“Wait, can we stop?” I asked. “I want to get a pic of that castle.” Tim politely refused, and I sank back into the passenger seat, disappointed, not knowing that the surprise day trip from Berlin he’d planned involved not just one castle, but over 17 of them. The surprise? We were headed to visit Potsdam.
What is Potsdam?
I first learned about Potsdam in one of my German classes. We were doing a lesson on geography: Potsdam ist südwestlich von Berlin. While the rest of the class chanted in unison, I skipped ahead to the photo, eyeing the long, golden palace with interest. The “fun fact” caption sold me in an instant: Potsdam is the former summer residence of the Prussian kings.
So does that mean Potsdam is a kind of German Versailles? To be honest, a bit. It, too, was influenced by the meticulous planning and orderly reason of the Age of Enlightenment—and you can see this in the balanced gardens and architecture of Sanssouci, the biggest World Heritage Site in Germany. But it stands for more than that as well. The city of Potsdam has historically been a place of religious freedom. The city (and the surrounding state of Brandenburg) offered Huguenots and Protestants who were being persecuted in France a place to settle, and soon attracted other religious refugees from the Netherlands, Russia, and Bohemia. As a result, the city of Potsdam is an alluring mix of different European influences.
Why you should visit Potsdam:
The Proximity to Berlin
It’d be naïve to think that many people from outside of Germany would plan a trip to solely visit Potsdam. But this gem of a city is located a mere 45 minutes southwest of Berlin, making it an easy day trip for anyone visiting the German capital. And it serves as a nice foil to the urban playground that many people see lacking in the grace and elegance of other European capitals—Berlin, after all, bills itself as “Poor but Sexy”. All it takes is a 25-minute ride on the regional train to leave the gritty capital behind. Head out in the morning, head back to Berlin in the evening, and then take in all the rest of this crazy, punky, artsy scene at your leisure.
Visit Potsdam from Berlin
From the central station, take the RE1 towards Brandenburg, Hauptbahnhof and hop off at the Potsdam station. The trip should take about 25 minutes. You can also take the S-bahn (S7), which will take you into Potsdam in 40 minutes.
The Picturesque Palaces
Sanssouci translates into “without worries” or “without cares”, and it’s easy to see why once you step onto the lush grounds of the palaces. It’s beautiful, clean, and after the hustle and bustle of nearby Berlin, incredibly peaceful. Walking around the grounds feels like walking through an oil painting—the gardens are planted with meticulous care, the winding paths take you beneath huge oaks, winks of castles peeking through the foliage. There’s plenty to see at Sanssouci, but you especially shouldn’t miss:
- Sanssouci itself, a dreamy delight perched at the top of a terraced staircase
- The Chinese House, which looks like a cupcake, gilded with ornamental golden statues
- The Roman Baths, a complex that includes the baths, a tea room, and several nearby gardens
- The Orangery Palance, a mammoth structure that looks like an ancient temple (and which harbors many of the season-sensitive plants in wintertime)
- The Neues Palais, or new palace, considered the last great example of Prussian architecture
- The Botanical Gardens, which are part of Potsdam University and host a variety of beautiful species from around the world
Tickets to tour the interior of each palace or folly can be purchased individually, but if your plan to visit several, your best bet is to grab a day pass (€19). But it’s free to stroll (or bike) the grounds, and dogs are welcome.
As if that weren’t enough to feast your eyes on, you can also visit nearby Neuer Garten, which is home to the Marmorpalais (palace of marble) and Schloss Cecilienhof. Neuer Garten is situated between two lovely lakes, and the grounds include areas for swimming, sunbathing, boat rentals, and of course, cafés. I highly recommend taking a beer break at the Bierhaus Meierei, which sits along the lakeside.
The Charming Town
Many visitors flock to the palaces but give Potsdam proper a skip, and they’re missing out. The city has a quaintness all to itself. Like Berlin, it’s got several historical gates, including its own miniature Brandenburger Tor (unfortunately under reconstruction for our visit), and the medieval-looking Nauen Gate, which looks like something out of children’s fairytale. The red bricks of the Dutch Quarter, or Holländisches Viertel, house a variety of vintage shops, art galleries, tidy restaurants, cafés, and craft shops. Make sure you leave time for a stroll!