A guide to exploring Berlin’s island of museums

Guide books and leaflets for Berlin's Museumsinsel or Museum Island.

Not many cities can profess to having an island dedicated to museums, and you wouldn’t expect it when you’re four hours from the coast, but one of Berlin’s leading tourist attractions is Museumsinsel, home to five sprawling and varied buildings dedicated to art and history, a cultural refuge at the heart of a wild metropolis. It’s also where you’ll find the Berliner Dom cathedral, in all its splendour. The official leaflet describes it as follows; ‘five edifices situated between the River Spree and Kupfergraben, Museumsinsel Berlin forms an incomparable ensemble of museum and cultural history, gradually developed over time.’ Bring on the party.

Berlin's Dom cathedral on Museum Island/Museumsinsel with the TV Tower/Fernsehturm in the background.

The architecture of Berlin: 1905 cathedral vs. 1965 TV tower.

Granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1999, the area is still recovering from its shaky past, with buildings destroyed during the war and artwork collections separated and mishandled during the segregation of the city. All of the museums have undergone a large amount of upgrading and renovation, and there is still work ongoing; the construction of a visitor centre is well underway, and the Pergamon Museum will be almost doubling in size over the next ten years. Needless to say, the island holds endless rainy day potential, and the green spaces are ideal for a summer’s afternoon.

A view under the arcade on Museum Island/Museumsinsel Berlin.

Working in sight of the island, and spending many-a-lunchtime wandering aimlessly around it with a healthy packed lunch Subway in hand, it’s easy to take for granted, but the tourist presence is pretty heavy and you won’t make it far through a guide book before you stumble upon it, so it definitely is a significant area of the city and a key part of any trip to Berlin. I haven’t been inside any of them yet, so this is as much of a learning experience for you as it is for me! Anyway, which one’s which;

The Altes Museum came first in 1830, built to house the Prussian royals’ art collection. It’s the symmetrical neoclassical building, perhaps the most distinctive, with eighteen grand columns and the gardens, fountains and sculptures out front. It is currently home to the Collection of Classical Antiquities, the Numismatic Collection (apparently this means coins,) and its permanent exhibition Ancient Worlds. Greek, Etruscans and Romans in the Altes Museum. Particular highlights are the range of jewellery, coins from the 7th century BC and a horse-shaped urn from Chiusi, which sounds…worth seeing!

Berlin's Altes Museum on Museum Island/Museumsinsel.

An unedited photo of the Altes Museum (with a sneak peek of the Alte Nationalgalerie back right) taken during the heat of Summer 2013.

25 years later came the Neues Museum, which was heavily damaged during the war, and then much neglected in the years that followed, resulting in a 70-year closure.  Reopening in 2009, amidst considerable praise for its architecture (Merkel hailing it ‘impressive and extraordinary’), the Egyptian Collection was moved here from the Altes Museum and the Museum of Prehistory and Early History from Schloss Charlottenburg. The bust of Nefertiti, dating from around 1350 BC, is one of the highlights (according to the leaflet), along with the ‘Migration Period and Middle Ages’ exhibition, which ‘takes the visitor back to the earliest history of humankind: from the Stone Age, with the famous finds of the Neaderthal from Le Moustier and of modern man from Combe Capelle, through the Neolithic Period into the Bronze Age’.

The Alte Nationalgalerie is the one I’m most likely to plonk myself down in front of during a sunny lunch break; it’s the cutest, the greenest, and reminds me ever so slightly of Tate Britain. As the name suggests, it’s the island’s art centre, ‘a temple to the art of the 19th century’, where German artists and works of Romanticism and Impressionism (Manets and Monets) are particularly well represented. This one’s first on my to-visit list (and this time I mean it non-sarcastically!)

The Alte Nationalgalerie on Berlin's Museum Island/Museumsinsel.

The Alte Nationalgalerie.


Opening in 1904, the Bode Museum comes next. Originally named the Kaiser Friedrich Museum, it too saw considerable World War II damage and subsequent extensive renovations, reopening in 2006. The title photograph of my 2013 post Ode to Berlin is of the museum at night, on a night we stripped off and swam out into the Spree at sunrise at that very point. (I apologise for lowering the tone of this high-culture post, but I couldn’t have omitted a mention of my first Museumsinsel experience!) Here you’ll find the Skupturensammlung, ‘one of the largest collections of ancient sculpture’, as well as more coins and the Museum of Byzantine Art. Go on, knock yourself out.

Last of all you have the Pergamon Museum, which is definitely the one I hear the most about; it’s the most visited art museum in Germany, after all. Here you’ll find the Collection of Classical Antiquities, Museum of Islamic Art, and the Museum of the Ancient Near East. The leaflet summarises it perfectly; ‘the Pergamonmuseum has become famous around the world for its imposing reconstructions of archaeological ensembles – the Pergamon Altar, Market Gate of Miletus, Ishtar Gate with the Processional Way from Babylon and the Mshatta Facade.’ Does this mean anything to anyone? It doesn’t to me, but there must be a reason for its popularity!

Construction work/Baustelle at Berlin's Pergamon Museum on Museum Island/Museumsinsel.

That’s that then; I am overwhelmed, but a lot better-informed, and I’m now ready and prepared to explore the museums in turn. I won’t lie to you, I thought I’d be writing about sex, drugs, and rock & roll upon my arrival here in Berlin, not an island of museums, but maybe my next post will detail my weekends of sin and debauchery. Or maybe not.


One response to “A guide to exploring Berlin’s island of museums

  1. Hi Cherrie, the comment button doesn’t work at the bottom of the blog so I copied the link to a different window. It has just occurred to me though that Berlin might be a good place to visit with my Friday running friends. Sounds like there is something for everyone so it could work well.


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