Iconic petrol stations around the world – architecture and design

Modernist petrol station in Ljubljana

Did you ever make a longer detour to take pictures of iconic petrol stations? Well, we do sometimes during our travels.

Those who have been following our stories for a while know that we like history. Therefore, we always have a look at the UNESCO sites before we travel to a new place. But there are a lot of other things we look up at the places we visit! For instance, we check for modern architecture, third wave coffee shops, vegetarian restaurants, or invader mosaics. And we try to find out if there are historical petrol stations in the area.

Although we do not own a car (living in Berlin, we do not need one) and Natascha does not even have a driving license, we like the nostalgic feel and the sense of naïve belief in technology. So we sometimes go a bit out of our way to find an iconic petrol station.  At other times we may spot an old petrol station by chance.

And last but not least, petrol stations hold a promise of travel, of the world beyond. We like that.

A very short history of petrol stations

The need for filling up fuel on the road came with the invention of cars. In the beginning it was pharmacies who sold petrol as a side business. Besides petrol, pharmacies also dabbled in the lemonade business. That’s because they had the equipment for carbonizing water, and many installed soda fountains in their shops. Indeed, it was a pharmacist who invented Coca Cola in 1886.

A simple petrol station in Bohicon/Benin, with bottles of gasoline, and soft drinks
A petrol station in Bohicon/Benin, with bottles of gasoline, and soft drinks

Back in these early days, the motorists bought the petrol in cans at the pharmacy and filled up themselves. It was an improvement when curbside petrol pumps sprang up, where drivers could fill up directly into the car on the street. These early petrol pumps still got their fuel from a barrel in a nearby shop. But then with the rising number of automobiles, curbside pumps caused annoying traffic jams.

The first “modern” drive-in service station opened in Pittsburgh/Pennsylvania in 1913. Now the automobiles could drive into a special area with a roof that sheltered them from rain. Remember, many were still open carriages! And soon these gas stations sold other automotive services as well, such as snacks and maps. It was the birth of an entirely new category of building: the petrol station.

The Skovshoved petrol station near Copenhagen

The iconic petrol station "Skovshoved" by Arne Jacobsen near Copenhagen

One of the most memorable petrol stations we visited is the Skovshoved petrol station near Copenhagen. This icon of modernist functionalism has been built by the famous Danish architect Arne Jacobsen in 1937. Nicknamed the “toadstool” for its unique overhanging roof, it is an architectural eye-catcher up to this day.

The petrol station is part of the Bellevue quarter just north of Copenhagen. The area was developed in the 1930s for the richer part of the Copenhagen society. Arne Jacobsen also designed some other public buildings in Bellevue, like the beach bath, a summer theatre, and some housing blocks. The so-called “White City” (because most of the buildings are white) was one of the earliest projects in Denmark that picked up influences from the German Bauhaus and the architecture of Le Corbusier.

Today it is still possible to fill up at the Skovshoved petrol station. We came by bicycle from Copenhagen and had a good coffee in the former car-wash section – now a stylish on-site coffee shop.

How to get to the Skovshoved petrol station

Without a car the easiest way to go to Skovshoved from Copenhagen is by train (station Klampenborg). In the area you can also visit the Jaegersborg Dyrehave, one part of the UNESCO-listed par-force hunting landscape of Denmark. For a perfect daytrip, combine the petrol station with a visit to the par force hunting landscape and the oldest amusement park in Denmark, the Bakken Fairground. Cycling is also possible and will take around 1,5 hours one-way. A bicycle is also necessary to properly explore the Dyrehave deer park.

The Fiat Tagliero Petrol Station in Asmara /Eritrea

Fiat Taglieri petrol station in Asmara, Ethiopia

Another well-known iconic petrol station is the Fiat Tagliero Petrol Station in Asmara/Eritrea. The area became an Italian colony in the second half of the 19th century and from 1920 onwards the Italians started rebuilding the city of Asmara. During WWII the building activities culminated in an all-out effort to turn Asmara into a modern African metropolis. The city became an architectural playground for European architects, and modern cinemas, pools, a train station, and housing quarters arose throughout the city.

It was the Italian architect Giuseppe Pettazzi who designed the futuristic Fiat Tagliero Petrol Station. Completed in 1938, it looks like a plane with large, cantilevered wings and stylish wrap-around windows. This was shortly after the Italian army flew heavy attacks at larger parts of Ethiopia, killing tens of thousands of people.

