Berlin is a city in love with museums. In fact, Berlin loves its museums so much, it’s collected five of them on a small island on the Spree River, known as Museuminsel. Elsewhere in the city, there are museums devoted to its Jewish history, the sobering events of World War II, divided Berlin, German film and television, LGBT culture, technology, and much more. There’s even a museum dedicated to the city’s favourite cheap snack, currywurst.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, so here are some of the best museums to get you started.
The Pergamon Museum
The Pergamon Museum, Museuminsel’s star attraction, is currently undergoing a lengthy renovation, and the room containing the famous Pergamon Altar remains closed until 2019. That still leaves a jaw-dropping array of antiquities to explore however, including ancient Babylon’s Ishtar Gate (a reconstruction using the original bricks), the Market Gate of Miletus, a vast collection of Islamic art, the Mshatta Façade, and a fragment from the Epic of Gilgamesh. Germany’s possession of the Pergamon itself might seem odd at first, but the acquisition actually saved the Altar from imminent destruction, not to mention looters in its native Turkey. A similar story lurks behind each stunning façade as you weave your way through ancient splendour in the heart of one of Europe’s most modern cities. If possible, book a timed entry ticket through the website. Queues can be long, even with the renovation in full swing.
Fee: Yes (prebooking recommended)
The Neues Museum
The museums of Museuminsel have been collecting antiquities since the Altes Museum (Old Museum) opened in 1830. The Altes still contains a good collection of mostly Roman and Greek art. But it’s the Neues Museum (logically enough, New Museum) that lures more visitors, and with good reason. The Neues is all about ancient Egypt, prehistory, and early history. The Egyptian collection is the main attraction, easily rivalling New York’s Met or the British Museum, with an astonishing array of household, work, and religious items, plus a large collection of sarcophagi. But its most famous resident is the bust of Queen Nefertiti, who ceaselessly stares back at visitors who’ve come to admire her exquisite detail and beauty. The Neues Museum itself has had a rough history, only reopening in 2009 after WWII bombing left it in ruins for almost 70 years. Few history buffs would say it wasn’t worth the wait.
German Historical Museum
Leave Museuminsel behind and make your way toward the famous Brandenburg Gate. Immediately after crossing the Spree, you’ll come to the German Historical Museum, an in-depth journey through centuries of German history, from Charlemagne to Merkel. And we do mean in-depth. Give this place at least two to three hours if you want to hear the whole, undeniably fascinating story. Otherwise, everything is presented in easy-to-navigate chronological order, so if you’d like to skip to the elements that interest you most, feel free. Our advice? If you’re in Berlin for several days, don’t linger on the sections covering the Third Reich or Cold War Berlin. This Museum will give you a nice overview, but other museums cover this era in far more intriguing detail (see below).
Topography of Terror
Germany is extremely frank about confronting the National Socialist era, determined that it not be forgotten, and certainly determined that it never be repeated. A number of museums around Berlin explore this history, including the evocative Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The Topography of Terror, however, paints a bigger picture of Hitler’s insidious rise to power, and is probably the most informative and chilling museum on the subject you can visit. An outdoor display (set, by no coincidence, beneath a surviving fragment of the Berlin Wall) lays out the timeline of the Nazis’ rise from an extremist joke to wielding absolute power in Germany. The museum also happens to be built on the site of the former Gestapo and SS headquarters. It’s not a comfortable place to visit, but it comes as close as any museum can to explaining how a forward-thinking nation like Germany could be seduced by such evil.
Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer and Museum in the Kulturbrauerei
The popular DDR Museum (located just across the Spree from Museuminsel) paints a decidedly quaint, kid-friendly view of life under Communist rule, and while Checkpoint Charlie has become one of the city’s popular symbols, it’s also a pretty transparent tourist trap. If you want to explore the real thing (for free), head north to Bernauer Strasse, a street that witnessed the city’s divide at its most brutal. It’s also the site of numerous daring escapes, successful or otherwise. Start with the museum on the corner of Ackerstrasse (across the street from a recreation of the infamous “death strip”) then follow the park east for the full story, including a moving memorial to the eastern refugees who didn’t make it. Then follow Eberswalder Strasse, crossing under the U-Bahn and turning into Knaackstrasse, where you’ll find the Kulturbrauerei. Here, you’ll find a free museum offering a balanced take on life in the GDR, with household items, testimonials, and experts on the era – free of the tourist crush that typically crowds the DDR Museum. If your visit falls on a Sunday, break up the day with lunch and market browsing in Mauerpark.
The Jewish Museum Berlin
Within its deconstructivist, zig-zag walls, the Jewish Museum Berlin charts the course of Jewish life and history in Germany through the centuries, including the reformation, and of course, the horrors of the Third Reich. This is one museum in Berlin where the building is as interesting as its exhibits. Libeskind was determined that his design be as evocative as the collection it housed. This is particularly noticeable in the building’s lower levels, which detail the tragedies of Jewish exile and the holocaust. But each section of the Museum, which is best explored in linear fashion, is designed and integrated with painstaking attention to mood, detail, and tone.
Is the Museum Pass Berlin worth it?
The 3-day Museum Pass gives you access to a whopping 50 museums throughout Berlin, including the big players on Museuminsel and the Jewish Museum. It also covers interesting specialty museums such as the Bauhaus Archive, the German Museum of Technology, and the Brücke Museum, a small but wonderful modern art space located out near the Grunewald. Its value really depends on how long you plan to stay in Berlin, how much time you have at leisure, and how much time you want to devote to museums. Berlin is certainly a city with lots of other things to do. With that said, the pass is just 24EUR, so even if you only see the Pergamon and Neues Museums (they’re side by side), you’ll have broken even. Plus, you’ll have two days and a bunch of museum tickets up your sleeve if you decide to see more.
As with many other destinations, the trick is not to overdo Berlin, nor stuff your itinerary before you arrive. The city spoils for choice on attractions, and many of its best ones are free. Let it work its charms on you slowly, and you’ll discover why a once divided city is now unifying travellers who love it.
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