Antwerp’s architectural wonderland

For years, I kept hearing about an area of Antwerp with lots of amazing turn-of-the-century architecture. It’s called Cogels-Osylei, which is also the name of the main street running through the neighborhood. It’s a few kilometers outside the city’s historic center, where the main tourist attractions are located, which is why it took me so long to get out there and see it for myself.

Well, I was not disappointed–and neither will you be, if you make the effort to go there. Cogels-Osylei is well worth the trip if you’re at all interested in architecture. It’s actually not hard to get to; if you take the train to Antwerp, just get off at Antwerpen-Berchem, the last stop before Antwerpen-Centraal (the main train station). Or you can take one of several trams from the city center.

I have never seen such a concentrated display of architectural fantasy, inventiveness and one-up-manship anywhere in the world. Within just a few blocks, it seems that every house was built in a different style, each one unique and stunning in its own right. When you walk down an entire street filled with these fairy-tale concoctions, the effect is magical. It’s like walking through a storybook world where the houses sprang from an architect’s daydreams.

The neighborhood was developed at the end of the 19th century, during a period when Antwerp was growing rapidly. The port of Antwerp was booming, having reopened in 1863 after being closed off from the world for two hundred years. Between 1885 and 1900 the population increased from 200,000 to 300,000. New houses were built in the southern part of the city for the newly wealthy middle class who had come to Antwerp to make their fortunes.

There’s quite a bit of Art Nouveau, but pretty much every period of architecture is represented in various “revival” styles, like Romanesque Revival, Renaissance Revival, Neo-Gothic, Tudor Revival, Neoclassical, and so on. Many of the buildings have themes, such as The Battle of Waterloo, or the Emperor Charlemagne. Sometimes several houses are combined in a single large building with a common facade. Part of the fun is the sheer variety.

Although everyone in Antwerp seems to know about this neighborhood, I don’t think many travelers have heard of it. When I was there, the sidewalks were empty except for the occasional resident. If you want to get away from the crowds of tourists and shoppers in the city center, head on out to Cogels-Osylei and take a quiet, leisurely stroll through this incredible relic of a bygone era.

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