Porto’s magical book store Livraria Lello – The victim of greed

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Have you ever had an highly anticipated must-do on your agenda, which you were very keen of for a long time – just to fall apart tremendously when you finally turned it into action?

The fact that relatives live in Greater Porto, I know that city already for a certain time. A time, before it went viral among tourists. For ages locals told me about a top hidden gem called Lello – a small and snazzy bookshop rather known by insiders. In recent years, through the hype of a famous writer, it became famous within the core fanbase. Nowadays, those fanboys/-girls, locals and insiders are not the only ones frequenting Lello anymore. In this article, I’m going to tell you what I experienced at my very first visit.

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My first visit to Livraria Lello in Porto

It was one sunny and hot day in June 2018, when I decided to finally visit Lello on my own. Having passed by many times before, I couldn’t miss that tiny house with its Art Noveau architecture in the middle of an historic row of houses. While its facade, ornaments and decorative elements are already a reason to admire, many people would overlook and finally walk past it – unless there is a huge queue, drawing the attention to anyone around. That being said, there is a lot going around Lello, as the University and many landmarks of the city are located in the neighbourhood.

The detail orgy above the bookshop’s entrance

In fact, there was a queue. This time, it was quite manageable, and I didn’t have to wait that much – unfortunately, I had been glad already too early. The staff indicated to take another entrance for purchasing a ticket, which was two buildings away. Unsuspecting, I passed through the entrance and what I saw was shocking.

Welcome to the merchandise dungeon!

Do you remember, that I talked about, how Lello got famous among a writer’s fanbase?
It’s no other than J.K. Rowling, aka the mother of the Harry Potter series.

So, what is exactly the link between J.K. Rowling and Lello? Well, in the 90s, she lived in Porto and spent time in that bookshop often, getting inspirations for her superstellar book series. As I said earlier, back in the 90s, Lello was merely frequented. Thus, it was a great and quiet place to seek the bookshop’s atmosphere while being creative.

Having said that, the first section of that ticket terminal was full packed with Harry Potter merchandise. I had the impression being in that Harry Potter store next to platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross railway station in London. It seems like they skilfully played the joker, to lure as many visitors, with an emotional bond for that series, to buy those products.

After that section I arrived at an area with lockers, where everybody, who carried bags, had to drop them off there. When I checked the queue of the terminal’s last section, I couldn’t believe how the quantity of lockers should match the stream of visitors. Here the merchandise dungeon continued and was even trickier than before, as it was designed like a check-In area at airports. So, they applied the same trick as you encounter every time when standing and waiting in a supermarket check-out queue.

“I waited 25 minutes to acquire a ticket, which costed me 5 euros!”

Yikes – imagine how long you must have been waiting during peak season between July and August.
Moreover, the ticket price was being whitewashed for also being a voucher, when purchasing a book at the end of your visit. Honestly, I’d welcome that practice, if they used the entrance fee to maintain the bookshop and regulate the stream of visitors.

However, my hope evaporated within seconds after having entered the bookshop.

Have I accidentally hit a club’s dancefloor?!

Full packed like a dancefloor at 2am – Lello’s ground floor
These details made me so excited about visiting Lello in the first place
View on Lello’s majestic ceilings

I was literally shocked at the state of the inside – by that I don’t mean the interior design, but rather the predominant crowd the manageable space. It gave me those vibes of being on a club’s dancefloor at 2am. I tried in vain to reach the famous spiral staircase because a bunch of people were browsing through books and therefor blocking the already tight aisles – lastly and most importantly, the admission must pay off.

So, like being in a club, I elbowed my way through the crowd to get a closer look of the spiral staircase – unfortunately, it was not possible. People occupied the stairs for being photographed for several minutes. Yes, I also like to have a souvenir photo of myself at charming and atmospheric places, however….

“Unfortunately, during the usual opening hours, that crowd made Lello losing its special charm and atmosphere

Experiencewise, it’s practically impossible to put oneself in J.K. Rowling’s position and let the place take on you. Reading a book in a relaxed atmosphere is impossible either.

The upper level suffers the same fate – it’s quite impossible to appraise the marvellous ceiling decoration, as you get jostled by the crowd within seconds.
There were simply too many people for that tiny bookshop.

Yeah, even the upper floor was full packed

Looking at the choice of books on the upper level, the design of the bookshelves struck very positively to me. These are decorated with various busts which create an inspiring motif with the books. It turned out that the busts portray famous Portuguese writers, such as Camilo Castelo Branco or Teófilo Braga.

Various busts decorating Lello’s bookshelves

The choice of books was mainly dominated by Portuguese literature, which was complemented by a minor proportion of guides, poetry and international literature.

Sporadically, I did not find any book that interested me enough to spend more money –  voucher or not.

When trying to catch one or the other motive unhurriedly and less crowded, I failed miserably and then left the Livraria – disappointed.

Harry Potter Bookshop

Closing words

All in all, Livraria Lello’s unique interior design and ornaments make it justly a visitor magnet – nevertheless combined with consequences. It is perfectly legitimate that they want to have a slice of the tourist boom cake in the city. Likewise, it is legitimate to demand an entry fee to invest in restoration and preservation for this treasure of a bookshop. Unfortunately, Lello is real cash cow and is being rigorously abused. I would have liked it a lot, that they regulated the stream of visitors after getting charged for entrance. This could have helped a lot to preserve the unmistakable charm and marvellous atmosphere, which in the past, inspired people and writers. It remains to be hoped that the situation will improve. Maybe it’s much less crowded during the winter months – but I doubt it.

Should you visit Livraria Lello, I wish you all a better and cosier experience.

Another advice: You can also acquire the ticket / voucher online to avoid the queue in the ‘merchandise dungeon’ here.

Opening hours

Monday – Sunday 9:30am until 20:30pm

How to reach Livraria Lello in Porto

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