A Curator’s Guide to Munich’s Best Museums

Head to the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum in December to see its beautiful Nativity scenes
Head to the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum in December to see its beautiful Nativity scenes | © DeAgostini / Getty Images
Few places are better for museum-hopping than Munich. The Bavarian capital is home to a rich mix of venues hosting Ancient Egyptian relics, Nazi history and fine art. Patrizia Dander, chief curator at Museum Brandhorst, takes Culture Trip behind the scenes of Munich’s best museums.

With over 80 different museums to choose from, Munich is a place where you can visit royal palaces, view priceless collections of contemporary art and see art from several millennia within walking distance. The city’s Kunstareal art quarter, one of the most notable cultural districts in Europe, contains a total of 18 museums and more than 40 art galleries.

While it can be challenging to know where to start, Patrizia Dander is here to help narrow it down. Patrizia is responsible for curating and developing programmes at Museum Brandhorst, one of Munich’s top contemporary art museums. Here are her recommendations for Munich’s must-visit museums.

Kunstverein München

Museum

Founded in 1823, Kunstverein München is the oldest public art institution in Munich. “And still, this is the place to encounter the most recent developments in art,” Patrizia says. “It’s always surprising, always inspirational.” The non-profit art association focuses on contemporary art, showcasing solo and group exhibitions from international artists with an eye for local context. The gallery space hosts regular exhibitions, lectures, artists talks, symposia, film screenings and publications. Kunstverein München is located in the Hofgarten, just a stone’s throw from the Residenz Palace.

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Museum Brandhorst

Building, Museum
Foto Constanza Meléndez © Museum Brandhorst
Courtesy of Museum Brandhorst / © Constanza Meléndez
Opened in 2009, Museum Brandhorst is the only museum in Munich that is exclusively dedicated to contemporary art. The collection features prime examples of art from the United States and Europe dating back to the late 1950s onwards, and it continues to grow on a near weekly basis with new acquisitions. Highlights include an entire floor dedicated to American artist Cy Twombly and more than 120 works by Pop art legend Andy Warhol. “What I like most about our museum is that whenever you come you see something new,” Patrizia says. “In our temporary exhibitions, we feature artists whose work we believe to be of lasting impact on contemporary art.”
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Haus der Kunst

Art Gallery, Museum
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© Christof Stache / Getty Images

Over the last few decades, the museum – founded during the Third Reich as the House of German Art – has developed into a truly global art institution. According to Patrizia, the thriving contemporary art exhibitions by artists from all around the globe and site-specific installations in its middle hall – impressive both in size and ambition – make Haus der Kunst a must-visit. She also recommends grabbing a drink at the museum’s Goldene Bar, where the innovative creations have won several international bar prizes in recent years.

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Alte Pinakothek

Museum
The Golden Age
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The Alte Pinakothek is home to one of the world’s most significant collections of artwork, encompassing art from the 14th to 18th centuries and spanning the development from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance and Baroque, through the late Rococo period. Patrizia notes that the Alte Pinakothek is part of the Bavarian States Painting Collection, which presents a continuous history of seven centuries of visual art. It starts with the breathtaking old masters collection at the Alte Pinakothek, in a building artfully reconstructed by Hans Döllgast after the World War II bombings. Works by Albrecht Dürer, Leonardo da Vinci and Peter Paul Rubens are just a few highlights.
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Pinakothek der Moderne

Art Gallery, Building, Museum
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© Lino Mirgeler / Getty Images

The Pinakothek der Moderne focuses on everything from expressionism to classical modern art up to contemporary art. Here, four completely independent collections are housed under one roof: the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung with its prints and drawings collection, the Architecture Museum, the Neue Sammlung Design Museum (considered the world’s oldest design museum) and the Sammlung Moderne Kunst with its modern and contemporary art masters. While the sheer size of the collection can be a little overwhelming, your visit becomes more digestible if you think of it as four museums in one and tackle each accordingly.

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Lenbachhaus

Museum, School
Munich, Germany: The Lenbachhaus Museum, View from the Garden with Flowers
© Paola Leone / Getty Images
If you share a passion for modern art, there is no way around the Lenbachhaus, which houses the world’s largest Blue Rider collection and excellent works by Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Gabriele Münter, Alexej von Jawlensky and Marianne von Werefkin. What started as a local art movement, situated between Munich and Murnau, has long since become an international cornerstone of the modern avant-garde movements. “Don’t be surprised to encounter superb contemporary art exhibitions, many of which are on view in the Lenbachhaus’ Kunstbau, a former subway tunnel,” Patrizia says.
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Franz Marc Museum

Museum
Franz Marc Museum, Kochel, Upper Bavaria, Bavaria, Germany, Europe
© Hans Lippert / Alamy Stock Photo

Up until his death as a soldier in World War I, German Expressionist painter Franz Marc spent much time in the Bavarian Alpine foothills in and around the lakeside village of Kochel am See. Today, the museum hosts exhibits dedicated to his artwork, along with work from his contemporaries and other notable artists of the 20th century in both permanent and temporary exhibitions. Situated by the beautiful Kochelsee, the location is worth a trip in and of itself and can be easily reached by train from Munich.

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NS Dokumentationszentrum

Museum
Schoeneweide
© Ilona Studré / Ullstein Bild via Getty Images

An absolute must-visit is the NS Dokumentationszentrum, a documentation centre for the history of National Socialism. Inaugurated in 2015 on the former grounds of the party headquarters, it has quickly become a landmark in Munich, the city where the Nazi Party (NSDAP) was founded. “There’s an excellently researched and very informative permanent exhibition display – in German and English – that examines the origins and the rise of National Socialism in Munich, the city’s role within the terror system and the difficult process of coming to terms with the past since 1945,” Patrizia says. “Its importance in view of the current rise in right-wing extremism around the globe cannot be stressed enough.”

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Valentin Karlstadt Musäum

Museum
Karl Valentin Valentin Karlstadt museum Isartor munich munchen bayern bavaria german germany comedian character figure memorial memory visit comic fun funny humor humorious detail form shape symbol icon ident travel lifestyle attraction holiday vacation m
© Pat Behnke / Alamy Stock Photo

The Valentin Karlstadt Musäum is an authentic local curiosity dedicated to entertainers Karl Valentin and Liesl Karlstadt. “If you want to get a sense of the Bavarian humour, I definitely recommend the Valentin Karlstadt Musäum,” says Patrizia. “Munich comedian Karl Valentin and his partner Liesl Karlstadt are real legends in this part of the world – and beyond. Their humour is said to have influenced figures such as Bertolt Brecht and Samuel Beckett.” The museum is located in the Isartor, one of the four main gates of the old city wall. It’s a quirky place – here, clocks run counterclockwise and in true Valentin spirit, free entry is granted not only to kids ages six and under, but also to 99-year-olds accompanied by their parents.

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Bayerisches Nationalmuseum

Museum
Nativity scene
© Juergen Sack / Getty Images

Founded in 1855, the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum focuses on visual arts and cultural history. Special collections such as the displays of porcelain, ivory, musical instruments and weapons show a colourful picture of both Bavarian and European history. As Patrizia notes: “The best thing to see in Munich in December – besides the Christmas markets – is the presentation of beautiful Nativity scenes at the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum. This historical collection is truly unique in the world, both in scale and quality: it includes more than 60 bustling Christmas scenes made in the Alps and in Italy between 1700 and the early 20th century.”

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These recommendations were updated on May 27, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.