Potsdam, located about 40 km / 25 miles South-West of Germany’s capital, is often considered Berlin’s suburb. As a matter of fact, it can be reached by regional or urban train in more or less half an hour. Potsdam has barely 175,000 inhabitants but is still the most densely populated city of the federal country Brandenburg – and also its capital.
|Sanssouci Palace is Potsdam’s highlight, no matter what.|
All this might make it sound like a cute, drowsy hamlet, but you’ll be amazed to see it’s rich heritage – and how Frederick made this small town great.
|Samuel Theodor Gericke: Frederick William I (1713)
(Illustration:Samuel Theodor Gericke, Friedrich Wilhelm I 1713, public domain,
details on Wikimedia Commons)
Born in 1688 in Berlin, Prussian King Frederick William I incorporated all the famous and also rather infamous virtues and quirks that Germans are said to have until this date: He was very rigid, absolutistic, sparing, meticulous – my tour guide in Potsdam cleverly remarked that he would have just loved the invention of the Excel sheet since even every little piece of stationary was enlisted in long files.
And he was totally military-buff and basically made Potsdam into a garrison town.
He was not called the Soldier King without a reason.
But you actually have to give him credit for implementing compulsory schooling and promoting trades such as wool and textile industry; whereby this is what basically all these dictators do.
With his wife – and cousin – Sophia Dorothea of Hanover, a sister of King Georg II of England – gosh, while I write this, I’m glad that these guys are marrying some random starlets nowadays – he had 14 children; Frederick II being the most famous one.
|Anton Graff: Frederick II at the age of 68 (1781)
(Illustration: Anton Graff, Friedrich Zweite Alt, public domain, details on Wikimedia Commons)
Frederick II was born in 1712 – and I cannot stretch this point enough: on January 24 – just like me (and Neil Diamond).
He was a pretty different character than his daddy and he had quite different ideas how to rule a country. Although he also led Prussia into the three Silesian Wars, the last being the Seven Years’ War, his leadership style was based on the ideas of the Enlightenment movement.
He was a pen pal with Voltaire, played the flute – at the age of 26 he composed his first symphony. He admired rococo painters such as Watteau and had a circle of artists friends – and he did not fool around with the ladies.
His father was not happy.
Do you remember the movie Billie Elliot – I can dance? It was a bit like that (come on, you history teachers, it’s a joke!).
Only after Frederick II agreed to marry Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel-Bevern (good for her that at that time they did not have to print names on credit cards), things between him and his father got a bit better. The marriage, by the way, remained childless since Frederick was sterile due to some STD he caught only he knows where.
|Typical Dutch brick gables at the Holländisches Viertel, the Dutch quarter, planned by Frederick William I, accomplished by Frederick II
(Photo: Axel Hindemith, Potsdam hölländisches Viertel Giebel, CC BY-SA 4.0)
However, he was by far not just an idle layabout: He brought industries such as silk farms and porcelain manufactures to Potsdam. He was the first to introduce potatoes to the people. He let Huguenots and Catholics alike settle down in the city – and they brought trades and manpower with them. And he fulfilled his father’s plans to build a Holländisches Viertel, a Dutch quarter, to attract Dutch craftsmen. Besides the Dutch, this cute neighborhood and the prospect of highly paid jobs attracted Prussians and French alike.
His most obvious achievement, of course, is the world-famous Sanssouci castle which was just his summer residence but is to this date Potsdam’s greatest attraction.
I know that this has been quite a lot of history, but you need to know this to understand how unique the small town of Potsdam is – and why.
But now, let’s take a grand tour of a grand town – and let’s start where you’ll probably will arrive: At the central train station. Like I mentioned above, you can get from Berlin to Potsdam by train in about 30 minutes.
Important: If you intend to buy a WelcomeCard for your stay in Berlin, you can get the slightly more expensive ABC-version that does not include only Berlin’s city center, but also the outskirts all the way to Potsdam; and you’ll get discounts at some attractions here, too.
