Sanssouci | Friends of BBS

What Versailles is to Paris, Sanssouci is to Berlin: a grand palace within lavish gardens located outside of the capital (in Potsdam), and the royal residence of the ruling dynasty’s most storied representative, King Frederick the Great.

Sanssouci as viewed from the garden

Still, there are important differences. While Versailles is all Baroque splendour, Sanssouci, 80 years younger, follows a less grandiose Rococo design. France’s Louis XIV was the personification of absolute monarchy, while Frederick thought himself an enlightened king. He invited Voltaire to Potsdam; the French philosopher was a frequent guest at the king’s “modest” summer palace.

Frederick the Great

And while Louis XIV abhorred Paris, a city he had been forced to flee from in his childhood, Frederick didn’t have a “Berlin trauma.” Yet the image we have of “Old Fritz” – the misanthrope he became in later years, alienating everyone, the greyhounds he would be buried among his only friends – is so closely linked with the terraced gardens of Sanssouci, it’s hard to imagine him in Berlin.

Interior of Sanssouci

If you too walk through his garden, admiring the never-destroyed palace, you may happen upon his grave. The marker is always covered with potatoes, testament to the widely held (but false) belief that Frederick introduced the potato to Prussia. It’s enough to make you forget that Frederick is called “Great” not because of Voltaire or potatoes, but because he, in war, made Prussia a great power, which it would remain – in various guises – until the middle of the 20th century.






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Charlottenburg Palace | Friends of BBS

If you are on a quick trip to Berlin and don’t have time to visit the royal residence of Potsdam, Schloss Charlottenburg (Charlottenburg Palace) is a good alternative.

The palace as viewed from the gardens

You’ll find sprawling Baroque architecture, lavish interiors, and an elegant formal garden. The New Wing is especially worthwhile, boasting a beautiful „Friderician Rococo“ interior.

The palace was built in the tiny village of Lietzow under the first Prussian king, Frederick I, for the his wife, Sophie Charlotte. The palace (and village) were renamed Charlottenburg after the queen’s death, and remained a favourite summer residence for succeeding Hohenzollern rulers, many of whom made changes and additions.

Although it dates back to the 17th century, a visit to Charlottenburg Palace is in some ways a reminder of just how young Berlin is, and how quickly it grew in the 20th century. Charlottenburg only became a part of Berlin in 1920. What had been a sleepy village a half-day’s trip from Berlin had grown into a city of more than 300,000, its palace a centrally located tourist attraction.

The destroyed palace

Touring the palace, you can admire many of the original furnishings. The palace was badly destroyed in World War II, but the furniture had been removed for safekeeping, as it was from most palaces, including those that were never rebuilt.

New Wing interior





In French châteaus like Versailles, the interiors were often plundered (or auctioned off) in the Revolution, but the palaces left standing. Here, by contrast, we have the interiors, but not the palaces.



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Nefertiti and the Neues Museum | Friends of BBS

One of the world’s most iconic works of art can be found in the Neues Museum (New Museum) on Berlin’s Museum Island: the bust of Nefertiti.

Although she’s more than 3000 years old, she nonetheless conforms to our modern ideal of beauty, and did so from the moment she was put on public display in Berlin in 1924: her make up and jewellery quickly became all the rage.

The Neues Museum is worth a visit just for the architecture. Dating to the mid-19th century, the museum was badly damaged in World War II and restored in the early 2000s by the British architect David Chipperfield. He preserved what he could of the old building, while everything he added is clearly contemporary. The contrast between old and new is striking.


The bust of Nefertiti is not the museum’s only draw. The Egyptian collection as a whole is well worth a visit, and the museum also houses artefacts of prehistory and early history. A highlight is the “Berlin Gold Hat” of the late Bronze Age. It is one of only four such conical hats yet discovered – and it’s the best-preserved.

Not on display are the treasures Heinrich Schliemann, an amateur archaeologist, excavated at what is believed to be ancient Troy. “Priam’s Treasure,” as Schliemann dubbed the gold artefacts he found, are now at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, where they were taken after World War II.


