Steeped in important history dating back hundreds of years, Berlin is a city for culture vultures. There are a seemingly endless number of museums and historical attractions to visit while traveling in Berlin! It is the birthplace of some of the world’s most influential art movements. At the same time, Berlin has been at the center of some of humanity’s darkest moments. Untold and interesting things can been found in this contrast.
On our first visit to Berlin, my husband and I were overwhelmed by the sheer number of museums and historical places to visit in Germany’s capital city. There are so many to choose from. Visitors are totally spoiled by choice! On a 5 day trip, we made it our goal to visit one museum or historical attraction per day. We returned 2 years later for another 5 day trip, and set our goal as the same. As a result, we have visited a large number of the best and most important museums in Berlin.
With more than 150 museums and countless historic attractions, Berlin is a treasure trove full of fascinations for any interest. In my experience, the best museums in Berlin manage to capture the intangible essence of the city while also showcasing important moments in time.
Where to Find the Most Interesting Museums & Historical Attractions in Berlin
Located directly on the Spree River, Museum Island is genuinely an island full of museums. There are five world-famous museums located here: the Pergamon Museum (Germany’s most visited museum with large antiquities exhibition), the Bode Museum (Byzantine art and sculpture museum), the Neues Museum (Egyptian artwork & prehistoric archaeology museum), the Alte Nationalgalerie (art museum with Romantic, Impressionist & early Modernist collection), the Altes Museum (Greek & Roman artifacts museum).
Several of the buildings on the island date back to the Prussian period, but the master plan for Museum Island wasn’t developed until after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In 1999, Museum Island was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the plan for its renovation was established. The island was redeveloped to showcase history from around the world, and construction of the Archaeological Promenade connecting all 5 museums continues today. With such an enormous collection, it will take at least one day to visit all five museums. I think a better strategy is to choose one or two that really interest you. This gives you time to truly mesmerize at the incredible antiquities on display here.
- Website: https://www.visitberlin.de/en/museum-island-in-berlin
- Address: Bodestraße 1
- Hours: Varies by museum
Topography of Terror
I think a visit to the Typography of Terror museum is essential for any first-time visitor to Berlin. The museum sits on the remains of the Nazi’s central operations office, where a majority of the Third Reich’s most heinous crimes were planned and managed. From 1933 to 1945, this building housed the primary offices of Nazi terror institutions, including the Gestapo Secret State Police Office, Reich SS Leadership offices, and the Reich Security Main Office.
Today, the museum chronicles how the Nazis rose to power and spread the message of their ideology. The displays prove the thought-out ways the Third Reich executed its horrific crimes, leaving no doubt about the intended horror they were causing. It is full of photos, journals, and artifacts that engage with Germany’s darkest chapters in honest and meaningful ways. I found this museum to be the most educational that we visited in Berlin, and I think it does a really good job of covering an intense topic with direct and straightforward messaging. You’ll need a few hours to go through the museum, as well as some time to decompress after.
- Website: www.topographie.de
- Address: Niederkirchnerstraße 8
- Hours: Open daily from 10:00 – 20:00
Jewish Museum Berlin
Berlin’s world famous Jewish Museum is one of the most distinctive pieces of modern architecture in the city. Built by acclaimed architect Daniel Libeskind, the Jewish Museum is a masterpiece. Spread across three structures, the building plays with light and scale to elicit emotional reactions for the visitor, mirroring the emotions they will already be feeling as they dive deep into the history of Jewish people in Germany.
The thought-provoking room of darkness, the slits of light in the stairwell, and the disorienting subterranean hallways are intentional choices that force the visitor to engage with the space and the content of the museum. The exhibition chronicles stories of Jewish culture, migration, diversity, and persecution. Extensively researched and thoughtfully presented, the collection is very impressive. While the experience is heavy, I found it to be important and impactful.
