From globally acclaimed fine-art collections to displays of disgusting foods (the plainly named Disgusting Food Museum Berlin, in case you were wondering), Berlin leaves its visitors spoilt for choice when it comes to museums. The choice is still widening, too: 2021 marked the long-awaited opening of one of Germany’s most important cultural projects, the colossal Humboldt Forum, which houses vast collections of non-European art. Other recent openings — including the interactive children’s museum at the Jüdisches Museum Berlin (Jewish Museum Berlin) and the newly renovated Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) — mean that there couldn’t be a better time to explore Berlin’s cultural riches.
Berlin’s museums are spread out across the city, so walk between them and you’ll take in plenty of sights along the way, including Berlin Cathedral and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. As well as these, this four-mile trail also passes many other must-sees en route: a highlight is a stroll along the length of Unter den Linden boulevard, where you’ll tick off the Neue Wache Memorial and the Staatsoper Berlin (Berlin State Opera).
1. DDR Museum
Begin your tour on the banks of the River Spree at the brilliantly immersive DDR Museum, which provides a unique look into everyday life in former East Germany. Visitors are encouraged to get hands-on with the exhibits, many of which have come from private households. Learn about everything from Stasi surveillance techniques to the East German obsession with nudism. Go for a simulated drive in a Trabant — the cars were nicknamed ‘Trabis’ — or explore an extraordinarily detailed reconstruction of a flat in an East Berlin tower block.
2. Humboldt Forum
Head over Karl-Liebknecht Bridge onto Museum Island, passing Berlin’s imposing cathedral on your way to the gleaming new Humboldt Forum. Built on the footprint of the city’s 18th-century Royal Palace, which was severely damaged during the Second World War, the enormous building combines the palace’s reconstructed baroque facades and portals with clean-lined contemporary architecture. In addition to a permanent exhibition chronicling the site’s storied history, the Humboldt Forum houses the Berlin State Museums’ collections of objects and art from Asia, Africa and beyond.
Stroll through the wide, green Lustgarten past the Altes Museum to the Pergamonmuseum, dedicated to ancient Roman, Greek and Middle Eastern art and archaeology. The three-winged complex houses a wealth of treasures and magnificent reconstructions of architectural monuments, including the vivid blue, sixth-century Ishtar Gate of Babylon and the 170BC Pergamon Altar, after which the museum is named (note that the hall housing it is closed for renovation until 2025). This is one of Germany’s most-visited museums, so be prepared to queue.
The walk from Museum Island along Berlin’s historic central boulevard, Unter den Linden, takes you all the way to the Brandenburg Gate. From there, head south-west across leafy Tiergarten park and you’ll emerge at a collection of modernist cultural buildings known as the Berlin Kulturforum. It’s here that you’ll find the Gemäldegalerie — the Gallery of Old Masters — home to one of the world’s most important collections of European paintings. Take time to admire the masterpieces that span the 13th to 18th centuries, including works by Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Raphael.
5. Neue Nationalgalerie
It’s a very short walk past St Matthäus church to the striking, steel-and-glass Neue Nationalgalerie, which reopened in 2021 following an extensive restoration. Its collections of modern art chronicle the major movements of Europe and North America, primarily focusing on 20th-century artists but encompassing some 150 years of art history. The likes of Pablo Picasso, Gerhard Richter and Paul Klee are all represented here among a sizeable body of about 4,000 works.
Finish off at the grand, Renaissance-style Martin-Gropius-Bau, which stands directly on the former border of East and West Berlin; if you approach it from the Wilhelmstrasse end of Niederkirchnerstrasse, you’ll walk alongside a section of the Berlin Wall. Originally opened as a museum of decorative arts in 1881, the building was restored in the 1970s after heavy wartime damage. Today, it’s one of the city’s leading exhibition spaces, displaying temporary exhibitions of modern and contemporary art by such names as Frida Kahlo and Ai Weiwei.
Did you know?
The five museums on Museum Island, whose combined collections trace the progress of civilisations throughout the ages, comprise the world’s largest museum ensemble. The island is recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Published in the June 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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