There is no WelcomeCard exclusively for Potsdam, though.
So once you get to the main station, you might want to take tram #92 to get to Alter Markt/Landtag, close to the starting point, the Alter Markt square, the old marketplace.
You could easily walk this distance in ten to fifteen minutes, but since you’ll probably do some serious walking exploring Potsdam, you might want to save you this way; just sayin’.
|The Sanssouci park is just gorgeous – and it’s spacious, to say the least. Although for the promenaders it’s nicer this way, the fact that cycling is prohibited makes a visit a good exercise.|
Depending on how much you want to see of Potsdam, I’d strongly recommend renting a bike – but beware: At the Sanssouci park you are not allowed to cycle!
Already the Alter Markt, the old market, is a grand starting point.
|The newly reconstructed City Palace.|
You stand in the center – next to the obelisk. Already the 25 meters / 82 feet high obelisk is a special structure. It was built between 1753 and 1755 according to a design by Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff, one of Frederick II’s artist buddies.
|Look at all those towers: St Nicholas’ church, the Obelisk, the Potsdam Museum with the
Atlas-statue on top, and an old-fashioned lantern.
Old world charm at its best.
It was also von Knobelsdorff who design the Potsdamer Stadtschloss, the City Palace Potsdam, which used to be one of the two Royal’s official seat – called the Winter Palace; the other one used to be the Stadtschloss in Berlin which is about to be rebuilt and will be finished in 2019 (as mentioned in my last post on Berlin).
Seeing it today, you won’t believe that the Stadtschloss of Potsdam was damaged at the end of WWII, and eventually, the GDR government demolished it completely. The square then was used as a parking lot – although they hadn’t hardly any cars.
In 2014, the reconstruction – financed by donations of wealthy citizens – was completed and today the building houses the Landtag, the State Parliament.
|The Palace’s facade facing the Humboldtstraße.|
Parts of the building can be visited on Monday to Friday from 8 a. m. to 6 p. m.
Guided tours can be arranged by the Potsdam Tourismus (details below).
|A gilded statue of Fortuna on top of the entrance gate – if that doesn’t bring good luck, I don’t know what will.|
|The Fortuna-gate, seen from the courtyard, with the top of St Nicholas’ Church behind.|
Across from the Stadtschloss’ main gate is the St. Nikolaikirche, Saint Nicholas’ church, a Protestant church, built in two steps in the middle of the 19th century according to a design by Karl-Friedrich Schinkel. Schinkel’s idea was to copy the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome – I know, it looks nothing like its model, but at that time, Rome was the epicenter of European art, and all the painters, sculptors, and architects spent time there to get inspired by the ancient Roman Empire and transform it into classicism.
|The tambour cupola was erected from 1843 to 1850 – a decade after the main building was completed.|
Although the church, too, was damaged during the air raid in April 1945, interestingly it was repaired and renovated little by little already during the GDR government.
On the square’s Eastern side is another majestic building – the former town hall, built from 1753 to 1755, commissioned by Frederick the Great. Today, after being re-opened only in 2012, it houses the Potsdam Museum. The big building is connected through a smaller, new one to the Knobelsdorffhaus – named after it’s architect Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff who designed many, many of Potsdam’s beautiful buildings.
The Potsdam Museum houses, of course, exhibitions on the city and its rich and everchanging history, but also paintings and sculptures.
The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a. m. to 5 p. m., Thursday to 7 p. m. and weekends to 6 p. m.
|Thank you, sun, for illuminating the top of the building in this intriguing way. It simply underlines its beauty.|
The lastly remodeled Palace in this square is the Museum Barberini which was finished only in January 2017.
|The latest building being reconstructed at the Alter Markt is the Barberini Palace, housing the Museum Barberini.
Now the old market shines in its former splendor again.
Built in 1771/1772, the Palace is basically a copy of the real Palazzo Barberini in Rome – like I mentioned before: In the 18th century, Italy was the undisputed paragon of beauty and aesthetics.