- Website: www.jmberlin.de
- Address: Lindenstraße 9-14
- Hours: Open daily from 10:00 – 19:00
Hamburger Bahnhof Art Museum
For contemporary art housed in a historic space, there is no better place in Berlin than the Hamburger Bahnhof Art Museum. The building was originally designed in 1846 as a rail station (bahnhof means train station in German) for an important line connecting Berlin and Hamburg. A black & white minimalist interior really accentuates the late-Neoclassical metal beams and cavernous spaces. It is truly a beautiful space. With a collection of permanent and traveling exhibitions, you will find cutting-edge, experimental and avant garde works by contemporary artists such as Beuys, Twombly, and the Friedrich Christian Flick Collection.
- Website: https://www.smb.museum/museen-einrichtungen/hamburger-bahnhof/home/
- Address: Invalidenstraße 50-51
- Hours: 10:00 – 18:00 Tuesday through Sunday
You can visit the seat of the German federal government at the storied Reichstag. This historic parliamentary building has changed leadership countless times since its construction in 1871. It was also the site of the Nazi’s infamous 1933 arson and false flag attack that gave Hitler pretext for suspending civil liberties and begining a brutal repression campaign in the name of national security.
Of all the historic places that we visited in Berlin, this one was probably the most surprising. I loved it!
You need to book a visit to the Reichstag ahead of time (usually at least one week before). Upon arrival, you will need to go through a security check before entering. Once inside, you will see why the Reichstag is one of the most recognizable buildings in Berlin’s skyline – the massive glass dome that sits on top. This stunning structure offers 360-degree views of Germany’s capital city. It is especially picturesque at sunset. The opportunities for photography are endless here.
- Website: https://www.bundestag.de/besuche/architektur/reichstag/kuppel
- Address: Platz der Republik 1
- Hours: Assigned when you book
Berlin Wall Memorial
To see what the Berlin Wall actually looked like during the seperation, head to Berlin Wall Memorial park. A one-mile stretch of the wall has been preserved in its original condition along Bernauer Strasse. This street was one of the most critical dividing lines between east and west Berlin. You will see the thick and towering walls of concrete, rebar, a watchtower, as well as “no-man’s land” in between. This open air exhibit features photographs, signs, and audio histories of people’s experience living in divided Berlin. There is also a memorial wall, which commemorates the heroic and heartbreaking attempts that people made to escape the DDR and reunite with loved ones.
- Website: www.berliner-mauer-gedenkstaette.de
- Address: Bernauer Str. 111
- Hours: 24 hours a day
East Side Gallery
One of the most recognizable places to visit in Berlin is the East Side Gallery. You have most likely seen imagery of the murals on Instagram before. Located just off Warschauer Strasse on the border of Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg, the East Side Gallery is a 1.3km stretch of the Berlin Wall, which was converted into an open-air gallery. Street artists and muralists painted powerful political messages and artwork on the ruins of the wall, a juxtaposition that is quintessentially Berlin.
The most iconic murals include: “the kiss between Brezhnev and Honecker” which shows the leaders of Germany and the USSR kissing; “It Happened in November” a painting by Kani Alvai which depicts Checkpoint Charlie on the day the Berlin Wall fell; and “The Wall Jumper” which shows a man jumping over the Berlin Wall to leave East Berlin to join the free world. Expect to wait in line with other tourists to get a picture of yourself in front of the most famous murals.
- Website: www.eastsidegallery-berlin.com
- Address: Mühlenstraße 3-100
- Hours: 24 hours a day
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
Another essential place to visit in Berlin is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. You’ll also hear it called the Holocaust Memorial, but that isn’t the official name. Designed by architects Peter Eisenman and Buro Happold in 2005, there are 2,711 concrete columns across 19,000 square meters forming a vast mazelike complex. The columns are all different heights (between 8 inches to 15 feet), and the ground undulates with small hills and slight angles. Walking through the columns is an uncomfortable and disorienting experience. I interpret this uneasy, confusing atmosphere to symbolize the feeling of dehumanization. I think it also kind of evokes a nameless, soulless graveyard, almost like an unconsecrated space memorializing those who were unburied, burned or thrown into unmarked pits.