The iconic Fiat Taglieri petrol station in Asmara, Ethiopia

It is fun to walk around Asmara discovering fantastic modernist buildings. Together with several other modern buildings in Asmara the Fiat Tagliero Petrol Station became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2017. The Jury rated it as an exceptional example of early modernist urbanism at the beginning of the 20th century and its application in an African context.

Where is the Fiat Taglieri Building in Asmara

The Fiat Tagliero building stands on a busy major intersection in Asmara. If you spend some time in the capital of Eritrea you will most likely pass it at some point or other.

Old colonial petrol stations in Dekemhare/ Eritrea

Petrol station in Dekemhare, Eritrea

During our 12-day trip to Eritrea we did a daytrip to the small town of Dekemhare, 40 km south of Asmara. The Italians wanted to develop Dekemhare into an industrial centre in Eritrea and remodelled bigger parts of the town. Similar to Asmara they built new public buildings, cinemas and sports facilities, although on a more moderate scale.

As there was not much information available about Dekemhare, we just strolled through the broad streets of the sleepy little town. And we found another modernist petrol station.  

Socialist Modernism Petrol Stations in Ljubljana/ Slovenia

One of the iconic petrol stations in Ljubljana, Slovenia

When we visited Ljubljana last year, we were excited to find out that there are some interesting petrol stations, too.  The monopolist “Petrol” company built these petrol stations between 1950 and 1970 when Slovenia belonged to the communist Yugoslavian state. Back then modernist petrol stations were part of the communist propaganda, portraying the country as ambitious and future-oriented.

Altogether there are apparently four petrol stations left from this era, some of them still working. However, we visited only two of them.

Particularly fun to visit was the one the famous Slovenian architect Milan Mihelič built in 1972. It features a free-standing concrete roof with a red-and-white pattern. Only one thick central pillar supports the whole roof like a mushroom.

One of the iconic petrol stations in Ljubljana, Slovenia

Directly opposite this spectacular masterpiece we found another one of the Soviet-era petrol stations. This one dates from 1970. It was constructed by Edvard Ravnikar, another famous Slovenian architect. Three interconnected canopies stretch out over nearly 60 m. And what’s more, it is still a working petrol station.

Where are the iconic petrol stations in Ljubljana?

The modernist petrol stations in Ljubljana are within walking distance from the main station. Tivolska Street 46 and 43.

More petrol stations to explore in the future

Some more ideas where to look for iconic petrol stations:

  • Batumi petrol station in Georgia
  • NP petrol station near Madrid, Spain
  • Rest Area Niemanharju, Finland
  • Pops Arcadia at Route 66, USA

Did you come across interesting petrol stations during your travels or at home? What is your opinion about such iconic petrol stations? Are they worth a detour? Let us know in the comments!

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  1. Those are really some iconic petrol stations. I find it very interesting that I’m from Slovenia and I often visit Ljubljana and I haven’t paid attention to this petrol station yet.

    1. Dear Jasmina, they are quite close to the station actually. But maybe not in an area you would visit often – there is not much else than the two petrol stations.

  2. Fascinating–I have never thought to search these out but now I’m going to keep my eyes open for the ones you listed when I’m in those areas. I was in Copenhagen last summer but had no idea! They are truly unique structures. Thanks for sharing!

  3. These iconic petrol stations are uniquely designed and most of them are full service stations . Nice to know that first full service station started in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

  4. Hallo Ihr 2, das ist mal wieder eine wirklich coole Idee für einen Artikel. Superspannend! Mein absoluter Favorit ist die Tankstelle in Eritrea, da wollen wir auch schon so lange mal hin. Liebe Grüße von Gabi und Michael

    1. Hallo Gabi, Danke! Eritrea ist wirklich spannend. Berlin ist, glaube ich auch eine der besten Botschaften, um das Visum unproblematisch zu bekommen. Zumindest war das vor Corona so. Wir waren 12 Tage dort – das war fast ein bisschen lang. Aber meldet euch auf jeden Fall, wenn/ falls ihr fahrt.