Since the Barberini was restored with the money from the Hasso Plattner Foundation (Hasso Plattner made a fortune as a co-founder of a German software company), it shows changing temporary art exhibitions.
Open Wednesday to Monday from 10 a. m. to 7 p. m.
Actually, all the buildings along the Humboldtstraße across the street from the City Palace are strongly inspired by Italian palazzi.
When you are done admiring the posh facades on Humboldstraße, turn right on Friedrich-Ebert-Straße and you’ll get to another pompous building: Built in 1685 as an Orangery Palace, it was transformed in the 18th century by – you guess whom?! Right: Knobelsdorff – and served as a stable for the King’s riding horses. Already in 1981, the building was turned into a film museum by the GDR government – and has been a film museum ever since. Why Potsdam has a film museum? We’ll get to that later on the Grand Circuit.
The museum is open from Tuesday till Sunday 10 a .m. to 6 p. m.
|Quite a stable, right?!|
|The entrance – of course, decorated with sculptures of horses.|
After you’ve already visited the Alter Markt, the old market, you should see also the Neuer Markt, the new market, located in the back of the Filmmuseum: Turn right into the Schloßstraße and wander the cobblestone alleys to the Neuer Markt square.
|While the Film Museum used to be the stable for the King’s riding horses, this building used to house the carriage horses, the carriages, and provided housing to the carriage drivers.|
Besides the old charming houses that make this area look like an open-air museum, anyway, there is the Haus der Brandenburgisch-Preußischen Geschichte, the House of Brandenburg-Prussian History, taking you back in time. This museum is also great for kids since it does not only house a huge model of the city – showing its privileged location nestled between the most scenic lakes – but also many artifacts making the old times and stories come alive.
Opening hours Tuesday to Thursday 10 a. m. to 5 p. m., Friday to Sunday10 a. m. to 6 p. m.
|Like they say, everything is relative, so this square is the relatively Neuer Markt, the new market.|
After having explored this alluring old neighborhood and maybe having taken a rest and a cup of coffee for instance at the Café Kutschstall (which means, of course, carriage stable, what else?!), walk up north and you’ll get to the Alter Stadtkanal, the old city channel.
|The Wilhelm-Staat-Straße with its cute cobblestone road (drivers will probably disagree that it’s cute) and its elegant houses.|
Cross the bridge and keep on walking, awing at all the gorgeous buildings left and right. Keep walking and awing along Wilhelm-Staab-Straße and then Jägerstraße until you get to the Brandenburger Straße – Potsdam’s pedestrian shopping mile.
If you turn left, you’ll get to the Stadtpalais, the City Palace, which was built in 1905 to house a department store. After a chequered history according to the political and economic twists and turns, in 2005, after expensive restoration, it became again a branch of the German tradition store chain Karstadt.
Turning right on Brandenburger Straße, you walk straight towards the Catholic Peter and Paul Church.
|Pedestrian shopping street Brandenburger Straße with the Peter and Paul church at the end.|
In front of the church, turn left, walk two blocks and you find yourself surrounded by a completely different architecture: The Holländisches Viertel, the Dutch quarter that I’ve mentioned before, is built in the red clinker brick style – pretty puristic compared to all the sumptuous neo-classicist facades.
|The Holländisches Viertel during one of the various special occasions – the annual Tulpenfest, the tulip festival|
To learn more about the open minds – and open arms – of the Prussian Kings that brought these immigrants, not exclusively from the Netherlands, to Potsdam, visit the Jan Bouman House, the first house in Potsdam built by immigrants and named after the Dutch master builder Jan Bouman who controlled the erection of the Holländisches Viertel, consisting of 134 of these brick houses, and many other buildings around Potsdam and even Berlin.