Steps away from the Reichstag and the Bradenburg gate, this memorial is a testament to Germany’s commitment to never turning a blind eye to the atrocities of the past. One of the most remarkable things I’ve noticed as a foreigner here is the dedication Germans feel about being honest, truthful stewards of their history. Regardless of how ugly and terrible their history might be, Germans believe it is their responsibility to learn and share the stories of the past. I really respect their accountability.
Beneath the memorial is an information center and museum that I would strongly recommend visiting. The center takes a micro-level approach, following individual people and families who were murdered in the Holocaust. The personal histories from different European countries are tragic and heart-breaking. I found the storytelling to be incredibly powerful, really connecting the overwhelming atrocity to individual stories. There are lots of photos and audio clips, as well as the names of approximately 3 million Jewish Holocaust victims.
- Website: www.stiftung-denkmal.de
- Address: Cora-Berliner-Straße 1
- Hours: upper area is open 24 hours a day, info center is open daily 10:00-19:00
Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church
Serving as the symbolic center of west Berlin, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church has a striking appearance and a long history. The original church was built at the behest of Emperor Wilhelm II in a neo-Romanesque style. The main tower reaches 113 meters up, and it was lavishly decorated with extensive mosaics and murals depicting religious scenery. But the church was severely damaged during aerial allied bombing in WWII.
While parts of the church were restored after the war, the main tower was intentionally left as a ruin. The ghastly visual serves as a visual reminder of peace and functions as a memorial against war and destruction. You won’t need long to visit this site, maybe 30-45 minutes, so you can easily combine this with other sightseeing around Tiergarten or shopping at KaDeWe.
Every year surrounding the church, there is a beloved Christmas market. Like all Christmas markets in Germany, cheerful guests can meander stalls to snack on seasonal fare and purchase charming handmade gifts. Unfortunately in December 2016, a terrorist drove into market-goers, killing 11 people in the attack. You will notice a gold-filled crack in the ground in front of the church commemorating the victims.
- Website: Gedaechtniskirche-berlin.de
- Address: Breitscheidplatz
- Hours: Open daily 9:00 – 19:00
Perhaps the most famous and symbolic landmark in Berlin is the Brandenburg Gate. With over 200 years of history in this central location, nearly every first-time visitor to Berlin will visit the gate – as you could have guessed from all the selfies on Instagram! The sandstone gate was built between 1788-1791, and it is widely considered to be one of the world’s best examples of classicism. A copper horse-drawn chariot sits atop the gate, called the Quadriga. It was actually stolen by Napoleon in 1806, but returned to Germany after his defeat.
In more recent history, the Brandenburg Gate was a symbol of division between east and west Germany. After the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961, the gate sat right in the middle of the restricted zone. This meant that it could not be visited by East Berliners nor West Berliners. It was essentially left abandoned for 30 years until reunification, when it was reappropriated as a symbol of German unity. There isn’t much to do here besides admire the structure and take a few pictures, so you can easily combine this with a visit to nearby attractions, like the Holocaust Memorial and Reichstag.
- Address: Pariser Platz
- Hours: Open 24 hours a day
At this point, I have seen my fair share of castles and palaces in Germany. I just love visiting them! Located just 8km from the city center, Charlottenburg is an easy half day trip in Berlin. Originally built by (and for) Prussian-born Sophie Charlotte, the 17th century palace is a stunning example of baroque architecture. Complete with gilded statues, ornate chandeliers, and wallpaper-clad bedrooms, this palace is pure opulence. On a sunny day, the classical French gardens behind the palace are positively divine.
This is one of the few attractions on this list that you actually have to pay for. A combined ticket and an audio guide are available for purchase at the main entrance. The interior of Charlottenburg is filled with exhibits explaining the pivotal role Prussia played in German history. You will learn lots about the reign of the Hohenzollerns, one of the most influential family lines in Germany. There are also a few surprising things inside the palace, including the famous Jacques-Louis David painting of Napoleon crossing the Alps.
- Website: https://www.spsg.de/schloesser-gaerten/objekt/schlossgarten-charlottenburg/
- Address: Breitscheidplatz
- Hours: Open daily 9:00 – 19:00