In this guide, I’m taking you to the small town of Potsdam that King Frederick II made great. Although it sounds like a cute, drowsy hamlet, everyone is amazed by the rich cultural and political heritage of this place where Europe’s history was written and re-written again.
The most popular was certainly Frederick II, aka Frederick the Great. But let’s start with his father, Frederick William I.
Frederick William I
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, and meticulous. My tour guide in Potsdam cleverly remarked that he would have just loved the invention of the Excel sheet. He had enlisted even every little piece of stationary in long columns.
And he was totally military-buff and basically made Potsdam into a garrison town.
They did not call him the Soldier King for no 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, he had 14 children. Frederick II being the most famous one.
His cousin! Gosh, I’m glad that these aristocrats are marrying some random Hollywood starlets nowadays.
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 of how to rule a country. He led Prussia into the three Silesian Wars, the last being the Seven Years’ War. Nonetheless, 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.
However, he was by far not just an idle layabout. He brought industries such as silk farms and porcelain manufacturers to Potsdam and 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. However, to this date, it is Potsdam’s greatest attraction.
I know that this has been quite a lot of history. But you need to know these details to understand how unique the small town of Potsdam is – and why.
Welcome to Potsdam
So 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. Besides Berlin’s city center, it includes also the outskirts all the way to Potsdam. Also, you’ll get discounts at some attractions there.
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. It’s just a few steps from 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 bit; just sayin’.
Depending on how much you want to see, I’d recommend renting a bike. But mind you that at Sanssouci park you are not allowed to cycle!
Already the Alter Markt, the old market, is a grand starting point.
You stand in the center – next to the obelisk. Already the 25 meters / 82 feet high obelisk is a special structure. Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff, one of Frederick II’s artist buddies, built it between 1753 and 1755.
Potsdamer Stadtschloss – the City Palace
Von Knobelsdorff also designed the Potsdamer Stadtschloss. This City Palace was one of the two Royal’s official seat. The other one being the Stadtschloss in Berlin.
Seeing it today, you won’t believe that the Stadtschloss of Potsdam was damaged at the end of WWII. Eventually, the GDR government demolished it completely. The square then served as a parking lot – although there weren’t hardly any cars.
The reconstruction was completed in 2014 – financed by donations of wealthy citizens. Today, the building houses the Landtag, the State Parliament.
Potsdam Tourismus organizes guided tours of the building Monday to Friday from 8 a. m. to 6 p. m.
St. Nikolaikirche – Saint Nicholas’ Church
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. Hence, all the painters, sculptors, and architects spent time there to get inspired by the ancient Roman Empire and transform it into classicism.
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 era.
On the square’s eastern side is another majestic building – the former town hall. Built from 1753 to 1755, it was re-opened only in 2012 and houses the Potsdam Museum. The big building is connected through a smaller, new one to the Knobelsdorffhaus.
Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff 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.
On Thursday till 7 p. m. and weekends till 6 p. m.
Last Not Least: The Barberini Palace
The lastly remodeled Palace in this square is the Museum Barberini which was finished only in January 2017.
The Palace is basically a copy of the real Palazzo Barberini in Rome. As I mentioned before: In the 18th century, Italy was the undisputed paragon of beauty and aesthetics.
The Barberini was restored with the money from the Hasso Plattner Foundation and shows changing temporary art exhibitions. Hasso Plattner made a fortune as a co-founder of a German software company, by the way.
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.
The Film Museum
Once 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?! Correct: Von 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.
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.
The House of Brandenburg-Prussian History
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.
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.
Across the Old City Channel
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 traditional store chain Karstadt.
Turning right on Brandenburger Straße, you walk straight towards the Catholic Peter and Paul Church.
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.
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 are Monday to Friday from 1 p. m. to 6 p. m., and weekends from 11 a. m. to 6 p. m.
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. In French, it means no worries.
Walk down the Hegelallee, which is quite a walk, but a nice one.
The Friedenskirche – Rest in Peace
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. Added in 1890, it is the final resting place of members of the House of Hohenzollern. Not Frederick II, though.
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.
The Palace Sanssouci, built by our old buddy Knobelsdorff, is a fine specimen of dainty rococo architecture. I had been there in April, so I did not see the vineyard in full bloom, but the sight was mesmerizing just the same.
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.
Although I’m usually not so into kitsch, I really like the last room. Painted and decorated like a jungle-ish aviary with a tapestry full of flowers and fruits and carved parrots, it is pretty unique.
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.
The Dutch Mill
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, teaches you all about…mills.
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.
The New Palace
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. You will immediately recognize the color and style of some of the buildings around Potsdam, namely the Stadtschloss.
Pay attention to all the beautiful details, the lanterns, the statues, and the three gilded graces on top of the roof. It’s all so stupefying.
Behind the New Palace, by the way, is 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. You’re tired. But it would be a shame if you missed 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.
The Alexandrowka is one of these quirky gifts and souvenirs the nobles gave 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 Romanovs were connected by familial and amicable relations. Hence, the colony was called Alexandrowka in honor of Tsar Alexander.
The complex consists of twelve small farmsteads and an overseer building.
On the Kapellenberg in the colony’s vicinity stands the Russian-orthodox Alexander-Newski-Memorial Church.
To learn more about this really special neighborhood, visit the adjacent museum.
Since it’s not always open, check their website for the latest information.
Oh, and when you visit on your birthday, entrance is free. This way, you save only 3,50 €uro, nevertheless, I find it’s a really cute idea.
