The Livraria Lello bookstore in Porto, Portugal is one of the world’s oldest bookstores and frequently ranked as one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world.
By any measure, it is a top tourism destination in a country suddenly exploding with tourists.
Tourism in Portugal began growing in 2011, but, in recent years, the country has become one of the hottest travel destinations, particularly for American tourists.
The number of tourists visiting Portugal rose a whopping 12% last year for a record 12.7 million people. And tourism now accounts for 10% of Portugal’s gross domestic product. 2016 saw similar increases, according to Reuters.
While the growth in tourism has helped the country bounce back from the 2010-2014 financial crisis, it has also been disruptive.
An age-old coastal city in northwest Portugal with cobblestone streets and a historic medieval center, Porto is one of the country’s premier tourism destinations.
But with only 200,000 inhabitants, it’s easy for the city to feel overrun. That’s doubly true at the quaint picturesque sites that make the city charming, like Livraria Lello.
Last year, 2.5 million tourists visited northern Portugal, according to Der Spiegel, and around half of them visited Livraria Lello.
The decision some four years ago to charge an entrance fee — despite being packed, no one was buying books — did nothing to deter tourists. Around 4,000-5000 people now visit every day.
When I visited Livraria Lello, a place that I was admittedly very excited to stroll through, it was swarmed with tourists. A line stretched down several blocks, and we waited half an hour in the late-summer heat.
When I finally got inside — after paying the 5 Euro entrance fee (applicable toward a book purchase) — the store was packed. You could barely move or thumb through a book.
Everyone was taking selfies, getting photos of a partner on the bookstore’s majestic spiral staircase, or pushing to a room in the back decked out in Harry Potter books and memorabilia.
It has been reported repeatedly that J.K. Rowling, who lived and taught English in Porto from 1991 to 1993, was a loyal customer of Livraria Lello.
Many have suggested that the bookstore’s ornate Neo-Gothic architecture bears a striking resemblance both to depictions of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the central setting of the books, and Flourish and Botts bookshop, where characters in the books purchase their books on magic.
Whether the Harry Potter connection or the stunning architecture is driving the tourism is anyone’s guess, but one thing is certain: During the summer months, a visit to the bookstore feels like a miserable tourist trap.
But when I posted such a sentiment to my Instagram, a follower sent me photos from his own trip, during the winter, showing the bookstore in its empty, beautiful glory. Most of the photos adorning web articles covering the bookstore show the site similarly.
All of which, in my mind, shows why visiting tourism hotspots in the off-season or the “shoulder season” (April, May, September, October) is the way to go. So before you book that trip to Portugal, I’d encourage you to think twice about doing it in summer.
Livraria Lello is but one tiny microcosm of what it’s like to visit the country in August.