As you walk through Berlin, the entirety of the city itself is a living museum. Once divided by the infamous Wall, you’ll see golden place markers along streets and sidewalks highlighting the former East and West parts of the city. Now a unified and vibrant cultural capital, with many artistic treasures to explore, here’s a guide to some of the best in Germany’s capital. (For our guide to many of the Second World War museums and exhibitions, check out our Things To Do in Berlin post).
The Undisputed Classics
Museumsinsel (Museum Island)
A UNESCO World Heritage Site in itself, the fantastic Museum Island houses five spectacular museums, and should be among your first stops for some of the world’s most famous artworks, paintings, sculptures, artifacts and more. First established in 1830 with the Altes Museum, today, you will find five museums on this island, with one more to come; the Humboldt Forum will incorporate the Ethnological Museum of Berlin and the Museum of Asian Art upon its completion in 2019.
Berlin’s most popular museum, receiving about one million visitors a year, the Pergamon Altar is the main draw here along with the impressive Ishtar Gate of Babylon, and the Roman Market Gate of Miletus with some lovely mosaics. Inside, you’ll also find the Museum of Islamic Art. Undergoing renovation until 2025, a new fourth wing will highlight the Kalabsha Gate, a columned hall from Egypt, and the Tell Halaf facade. (Note: the museum is still open, but certain exhibitions may be temporarily closed during the renovation process).
The ‘Old Museum’ was first opened in 1830 as then-Prussia’s pioneering achievement, thanks to Friedrich Wilhelm II. With a neoclassical design by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Prussia’s leading architect, within, you’ll find a storehouse of Greek and Roman art and sculptures from the 10th until the 1stC BCE.
First built between 1843-1855, this museum was closed in 1939 at the beginning of the Second World War. Badly damaged during wartime and finally rebuilt in 2009 with an award-winning re-do by British architect David Chipperfield, the New Museum is filled with Egyptian, prehistoric and classical antiquities, including the famed bust of Nefertiti.
This neoclassical gallery sits high on a platform overlooking the island, inspired by the Acropolis in Athens. Opened in 1876, it highlights the paintings and sculptures from neoclassical times through to Impressionist and early modernist art: the 19th to the 21st centuries. From Edvard Munch to Monet, Manet, Renoir, Cezanne, Max Liebermann and Johann Gottfried Schadow’s sculptures of Princesses Luise and Friederike (considered the most accomplished Prussian sculpture), there’s much to marvel at here.
Constructed in 1904, renovated and reopened in 2006, the museum is known for its large collection of sculptures ranging from the medieval period until the late 18thC, along with Byzantine art, coins (one of the world’s largest collections) and medals. One of the most comprehensive collections of European sculptures, including some masterpieces Donatello (Pazzi Madonna), Antonio Canova’s dancer, and Petro Tacca’s Tarquinius and Lucretia.
MORE FOR ART LOVERS…
Not part of the Museum Island but still worth visiting, Berlin’s state museums hold a lot of treasures (some of them looted or lost/destroyed during the Second World War), here are some other worthy institutions to visit.
Find the greatest selection of Old Masters works in Berlin, within the Kulturform. From the Middle Ages to the early modernist period, the simple interplay of light, brush and paint from the most skilled artists in the world, with many priceless works in this collection. From Rembrandt, Rubens to Botticelli, Caravaggio and van Eyck to Bruegel the Elder, Vermeer and more, it’s an afternoon well worth spent in rapture.
Living and working in Prenzlauer Berg with painting, printmaking, and sculpture, you will see the largest collection housed under one roof from the artist. Here, there are over 200 drawings and prints, sculptures, and woodcuts, along with a touching series of self-portraits that take place over the course of five decades. Kollwitz’s humanistic themes—war, poverty, suffering, and love—are always ever-present in her work.