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The Bode Museum | Friends of BBS

Bode Museum foyer

At the northern tip of Museum Island is the Bode Museum with its superb collection of European statuary from late antiquity through the Baroque period. It was known as the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum when it opened in 1904; unsurprisingly, the name was changed under the Communist East German regime in 1956.

Today, the museum is named for its founder, the long-time head of the Berlin museums, Wilhelm von Bode. It is in large part thanks to Bode that the city’s museums were able to amass a world class collection.

Portrait of Museum founder, Wilhelm von Bode by Max LiebermannThe Bode Museum in particular was his passion project. Here, he realized his idea of exhibiting art in what he called Stilräume, “style rooms.” Bode sought to elevate individual artworks by displaying paintings, statuary, applied art, and architectural elements from a certain period together. This is a far cry from the “white cube” museum displays we so often encounter.

The Bode Museum’s collection is exhibited in the spirit of its founder. Visitors first enter an ornate neo-Baroque hall with a copy of the famous equestrian statue of Frederick William the Great Elector on the original pedestal. The so-called Basilica that follows evokes an early Renaissance church. Here, paintings and statuary of the Florentine Renaissance are on display. Other highlights include works by Donatello, Tilman Riemenschneider, Tiepolo, and a 6th century church mosaic from Ravenna.

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Gemäldegalerie | Friends of BBS

Jan Vermeer van Delft - The Glass of Wine

While tourists in Berlin tend to flock to Museum Island, they often overlook the Kulturforum, home to the city’s great collection of old master paintings, the Gemäldegalerie (Picture Gallery). 

The museum is situated between two iconic buildings – the Berliner Philharmoniker and the New National Gallery, the latter designed by the famous Bauhaus architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. It offers an overview of European painting from the 13th to the early 19th centuries.

That Berlin can boast such a superior collection today is remarkable. The Hohenzollern, the royal family here, were not avid collectors. And the museum incurred tremendous losses in the 20th century. After World War I, the van Eyck brothers’ famous Ghent altarpiece was turned over to Belgium as (very modest) recompense for the devastation German forces wrought after violating Belgian neutrality – including the destruction of the great university library in Leuven. In World War II, hundreds of paintings were lost, among them three by Caravaggio, eight by Rubens, and four by van Dyck.

And yet to walk through the museum – between works by Botticelli, Raffael, Vermeer, Rembrandt, and yes, van Eyck, Caravaggio, Rubens, and van Dyck – is still a thrill, even more so because it is rarely crowded, the presentation of the art works is state of the art, and the museum is not so large as to be overwhelming. It is a wonderful introduction to the breadth and quality of Western painting.

Caravaggio - Cupid as VictorBotticelli - Venus



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Alte Nationalgalerie | Friends of BBS

The Monk by the Sea, Caspar David Friedrich

Situated at the heart of Museum Island, a UNESCO world heritage site, Berlin’s Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery) is one of Germany’s top museums for 19th century art.

As anywhere, the French Impressionists are a draw, and the National Gallery is considered to be the first museum in the world to have acquired a major work by Manet, Renoir, or Cézanne.

The focus, however, is on German art, and the museum has numerous iconic works in its collection. For those of us from the English speaking world, where 19th century German art is lesser known and poorly represented, a visit to the Old National Gallery is full of surprises:

Frederick the Great playing the flute at Sanssouci, Adolph von Menzel


Take Caspar David Friedrich, the great Romantic painter, whose pieces are given pride of place in the gallery. The titles alone are evocative: The Monk at the Sea, The Abbey in the Oakwood, Fog in the Elbe Valley. Or Adolph von Menzel, who did so much to construct our image of King Frederick the Great while also documenting the rapid rise of industry in Berlin.



Women plucking geese, Max Liebermann


Then there’s Max Liebermann, who painted both scenes of hard scrabble life in rural Holland and beautiful landscapes in the tradition of the Impressionists. Liebermann, who was Jewish, went from being rejected by the Prussian Academy of Arts to being elected its president in 1920. He did not live to see his wife commit suicide to avoid deportation to Theresienstadt in 1943.





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