Visit the Most Beautiful Libraries in the United States

Explore the halls of these storied, magnificent, and beautiful libraries across the US. As told by Fodors Travel.

Public libraries are some of the last places in the world where visitors can sit down, relax, and exist for free while enjoying a beautiful space. In libraries, you are not expected to owe anyone anything except a desire for community and a sharing of knowledge (and to respect the sanctity of the shared space). In addition to being gathering spots for talented minds, often these architectural marvels are impressive destinations in themselves to admire and explore. Here are 11 of the most awe-inspiring libraries from West Palm Beach to Tennessee.

PHOTO: VISIT SEATTLE/ RUDY WILLINGHAM

Seattle Central Public Library

The 11-story Seattle Central Public Library in downtown Seattle is a relatively new building, with construction finished in spring 2004. It’s the flagship library of the Seattle Public Library system, featuring a sleek, new-age glass exterior appearing to have been wrapped in a large steel net. The library houses an abundance of books, with more than 360,000 square feet and the capacity to hold about one and a half million books. It has received more than one award for its impressive architectural design and offers visitors some of the best views of the entire Puget Sound from up on the 10th floor.

PHOTO: BILL TIMMERMAN PHOTOGRAPHY

Burton Barr Central Library

The Burton Barr Central Library was designed by Will Bruder, who’s known for pulling inspiration from the local landscapes. It dates back to 1995, standing as a 280,000 square foot hulking curved copper structure resembling a mesa (copper paying homage to Arizona’s nickname as the “copper state” and a mesa in tribute to the topography). Explore the collection of one million books spread across five levels. Check out the 90-foot tall skylit atrium, ride one of the three high-speed glass elevators, and gaze at the translucent grand staircase known as the “Crystal Canyon,” which rises from a beautiful reflecting pool. Also, check out the enormous reading room on the fifth floor, described as feeling like a “detached airplane hangar.” Here, blue skylights are placed directly above a series of columns that illuminate at the tips at noon during the summer solstice.

PHOTO: 3.1+2 MOONLOOP PHOTOGRAPHY

Wilmington Public Library

The Wilmington Public Library formally dates back 100 years, having been initially built in 1922 but getting renovated once in 1968. This spot is known to be more than just a place to check out books—it’s a multi-purpose center that offers organizations, businesses, and individuals of all ages a place to gather. Since it’s located in downtown Wilmington, there are plenty of great restaurants and coffee shops to check out within walking distance and the iconic DuPont Hotel. On the outside, visitors will encounter a massive, symmetrical white-gray façade designed in the Neoclassic style by well-respected architects Alfred Githens and Edward Tilton. There are intricate fixtures to admire, including terra-cotta frieze with Egyptian motifs and narrow grilled windows. 

PHOTO: 4.1+ 2 COURTESY OF THE CITY OF WEST PALM BEACH

Mandel Public Library

The Mandel Public Library in downtown West Palm Beach, Florida, is just over the bridge from the iconic Palm Beach, three blocks from the waterfront, and in a great location near the Intracoastal Waterway. This library sits in a neighborhood filled with tasty restaurants, fun shops, and accessible trolley service, which offers service to the beloved nearby retail and theater area, Rosemary Square. The interior and exterior of this structure feel very tropical, boasting a range of bright colors and a natural design. There are four uniquely designed floors—including a dedicated children’s floor and a top floor known as the “stacks,” home to archives and reference materials with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the city skyline. In addition to books, visitors can enjoy a range of programming, including yoga, children’s story time, and free concerts.

PHOTO: PETER AARON/ESTO [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] / FLICKR

Slover Library

The Slover Library in Norfolk, Virginia, perfectly blends traditional architecture with contemporary design. When it first opened in 2015, it was a recipient of that year’s American Institute of Architects Library Building Award for excellence in design and planning. Even though the library itself is new and full of state-of-the-art technology, it’s housed in the 115-year-old Seaboard Building, which stood as a former courthouse and city hall. Modern additions have been made to the original structure, like the seven-story glass-walled addition and the arched openings along the western wall. Inside, visitors will find more than 100,000 books and access to a variety of eBooks, digital magazines, audiobooks, CDs, and DVDs.