Going back from the Alexandrowka to the main station, you can take bus #603 at Reiterweg/Alleestraße or bus #695 to S-Bahn Potsdam Hauptbahnhof.
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 still haven’t even mentioned is the historic importance of Potsdam at the end of WWII. The victorious powers the USA, the 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 for 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 to rent 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 you shouldn’t miss. It’s the Cecilienhof, the last Palace built by the Hohenzollern. Kaiser William II commissioned this home for his oldest son Prince Royal William. It was William’s home till 1945 – he shared it with his wife Cecilie.
The architecture adapts nicely to the rustic surroundings.
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. Therefore, 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. This bridge is 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.
Schloss Glienicke and Babelsberg Palace
Here, you can first visit Schloss Glienicke north of Königstraße, the King’s Street, Prince Carl’s idea of an Italian Palazzo, designed by Schinkel and built in 1823.
Cycle along the lake past the Jagdschloss Glienicke, the former hunting lodge. It cannot be visited since after its renovation, it’s housing 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 and consequently resembles many English stone castles.
From this point, it’s about three miles to the Filmpark, so you can cycle there easy-peasy in about 15 minutes.
Hollywood in Germany
Babelsberg film studios were founded in 1912, thus 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.
The Nazis used it to shoot openly manipulative films or propagandistic movies, hence, political messages hidden behind entertaining stories.
After WWII, the GDR government established the DEFA, short for Deutsche Film AG, German Film SA.
Following the reunification, the studios were handed from investor to investor, only since 2005, the studios are sailing in calm, profitable waters.
After all, they made movies like The Reader, featuring Kate Winslet, Inglorious Bastards by Quentin Tarantino and many other international productions right on these premises.
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 do not want to cycle, catch the S-Bahn, the commuter train, at the station Babelsberg. From here, of course, you can also go to Berlin.
Although Potsdam has barely 175,000 inhabitants, it is still the most densely populated city as well as the capital of the federal state Brandenburg. However, located about 40 kilometers South-West of Berlin, it can be easily reached by regional or urban train in more or less half an hour.
For instance, from the station Berlin, you can go to Potsdam either by regional train (train numbers starting RE…) or by commuter train (train numbers starting S…) e. g. from Bahnhof Zoo or Friedrichstraße. Potsdam is in zone C of the train system, so a single ticket costs 3,40 €uro, a day ticket, which you can use within one day as often as you like, costs only 7,70 €uro (and you can take up to three kids under 15 years of age with you).
If you are travelling with others, evidently, a group ticket will be your best choice. For 20,80 €uro, up to five people can travel an entire day.
As I’ve already mentioned, there is no special tourist card for Potsdam, but the ‘large’ version of the Berlin WelcomeCard can be used in Potsdam, too.
Obviously, it really depends on what you are up to choose which option is suitable for you. For instance, if you want to spend the day almost exclusively at Sanssouci, getting a day ticket for the castles is (online) 21 €uro, add a 7,70 €uro for a day ticket and you are all set. The WelcomeCard for two days is 22,90 €uro, but you only get a discount on your entrance tickets.
The guys at the Potsdam tourist information are very efficient and friendly and they have some great info material for free that allows you to explore the city on your own. However, to get some extra information, I recommend you join one of their walking tours.
For instance, the lady I went with had a profound knowledge of each and every detail and sprinkled her explanations with entertaining personal stories.
Places to Visit
I’m an avid solo-travelling woman. However, solo-travel doesn’t equal solitude, hence, I love to join organized tours here and there. Also, since there is quite a lot to see at Potsdam, you might consider joining an organized tour so you don’t miss out on any of the most amazing spots*:
Where to Stay
It is certainly worth it to explore Potsdam on more than just a day trip from Berlin. Therefore, if you want to spend the night, here are some great options*
Until now, 20 European countries replaced their former local currency with the €uro starting in 2002. Obviously, Germany is one of them. The exchange rate is 1 US$ = 0.94 EUR as of January 2023. However, you can check today’s conversion rate on this page.
Especially since the pandemic, cards are far more accepted than before.
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.
In this post, I’m writing out some of the German names of brands and places. Obviously, you will notice that there are letters that might not exist in other languages.
Firstly, there is the letter ß which exists only in the German alphabet. It’s by no means a B – it’s a so-called sharp S. You pronounce it like the double S in kiss. So although the German word for street, Straße, looks quite exotic, it is simply pronounced Shtrasse. Mind you, when an S stands before a T, it becomes sh instead of s.
Then, there are three more vowels, ä being the easiest one since it’s pronounced like an open e as in head.
For some foreigners, ö and ü might be a bit tougher. Ö is pronounced more or less like the e in her. Finally, Ü sounds a bit like the u in huge.
On this map, you can see the exact location of all those amazing places that I’m introducing in this post. Clicking on the slider symbol at the top left or the full-screen icon at the top right will display the whole map including the legend.
If you choose to pin this post, please use one of these pictures:
Note: I am completing, editing, and updating this post regularly – last in January 2023.
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Disclaimer: *Obviously, this is an affiliate link. So if you kindly book through this page, not only do you get the best deal. I also get a small commission that helps me run this blog. Thank you so much for supporting me!
Also, Potsdam Tourismus invited me to join one of their walking tours and to visit the Sanssouci Palace.
The Tourist Office visitBerlin supported me by supplying me with a WelcomeCard,
However, all opinions on these services are mine and weren’t by any means influenced by my cooperation partners.