The capital of Brandenburg, Potsdam is a World Heritage city of palaces and royals parks for the Kings of Prussia. After being devastated in the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century, Potsdam was remodelled 100 years later by Frederick the Great.
And even after the Kingdom of Prussia was dissolved in 1918, the town witnessed a momentous event in 1945 when the Cecilienhof palace hosted the Potsdam conference. Potsdam’s palaces all tell us something about their Kings and Princes, as well as Prussia’s standing in the world at the time.
Take the Sanssouci, the compact palace where Frederick the Great would get away from it all, the colossal Neuer Schloss, built when Prussia was more confident than ever, or the Orangery Palace, representing Frederick William IV’s love for the Italian Renaissance.
Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Potsdam:
1. Sanssouci Palace
Frederick the Great’s summer palace was built between 1745 and 1747 as somewhere he could escape from the strictures of the Berlin court.
That thinking is clear from the name, Sanssouci, which roughly translates to “without cares”. This sublime Rococo palace is also surprisingly intimate in its scale, standing at only one storey tall (only the secondary wings have upper floors) and settled at the top of a terraced vineyard that holds his simple mausoleum.
Inside, despite the virtuoso stuccowork, carved marble and gilding of the Rococo period, the main purpose was comfort and conviviality.
The finest of the rooms is the ceremonial Marmorsaal (Marble Hall), that has pairs of Corinthian columns from Carrara marble rising from a marble intarsia floor to a white and gilt dome.
2. Sanssouci Park
The palace and its terraced garden are at the centre of an expansive park designed and landscaped in the decades that followed.
The size of this project is almost bewildering, as the park encompasses almost 300 hectares and is crisscrossed by alleys framed by hedges trimmed at right angles.
To get an idea of scale it’s 2.5-kilometres from Sanssouci to the Neues Palais in the west, also built by Frederick the Great in the 1860s.
You’ll need a map, but there’s a host of smaller buildings to discover, all beautiful in their own way, and most containing something exciting.
Take the Bildergalerie holding the King’s art collection, which has pieces by Van Dyck, Caravaggio and Rubens.
Frederick also ordered the Chinese House, a captivating example of Chinoiserie, built from 1755 to 1764 to accompany his vegetable and flower garden.
3. Dutch Quarter
During Potsdam’s second expansion between 1733 and 1742 a whole neighbourhood of Dutch-style red brick gabled houses cropped up either side of Mittelstraße.
There are 134 buildings in all, designed by the Dutch architect Jan Bouman.
The quarter is testament to Frederick William I of Prussia’s love for Dutch culture and desire to attract Dutch artisans and engineers to Potsdam as they were famed for their technical knowhow.
Today these fine houses are in perfect condition, and are occupied by antiques shops, cafes, galleries, design stores and ateliers.
There’s museum about the quarter’s background at the Jan-Bouman-Haus, as well as a tulip festival in April, a pottery market in September and a Dutch-style Christmas market in December.
The House of Hohenzollern’s final palace was built during the First World War in the style of an English Tudor mansion.
Cecilienhof is half-timbered and has decorative turreted chimney stacks.
The whole palace was inspired by Hill Bark on Merseyside, which itself is a Victorian reproduction of a Renaissance half-timbered design and was adored by German Crown Prince Wilhelm when he visited.
But far outweighing the architecture, what makes Ceclienhof so significant is that it was the stage for the Potsdam Conference from 17 July to 2 August 1945. President Truman, Winston Churchill (followed by Clement Atlee) and Josef Stalin all slept and worked here as they thrashed out a plan for the future of Germany and Europe in the wake of the Second World War.
5. Neues Palais
The other end of the spectrum to the cute, personal Sanssouci, the Neues Palais is a huge Baroque palace built as a statement of Prussian power by Frederick the Great at the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War with France.
Frederick had a preference for the outdated Baroque over the new Neoclassical style, and he roped in Johann Gottfried Büring, who had already designed the Chinese House and the Bildergalerie.
The Neues Palais was intended to create an impression on foreign visitors at banquets and has 200 rooms and four galleries in the Rococo style.
The most peculiar is the Grottensaal, where the walls are clad with over 24,000 seashells, gemstones, fossils and minerals.
To the rear are the Communs, utility structures linked to the palace by a tunnel.
6. Brandenburg Gate
Not to be mixed up with the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Potsdam’s own Neoclassical arch was built around 20 years earlier, in 1770/71. The monument, based on Rome’s Arch of Constantine, was ordered by Frederick William II to celebrate Prussia’s victory in the Seven Years’ War.
It replaced the Medieval gate that stood here before, and was part of Potsdam’s walls until they were torn down at the start of the 20th century.
Something worth noting about the Brandenburg Gate is how it has completely different designs on the city and “field” side.
They were created by separate architects: The city side and its pilasters was by Carl von Gontard, while the busier field side and its double rows of Corinthian columns was by his pupil Georg Christian Unger.
7. Belvedere auf dem Pfingstberg
Frederick William IV commissioned this grand viewing platform in the middle of the 19th century to take advantage of the view from the top of the Pfingstberg hill, which rises to 76 metres.
Although the structure is only a small piece of what was here before it’s still a marvellous piece of heritage: The belvedere was restored in the 1990s after being closed off during the days of the wall for providing a view of West Berlin.