Opening hours Monday to Friday from 1 p. m. to 6 p. m., weekends from 11 a. m. to 6 p. m.
|If you are hungry and thirsty and tired from all that walking, you’ll certainly find a café or restaurant to your liking around the Nauener Tor.|
And now it’s time to pay the good people a visit who made Potsdam great (again), and where better could this be than at Park Sanssouci (which is French for no worries).
Walk down the Hegelallee, which is quite a walk, but a nice one.
|The Jägertor, hunter’s gate, in the middle of the beautiful promenade Hegelallee. It’s even prettier in spring and summer when everything is in full bloom.|
You’ll enter the premises at the South East corner where the Friedenskirche, the Church of Peace is located. Its annex is the Kaiser Friedrich Mausoleum which was added in 1890. Members of the House of Hohenzollern are entombed here; not Frederick II, though.
|Friedenskirche with the adjacent Kaiser Friedrich Mausoleum
(Stefan14776, Potsdam-friedenskirche, als gemeinfrei gekennzeichnet, Details auf Wikimedia Commons)
The park has a size of over a square mile and cycling is not permitted.
So walk from the church to the central alley that will open to your right. You cannot miss it since you’ll have the iconic view of – tadaa – Sanssouci Palace.
It is a majestic view as you stroll towards it, walking around the large fountain surrounded by beautiful sculptures made by French artists of snow-white marble.
Some of them were a gift by Louis XV.
I didn’t count them, but they say that there are about 4,000 statues scattered across the park, some solo, some arranged in picturesque groups.
|Of course, Mr. Frederick is not missing. While here he’s walking, there is another statue of him on a horse which makes every Royal, even more, a Highness.|
|Minerva, one of the gods and goddesses adorning the large fountain.|
The Palace Sanssouci, built by our old buddy Knobelsdorff, is a fine specimen of dainty rococo architecture. I’ve been there in April, so I did not see the vineyard in full bloom, but it the sight was mesmerizing just the same.
|Mercury in front of Sanssouci Palace on top of the vineyard (end of April unfortunately quite bleak)|
Of course, the Palace can be visited, they supply you with an audio guide and then you can take your time admiring all the sublime furnishing and decoration.
|Why am I cleaning my flat? Stained and attrited can be quite alluring – like ths mirror in one of the antechambers.|
|Frederick’s music room where he pursued his passion for playing the cross flute.|
Although I’m usually not so into kitsch, I really like the last room which is painted and decorated like a jungle-ish aviary with tapestry full of flowers and fruits and carved parrots – pretty unique.
|Frederick the Great, portrayed by Andy Warhol – I bet they would have become friends; well, bad timing.
This portrait is to be found in one of the former servant’s rooms at the end of the tour.
Well, the Palace is by far not the only superb structure to be admired at the park. Walking down westward the main alley, just imagine how the King came riding down where you are walking right now – all by himself, no visitors from Spain, Italy, India, or France being in his way asking for selfies.
|Frederick all by himself, hiding from the tourists in Sanssouci’s lush bushes.|
Soon, to your right, you’ll spot the Neue Kammern, the new chambers, with the Historic Mill in the backdrop. This Dutch mill houses a Technical Museum, teaching you all about…mills.
|The New Chamber annex with the Dutch mill behind.|
The way leading from the mill towards the Orangery is named Maulbeerallee, Mulberry Alley. Remember – Frederick II enforced the production of silk in Potsdam.
Following the Maulbeerallee from the Orangery to the Klausberg behind the Royal Vineyard, you can walk up to the Belvedere where you have…a pretty bel vedere, i. e. a great view of the land that once was Frederick’s.
From up there, you probably already spotted the other grand Palace of Sanssouci, the Neues Palais, the New Palace. While the Sanssouci Palace was finished in 1747, this regal building was added in 1769 – and you will immediately recognize the color and the style of some of the buildings around Potsdam, namely the Stadtschloss.
|Facade of the Neues Palais. The three graces are way up high and difficult to capture – so no selfie in their company.|
Pay attention to all the beautiful details, the lanterns, the statues, the three gilded graces on top of the roof – it’s all so stupefying.
|Just look at these lanterns. The Kings sure had a thing for decoration.|
Behind the New Palace, by the way, is the Potsdam University.
