Berliner Dom and the television tower. Blue sky with thin clouds.

Long queues to museums on a sweltering summer day in Berlin

It was close to 30 degrees Celsius this particular day and still, tourists were making their way to visit museums on the so-called museum island in Berlin. The lines were growing longer by the minute and the sun was beating down directly on the patiently waiting tourists. I lasted for less than five minutes. Although the Altes Museum and the German Historical Museum are two favorites, I know the value of coming during the off-season. That is a luxury that not everyone has, of course. But the trend is growing with museum visits that become a test of endurance as much as of a few fleeting moments of appreciating art.

Museum popularity equals queues

The line already counted more than thirty people when I arrived after 10:30 in the morning. Smartphones are held up in the sky and it was selfie time for the people waiting in line. As the minutes passed by, I had real-life entertainment watching people trying to find the best angles to snap selfies with themselves, their partner, and the museum building behind them. So many tired smiles and thumbs-ups. Were they really that excited in this heat and so early in the morning? I was still waiting for the effect of the first coffee to kick in. There was no apparent movement of the queue. So there we stand obediently waiting to visit the Bodes museum on what is to be another sweltering summer day in Berlin. And of course I had to take a selfie of my uncaffeinated face and drooping eyelids. I mean, it’s what you do, right.

Watching art (and standing in line to do so) builds up an appetite, so I decided to head to a salad bar instead. There is always another time of day to appreciate art, right? Well there, I observed how a British couple is exceedingly pleased by the 20-something taking their order, having zero contact with a local, and able to speak with a native English speaker when ordering lunch in Berlin. This is of course not unique nowadays. The tales of tourism that are causing locals to reel in larger European cities have spread fast these last years. The net effect looking back a few decades is that there are more English-speaking customer service representatives in the hospitality sector. This bubble in the tourism center of Berlin is mirrored to a similar extent in Amsterdam, Barcelona, and Paris, to name a few.

Watching art (and standing in line to do so) builds up an appetite, so I decided to head to a salad bar instead.

No crowd in the park outside the Altes museum and the Berliner Dom

With my mind diverted from the sculptures from ancient times, I decided that the park outside the Berliner Dom and the Altes Museum is a good way to spend some time. It is fairly empty but for the occasional group or a couple of tourists scurrying towards the museum entrances. Some seem to be in a hurry, which can be explained by the time slot system. As I planted myself on a bench next to the Spree outside the Altes museum, I had plenty of time to work through some numbers. And now that the caffeine was surging through my system, words that came to mind were: Hot, beyond warm, oppressive with beautiful views. The lines to the museums on this little island were long and growing by the minute. This early Wednesday morning, the sun was beating down and the old buildings and park outside the Altes museum put on a display of green tones with lawns and trees in all their summer glory.

The day before, an attendant in the Altes museum had talked about the museum card earlier when I asked for information. He was trying to appease the hordes of tourists and told the entire bunch in front of his small counter it will be very difficult for to be able to find time today to enter the Pergamon Museum. It seems most tourists flock there. However, he added that we could buy the museum ticket for another day. The following day people arrive about fifteen minutes too late for their “appointment” with the museum. Too late and of course they should have arrived earlier. Plus fifty people neatly lined up – Before 11:00. People look tired, and smartphones come up and take snapshots of the museum facade or selfies of themselves.

10 million annual visitors in Berlin, the museum island in the top three attractions

The number of visitors to Berlin’s famous museum island surpasses two million per year. There are nations with a considerably smaller populations than that. Consider that in 2022, 10 million people visited Berlin[1], so thanks to a simple ratio we know that every fifth visitor went to appreciate the art in the Pergamon museum. For the sake of imagination, if tourist numbers would remain steady for five years, that means that 10 million people would have visited the Pergamon Museum. Who knew that museums could be such big business? The Pergamon museum is one of the most visited on the museum island, which has five museums attracting visitors from around the world.

On a scale of top visited attractions in Berlin, the Museum island makes it into the top three with the Pergamon Museum, and Neues Museum, and the Alte Nationalgalerie being the most visited of the five museums on the island[2]. For a perspective, the Louvre museum alone in Paris has some 10 million visitors every year and surpasses the museum island in Berlin.

The solitary musician playing the french horn outside the Altes museum

As I was doing some math and sunbathing in front of the museum, I caught a sudden reflection by the stairs leading up to the Altes museum. A solitary musician playing the french horn to accompany a recording with Una furtiva lagrima. Well, he must be warm in this morning heat, I thought, as he stood there hovering more than 1 meter 90 centimeters above the ground. I also noticed that he he took his music seriously, carefully timing his playing to the music recording. But he can play, oh he can play, well enough for me as an amateur to appreciate it. I would not have imagined the tones of Una furtiva lagrima from the opera L’elisir d’amore bouncing against the columns of the Altes museum. And I wonder if that furtive tear of the opera could symbolize the lack of people out here in the sunshine. Instead, they are all by the lines in front of the museums. Certainly, the little performance added to the scene.

Ticket to the Pergamon Museum? Please make an appointment.

As is the case with all street music, sooner or later the tunes will be on repeat. When I noticed that the recording started over, I decided to give the Pergamon Museum another go. A combined all-in-one museum pass was the way to go it seemed. Then I found out from the museum attendant that if I wanted to visit the Pergamon Museum, I would have to make an appointment. Well now. That made it sound much less attractive. Like a dentist appointment without the drill and a stunning mural painted on the roof, but you have to stay still, just like a queue at a museum that has ground to a halt. That is the reality of many famous museums around Europe these days. Tourist numbers are soaring and there is no end in sight. Many of us want to catch a glimpse of the art from ancient and Renaissance times, and all eras in between. So then for the summertime travelers, the challenge remains how to visit museums and spend more time enjoying art than waiting in lines. Thankfully, there are street musicians and with some luck good weather that can turn a museum visit into a live concert.