A walking tour of Berlin’s top museums

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From world-renowned art collections to disgusting food exhibits (the aptly named Disgusting Food Museum Berlin, in case you were wondering), Berlin leaves visitors spoiled for choice when it comes to museums .. The choice is also widening: 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 Jüdisches Museum Berlin (Jewish Museum Berlin) interactive children’s museum and the newly refurbished Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) – mean there couldn’t be a better time to explore the riches culture of Berlin.

Berlin’s museums are spread all over the city, so take a stroll between them and you’ll see 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 along the way: a highlight is a walk along Unter den Linden boulevard, where you’ll tick off the Neue Wache Memorial and the Staatsoper Berlin ( Berlin State Opera).

1. GDR Museum

Start your visit on the banks of the River Spree at the brilliantly immersive DDR Museum, which offers a unique look into daily life in the former East Germany. Visitors are encouraged to familiarize themselves with the exhibits, many of which come from private households. Learn everything from Stasi surveillance techniques to the East German obsession with nudism. Go for a driving simulation in a Trabant – the cars were nicknamed “Trabis” – or explore an extraordinarily detailed reconstruction of an East Berlin high-rise apartment.

2. Humboldt Forum

Head over the Karl-Liebknecht Bridge to Museum Island, passing the imposing Berlin Cathedral on your way to the gleaming new Humboldt Forum. Built on the footprint of the city’s 18th-century royal palace, which was badly damaged during World War II, the enormous building combines the palace’s reconstructed Baroque facades and portals with clean-lined contemporary architecture. In addition to a permanent exhibition tracing the history of the site, the Humboldt Forum houses the collections of objects and art from Asia, Africa and elsewhere from the Berlin State Museums.

3. Pergamon Museum

Stroll through the vast, leafy Lustgarten, past the Altes Museum to the Pergamonmuseum, dedicated to the art and archeology of ancient Rome, Greece, and the Middle East. The three-winged complex is home to a wealth of treasures and magnificent reconstructions of architectural landmarks, including Babylon’s bright blue, 6th-century Ishtar Gate and the Pergamon Altar from 170 BC, where the name of the museum (note that the room that houses it is closed to renovate until 2025). This is one of the most visited museums in Germany, so be prepared to queue.

4. Gemäldegalerie

The walk from Museum Island along Berlin’s historic central boulevard, Unter den Linden, takes you to the Brandenburg Gate. From there, head southwest through the leafy Tiergarten park and you’ll emerge in front of a collection of modernist cultural buildings known as the Berlin Kulturforum. This is where you will find the Gemäldegalerie – the gallery of the old masters – which houses one of the most important collections of European paintings in the world. Take time to admire masterpieces that span the 13th to 18th centuries, including works by Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Raphael.

5. New National Gallery

It’s a very short walk past St Matthäus Church to the striking steel and glass Neue Nationalgalerie, which reopened in 2021 after extensive restoration. Its collections of modern art chronicle the great movements of Europe and North America, focusing primarily 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 sizable body of around 4,000 works.

6. Martin-Gropius-Bau

End at the grand Renaissance-style Martin-Gropius-Bau, which stands directly on the former border between East and West Berlin; if you approach it from the Wilhelmstrasse end of Niederkirchnerstrasse, you will walk along a section of the Berlin Wall. Originally opened as a decorative arts museum in 1881, the building was restored in the 1970s after heavy war damage. Today it is one of the city’s main exhibition spaces, presenting temporary exhibitions of modern and contemporary art by names such as Frida Kahlo and Ai Weiwei.


Did you know?
The five museums on Museum Island, whose combined collections trace the evolution of civilizations through the ages, constitute the largest museum complex in the world. The island is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

Posted in the June 2022 problem of National Geographic Traveler (UK)

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