There are various ticket options – from a single visit to the Sanssouci Palace to a family ticket for two adults and up to four kids covering various castles around Potsdam, so you have to check their website before you go. Anyway, since places are limited, I’d recommend you make an online reservation – you have to choose a precise slot and be there on time.
Depending on the season, the opening hours are from 10 a. m. either till 4.30 p. m., 5 p. m., or 5.30 p. m.
I know, you’ve walked a lot and you’re tired. But it would be a shame if you miss out on one of Potsdam’s greatest curiosities, the Russian quarter Alexandrowka.
If you don’t feel like walking the two miles, you can as well take bus #695 at the stop Neues Palais and get off after 15 minutes at Reiterweg/Jägerallee.
|A Russian homestead at the Alexandrowka.
(Photo: Mrsklonk, Russische Kolonie Alexandrowka in Potsdam, CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Alexandrowka is one of these quirky gifts and souvenirs the nobles used to give each other. In 1826 and 1827, King Frederick William III commissioned this colony for twelve Russian singers, remaining of a choir of 62 soldiers. The Prussian Hohenzollern and the Russian Romanows were connected by familial and amicable relations, hence the colony was called Alexandrowka in honor of Tsar Alexander I, deceased in 1825. The complex consists of twelve small farmsteads and an overseer building.
(Photo: A.Savin (Wikimedia Commons · WikiPhotoSpace), Potsdam Alexandrowka 02-14 img4, CC BY-SA 3.0)
In the colony’s vicinity, the Russian-orthodox Alexander-Newski-Memorial Church was built on the Kapellenberg.
Since it’s not always open, check their website for latest information.
Oh, and when you visit on your birthday, entrance is free (so you save 3,50 €uro, but I find it’s a really cute idea).
So, guys, these are the most important attractions to see around the center of wonderful Potsdam. You see there’s a lot of stories and history. What I haven’t even mentioned is the historic importance of Potsdam at the end of WWII when the victorious powers USA, United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union met in Potsdam to negotiate how to proceed with what was left of Europe. In the end, they signed the Potsdam Agreement, determining the division of Germany into four zones. Eventually, the territory occupied by the Soviet Union became the German Democratic Republic, short for GDR.
Anyway, following my steps through Potsdam according to this itinerary, you can make it in one (long) day including maybe two visits to museums. However, this shows you that you won’t get bored visiting two or even more days. Actually, at Sanssouci alone, you can spend an entire day.
Then there are the outskirts and surroundings that are really beautiful and worth a visit, too.
The best way to visit – at least in Summer – is renting a bike and cycle around the scenic lakes like e. g. Heiliger See, the holy lake, where many German celebrities have beautiful mansions in the Berliner Vorstadt neighborhood.
There is another imposing Palace to be visited, the Cecilienhof, the last Palace built by the Hohenzollern. Kaiser William II commissioned this home for his oldest son Prince Royal William. It was inhabited by William and his wife Cecilie until 1945. The architecture was adapted to the rustic surroundings.
|Cecilienhof’s inner courtyard. You see that it resembles rather a country house than a Palace.
(Photo: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Paris, France, La cour intérieure du château de Cecilienhof (Potsdam) (2731361224), CC BY 2.0)
It was at Cecilienhof where the representatives of the victorious powers held the Potsdam conference in 1945.
At Cecilienhof, too, you have various options regarding the entrance ticket – and it is also part of the sanssouci+ ticket if you choose so.
Opening hours vary according to those of Sanssouci Palace.
Another important attraction is the Babelsberg Film Studio, located across the Tiefer See, the Deep Lake, from the Berliner Vorstadt, so you can just cycle across the Glienicker Brücke, the bridge crossing the Glienicker Lake (I’ve told you there are many, many lakes around Potsdam) – connecting the Federal Country of Brandenburg and Berlin, which is, just like Hamburg and Bremen, a city and at the same time a Federal State.
