In Berlin, street art covers every building and ruins still abound. It is, by all means, a modern city. But to experience a completely different atmosphere, one only has to travel less than thirty miles. Potsdam is a window into Prussia’s grandiose past.
A small village until the 18th century, the town grew exponentially when Frederick William I, the Soldier King, had his troops housed here. Later it gained in magnificence when Frederick II the Great decided to spend his summers here and had several castles built. His successors embellished Potsdam with parks and delightful buildings. While Berlin always remained the official capital of Prussia, the king and his court spent most of their time in Potsdam until 1918.
One of the best times of the year to visit Potsdam is the autumn months. During the fall the trees have already changed color and the countryside appears covered in a golden blanket. Most of the tourists are gone and one can enjoy walking through parks and palaces in relative peace. And it is best to visit before winter when all statues are wrapped up into protective cases. If you visit Potsdam in the fall here are some of the sights not to miss!
The harmonious balance of natural elements and rococo buildings is one of the delights of the park. Nowadays, the western part of the park is less tame than it used to be, while the eastern part is still organized into French Gardens, a style favored by Frederick the Great.
During the fall, reds and oranges blend pleasantly in the trees and on the ground. While wandering in the narrow trails and straight avenues, one can stumble upon the charming Chinese Pavilion, a belvedere, fake ruins or the Temple of Friendship. The castles and the old windmill, built on a hill, peak through branches. Schloss Sanssouci and Neues Schloss are both found in Sanssouci Park as well!
Within Sanssouci Park, the most famous palace is Schloss Sanssouci. King Frederick the Great built this 10-room Rococo villa for himself. It rises above a small vineyard and overlooks manicured French gardens graced by white marble statues.
Frederick entertained his friends here, enjoyed fine conversation and philosophy, played the flute and, of course, plotted new territorial expansions. One of his guests was Voltaire, who gave his name to the most charming bedrooms in the palace. In this room, delicate reliefs representing flowers, plants and birds adorn the yellow walls, while a whimsical squirrel eats a walnut on a door.
If you go, do visit Frederick the Great’s grave, just outside his favorite residence. Prussians started to grow and eat potatoes during his reign, hence the potatoes left on the grave to this day by his admirers.
The imposing New Palace stands at the western end of Sanssouci Park. This Baroque residence is much larger than Sanssouci. Frederick the Great reserved it to his important guests and majestic receptions. Wealth and power are on display. All the rooms are lavishly embellished with intricate details and gold leaf covers the ceilings and the walls. A little too much perhaps?
The most impressive room is the Marble Hall, where diverse marbles decorate floor and walls. This magnificent ballroom fell into disuse after only a few years because of structural problems: the room itself was too heavy to be safe! After extensive renovation, the Marble Room is again open to visits.
Nestled in the New Garden, the Cecilienhof Palace was built during the early 20th century in the Tudor Style, for the crown prince’s family. It overlooks the Jungfernsee lake. With the end of WWI, the Revolution of 1919 and the Weimar Republic, the Hohenzollerns lived at Cecilienhof only sporadically.
The estate is most famous because Allied leaders met and negotiated here in July 1945. President Truman resided a few miles away during his visit, in a beautiful villa overlooking the lake. The legend says that he made the decision to drop the atomic bomb against Japan while in Potsdam.
After a tour of Cecilienhof, exploring the extensive park helps one imagine the lives and tastes of the kings of Prussia. The New Garden is landscaped as an English garden, a style favored in the late 18th century. While there is unity in the baroque and rococo buildings in Sanssouci Park, there is more variety in the New Garden. The Marble Palace was the first royal residence in this Park. It is a neoclassical castle, out of red brick and white marble, overlooking the Heiliger lake. It is imposing and regal whereas Cecilienhof looks like a country estate.
Several smaller constructions add charm and mystery to the park. The Marble Palace’s kitchens were designed as a ruined temple, and the icehouse is hidden inside a pyramid. Both buildings are witnesses to Rosicrucian and Masonic beliefs shared by several Prussian kings. By the Jungfernsee lake, there is also a strange hut, without windows, where Frederick William II used to meditate.
The Belvedere, at the top of Pfingstberg, overlooks the lakes and forests around Potsdam and Babelsberg. Here and there, surrounded by yellow and orange trees, royal palaces glisten in the sun. The location is best visited in the late afternoon when the colors are warmer. The Glienicker Brücke, also known as Spy Bridge, is where the Soviets and Americans used to exchange spies and prisoners. It is only a short walk away, following the lakeshore.
Drachenhaus is a small cafe within the Sanssouci Park, a perfect location for a snack or to rest your feet. This little historical building was built during the 18th century when Asian art and culture were fashionable. The Meierei, or Dairy, in the New Garden is now a brewery and restaurant serving regional dishes. The view from here on to the Jungfernsee is splendid, so it is better to eat outside, if the weather permits.
Away from their enormous castle in Berlin, the Hohenzollerns created several summer residences in Potsdam where they could enjoy nature and relative freedom. The palaces and parks of Potsdam and Berlin have been part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1990. To this day, the beauty of each building, the scenic locations, and the luxury brought to construction and detail dazzle visitors. Are you ready to visit Potsdam? You can find all these sites, and more in Berlin on my Google Map.