Skip to primary navigation Skip to content Skip to footer
Back to Blog

El Ateneo: the most beautiful bookstore in the world

A look inside El Ateneo Bookstore, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

No matter whether you are a bookworm or not, El Ateneo is one of those places you will not want to miss when staying in Buenos Aires.

Argentina’s capital city is known for offering all kinds of tourist attractions and a huge cultural diversity. But what a lot of people do not know is the fact that it is one of the cities with the most bookstores per person in the world. With fantastic and internationally renowned writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Victoria Ocampo and Adolfo Bioy Casares, it is not surprising that locals love literature so much.

As one of these writers once (Borges) once said: “Of all the instruments a person has, a book is –without a doubt- the most amazing one. A book is an extension of memory and imagination”. Imagination is exactly what people behind the Ateneo Grand Splendid did not lack when creating the bookstore’s concept.

But let’s start from the very beginning…

The Grand Splendid Theater

Upon arrival, you will be shocked by the beauty and uniqueness of the building. The reason behind this is that it was not particularly built to host a bookstore, it actually started as a theater.

Called “Grand Splendid”, it opened in May 1919, and had four lines of boxes and a main floor with capacity for 500 people.  

The architecture and decoration are exquisite, and here are a couple details you should not miss:

The dome is a jewel on its own. It was painted by the Italian artist, Nazareno Orlandi, using a special technique called “marouflage”: the design was painted on a canvas and then pasted on the dome ceiling with special adhesives. The images painted on it represent peace, as they were completed soon after the First World War had finished. At the center of the design, you can see a female image and  towards the edges, symbols representing wheat, fruits, a movie projector, doves and cherubs. He also painted at the Museum of Modern Art in Rome.

Marvellous sculptures by the Italian artist Troiano Troiani decorate each side of the stage.

And the Greek style marquee is an authentic piece of art.

The place was used as a theater up to the 1980s, and a lot of important tango artists performed in this theater: Ignacio Corsini, Roberto Firpo (in 1927 he sang the tango “Gran Splendid” to the theater with lyrics by Enrique Delfino).

The radio

In 1923, a radio station was inaugurated on the first floor of Grand Splendid theater.

Carlos Gardel, one of the most famous tango singers (and actor) in history, actually made his debut on radio here in 1929. He also recorded some of his songs in a special room that is  kept as a gem in the building (but unfortunately cannot be visited).

The radio station was in use up to 1930, when it was moved to another location in Buenos Aires.

The cinema

After a while, the popularity of theaters decreased in Buenos Aires as cinemas were in vogue. Following the trend, in 1929 the Grand Splendid was turned into one of the most important cinemas in Buenos Aires, where the first ever sound film in Argentina was presented.

Back in that time, going to the cinema was a very important social event. Families used to choose an option in one of the different venues existing in the area and it was quite usual to have dinner (specially pizza!) before or after watching the film. 

Social activities began changing with the arrival of big malls, offering  options and services for entertainment: cinemas, restaurants, parking lots. So traditional places (like this one) lost their audience. After 70 years active, Grand Splendid cinema closed its doors in 1999.

At that moment, many people feared about the future of such an important and significantly beautiful venue. Some of the options considered for the building were a parking lot or a church. Luckily, things went in the culture direction and in  2000 El Ateneo Grand Splendid was turned into Buenos Aires’ most unique bookstore.

El Ateneo Grand Splendid bookstore, Buenos Aires

After undergoing a whole process of restoration and remodeling, Buenos Aires began showing this unbelievable bookstore that is visited by more than a million people every year.

First of all, the cinema and the theater seats needed to be removed in order to make room for the bookshelves. But the main (and most difficult) change was cutting an oval area in the main floor and adding an escalator to give access to the basement, where they created a whole children’s section.

The luxury theatre boxes are still intact and sometimes people sit there to relax while having a look at an interesting book.

The old stage was transformed into a café, so you can take a break in a very unique atmosphere. Experience the pleasure of admiring the whole place from the old stage.

Looking for some books besides the beautiful looks? Worry not! There is also an English language section.

Known all over the world?

International travelers love visiting the bookstore and El Ateneo Grand Splendid has caught the attention of several international magazines:

In 2008 “The Guardian” ranked it as the second in their list of the ten most beautiful bookshops in the world. And in 2019 “National Geographic” named it as the most beautiful bookstore in the world. They say: “Ateneo Grand Splendid is worth a visit as an attraction in its own right”. (And to tell you the truth… they are right!!).

As one of the main attractions in Buenos Aires at Signature Tours we recommend all our customers to not miss it!

We hope that this information about Buenos Aires, El Ateneo Grand Splendid bookstore will be useful for your next stay in Buenos Aires. We are glad to provide some tips so that you can make the most of your days among us. For that, we have prepared a selection of blog posts with recommendations from our tour guides about art and culture, places to visit, travel advice and much more. 

In case you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us, we are just a message away, ready to help you and hoping to see you soon around here to say: “Welcome to Buenos Aires. Enjoy your stay”.