Potsdam, the capital of Brandenburg in east Germany, makes a great day trip from Berlin and provides some of the elegance missing from a modern big city. The Prussian kings left their royal imprint with lavish palaces, parks, and gardens, many of them with UNESCO World Heritage status.
Most people come to Potsdam to see the rococo style Palace Sanssouci, built for Frederick the Great, but the city has much more to offer. Here are the best things to do in Potsdam, Germany.
When the King of Prussia, Friedrich der Große, wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life in Berlin, he would flee to the tranquility of his summer palace. Sanssouci ("without worries" in French) was built in 1774 and is as breathtaking today as when it was first built.
Buy a ticket to step inside Friedrich's world. The interiors are decorated in the elaborate Frederician Rococo style. The highlights include the Entrance Hall and Marble Hall, although all the structures offer decadent design. The palace is regally perched on top of a terraced vineyard, overlooking 700 acres of royal gardens.
Styled after Versailles in France, the ornate gardens are as attractive as the elegant interiors. There are fountains, marble sculptures, and a Chinese tea house sprinkled throughout the expansive grounds. On the highest terrace close to the palace, there is the tomb of Fredrick, relocated here after reunification in 1990.
Sweeping gables, red bricks, and white window shutters straight out of the Netherlands have found a home in Potsdam. The Dutch Quarter (Hollaenderviertel) was built in the 18th century for Dutch artisans and craftsmen who were invited to settle down here by Frederick the Great.
The ensemble of over 130 houses built in the traditional Dutch style is unique in Europe and also on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Walk down the cobblestone streets of Mittelstrasse and Benkertstrasse, which are brimming with lovely cafes, specialty shops, and restaurants.
Before the wall fell and Germany was still divided into two, the Glienicke Bridge was one of the Cold War's most mysterious sites. Spanning the Havel River, the bridge connected the Soviet-occupied Potsdam in the east with U.S.-occupied West Berlin, and the two superpowers used this checkpoint to exchange captured Cold War spies and secret agents. Perhaps most famous is the 1962 trade of Russian agent Rudolf Abel for downed U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers.
Now just a quiet bridge in the countryside, the bridge's infamous history gained international attention with the 2015 Academy Award-nominated movie, "Bridge of Spies."
Be in the Movies at Filmpark Babelsberg
Studio Babelsberg is the oldest large-scale film studio in the world. They have been producing films here since 1912!
Visitors to the studio can learn about Germany’s golden age of film. Babelsberg has contributed such cinematic masterpieces from "Metropolis" to "Valkyrie" to "Inglourious Basterds." However, the studio also has a darker past as a tool for the National Socialists to pump out anti-Semitic propaganda, often under Josef Goebbels himself.
When the studio is filming, stages and props can be seen on the tour. There are also seasonal events like an epic Halloween celebration.
Tour the Site of the Potsdam Conference
Another must-see for history buffs is Cecilienhof Palace, set in the beautiful park of Neuer Garten. The last palace the Hohenzollern family ever built, it offers an interesting contrast to Sanssouci as it was designed in the rustic English Tudor style.
Visitors can tour historical rooms such as the smoking salon, the music salon, and the royal family's bedroom, but of particular interest is the Great Hall. It was here that the Potsdam Conference was held in 1945. Stalin, Churchill, and Truman gathered here to decide to divide Germany into four different occupied zones.
(House of the Wannsee Conference just outside of Potsdam is another historical site for those seeking World War II history).
Enter Russia in Germany
Just north of Potsdam’s city center, you’ll find the Russian Colony Alexandrowka. Built in 1827, there are 13 wooden Russian homes that the Prussian King erected. They were built to house the Russian singers of the First Prussian Regiment of the Guards. Briefly occupied by the Red Army following World War II, some of the original Russian descendants still lived in these beautiful historic homes until the early 2000s.
Visitors today find stunning architecture, community gardens, and a Russian Orthodox chapel and Russian teahouse. The colony was plotted in the shape of a St. Andrew’s cross.
Observe Church and State
Distinguished St. Nicholas Church can be spotted by its stand-out turquoise dome and its size—the largest in Potsdam. Located in Potsdam’s Old Market Square and completed in 1828, it is an excellent example of German classicism designed in the shape of a Greek cross. Damaged in World War II, it wasn't reopened until 1981. It now serves as the center of Potsdam's catholic community.
Located nearby is Brandenburg's pink parliament building, Landtag, which was once a palace. Potsdam is the capital of the German state of Brandenburg, and this is where state laws are decided. Steeped in history from its first elections in 1946 as part of the Soviet Occupation Zone to being abolished in 1952 to its re-establishment in 1990, it is worth a tour.
Raise a Glass at a Brewery
Located on the picturesque lake of Jungfernsee in Neuen Garten, Meierei Brauerei provides a taste of the good life or good German life at least. The sprawling brewery features craft beers brewed in-house. There are pilsners and summery hefeweizens or the "Potsdamer" which mixes a beer with Fassbrause, a Berlin lemonade.
Complete the experience by sitting out in the sunshine facing the lake and add beloved German specialties to your order, like schweinshaxe (roasted pork knuckle). For a pleasant stroll, look for the point where the Berlin Wall once ran
right next to the brewpub and follow the path with a wegbier (beer to go).
Walk Through the Gates
Potsdam was once a heavily protected city with entry points only allowed through guarded city gates that lasted until the 20th century. Only three remain.
The oldest gate is Jägertor with its hunting decor. Nauener Tor was redesigned in 1755 and showcases neo-Gothic style. The third gate should remind you of another famous gate—Berlin's very own Brandenburger Tor! Potsdam's version is actually slightly older, replacing a medieval gate that stood here before. The current design is based on Rome’s Arch of Constantine, which was created to celebrate Prussia’s victory in the Seven Years’ War.
When walking through the gate, take note of the different designs on each side. This is the result of two different architects. The city side was by Carl von Gontard with his pupil, Georg Christian Unger, creating designs for the "field" side.
Stroll Through the Park
Potsdam many parks offer spaces to run, lounge, and play. Expansive 114 hectares Babelsberg Park is part of Potsdam's recognized UNESCO World Heritage site and is pristine parkland.
Located in the northwest of Potsdam on the Havel River banks and Tiefen See, it has views of Glienicke Bridge. Its manicured lawns, leafy paths, and breezy waterfront connect historical buildings like Kleines Schloss, the mid-1800s tower, and Babelsberg Palace. This is a park in which to stroll, not run.
After a long day of exploring Potsdam's many attractions, there is no reason to trek back to Berlin to find a meal. There is something for every appetite, from wacky modern burgers to French cafe fare to East German classics. However, some of Potsdam's most unique meals can be found at restaurants that cater to one of its minority communities.
"The Flying Dutchman," or Zum Fliegenden Holländer, was built by the same court craftsmen who worked on the famed Sansoucci. The charming restaurant design of unfurling gables and red brick looks like they are straight out of Holland. Inside, both hearty German and Dutch food is served.
Note that Potsdam's crowds can make seating impossible in the busy summer months. Call ahead to reserve a spot and try out your restaurant German. Also, be advised: Most German restaurants only accept cash.