  5. Wait a minute! Historic & Iconic petrol stations? That’s a thing? I have never thought about it! Socialist Modernism Petrol Stations in Ljubljana are incredibly stunning. Good to know that 4 of these still exist. Indeed this minimalist, modern design is a good way to portray the country as ambitious and future-oriented! I’m hoping to visit Slovenia soon and I shouldn’t miss this.

    1. Dear Busha, I do not know, if it is a thing. I just realized that we have pictures of several petrol stations and that we tend to watch out for them. And I thought, why not make a blog post about it.

  6. The architectural design of these petrol stations is remarkable! My attention was caught by the architecture of the Skovshoved. Ljubljana’s shape, which resembles a mushroom, is also spectacular. As technology has advanced and there are now many modernized gas stations, seeing the old petrol station in Bohicon/Benin brings back nostalgic memories.

  7. How cool are these Petrol Stations. I really like the Skovshoved petrol station but the Old colonial petrol stations in Dekemhare/ Ethiopia are really cool too! When we were in India the petrol or gas stations were always a great refuge for a long drive on the road & oddly enough they always had the best bathrooms.

  8. I didn’t think an article about petrol stations could be such engaging and fascinating reading! You have presented a great list of iconic stations from around the world. I know only several stations from the famous Route 66 in the USA, but you show iconic architectural gems from Ethiopia, Eritrea, or Copenhagen. I’m impressed!

  9. I must admit that detours for petrol stations are not something that we regularly do. But it is interesting when we travel and find older ones abandoned. Or even refurbished in their original state. Something to look for if you ever drive Route 66 in the US. I was fascinated when I read that originally petrol was purchased in cans at pharmacies! It certainly would be cool to visit a futuristic petrol station designed by an Italian architect!

  10. I have never thought that petrol stations could be iconic, of works of art. I have visited Ljubljana twice before and Copenhagen once, but I didn’t think to pay attention to the architecture of the petrol stations. I will definitely check them out if I go back. I don’t think I came across any iconic petrol station during my travels. Only petrol stations located in beautiful locations, or petrol stations with great restaurants – in Spain.

  11. Liked your interest in finding out petrol stations. 🙂
    It’s interesting to know how in earlier days pharmacies used to sell petrol and lemonade as a side business. When I saw your first photo of a roadside shop selling petrol, it took me to Cambodia where they still sell petrol in bottles alongwith fruits, cigarettes and some snacks. Even in the Philippines.
    My favourite is the Skovshoved petrol station, indeed to stand out.
    I think from now on, we will also look for such petrol stations.

  12. I found it such an interesting subject to photograph these landmarks. The story of petrol and the advent of petrol stations is interesting. Personally would love to visit Skovshoved near Copenhagen. Never knew when we visited. Old colonial petrol station in Dekemhare and the Socialist Modernism petrol station in Ljubljana with its artistic ceiling are also ones I would love to venture to.

  13. Wooow , in love with these brilliant petrol station. Especilly petrol station at Costa Calma looks like an UFO . I never notice on the petrol pumps on highway. But your post opened my eyes. From nowonwards I will keep an eye on different types and shapes of Petrol pumps.

  14. Wow, it’s my first time seeing such a unique and brilliant architectural structure of a petrol station. That kind of petrol station in Bohicon with bottles of gasoline and soft drinks also exists in my country up to now, especially in far-flung areas.

  15. What an interesting angle! I like the one in Copenhagen the most as it looks quite futuristic. It’s interesting to see the colonialism signs left behind in Eritrea and Ethiopia. The colonialists left their mark on the architecture for sure.

  16. I don’t know where it comes from but I’m a big series lover. And I’m not talking about TV shows, I’m referring to series in the arts. It might be a German thing since Bernd and Hilla Becher as well as H P Feldmann come to mind immediately. Anyway, being a series lover, I obviously find your personal collection totally endearing. The most impressive one is the gas station in Benin, obviously. But I remember having seen stations with similar security measures in Bali and Cambodia; must be the same brand, probably a chain 😉

    1. Dear Renata, I bet it is a chain! Seeking out the petrol stations is great fun, albeit difficult sometimes as we usually travel without a car. Reaching petrol stations by public transport – might be another blog angel….

  17. Wow! I didn’t know what to expect when I started reading this post. Here in Australia, most service stations look the same now. Those fuel stations you showed us look amazing.

    1. Dear Kelly, I guess in most parts of the world, petrol stations look the same. The point was seeking out unusual petrol stations…..

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