With its charming Rococo castles, beautiful parks, stylish architecture and cultural treasures, Potsdam is the perfect destination for anyone looking to spend some time outside of Berlin. Since moving to Germany, I tried to go there at least every month, either for visiting some old places or for new discoveries or just for a walk on the old cobblestone streets ended with a meal at one of the diverse restaurants. And this place never disappoints me, as almost every time there is something new to discover and be charmed by.
After intensive research and even more trips in the last months, I am happy to bring you the ultimate list of top things to see in Potsdam
A ride to Potsdam takes less than one hour, from the Friedrichstrasse train station in the center of Berlin. You need a ABC ticket, which is available for the transportation within Potsdam too.
My first stop is in the borrough of Babelsberg, a less known and less touristic part of the town, but with some interesting hidden treasures for the genuine traveler.
Babelsberg Film Studios
If you are a film lover and especially if you are visiting as a family with children, I recommend visiting the Babelsberg Film Studios, where classical German movies as Metropolis and the Blue Angel were made, and where the little ones will have unforgettable adventures experiencing the 3D and 4D movie theaters. The studios are open from April to October and you need more than 3 hours to fully discover every corner of it. Those celebrating Halloween, are offered this weekend a special Horror night adventure!
The neo-Gothic castle of Babelsberg, planned by my favorite German architect, Schinkel, is a oasis of English style in the midst of Prussian discipline.
The expansive gardens were designed by the eccentric Prince Pücklen-Müskau, whose other important works in Germany I had the chance to admire to Bad Muskau and Branitz.
Babelsberg City Hall
As in the case of Berlin, this part of Prussia was also a safe haven for some people persecuted for their religion in Europe. In the 18th century, 228 inhabitants from Bohemia relocated here, making up a quarter of the inhabitants of Babelsberg. Alt Nowawes - the Old Village, in Czech - is the name of a street in their memory, near the typical building of the city hall, in the middle of a stylish area with plenty of small boutique selling products designed by local artists. If you want to check for some small restaurants and guest houses, have a look at the Grossbeerenstraße nearby.
Once you are finally in Potsdam, you will discover that making the right choice of activities is very difficult. The good news is that there is something to do - and a little bit more - for everyone.
Let's discover together...
Fancy meeting some huge moving and roaring dinosaurs in the middle of the tropical forest? Biosphere Potsdam offers a journey through geological ages and climates, including a collection of colourful butterflies, that reminded me of my trip to the paradise island of Mainau, in the South of Germany.
Less than 30 minutes of walking from the train station, there is an adventure park where regardless your age you can push yourself to the limit of your fears and strengths.
If you still have some energy left, a visit at the Falkenhof, especially if you are there during the weekend when regular shows are held, is a must. You can not only watch an unique show, but also can learn interesting information about falcons. The shows are in German language.
Telegraphberg and Einstein Tower
On your way back to Potsdam Central station, you can take the way of the Telegraphberg - Telegraph mountain - an important standpoint in the new telegraph network built in Germany at the end of the 19th century. You will probably end up soon in the Wissenschaft Park - Science Park - a collection of various science instititutes, which make Potsdam a famous destination for researchers from all over the world too.
For the accidental visitor, and the architecture lover too, an important place to visit is the Einstein Tower. The curious construction was designed in the first half of the 20th century by the famous German architects Erwin Finlay Freundlich and Erich Mendelsohn, and was aimed to prove that Einstein's theory of relativity was wrong. The physics experiments failed, but the building remains an important witness of the architecture of the time.
Potsdam Film Museum
The recently renovated building of the Film Museum offers interesting histories about the history of the German film industry, displayed in a very creative and exhaustive way. One of the top recommendations for any film lover visiting Potsdam.
Pumpenwerke - Steam engine
At the first sight, you might think you are in the front of the mosque, but appearances are misleading. Built in 1841 at a bay at River Havel, the highest building in the area at the time - an achievement easily overcome nowadays by the classical communist sky scrapers - it was designed to pump the water from the river all the way up to Sanssouci castle, from the heights of which can be easily spotted. You can visit the interior as well, but it doesn't compete with the colourful and details-focused architecture of the outdoors.
