Rio de Janeiro is not generally considered to be a ‘bookish’ place when it comes to tourism – it’s mostly a city people visit to party, see the sights, and celebrate the famous carnival. Contrary to this general perception, Rio has some pretty great bookish places you can go visit – that is, if you know the city and know who to ask. It’s unlikely most bookish tourists know who to ask but fear not, I have compiled a guide to bookish places in Rio below.
I personally feel like the best place for people who love literature in Rio de Janeiro is the city center, which will hold a large place in this guide. However, I want to start with a more obvious location: Copacabana beach. Of course, reading on the beach – a famous one at that – is one of the best parts of going on holiday but Copacabana beach has another feature for bookish people: a statue of Brazil’s most influential poet, Carlos Drummond de Andrade. I am not a great poetry reader, but I adore Andrade’s work and the statue (there is actually a photo of him in that position), inaugurated in 2002, is a great photo opportunity as you can sit next to it and pretend to be having a conversation with the great poet. The poet is originally from Minas Gerais but he fell in love with Rio and moved to Copacabana. The statue is also famous locally because its glasses kept getting snatched – to the point that it had to be merged with the metal so that people could no longer remove it. While sitting next to Andrade and watching the waves reach the beach, it is easy to understand why the city is a constant source of inspiration for so many poets and composers.
The morning is born like everywhere in the world
But a feeling vibrates
That things loved each other during the night.”
– Portrait of a City, 1977, Carlos Drummond de Andrade
The real bookish magic is located in the city center, there are many bookshops, second hand bookshops and libraries that can be visited as well as a couple of statues of literary figures. The first stop to make is the National Library of Brazil in Cinelândia (easily reachable by subway), that is the seventh biggest library in the world and the biggest library in the whole of Latin America. The library is the keeper of over ten million titles and much of its contents were brought all the way from Portugal in three nautical trips in 1810 and 1811. Many old, majestic buildings in the city center were built in the early 1800s because of the Portuguese royal family’s migration to Brazil after Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Portugal in 1808 and this is the case with the National Library. It’s a great building to visit, stunning on the outside and the inside, but visiting is limited to a few rooms only and taking photos is not allowed.
“I always imagined that heaven would be a kind of library.” – Jorge Luis Borges, Elogio de la Sombra, 1969. Quote engraved onto a wall in the National Library of Brazil
If you’re looking to visit a gorgeous, modern-looking bookshop, Livraria Cultura is very close to the library, on Senador Dantas Street. Free wifi is available and a café can be a good place to rest your feet if you’ve been walking all day. And you can read books while you have your coffee (and maybe a pão de queijo, a Brazilian kind of bread)! I also found a huge Pelé book that can be browsed by visitors without charge, for anyone who is bookish and a fan of soccer. The shop was inaugurated in December of 2012, in an old building that used to have a cinema. The decoration of was preserved and there are four floors of books, vinils, comis books and music. (Tip: public restrooms are rare in Rio so take this opportunity to use the shop’s toilet if you need it!)
Within walking distance you can peruse several second hand bookshops in the city center. Second hand bookshop Academia do Saber (Knowledge Academy) actually has two locations on Avenue Passos with Luís de Camões Street (and you can snap a photo of the street sign in homage to the poet and author of The Lusiads) where books are stacked from floor to ceiling. In total, the 30 year old shop has four locations across the city center. Posters and comic books are also available. It’s always fun to peruse comic books because there are translations of Marvel and DC Comic but there are also nationally produced comic books you might not seen anywhere else in the world.
There is a gem to be found on Luís de Camões street, a building (number 30) that doesn’t look like much from the outside: the Portuguese Royal Reading Room. Inside, the architecture is stunning and old books line the walls. The Reading Room, founded by Portuguese immigrants in 1837, was included in Time Magazine’s list of most beautiful libraries in the world in 2014 and has been visited by literary figures like Cecília Meirelles and Vinicius de Moraes and Brazilian President Getúlio Vargas. The Room holds 350,000 books, including a first edition of Luis de Camões’s The Lusiads. A less obvious but delicious stop in the city center is Confeitaria Colombo, a Portuguese bakery where several Brazilian writers and intellectuals used to hang out in
Last stop in the city center – but definitely not least – I recommend a visit to Biblioteca Parque Estadual, still within walking distance. This library has been recently opened in 2014 after a process of renovation, and it is a gorgeous place to read, have a coffee and just appreciate well-organized books. The building is as big as 15,000 square meters and holds around 250,000 media items including books, DVDs, magazines, and CDs. Famous literary quotes are painted onto the walls and children have their own educational space to enjoy.
“To write is to be at one’s own extremity.” – João Cabral de Melo Neto, Brazilian poet quoted on the walls of Biblioteca Parque Estadual.
Near the city center there is the neighborhood of Lapa (which should be on your tourist radar in any case) where the poet Manuel Bandeira used to live on Moraes e Valle Street, where he wrote “Alleyway Poem”. Lapa is also where the cortiços used to be, as told in Aluísio de Azevedo’s The Slum. Also near the city center, the Brazilian Academy of Literature has bronze statues of Manuel Bandeira and Joaquim Nabuco.