Berlin's island of museums

In the Pergamon Museum, my mouth dropped open in awe.

What a welcome delight for foot-weary travelers - seven top cultural attractions gathered on an island within easy hailing distance of one another.

Not that King Friedrich Wilhelm III was thinking of tourists and coach tours in the early 1800s when he asked painter and architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel to design a suitable repository for the royal art collection.

The impressive neoclassic building, now known as the Altes Museum (Old Museum), found a home on Berlin's Insel Cölin, in the River Spree. It was within walking distance of the palace - although one assumes that the king instead rode in a royal coach across Schlossbrücke (Palace Bridge), also designed by Schinkel, at the end of Unter den Linden street.

Today's visitors should definitely go by foot. After all, royal carriages aren't much in evidence in what used to be East Berlin. Besides, the short stroll makes it all the easier to admire the bridge's impressive ornamentation and the groupings of marble statues depicting Greek warriors plying their trade.

Since the king had more treasures to show off, the Neues (New) Museum opened its doors nearby 25 years later. Eventually, another museum was added about every quarter-century until 1930.

By this time, the island - one of the oldest settlements in the area, dating back to the early 13th century - was being called Museuminsel (Museum Island).

Some of the museums suffered damage in World War II, and most were neglected by the East German government, so all have been undergoing renovation the past few years. At any time, one or more may be closed for construction. While that could be a problem for those who had their hearts set on seeing a particular piece of art, it won't matter as much to the ordinary visitor.

The main problem on Museuminsel is how to see as much as possible in the time available. It's easy to be overwhelmed by the choices.

The two must-sees are the Altes and Pergamon museums, but you may want to walk around the island to get your bearings, admire the magnificent architecture, and stop at those buildings that seem intriguing. I can't resist cathedrals, so I made time for the Berliner Dom, a large church built in the mid-1700s, later "updated" to neoclassical, neo-Baroque, and neo-Renaissance styles. And I was interested in observing the progress of the re-creation of the Lustgarten (Pleasure Garden), which dates from the mid-1600s.

But if you have only a day, save most of it for the Pergamon's justly renowned collection of antiquities. Even if you aren't able to stay the four hours that the audio tour lasts, rent it anyway. It will make all the difference in understanding a collection that encompasses the architecture and art of Babylon, Greece, Rome, and the Middle East.

The exhibits are divided into classical antiquities, Near Eastern antiquities, and Islamic art. But to see everything, be prepared to wander in and out of galleries and up and down steps. You'll find yourself constantly craning your neck (to observe a 52-foot-high gate built around a Roman town in AD 120, for instance). My mouth often fell open in awe.

Some vacationers may prefer their islands with palm trees and sand, but those in search of a cultural experience will be delighted by the treasures of Berlin's Museuminsel.

For more information, see www.germany-tourism.de or www.berlin-tourist-information.de/index.html.en, or call (212) 661-7200. All the museums are closed on Mondays.

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