Steeped in history and the birthplace of some of the world’s most influential art movements, Germany’s capital leaves travellers spoiled for choice when it comes to museums. From fine-art collections to opulent palaces, Berlin’s best museums offer a rich entryway into the city’s history and contemporary culture. With more than 150 museums, Berlin is a cultural treasure trove. Visitors can experience the Boros contemporary art collection in a converted war bunker, explore the rich offering of Berlin’s acclaimed Museum Island (home to no less than five museums) or take in the architecturally acclaimed Jewish Museum.
Originally designed as one of the first major terminals of the German rail system – Bahnhof means station – this magnificent late-Neoclassical building is now home to a renowned collection of contemporary art. First erected in 1846 and located in the Moabit district of the city, Hamburger Bahnhof is Berlin’s only remaining train station from this era. Today it serves an altogether different purpose, of exhibiting an impressive permanent collection of major artistic movements from the 1960s onwards, including the revered Friedrich Christian Flick Collection, and is celebrated as one of the city’s essential cultural locations.
Housed in a converted war bunker in central Berlin, the Sammlung Boros (Boros Collection) is one of the most unusual museum experiences Berlin has to offer. Designed by Karl Bonatz and built in 1943 by Nazi Germany to shelter up to 3,000 railway passengers, this stark concrete structure has undergone numerous transformations in the way it’s been used over the years, including playing host to some of Berlin’s most notorious fetish parties after the fall of the Wall. Today it’s home to Christian and Karen Boros’s private collection of contemporary art, displaying newly acquired and space-specific works together with a permanent collection of works from the 1990s and 2000s. Thanks to the museum’s immense popularity and limited capacity, the collection is only accessible to the public via guided tours, which must be booked in advance.
The Natural History Museum of Berlin may be less of a tourist magnet than the city’s main art attractions, but it’s no less intriguing to visit. One of the most important research institutions for biological and geological evolution worldwide, and boasting over 30 million items relating to zoology, palaeontology, geology and mineralogy, the museum also features a spectacular central exhibition of the largest mounted dinosaur skeleton in the world, a brachiosaurus standing over 13 metres (43 feet) tall. The museum is located in Mitte, and the surrounding streets are well worth a post-visit stroll to soak up the sights. Stop for a treat at Ballhaus Berlin, a unique 1920s-style café and bar that captures the spirit of the Weimar era.
Showcasing a vast range of artistic styles inside a Renaissance-style building, the Martin-Gropius-Bau is one of Berlin’s most treasured museums among clued-in urbanites. The most striking features of the building are its luminous atrium and ornate mosaics, which were partially destroyed by extensive bombing in 1945 but were later restored to architectural perfection. The museum is cherished for its eclectic collection, a mixture of everything from Cindy Sherman photographs to ancient Buddha sculptures of Pakistan. Located just a short walk away from a host of tourist attractions like Checkpoint Charlie, it’s an intriguing and convenient addition to a day of Berlin sightseeing.
The main building of the Jewish Museum Berlin is one of the most distinctive modern landmarks of the city. A dazzling architectural masterpiece, Daniel Libeskind’s acclaimed design is made up of a collection of vast zinc panels. Comprised of three separate structures in Kreuzberg, it’s the largest Jewish museum in Europe and features temporary exhibitions on cultural history, contemporary art installations and special displays, all of which complement a permanent exhibition of immense historical importance. Open daily, the museum evokes a palpable experience of the tensions of German Jewish history, not only with its confrontational content, but with the idiosyncratic layout of the space, designed specifically to augment this sentiment.
Located directly on the Spree River, Museum Island is not a single venue, but rather five of the most important cultural touchpoints of Germany’s capital. The entire complex includes the Altes Museum, which showcases classic work from ancient Greece to the Roman Empire; the Neues Museum, with a focus on ancient Egyptian pieces; the Alte Nationalgalerie, which features Johann Gottfried Schadow’s renowned statues of Princesses Luise and Friederike; the Bode Museum, featuring sculptures from the medieval period to the late 18th century; and the Pergamon Museum, where you can see the magnificent Ishtar Gate and Processional Way. With such an enormous collection, spanning several millennia, it’s no wonder the complex attracts hundreds of thousands of international visitors every year. It’s prudent to set aside a full day for revelling in the many mesmerising sights on offer.
Founded by Johann König in 2002, König Galerie is one of the hottest art spaces among the Berlin in-crowd, regularly featuring key artists of the moment, such as Alicja Kwade. This rotating collection of cross-media installation art enjoyed numerous addresses around the city before settling at its most striking Berlin site yet in 2015 – a former church and community centre, St Agnes. Situated in the geographical centre of the city, the Brutalist complex has been cleverly repurposed by Johann and Lena König with the help of architect Arno Brandlhuber, who paid homage to its original Brutalist form in his redesign.
The Charlottenburg Palace is both visually stunning and a point of interest for visitors wanting to learn more about the pivotal role Prussia played in shaping Germany’s history. Commissioned by the wife of Friedrich I of Prussia and built at the end of the 17th century with typical Baroque opulence, the jewel in the crown of this regal structure is the top of the dome, where a gilded statue of the Roman goddess of fortune functions as a wind vane. The palace is surrounded by an array of divine gardens rich with colourful flowerbeds that are every bit as alluring as the building itself. On tours of the palace, visitors are accompanied by an audio guide illuminating the history of each room with anecdotes, giving an insight into the life of the royal family of yore.
No cultural escapade in Germany’s capital would be complete without a visit to the Berlinische Galerie, a museum dedicated to the creativity of Berliners. A tight curation of the city’s finest modern art, photography and architecture, the gallery has moved around several locations since its inception in 1975, finally settling in a former glass warehouse in Kreuzberg in 2004. After temporarily closing for refurbishment, the gallery recently reopened its doors to the public. Reduced-price tickets are offered on every first Monday of the month, while admission for children under 18 is always free.