PHOTO: BILL TIMMERMAN PHOTOGRAPHY

St. Louis Public Library’s Central Library

Missouri is no stranger to gorgeous libraries, as the Kansas City Public Library in downtown Kansas City is one true work of architectural marvel—but there’s also the St. Louis Public Library’s Central Library, which dates back to 1912 and may be an even more magnificent structure with its combination of both Beaux-Arts and Neo-Classical Architecture styles. This building was designed by renowned architect Cass Gilbert, who also designed the Supreme Court Building in Washington DC. It’s considered a historical treasure, featuring exquisite replicas of details from the Pantheon, the Vatican, and Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library. There’s a magnificently grand front entrance and a peaceful sunken garden space out back for relaxing. In addition to offering an impressive amount of literature and acting as a community space, this library seemingly brings a modern version of the Italian Renaissance to downtown St. Louis. 

PHOTO: NASHVILLE CONVENTION & VISITORS CORP

Nashville Public Library

The Nashville Public Library in Tennessee is centrally located on Church Street and stands as an architectural marvel in addition to serving as the main location of the vast network of public libraries in The Music City. The building, of course, features a treasure trove of literature, but in addition to books, guests can explore an authentic art gallery featuring rotating exhibits and a tranquil courtyard to enjoy a moment of peace. There’s also an impressive digital collection with e-book and audiobook downloads and a range of language learning services and computer classes to explore. In 2017, this spot was named Gale/Library Journal Library of the Year, and in 2010 was the recipient of the National Medal for Museum and Library Services.

PHOTO: LEE M. MANDRELL

Indianapolis Central Library

The Indianapolis Central Library is set in a great location, just steps from Indy’s iconic Monument Circle. This original 1917 building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, was designed by Paul Cret and features a gorgeous Greek Doric style showcasing Indiana limestone with a Vermont marble base. Standing outside feels like being transported back 2,000 years to ancient Greece. In 2007, an expansion adjoined a six-story glass and steel-framed addition to the building. The reading rooms at the top of each staircase feature rich wood paneling set above majestic oak bookcases with large leaded glass windows. It’s said that one of the best views of the city is overlooking the gorgeous American Legion Mall from the sixth floor of the library. The Central Library is free and open to the public, including an on-site café with free WiFi.

PHOTO: JORDAN SKORA​​

Louisville Free Public Library Main Branch

Since its opening in 1908, the Louisville Free Public Library Main Branch has been considered one of Kentucky’s finest examples of Beaux-Arts architecture. Visitors can gaze at the ornate stained glass works, the barrel-vaulted ceiling, the white marble columns, and the two grand staircases affixed with striking bronze and iron railings. Out front, there’s a 13-foot bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln — Kentucky’s only native U.S. President. During the great 1937 flood, much of this library was damaged when the Ohio River rose 30 feet above flood stage and enveloped  60% of the city. Today, this library stands stronger and taller than ever. In fact, it became the first U.S. library with its own FM radio station back in 1950 (today, it’s owned by Louisville Public Media, but those interested can still listen to the archived recordings).

PHOTO: COURTESY OF COLUMBUS METROPOLITAN LIBRARY

Columbus Metropolitan Library

Ohio may have numerous public libraries to enjoy (like The Mercantile Library in Cincinnati, which may be haunted, and the Cleveland Public Library’s historic Main Library Building, known for its impressive interiors), but the Columbus Metropolitan Library might be the most impressive. This library features original Beaux-Arts-style architecture and Vermont marble dating back to 1907. This spot was once the official residence for several Ohio governors, including former president Rutherford B. Hayes. When visitors enter the library’s grand atrium, they’re met with a flood of natural light from glass curtain walls surrounded by 360-degree views of outside nature. Explore more than 230,000 square feet of space filled with internationally-sourced art, an auditorium, an 800-seat reading room, and numerous event spaces.

PHOTO: LOS ANGELES TOURISM

Los Angeles Central Library

California boasts quite a few spectacular libraries. There’s the San Diego Central Library, which is located in downtown San Diego and boasts a massive dome that’s said to be comparable to the Pantheon in Rome. The San Francisco Public Library has its enormous Skylight Gallery and rows on rows of books. But in downtown Los Angeles, The Los Angeles Central Library, with its iconic rotunda, intricate paintings, soaring ceilings, and rich history that dates back to 1926, might just be the best in the books. Plus, this spot has a scandalous and interesting history involving a devastating case of arson in 1986, which damaged hundreds of thousands of books and to this day remains unsolved. But today, the library’s structure, gorgeous design, books, diverse range of community programming, and tough spirit still stand strong.

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