Abroad at Home: Exploring Berlin’s Best

Berlin’s tumultuous history and cultural vibrancy make it one of the most unique and exciting cities in Europe, if not the world. That so many of its cultural sites and institutions have persevered throughout the Covid-19 pandemic is a measure of how artistically irrepressible the modern German capital is.

There have been dozens of online premieres of operas, plays and concerts. To date, the Berlin Philharmonic’s subscription-based Digital Concert Hall has uploaded over 50 new programs. There are also plenty of online resources to satisfy the curiosity of the keen armchair tourist. Sometimes you can even discover more from your computer than from an in-person visit.

The Pergamon Altar, the highlight of the Museum Island consortium of art and archaeology collections, has been closed to the public for the past seven years for extensive renovations. But you can visit it in a 3-D video rendering that whisks you through the Pergamon Museum’s monumental reconstructions. The simulation hurries you along the majestic entrance of

Nebuchadnezzar II’s

Babylon, from the sixth-century B.C., to the market gate from Miletus, the altar and the early Islamic desert palace of Mschatta—all in under four minutes.

For a closer look, check out “What Happened in Pergamon,” Google Arts & Culture’s thorough guide to the sacred ruin, which adorned a second-century B.C. hilltop Greek temple. It also introduces you to the Gigantomachy frieze, a vivid and violent depiction of the battle between gods and giants that will reopen to the public in 2024 at the earliest. The more than 200 figures engaged in combat are imbued with a thrilling sense of movement and emotion that helps make this one of the supreme masterpieces of the Hellenistic “Baroque.”

The Berlin State Museums’ “Babylon in Berlin” is an interactive feature that guides you along the walls of ancient Babylon, one of the original seven wonders of the world. After we peer up at the mighty Ishtar Gate, named for the Babylonian goddess of love, war and fertility, the guide whisks us along the imposing Processional Way, with its dazzling blue glazed brick adorned with dragons and lions meant to deter invaders.

Google has cataloged some 3,977 items from the island’s collections, spanning six millennia. A select few have gotten the deluxe digital treatment.

The painted stone bust of Queen


(c. 1340 B.C.) is the crown jewel of the Neues Museum’s Egyptian collection. In “An Audience With Nefertiti,” viewers get a 360-degree view of the room that houses the bust discovered by German archaeologists in 1912, as well as historical information about the wife of the 18th Dynasty Pharaoh Akhenaten. The guide is most thorough when discussing the material composition of the bust, with its limestone base, quartz eyes (the pupil of the right eye is dyed beeswax), elaborate stucco crown and thin layer of plaster molded to stunningly lifelike effect.

Leaping forward several millennia, a feature about two paintings from Caspar David Friedrich, the German Romantic master of gloom, is a short masterclass in the art of conservation and restoration. Friedrich’s “The Monk by the Sea” (1808-1810) and “The Abbey in the Oakwood”(1809-1810) were analyzed and restored by the Alte Nationalgalerie between 2013 and 2016. We are guided through the painstaking process.

Another masterpiece you can zoom in on, down to the cracking paint, is

Pieter Bruegel

the Elder’s “The Netherlandish Proverbs” (1559). The large wood panel is housed at the Gemäldegalerie, part of the drab Kulturforum complex that was West Berlin’s answer to Museum Island. An engaging interactive presentation takes you through several of the more than 120 folk sayings depicted in the ribald scene.

The Jewish Museum Berlin’s digital offerings make it the easiest—and most rewarding—of Berlin’s non-archaeology or -art collections to access virtually. Recently the museum launched a sophisticated mobile app to complement its new permanent collection. You can choose between several tours, with itineraries devoted to Jewish ritual objects or to luminaries from

Moses Mendelssohn


Hannah Arendt.

One of the most unusual ways to explore the city’s Cold War history is via “Risking Freedom,” an online exhibition by the Berlin Wall Foundation, which serves as custodian for the remaining strips of the barrier, including the colorful East Side Gallery. In five chapters, “Risking Freedom” guides the viewer through little-known stories about East Germans who fled to the West between 1961 and 1989. We learn about the Girrmann Group of West Berlin students who spirited roughly 500 refugees to the West between 1961 and 1964, either with forged passports or through the city’s sewage system.

No trip to Berlin is complete without a visit to the top of the Reichstag to see

Norman Foster’s

magnificent glass dome. Nothing can replace the experience of standing inside the dome and peering down into the Parliament, or of ascending the spiral walkway and circling the mirrored cone that plunges into the debating chamber. The German Parliament’s official website provides the wall text for the dry historical exhibit inside the dome, but not much else.

For a trove of photographs from all stages of the construction, from 1995 to 1999, head to the Foster and Partners website. There you can also discover Sir Norman’s other building in Berlin, a cranium-shaped library at the Freie Universität built in 2005. It’s an undulating translucent glass-fiber marvel buried within a drab, steel-clad campus.

Another modern architectural wonder is hiding in plain sight, near the Brandenburg Gate. Looking at the bland limestone façade of the DZ Bank Building, you’d never imagine you were standing in front of a 2001 masterpiece by

Frank Gehry.

Stand in the lobby, however, and you are confronted with the large inner atrium, whose glass ceiling and floor echo the Reichstag dome. In the center is a curvaceous sculptural shell—stainless steel on the outside and wood on the inside—that encompasses the bank’s main conference room. A page on ArchDaily.com contains detailed information, as well as stunning photos that let you see more of this wild building than anyone who isn’t a bank employee can.

I’ve always loved the game of hide-and-seek that Gehry’s bank building plays. It’s an act of architectural sleight of hand that seems particularly apt for a city that, behind its rough and chaotic surface, gradually reveals its complexity to the patient traveler or online visitor.

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