Berlin’s Museum Island sounds like the world’s lamest amusement park, unless you’re me. Five world-renowned museums, 18 Euro, one afternoon. Two words: Challenge. Accepted.
The Museuminsel (in German) is an “island” in the middle of the Spree River. I put “island” in quotes because I was kinda expecting more water.
Because museums seem like such an institution, it’s easy to forget that museums started as an educational experiment in the Age of Enlightenment. This area is a UNESCO World Heritage site because it gives us a glimpse into the evolution of that experiment. Five museums on one little island is quite a cool thing.
I’ve said before that I have limited patience for museums–especially big ones with lots of rooms. You want to see absolutely everything, but once you leave, you really can’t recall most of what you saw; the brain can only handle so much. That being said, DO NOT TRY TO DO MUSEUM ISLAND IN ONE AFTERNOON like I did. [This is a bad habit I have (see my hour at the Tate Modern in London), I shudder to think how I’ll botch the Louvre if I get the chance to go.] You’ll rush through cool stuff and get stressed when there’s a line and get hangry and make the poor decision to take “secret” seated portraits of the exhausted husbands who were clearly dragged to the museum. (Spoiler: Your portraits won’t be “secret”. The husbands will see you. They will not be pleased.)
I’m going to present the museums in the exact reverse order I visited because the last museum was my favorite. I had about 1 hour before the Bode-Museum closed (but only about 30 minutes of walking strength left in my legs), so I rushed through a truly amazing space full of churchy art goodness. Regretful.
Without even mentioning the art, the space stands alone. It’s glorious. When it was originally built in 1904, placing 2-D (i.e. painting) and 3-D (i.e. sculpture and artifacts) in the same room was a radical arrangement.
Focus: Byzantine art, Gothic art, Renaissance art, Baroque art, coins
This is the most-visited museum in Berlin, so I would hit this up early in the day so you still have patience for the line. The main attraction is the Ishtar Gate of ancient Babylon that was excavated from Iraq and rebuilt in Berlin. Don’t get me wrong, it was cool, but I really fell in the love with the Islamic art collection.
Focus: Islamic art, Middle Eastern art, antiquities
The draw to this museum is the bust of Nefertiti, a famous queen of ancient Egypt. It’s hard to get a kick out of Egyptian artifacts in Europe if you’ve seen them in Cairo (which I have), but the recent renovation and atmosphere of this museum’s architecture was enough to keep this snob satisfied. Don’t forget to look up! The ceiling is balls, y’all.
Focus: ancient Egyptian art, antiquities
This was probably my second favorite museum. I find portraits of women fascinating, and if the first two portraits below are any indication, mansplaining was as annoying then as it is now.
Focus: Classicist, Romantic, and Impressionist painting
I remembered this museum from architectural theory class (mostly that it was used as a backdrop in German propaganda and sustained damage from an explosion during WWII). To match with the antiquities to be housed inside and the growing “democratic” ideal that art should be open to the public, architect Frederich Schinkel designed this museum look like an ancient Greek temple. It was completed, columns and all, in 1830.
Focus: ancient art and sculpture
You can buy a ticket for 18 Euro at any one of the museums that gets you into all five, but you have to visit them all in the same day. Totally worth it. Just make sure you start early and plan in a lunch and coffee break.