Does anyone else feel a weird obligation to stop by a local museum when visiting a foreign city? Whenever I search for “things to do in insert-city-here,” often, a museum is likely to make the list, if not top it. For example, in Paris one should visit the Louvre, in London — the British Museum, and in NYC — the Met or the MoMA (more here) among others. Berlin, Germany is similar in that it has no shortage of well-known and obscure museums. However, given constraints on my time, budget, and general interest (to be honest), I only experienced a small taste about what Berlin has to offer.
As an American, when I hear Berlin, a few things come to mind — 1. the Wall (die Mauer), which divided the city between West and East from 1961 to 1989 during the Cold War; 2. the Holocaust, which saw the murder of around six million European Jews (!!!), and 3. Angela Merkel (who reigned as the Chancellor of Germany from 2005 until 2021). Additionally, as someone who has taken a number of electives in college, Berlin also makes me think of the “Bauhaus” design school as well as public universities in general, which offer FREE undergraduate tuition.
When it comes to museums, Germany has a lot to offer on German history (especially regarding the Holocaust, WWII, and the Cold War), art (but not to the caliber of other leading cities), as well as other areas including science, technology, and natural history. During my stay, I only managed to stop by two museums — the Pergamon Museum and the Jewish Museum.
Pergamonmuseum | Pergamon Museum
Perhaps one of the most well-known museums in Berlin, the Pergamon Museum boasts a collection of ancient antiquities in the Middle and Near East. With exhibits divided into three floors, one can explore art from Islamic cultures as well as artifacts from areas including Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Egypt. While the rooms were beautifully arranged with stone and tile façades, transforming the walls, I will admit that the museum was not my favorite. Foremost, the museum was smaller than I had imagined. Though, I learned through my visit that tourists often pair a trip to the Pergamon Museum with the neighboring Neues Museum, which has similar exhibits. Also, and this is obviously a personal opinion, I’m not very much a fan of ancient history. Regardless, one thing I did enjoy about the museum was the included audio guide. Near the entrance, one can pick up a set of headphones and a smartphone-like device, which takes one through the exhibits. The audio guide is offered in a few languages, including English and German.
Jüdisches Museum Berlin | Jewish Museum
Learning about the Holocaust makes me sad (naturally), so, understanding that this history would feature prominently at the Jewish Museum was a bit of a deterrent for me. However, because the museum offers FREE admission and because I happened to have a meet-up in Kreuzberg (Berlin neighborhood) where the museum is located around the same time — I decided to give the museum a shot. Despite my hesitation, I’m happy to report that I absolutely enjoyed my visit! Seriously — and, clearly, I don’t say this about all museums!
The museum was a journey. The layout, snakes up and down floors like an educational labyrinth and each turn around a corner deposits you into an artful scene where history comes alive through interactive exhibits, lights music, and a slew of artifacts. From the start, I did not know what to expect. The floors were slanted, which meant one was literally walking up and down the halls, as one looked over old documents and pictures. Then, after ascending a staircase, the interactive exhibits were revealed, which covered Jewish history (including the people, persecution, diaspora, the culture, religion, language, diversity, etc.) from ancient times, through the Holocaust, and until more modern times. It was absolutely worth the visit. I spent like 90 minutes there on my own (which is long for me).
For those of you who enjoy museums, you may be delighted to learn that the city has a “Museum Island” (Museumsinsel) located on the Spree River. This piece of land, connected to the city by bridge, is home to six museums and it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in its own right. If one is so inclined, one can even purchase a three-day pass to visit a collection of them.
Gute Reise! Happy travels!