The building of the Ministry of Justice and the Science Museum
On the way back to the Central Station, you can have a look to admire the interesting architecture of the current Ministry of Justice, an example of balance of volumes and structures. Nearby, the Science Museum is also a temptation for the museum lovers.
A walk around Havel
As any single part of Germany, especially what used once to belong to the Eastern, communist part, Potsdam went through tremendous changes in the last years. A proof in this respect is the new esplanada bordering the Havel, which was turned in the last 5 years in an elegant, Italian looking corner, buzzing of the voices of people enjoying the sunny summer day. From here you can take a boat tour which will lead you in less than two hours around the most beautiful corners and historical layers of Potsdam. Before or after, you can offer yourself some special treats at El Puerto restaurant with a beautiful view over the Havel.
The remains of the Neptun Fountain, Lustgarten
A couple of minutes of walking away from the Havel, there are the remains of what used once to be the glorious Neptun fountain in the then Lustgarden.
Built in the first half of the 18th century, it was destroyed during the war and partially reconstructed with a new vision after 2001.
For an overview of the historical layers covering Potsdam, Alt Markt is a good beginning. With the remains of a former communist building on the left side and an elegant architecture on the right, with the newest museum in Potsdam, Museum Barberini, and some high-end art galleries, this square offers the best journey through centuries, up until the glorious present.
Inaugurated this spring, Museum Barberini has an important private collection of works by international artists, but also features German painters from the time of the GDR, which makes it an interesting choice. I've been there to visit two of their temporary exhibitions and was impressed not only by the exquisite presentation, but also by the diversity of artists features. This museum promises to become soon a cultural landmark in this part of Germany.
From there on, making the right choice is becoming more and more complicated. Let's make a try though...You can either take the bus, the tram or walk around...
The Dutch Quarter
Covering around 150 buildings in the heart of the city, the Dutch quater is since the first half of the 18th century a piece of the Netherlands in Potsdam.
This area is always buzzing with life, not only during the many events organised on its streets during the weekends. People are living in the cute little houses too, but in most cases, at the ground level, there are antiques and local fashion and arts stores, or restaurants and cafes. You can have there savory or sweet pancakes, among many other delicious treats, my favorite so far being Poltertjes en Pannekoeken.
One of the first examples of neo-Gothic English public architecture in continental Europe, Nauener Tor is also famous for its classical cafe houses and restaurants where in the summer you can stay outside and admire the busyness of the city. One of my favorite ones is Jérô, recommended by the French wines and an exquisite cuisine.
On the way to Luiseplatz, the foodie and shopping temptations abund too. Brandenburg Gate, a stand alone structure since the city walls were destroyed, is another pleasant reward for the traveller. A curious thing about this construction is that its two sides are completely different, as the work of two different architects.
Potsdam used to have six gates, but Jägertor is the oldest and the most discrete one, situated on a side street far away from the very touristic areas.
Sans Souci Park and Castle
You can either walk or bike around, but be sure that you put aside at least two hours to see as much as possible.
The residence is composed by many constructions and a beautiful English garden, which deserves an extensive visit itself.
The alleys of the carefully manicured gardens look like the entrances to a huge labyrinth from where you would not want to escape too early.
Wandering on the alleys of the big palace park can offer many surprises, as for instance the Chinese Pavillion which although it offers a rather naive, typical of those times, representation of Asia, it has some enchanting Rococco elements that are diverting your thoughts from anything serious.
In the Western part of the compound, you can admire the latest work of Baroque architecture in Prussia - covering a big part of what is nowadays known as the administrative area of Brandenburg: Neues Palais.
Alexandrowka, The Russian Colony
The 13 wooden houses built in the first half of the 19th century at the wish of the emperor Friedrich Wilhelm III for Russian artists in Prussia are since 1999 part of the UNESCO World Heritage. Surrounded by small gardens, with wooden balconies adorned by beautiful flowers, this little colony offers also some delicious Russian treats and hosts a museum featuring the history and architecture.