Here, you can first visit Schloss Glienicke north of Königstraße (i. e. King’s Street), Prince Carl’s idea of an Italian Palazzo, designed by Schinkel and built in 1823.
|Prince Carl of Prussia got inspired on his trip to Italy, so he commissioned this Palace in a neo-classical style.
(Photo: Suse, Schloss Glienicke Süden, Formatted to 5:7, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cycle along the lake pass the Jagdschloss Glienicke, the former hunting lodge, that cannot be visited since after its renovation, it serves as a skill center. Cross the bridge at Lankestraße and you are in Babelsberg.
And, of course, there is a Palace here, too, and it’s a really beautiful one.
Commissioned by William I and built from 1833 to 1835, Babelsberg Palace is designed in a neo-gothic style resembling many English stone castles.
|Constructing Babelsberg Palace, instead of copying Italy, they copied Britain.
(Photo: Avantique, Schloss Babelsberg 3, Formatted to 5:7, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Unfortunately, at this moment, it is closed to the public due to renovation. It will be reopened end of 2018.
From this point, it’s about three miles to the Filmpark, so you can cycle there easy-peasy in about 15 minutes.
Babelsberg film studios were founded in 1912 and they were the first major film studio worldwide. In the early years, classics such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel starring Marlene Dietrich were shot here.
|Welcome to Studio Babelsberg – where the magic happens.
(Photo: Unify, Filmstudio Babelsberg Eingang, public domain, details on Wikimedia Commons)
The Nazis used it to shoot openly manipulative films or propagandistic movies, political messages hidden behind entertaining stories.
After WWII, the GDR government established the DEFA (short for Deutsche Film AG, German Film SA).
|‘This way, please’ – Maria from Fritz Lang’s silent movie Metropolis, probably the
internationally best known character presented at the Filmpark.
(Photo: Havelbaude, Maria from metropolis, Formatted to 5:7, CC BY 3.0)
Following the reunification, the studios were handed from investor to investor, only since 2005, the studios are sailing in calm, profitable waters.
After all, movies like The Reader (featuring Kate Winslet), Inglorious Basterds (by Quentin Tarantino) and many other international productions were realized here.
There are two visits – either the real studios (at this time only in Germany language) and the Filmpark which is like a Theme park e. g. in the United States; only that you probably won’t know many of the movie characters involved since it’s very German themed.
If you need to go back to Potsdam and you are too tired to cycle, you can catch the S-Bahn, the commuter train, at the station Babelsberg. From here, of course, you can also go to Berlin.
|The regional train goes every half an hour and is a bit faster than the S-Bahn, the commuter train, which, on the other hand, goes every couple of minutes.|
Phone: + 49 – 331 – 27 55 88 99
The exchange rate is 1 US$ = 0,85 EUR (June 2018), but you can check the conversion on this page.
While in Germany, in general, most people speak pretty decent English, this might not necessarily be the case in the former GDR regions. Therefore it might be advisable that you learn a couple of useful words and phrases. You can practice online, for instance, using Babbel (the first lesson is for free and already supplies you with useful basic vocabulary).
Note In this article, I’m writing out some of the German names of brands and places and you will notice that there are letters that might not exist in other languages:
First of all, there is the letter ß that exists only in the German alphabet and it’s by no means a B – it’s a ‘sharp’, double S as in kiss. When writing, you can actually replace it with a double S.
Then there are three more vowels, ä being the easiest one since it’s pronounced like an open e as in head.
Ö and ü are tougher, ö being pronounced more or less like the e in her and ü as the u in huge.
I was very lucky to be invited by Potsdam Tourismus to join one of their walking tours and to visit the Sanssouci Palace.
However, all opinions on these services are mine and weren’t by any means influenced by my cooperation partners.