When I get off my friend’s vespa on the former East Side of Berlin – today we’ve been exploring the city on two wheels – the first thing I notice is the graffiti. It’s everywhere. It covers the stone and brick walls, bridges, street posts. There’s a spray-painted Lisa Simpson – topless – and the word ‘girls’ spelled out entirely in painted cats. A few less artistic pieces show up (like, come on guys, why is drawing penises on everything still a thing?) and stylized names in vibrant colors.
Confession: graffiti used to make me nervous.
I was raised as a pretty boring Midwestern girl, nestled in a lowkey area on the edge of Chicago, and the idea of “gasp! writing on public property!” just felt like it was… wrong, I guess? But traveling, especially to a place like Berlin, helped me to appreciate all forms of public art as what it really is – a form of art.
And not to be too basic, but it also makes a great backdrop for your next Instagram post. And yes, I am referring to my own basic insta page. Hint hint, shameless plug.
This guide takes a look at street art as I mentioned, and also the more ‘traditional’ kind of art – definitely recommend a nice air-conditioned museum after a sweat-filled sight-seeing day. So, whether you’re looking for the location for your next photoshoot (no judgment, please rock it) or want to get a better understanding of the why and how behind the art scene in Berlin, this little guide will start you off with the basics.
Okay, sit yourself down because it’s story time. During the Cold War, the Wall became a huge symbol of that division. While East Berliners weren’t able to access the Wall (capitalized – fancy, huh?), West Berliners could- and graffiti was a way to metaphorically give a middle finger to the establishment on the other side. Which brings me to the first kind of public street art you can check out in Berlin (and probably the most obvious): East Side Gallery, the longest open-air gallery in the world.
It’s made of the Berlin wall (not in its original location btw), and each panel serves as a sort of canvas space for an artist to work on. I zipped by East Side Gallery by scooter on a day in August, miles away from the US. And while miles away from the US, I couldn’t help but think of the deeper meanings of walls – and the xenophobia and blatant separation that comes from building them. So even if ‘modern art’ isn’t your thing, East Side Gallery is super relevant, and might I even add more relevant in our current political climate… just sayin’.
Long story short: why build a wall when you can make art?
Other spots to check out that have a cool, sort of dystopian grunge-gone-art feel:
Urban Spree is more than just a totally decked out Instagram street art paradise; it’s a combo these abandoned buildings from the days of Berlin’s many wars that are now spaces for artists, bars, indoor rock climbing (!!!), and concerts. It was also the place I got my first beer in Germany – so forever notable in my mind.
I was afraid I’d look out of place (so many skateboarders and all these cool, quasi-goth/punk peeps in perfect outfits) but there are also families and just a mix of everyone. If there’s one thing that Berlin has taught me: it’s not to apologize for who you are at all – and that includes your clothes and style.
Cafe Cinema has a similar feel but it’s a bit more touristy and in a more urban location. Also, just putting it out there that these aren’t like the only places (I know, duh) – there’s so many! These 3 are the more popular destination and ones I have the most memories from (*cue flashback to my first beer in Germany and vespa rides*) so don’t be afraid to explore and find a gem of your own.
Another confession – even me, self-proclaimed Museum Lover (capital M, capital L), can get a little bit museum-ed out. (AKA: ‘museum fatigue’ which is actually a real thing we talk about in the Museum field! So don’t feel bad if your eyes start to glaze over after a while.) But there are so many art collections in Berlin that at least warrant at least a peek inside because there is some really cool stuff happening inside.
Like walking into the Museum of Plaster Casts. I wandered in because it was free (it’s true, ya gurl is broke) and I also have a huge obsession with ancient art. If art history textbooks had a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, this is it. All of the greatest hits that make the rounds in every Intro Art History class are here in plaster cast form – including that magnificent, headless Nike of Samothrace who you can see at the Louvre.
Like, this is the ancient art equivalent of Beyonce, Michael Jackson, David Bowie, and Elvis all having a concert in the same building!
There’s also the big museums you’ll see on every “What to Do in Berlin” list – like the Altes Museum, Neues Museum, Bode Museum, and Pergamon Museum. And the Pergamon Museum – while usually really crowded – is great if you’re the kind of person that gets tired of most museums easily.
LITERALLY HUGE ANCIENT MONUMENTS stuck inside a museum! It’s like the Disneyland of art museums.
While those were all about really old school art, there are also museums focused on newer stuff. Like one place I saw on a tinder date, who scooped me up on a scooter to show me Koenig Gallery. While the date ended with me ubering back to my Airbnb, the contemporary art and the gallery definitely gets a super like.
And saving one of the best museums for last (and one that didn’t start with a so-so tinder date): Hamburger Bahnhof.
Let me set the scene: it’s a massive, former train station (so that’s kind of cool in itself) and is known globally for just how freaking impressive it is. It’s also the most inclusive museum I’ve seen in Berlin – while a lot of museums STILL mainly focus on art from rich, old, white men, Hamburger Bahnhof has an awesome exhibition going on right now called “Hello World. Revising a Collection” to feature allll kinds of humans from around the world.
Buildings and Random Stuff:
So you’ve seen some museums and want to get some fresh air – it’s architecture time! Grab yourself some currywurst and a Berliner pilsner and sit out on the lawn at the Berlin Cathedral. It’s one of the icons of Berlin (plus the Brandenburg Gate and TV Tower) and even if you don’t go inside, you can still admire the building that’s been around since 1905 – and even survived bombings and fire during World War II.
Plus, it’s a great “look, I’m in Berlin!” photo op.
Wandering around cool neighborhoods is another way to see the art historical side of Berlin. Not only will you see the graffiti and street art mentioned earlier, but you can check out how the buildings change if you’re in the former East or West. In the East, there are neighborhoods like Prenzlauer Berg – where I stayed – that preserves that kind of old school Europe architecture. And because the public transit system is #goals, it’s easy to cross the city.
Whether you’re the type to spend hours in a museum or prefer soaking up the sun and seeing sights outside with a beer in hand, Berlin has it. Don’t be afraid to question the museums and be critical of what is in it or to explore graffiti-filled abandoned warehouses.
And definitely don’t be afraid to uber home from a bad gallery date…
There’s too much art to see in Berlin to be wasting time on hard left swipes.
What’s your personal favorite way to see art while traveling? Let us know in a comment below.