This Opulent Theater Holds What Might be the World’s Most Beautiful Bookstore

Helen Flatley
Featured image
Photo by Liam Quinn CC BY 2.0

Buenos Aires is famously a literary city. This stunning South American capital is rich in culture, known for its dramatic tango music, beautiful European-style architecture, and strong theater tradition.

However, it is also known as a city of bibliophiles: Buenos Aires has more bookstores per capita than any other city in the world. Yet among the more than 700 bookstores that grace the city’s streets, there is one establishment that really stands out.

The Ateneo Grand Splendid is often hailed as the world’s most beautiful bookshop, and it’s easy to see why. Housed in a lavish former theater, the Grand Splendid certainly lives up to its name.

Buenos Aires, Argentina – May 12, 2018: El Ateneo Grand Splendid bookshop – Buenos Aires, Argentina

This magnificent bookstore is located in the Recoleta neighborhood of Buenos Aires, a fashionable part of the city known for its rich cultural heritage. In the late 19th century, at the height of the yellow fever epidemic, the rich and affluent families of Buenos Aires flocked to the hills of Recoleta to avoid the disease. As a result, it became the center of the city’s cultural scene, and is home to art galleries, lavish palaces, theaters, and of course, bookstores.

Picture: Pablo Dodda CC BY 2.0

The Grand Splendid began life in 1919 as a theater, designed by pioneering architects Peró and Torres Armengol. In its early days it was known as a venue for tango, and attracted many of the leading lights of the tango world, including Carlos Gardel, Francisco Canaro and Ignacio Corsini.In 1929, however, the theater underwent a significant renovation, and became a cinema.

El Ateneo Grand Splendid, Buenos Aires Photo by Deensel CC BY 2.0

According to National Geographic, it was actually the first cinema in Buenos Aires to show sound film. It never lost its tango roots, however, and many of the silent movies shown there in the 1930s were accompanied by a live tango orchestra.

Sadly, however, the wear and tear on Argentina’s economy also took its toll on the cinema, and by the end of the 20th century, it was in state of disrepair, unable to generate enough income as a cinema to sustain itself.

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA – NOVEMBER 2017 – View from the second floor of the Ateneo library in Buenos Aires, Argentina

According to National Geographic, in the year 2000, a new project breathed life into this important Argentinian cultural monument. Architect Fernando Manzone oversaw yet another transformation for the Grand Splendid, in keeping with its status as a cultural landmark.

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA – NOVEMBER 2017 – View from the second floor of the Ateneo library in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Instead of a theater or a cinema, the Grand Splendid is now home to thousands of books, making it one of the world’s most beautiful and impressive bookstores. The architects have retained all of the building’s original features, included the gilded and painted ceilings, the grand stage, and the viewing balconies, all of which are now home to stacks of books, DVDs and CDs.

This stunning home for thousands of classic literary works in Spanish is now firmly on the Buenos Aires tourist circuit. Many visitors stop by simply to admire the lavish display, bask in the theater’s history, or even browse a few titles in what would have been the original theater stalls.

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA – NOVEMBER 2017 – View of the roof painting of the Ateneo library in Buenos Aires

It’s also a perfect place to sit and drink a coffee, read a book, and dream about the exciting past of this important piece of Argentinian history. The Grand Splendid offers a trip back into Buenos Aires’ vibrant cultural past, when music and dance breathed life into this atmospheric part of the city.

El Ateneto Gran Splendid. A theatre converted into a bookshop. Buenos Aires, Argentina. Photo by Phillip Capper CC BY 2.0

Indeed, the building has never quite left its cultural roots, and it’s common to find a live band ready to entertain shoppers and tourists alike as they browse this casket of literary wonders.

The renewed success of the Grand Splendid shows that even historic buildings have to move with the times and adapt to change in order to survive.

Read another story from us: Harry Porto? The bookshop in Porto, thought to inspire Harry Potter locations

First a theater, then a cinema, now a bookshop: what is next in store for this stunning cultural monument?