Berlin is famous for its dramatic WW2 and Cold War history, and the club scene that emerged after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. However, after living there for over a year, I discovered that there is so much more to this city. One of those things is its' rich selection of museums.
From history, to art, to international rotating exhibitions, there are a lot of thought-provoking experiences available in this city that don’t require you to queue for hours or stay up until sunrise to thumping electronic music (I can write a second post about the clubs though, because they are fun too!).
Here is a selection of some of my favorite museums and exhibitions in Berlin (as well as where to eat before or after your visit).
To experience the many different sides of Berlin: Berlin Global, The Humboldt Forum
The Humboldt Forum is Berlin’s newest museum. Located on an island in the Spree and the grounds of the former Berlin Palace and Soviet Palace of the Republic, after the fall of the wall it had degraded into a meadow. It was controversially refurbished for a hefty fee into the institution it is today, named after the famous Prussian scholars Wilhelm and Alexander Humbolt.
Born out of this controversy and in honor of scholarship, it encourages vigorous debate among its patrons, and no other exhibition represents this as well as the Berlin Global exhibit. I recommend to anyone who visits Berlin to go to Berlin Global as soon as you can. For 7 EUR, it is very much worth it
As you move through the rooms of the exhibition, you have a choice between two different doorways. Each doorway has a statement written above it, and by walking through it you indicate you agree with the statement. Examples include “I want to help my community.” vs “I want to help the world.” A little smart watch you get assigned at the start will make note of your choices and give you an assessment of what values resonate with you the most at the end of an exhibition.
The exhibition has been thoughtfully crafted to involve interactive experiences through more ways than just this, and takes you through an exploration of the enigmatic city of Berlin from the angles of borders, entertainment, fashion, free spaces, revolution, and so much more.
Where to eat before: get a traditional german lunch on the riverfront at Zille-Stube.
Where to eat after: experience the culinary diversity of Vietnam’s regions at up-scale Ngon.
To delve deep into Berlin’s long history: Märkisches Museum
When many people think of Berlin’s history, they think of its recent history with the Berlin wall. At Märkisches Museum I learned that Berlin has a much longer and richer history than we really give it credit, dating back to the Middle ages. There’s so much to learn here that I’ve actually visited three times by now and I still catch a new fun fact every time. I especially like the room that gives you the option to play a jukebox with all the songs that have been written about Berlin over the years. Come here early in your visit to Berlin and I can guarantee you’ll have a deeper appreciation for the city as a result.
Where to eat after: experience some delicious Kurdish cuisine at Erbil.
To go on an entrancing sound and light journey: Dark Matter
This mesmerizing sound and light show lies on the outskirts of Berlin, next to the famous club Sisyphos, and it’s definitely worth the trip. Every time after I’ve gone through it I feel like I’ve just been to therapy. Each room you move through presents a unique sound, light, and art installation that puts you into a reflective meditative state. Many of the installations reminded me of nature, the movement of wind and waves. It’s remarkable what art combined with technology can evoke. If you get thirsty between the rooms, there’s also a bar in the courtyard you pass through halfway through the exhibition.
Where to eat before: before catching the tram there from Frankfurter Tor, get a bagel and perhaps a book (when you buy a book you get a free coffee) at Shakespeare & Sons.
To get an overview of the city’s art history: Berlinische Galerie
The Berlinische Galerie is a sprawling warehouse-turned-modern art museum in the trendy neighborhood of Kreuzberg. On the large ground floor you’ll usually find temporary exhibitions, but if you are new to Berlin’s art scene you want to make sure not to miss the upper floor. It basically takes you on a chronological tour through the visual history of different artistic movements in Berlin, from neo-impressionism to Dadaist thought. I learned so much and had a deeper appreciation for the city’s long-standing art scene after this visit.
Where to eat before: get some good coffee and a fresh pastry at AKKURAT Cafe
Where to eat after: have some delicious Neapolitan style pizza at Al Catzone
To see world-class rotating art exhibitions: Gropius Bau
The building of Gropius Bau was erected in 1881 as a museum of decorative arts, and today it features world-class temporary exhibitions in a gorgeous setting. They always have thought-provoking exhibitions by international artists that lead to deep conversations with the friends who join me, and cover a range of media from photography to collage art to design and so forth.
Where to eat before: try some amazing Syrian food at Yarok
Where to eat after: have some drinks with a view at SOLAR Sky-Bar Restaurant
To check out thought-provoking street art: Urban Nation
Urban Nation is entirely free and dedicated to an art form that has helped put Berlin on the map: street art. Located at Nollendorfplatz on the western side of Berlin, its rotating exhibitions of street artists are not afraid to tackle controversial and complex political topics head on. The assemblage of art pieces, ranging in media and artistic background, challenges you and each piece of art has a description that digs deeper into that particular artist’s intention and practice. I’m sure as you leave, just like us, you’ll be eager to give them a small donation for their important work.
Where to eat before: book a table for brunch at Fruhstuck 3000.
Where to eat after: enjoy a large platter of Ethiopian food at Betje.
Pro-tip: There are a lot more museums in Berlin and if you spend an extended time here or plan to come to Berlin often, it is worth getting the Basic Annual Pass for 25 EUR. It gives you free access to all State museums before 13:00 Sat-Sun and 16:00-18:00 Tue-Fri. Highly worth it to see gems like the photography museum, Pergamon, etc.
Also if you happen to be in Berlin on the first Sunday of the month, most museums are free. You can check which museums take part in the program and register for tickets on this website: Museums Sunday Berlin
Some key info for any visit to Berlin:
🗣 Language: German, but you can get by in most of Berlin with English
💵 Currency: EUR
💸 Tipping: unlike rest of Germany, tipping is expected in Berlin but no more than 10% of the total
🚰 Tap water: drinkable!
🚕 Transportation: use the U-bahn, buses, or bike around the city!
🥗 Dish to try: it's not a visit to Germany if you haven't tried some currywurst
🍷 Drink to try: Berlinerluft - a very strong mint liqueur that tastes like mouthwash
🏛 Favorite fun fact: Berlin has more canals than any other city in the world - take that, Venice and Amsterdam!