Cool Bookish Places

The Most Bookish Cities in the World

Anne Mai Yee Jansen


Anne Mai Yee Jansen is a literature and ethnic studies professor and a lifelong story addict. She exists on a steady diet of books and hot chocolate, with a heaping side of travel whenever possible. Originally hailing from the sun and sandstone of southern California, she currently resides with her partner, offspring, and feline companion in the sleepy mountains of western North Carolina.

For book lovers, being in a bookish city is a beautiful thing. Maybe you’re hoping to drop in to a beautiful bookstore, go on a bookish road trip, engage in some literary tourism, or perhaps you’re even looking for a new city to call home. Either way, I did a deep dive into the data to figure out what the most bookish cities in the world are.

So, what defines a “bookish city” anyway? Is it the number of publishing houses in a city? (If so, New York and London win hands down.) Is it inspiration? Literary culture? Libraries? Bookstores? The answer, it turns out, depends. On what? Why, on who’s asking, of course!

Take a moment to peruse this list of bookish cities. Some of the places on this list will be expected, but others may surprise you.

The City With The Most Libraries

The World Cities Culture Forum lists Warsaw, Poland, as the city with the most public libraries per capita. With 11.5 libraries per 100,000 residents, it wins out by a hair over Nanjing, China (11.2), and Seoul, South Korea (11.0). Interestingly, the public library system in Tokyo, Japan, sees the most action, numerically speaking. With 111.9 million book loans per year, it beats out second-place Shanghai, China, by over 30 million loans.

The City With The Most Little Free Libraries

With a population of just over 38,000 and a count of over 120 Little Free Libraries, Lake Worth Beach, Florida (formerly Lake Worth), has roughly 1 Little Free Library for every 300 people. This stunning number makes Lake Worth Beach the city with the most Little Free Libraries per capita. The community initiative to increase these bookish outposts is indicative of a bookish culture that recognizes the importance of access to books.

The City With The Most Bookstores

With 41.9 bookstores per 100,000 people, Lisbon wins the title of the city with the most bookstores per capita. According to the World Cities Culture Forum, Portugal’s capital city has significantly more bookstores per capita than the runner up. Melbourne, Australia, clocks in second with 33.9 bookstores per 100,000 people (which is still mighty impressive).

The City With The Oldest Bookstore in the World

Lisbon wins this category, too. Lisbon’s Livraria Bertrand has been in operation since 1732. There are now over 50 branches of the original Livraria Bertrand, but you can visit the flagship bookshop in the Chiado neighborhood. If you find yourself in the area, you’ll also want to check out Livraria Lello. It’s often touted as the most beautiful bookstore in the world. Architecturally, its exterior is characterized by a blend of Art Nouveau and Neo-Gothic styles. The deep-toned woods, stained glass, and paintings adorning the interior make it a bookshop well worth the visit.

The Most Inspiring Literary City In The World

Unsurprisingly, Paris, France, comes up most frequently on lists of the most inspiring of global bookish cities. While it’s in good company with cities like Argentina’s Buenos Aires, India’s Mumbai, Egypt’s Cairo, and Russia’s St. Petersburg, the famed City of Light appears on pretty much every list. Paris, the most inspiring literary city in the world. And yet…

The Most Written About City In The World

Despite Paris’s muse-like qualities, it isn’t the city authors are writing about. It turns out New York City is more than just the city that never sleeps. Apparently, it’s also the city that most inspires — in a different way. With over 8,500 books set in NYC, it beat the second-most written about city in the world (London, England) by nearly 4,000 titles.

The City With The Most Authors

I sifted through a lot of different material to figure out which city in the world was home to the most writers. Unfortunately, I was unable to find a solid answer. Within the United States, there are compelling claims that Livingston, Montana, is “the country’s most unexpected literary epicenter.”

Beyond the U.S., I would hazard a guess at Reykjavík, Iceland. Several years ago, Iceland boasted the most authors per capita, with approximately 10% of the population publishing a book at some point in their lives. Given the distribution of the population in the nation (with about 1/3 living in the capital), that would suggest Reykjavík is home to most Iceland’s authors.

The Best City For Writers

Bookish cities are fantastic, and they wouldn’t exist without the people who write the books. With that in mind, this list names Edinburgh, Scotland, as the best international city for writers and New York City as the best U.S. city for writers. In fact, these two cities repeatedly make the cut for lists naming the best cities for writers. Why? The criteria range from culture to inspiration to the publishing industry and beyond. Despite neither city being particularly affordable, they win out due to the wealth of other factors they offer for writers. It’s worth a gander to check out the full list — some of the cities may surprise you.

The City With The Largest Literary Festival In The World

Jaipur, India, hosts the world’s largest literary event. The Jaipur Literature Festival is a free (!) event. It began in 2006 with 18 speakers, and less than two decades later it features approximately 300 speakers. (This year’s festival has already come and gone, but put it on your calendar for next year!)

The Most Well-Read City (In The United States)

Sadly, I was unable to find adequate data to help me determine the most well-read city in the world. However, the most well-read city in the United States is Ithaca, New York. (If you’ve heard it’s Seattle, you’re probably reading reports Amazon puts out that show which cities order the most books from them. Needless to say, that’s a very different kind of statistic.) Factoring in everything from literacy, public libraries per capita, and education and income levels (which both influence reading), Ithaca appears to be a clear winner.

UNESCO Cities Of Literature

While I was unable to locate statistics that guessed at the most well-read city in the world, literary culture seems crucial to any such designation. To that end, UNESCO has a “Creative Cities” designation that, in the case of literature, recognizes bookish cities.

A UNESCO City of Literature is a city in which publishing, education, libraries and bookstores, and literary events and festivals are thriving. Additionally, such a city actively promotes literature and literary culture. Not only that, but the City of Literature designation indicates a cultural emphasis on literature, drama, and/or poetry that permeates the city. There are 40 UNESCO Cities of Literature in the world (Edinburgh was the very first), and you can find them by searching this map. The U.S. has two UNESCO Cities of Literature: Seattle and Iowa City.

Incidentally, UNESCO also appoints a World Book Capital each year. The 2021 World Book Capital is Tbilisi, Georgia.

A Note On Book Towns

It may also interest you to know that there is a “book town” designation. According to the International Organization of Book Towns, a “book town is a small rural town or village in which second-hand and antiquarian bookshops are concentrated.” Oftentimes, these towns are also steeped in literary history. While these bookish cities are impossible to rank (they’re all amazing), you can learn more about some of the most striking book towns here.

Post Script

It’s not always possible to narrow things down to a specific city. The country that has produced the most Nobel Prize winners in Literature is France. The United States sells the most trade and educational books. On a related note, the U.S. and China collectively publish half of the world’s books each year. And, interestingly, Iceland is rumored to be a phenomenally readerly nation.

My point? Bookish cities are everywhere. Despite ongoing claims about the death of the novel and disturbing statistics tracing sharp declines in bookstores and the publishing industry, there are bookish cities sprinkled throughout the world where any bookworm can find a cozy place to hole up with a good book.