappuccino, a full bar, and food. Popular with students and other assorted night owls, it’s open all night on Friday and Saturday, and late into the evening during the weekdays (there’s often live music). This is the place to savor the final pages of that new book you don’t want to end—and maybe a glass of red wine or a slice of one of their decadent cakes. Check out the events calendar before you go to catch a reading from a political big shot or your favorite new fiction writer.
2467 18th St NW, Washington, DC 20009, USA
Idle Time Books has been an Adams Morgan fixture since 1981 and carries a quality selection of used, recent, and out-of-print books, as well as vintage greeting cards, newspapers, records, and CDs. The best way to explore this little gem of a bookstore is to wander the three floors without an agenda. More times than not, you’ll encounter something quirky that you never knew you wanted but you now just have to have. For me, it was an out-of-print book on canapé recipes and, for my friend, a handful of science fiction novels. Between the bookshelves are plenty of nooks and crannies and comfortable chairs where you can plop down to read.
101 Independence Ave SE, Washington, DC 20540, USA
Established in 1800, the Library of Congress is the oldest federal institution in the United States. The library was destroyed by British troops just 14 years after its conception, and Congress used Thomas Jefferson’s collection of 6,487 volumes to replace it. Today, the collection of the Library of Congress—housed across three buildings—grows by approximately 12,000 items a day and is the second largest library in the world with 164 million items and 838 miles of shelves (that’s farther than the distance from Washington, D.C. to Chicago!). The library holds the world’s largest collection of comic books and one of only three remaining Gutenberg bibles. The Library of Congress offers daily guided tours to explore its historic collection and famous Beaux-Arts architecture.—Miranda Smith
3160 16th St NW, Washington, DC 20010, USA
Established in 1925 in the diverse Mount Pleasant neighborhood, this public library was one of three in DC funded by the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie and is the third oldest public library still in use in the city. Today, over 50,000 books and printed materials are housed on its three floors which include one of DC’s largest collections of graphic novels and Spanish-language literature. Head upstairs to the children’s section on the second floor and take note of a hidden treasure: two alcoves bearing Depression-era murals of cartoon animals painted by DC native and neighborhood resident Aurelius Battaglia, who went on to illustrate Disney classics like “Dumbo,” “Fantasia,” and “Pincocchio.”
More from AFAR
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
AFAR Journeys
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
National Parks