The war was over and the capitulation of Germany was already signed in the night of 8 to 9th of May 1945, at Karlshorst. The beautiful Potsdam will belong for a couple of decades to the 'Eastern', Soviet-lead forces, but it is amazing how much this city preserved from its original, non-bourgeois structure (after all, the members of the Soviet establishment was easy to lure into the glittering pleasures of well-being, as every single human will also do). Reminders of the once Russian presence is still maintained, for instance the red star made of flowers specifically created for the participation of Stalin himself at the conference. In the front of the entrance, there is the famous bench where Truman, Stalin and Churchill seat together, an image distributed all over the world and used to illustrate the Potsdam Conference, but more often it is taken by busy tourists from all over the world not all aware of the famous previous occupants of the modest piece of outdoor furniture.
Marmorpalais, Neuen Garten
The views over the lake are revealing a quiet beauty, where you can rarely see traces of human presence. The massive marmor concurrs with the overwhelming silence of the water, in a soundless symphony.
A bit further, the stone building of the Gothic Library with its spire staircase is another mysterious part of an architecture and life riddle which seems to not look for answer, but just to raise more and more questions.
Everyday street architecture
On the way back from Cecilienhof, you might realise that beauty is everywhere, not only in the places outlined as such in the travel guides. Given the concentration of famous architects which for centuries visited and worked in Potsdam, among them the famous, favorite of mine, Schinkel, no wonder that many private buildings do look like from the pages of the architecture and design magazines.
This beautiful blue villa, for instance, was actually designed by a student of Schinkel, Ferdinant von Arnin, in 1861, for a private resident of Potsdam.
One of the most astonishing views is the Belvedere at Pfingstberg, a small hill covered by forest, in the Northern part of the city. The reflection of the orderly classical architecture into the water leaves you speechless for a long time, because it is the pure beauty made of golden proportions. You can add more amazement and taste to your visit - if it is any place left - with a visit at the gourmet restaurant Am Pfingstberg nearby.
Also called the 'Bridge of Spies', for its assumed role in exchanging spies between the East and the West during the Cold War, Glienicke Brücke is first and foremost an interesting work of engineering. The original bridge, which connects the nowadays Wannsee area to Potsdam, was built in the 17th century, but a new structure was created after the WWII.
If you are visiting on a Sunday, a couple of minutes of walking from the bridge, you can have a nice breakfast at Garage du Pont, a place where both the lovers of vintage cars and the gourmets are at home.
If you cross the street, you can either visit a small exhibition hall dedicated mostly to GDR artists, or you can enter into the kingdom of the Italian charming Palace Glienicke, another place on the UNESCO heritage list.
Rathaus - city hall
When you have to manage a town with so many beautiful castles and shining mansions, no wonder that you need for the building of the city hall an equally imposing construction, which looks like a special resident in itself as well.
Hans-Otto-Theater at Schiffbauergasse can be considered one of the newest outstanding works of architecture in Potsdam. Named after an actor killed during the National-Socialist dictatorship, it opened it doors to the theatre lovers in 2009 and nowadays it plays an important role in the cultural geography of Brandenburg, with a modern and international repertoire and the host of international theatre festivals. Made of five floors each marked by an assymetrical roof, and a capacity of 700 guests, it is an outstanding visual presence that can be noticed as far as the Babelsberg park, situated on the opposite side of the river.
The area around the theatre is often the destination of various cultural happenings, especially during the summer. A special presence in the constellation of galleries and small cultural cafe houses is Museum Fluxus, before the opening of Museum Barberini, the only modern art institution in Potsdam. It uniquely features the works of the German artists belonging to the omonymous avantgarde movement from the 1960s, the only extensive collection of the kind in the country.
Is my journey to Potsdam a full circle? Did I reach that level when nothing in this beautiful town where I secretely wish I will be able to live one day wouldn't surprise me?
I am not fully convinced, but even if this is the naked truth, I know that I have now all the good reasons to keep returning here, because I will always have more than enough reasons to feel fully at home.