No wonder the German capital has a worldwide reputation for its museums: it even has an island devoted to them.

The strength of Berlin’s museum collections (if not always the size) easily match those of Paris, London or New York. Why? Germans – in the 19th century in particular – were tireless explorers, travelling everywhere, digging things up and bringing them home when few others realised the value of the items collected. Then there’s the rich 20th Century history of the city.

But if you’ve got only a few days in Berlin, how do you curate your own museum collection? Start by heading to Museum Island in the River Spree.

The Pergamon Museum

The Pergamon Museum is the big daddy of Berlin collections, devoted to ancient wonders. Most visitors head for its vast models that mix original and reconstructed elements: the Pergamon Altar, with battle scenes between giants and Olympian gods; the neck-straining, two-storey high Roman Market Gate of Miletus; the shimmering blue-and-ochre tiled Gate of Ishtar. Don’t miss the newer, 14-room collection of Islamic art too.

The Neues Museum Berlin

The Neues (“New”) Museum is actually quite old but what you see now is a superbly accessible recent reconstruction by the architect David Chipperfield of a charred ruin from the Second World War. One of the most indisputable highlights of the Neues Museum is the centrally displayed bust of the Egyptian queen Neferiti. The sculpture has become an important symbol for Berlin after it was discovered by German archaeologists in 1912.

The Topography of Terror

Opened in 2010, on the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II, the Topography of Terror was built on the site of the former SS and Gestapo HQs, destroyed by Allied bombing toward the end of the war. Here you will find chilling exhibits (not all suitable for children) that reveal how Hitler’s cadres hardened their grip on German society, including the faces of many perpetrators. Over a million people visited the Topography of Terror in 2015, making it one of the most visited museums in Berlin.

The Jewish Museum

One of the most striking museums in Berlin – indeed, the world – tells the story of the Nazis’ main victims: the Jews. But unlike the Topography of Terror, the Jewish Museum has a broader focus than the Second World War. Housed in a haunting, asymmetric building by Daniel Libeskind, the multimedia permanent collection aims to tell the Jewish story in the long sweep of German history.

The best of the rest: Berlin Museums

There are many more other great museums to visit in Berlin, with a wide range of specialist subjects:

The DDR Museum provides a taste of life under Communism, with wonky Trabant cars and everyday East German consumer goods on show. Located in the centre of Berlin, this museum is definitely one not to miss.

The Filmmuseum Berlin uses props, costumes and more than 1,000 films to tell the city’s fascinating celluloid story from low-tech beginnings to Weimar greatness, Nazi pomposity and Communist propaganda. Meanwhile, Fans of midcentury design will revel in the Bauhaus Archives.

Kids can get their teeth into the Currywurst Museum, a celebration complete with samplings of Berlin’s tasty cultural-hybrid snack. Mini-travellers will also enjoy tailormade activities at the Labyrinth Children’s Museum and the Alice Museum for Children – both with hands-on activities!

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