Sitting on a tall podium around a courtyard are two towers, above three viewing terraces.
The east and west sides have dignified colonnades with Corinthian style pillars, while the north side has Renaissance-style arches.
8. Park Babelsberg
On Potsdam’s northeastern fringe is a 124-hectare park bordering the Tiefen See lake on the River Havel, laid out for Frederick William IV in the 1830s and 1840s.
The undulating terrain descending to the lake was first shaped by Peter Joseph Lenné, followed by Hermann, Fürst von Pückler-Muskau another celebrated landscape architect.
The latter designed a system of narrow, winding and criss-crossing paths in this hilly scene, which is now sprinkled with mature trees and has uplifting vistas of the lake.
Frederick William IV’s palace in the park was designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel in the Gothic Revival style and looks like fairytale castle.
Other structures around the park have a similarly Romantic aspect, like the fortress-like pump house on the water and the Kleines Schloss (Little Place).
9. Neuer Garten
In the north of Potsdam on the shores of the Jungfernsee and Heiliger See lakes, Frederick William II (Son of Frederick the Great) plotted a new garden from 1787 onwards.
This differed from Sanssouci, and where his father’s park had arrow-straight alleys and parterres, the Neuer Garten was in the looser English style.
And as with Sanssouci there’s much to discover around this 102.4-hectare park.
The servants’ quarters were set in gabled Dutch-style houses, the palace’s ice house was in styled as an Egyptian pyramid, while there’s also an orangery with an Egyptian portal, a Gothic-style library and the Marmorpalais (Marble Palace) designed by Carl von Gontard.
10. Museum Barberini
The Palast Barberini was an 18th-century Italianate palace on Alter Markt that was completely destroyed in 1945. Since 2013 the facades of the palace have been resurrected, while the interiors are completely modern and are home to a new museum that only opened in 2017. Among the guests for the unveiling were Angela Merkel and Bill Gates, while the collection belongs to the American Hasso Plattner Foundation and focuses mainly on art from the GDR as well as movements the last 25 years.
There’s also a summary of painting from the Old Masters to the 2000s, via Impressionism and Symbolism, with pieces by Monet, Renoir and Munch.
A reminder of the kinship between the Prussian Hohenzollern and Russian Romanov houses, Frederick William III built this Russian colony in the 1820s in memory of the Tsar Alexander I, who died in 1825. The origins of the colony go back to 1812, when Russian soldiers captured by Napoleon settled in Potsdam and formed a choir with the permission of the Russian Tsar.
After Tsar Alexander I died more than a decade later, the remaining choir members were given Russian-style timber houses.
The colony was plotted in the shape of a St Andrew’s cross by Lenné, while the designs of the 13 houses were provided by the Italian-born Russian architect Carlo Rossi.
The last of the choir members died in 1861, but the houses were passed down through their families and the last direct descendant passed away only in 2008.
12. Neuer Markt
One place full of Potsdam’s typical grandeur is this market square bordered by striking palaces and townhouses from the 1700s and 1800s.
In the southwest of the square is maybe the most eye-catching of these buildings: The Neoclassical Kutschstall used to be the royal coach house and now has a museum for Prussian and Brandenburg history.
The Kabinetthaus at Am Neuen Markt 1 was Frederick William II’s “city palace” in the days that he was Crown Prince.
This building was the birthplace of the philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt, as well as Frederick William III three years later in 1770.
13. Orangery Palace
One of the later additions to Sanssouci Park was a luxurious palace constructed for King William IV, who was famed for his devotion to Romanticism.
Built between 1851 and 1864 the Orangery Palace is in the Italian Renaissance style and took its cues from the famed Uffizi in Florence and the Villa Medici in Rome.
The facade is 300 metres in length, the longest of any in the Sanssouci Park, and its side wings are still used to store the gardens’ exotic plants in winter.
The plush royal apartments and the servants’ quarters are in the complex’s middle building, capped with two towers.
Also in this edifice is the “Raffael” hall, designed like the Vatican’s Sala Regia.
Illuminated by an enormous skylight, this hall is adorned with red silk and has 50 copies of famous Renaissance paintings.
In the majestic stables Potsdam’s old city palace is the oldest film museum in Germany.
The attraction has also just come through a renovation, and has more than a million exhibits on the evolution of filmmaking.
The main exhibition is on Studio Babelsberg, the world’s oldest film studio, in business since 1912. There’s a totally interactive step-by-step guide to how movies get made, going into the screenplay, casting, makeup, costume design, set design, filming, editing, sound design, marketing and much more.
There are also original props, costumes, cameras, microphones and much more, all used in productions down the years.
One fantastic exhibit is the working cinema organ, made for Chemnitz’s Luxor-Palast cinema in 1929.
Opposite the rebuilt facade of the Palast Barberini on Alter Markt is a regal Neoclassical church grabbing your attention for its dome and portico.
Court architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel drew up the plans, and the church, the largest in Potsdam, was built in two phases from 1830 to 1850. The last thing to be completed was that dome, which rises 77 metres above the city streets and took inspiration from St Paul’s in London.
The Nikolaikirche was hit on two occasions during the war and its restoration and was only re-consecrated in 1981.