Rupert Parker visits this royal city just outside Berlin and takes a walk across the bridge of Spies.
The name of Potsdam sticks in my memory because of the famous meeting of allied leaders at the end of WW2. The city is just 16 miles outside Berlin, on the River Havel, and the capital of the German state of Brandenburg. Apart from the historic conference room, the great attraction is the royal palaces, begun in 1745 by Frederick the Great.
They miraculously survived WW2 bombing intact and they sit in a huge landscaped park complete with deer for hunting. You can see the lot in a very packed day, by S-Bahn from Berlin, but it’s worth at least an overnight for a more comprehensive visit. There’s also more to see including the secret soviet spy town and the infamous Bridge of Spies.
The Dutch quarter, also known as Little Holland is a good place to stay with many cafes, bars and restaurants, occupying the 134 gabled red brick houses. They were built for the workers who came from Holland to work on the palace’s construction. It’s an attractive area with two-storey houses arranged around four squares.
Just west of the city centre is the summer palace of Frederick the Great, named Sanssouci “without cares” as he could be relatively undisturbed here. The Rococo mansion is relatively small, just ten rooms in a single story. He liked it so much that he built a second version, the New Palace, twenty years later, in the Baroque style and designed to impress, this time with over 200 rooms.
Other palaces include the Orangery Palace, for visiting royal guests, and the Charlottenhof Palace, built in 1826. Immense landscaped grounds, complete with ornate statues and botanical gardens contain the palaces and there’s even a hunting park still with a few deer, You’ll need good walking shoes and lots of stamina to explore the area but it’s well worth it, if only to appreciate the scale of the place.
Perched on a hill, looking like a temple, the Belvedere auf dem Klausberg was Frederick’s final project, modelled on Nero’s place in Rome. This was the only part of the complex to be damaged during WW2 but it’s now been completely restored Climb up to the ramparts and enjoy glorious views of the park, lake, Potsdam and Berlin in the distance.
The Neuer Garten area is another park complex that contains the newest of the palaces, completed in 1917. The Schloss Cecilienhof was modelled on a Tudor mansion and is where Stalin, Churchill and Truman met in 1945, at end of WW2. The conference chamber has been left intact, including the huge round table where they divided up Europe. Potsdam, itself, ended up in the Russian zone, part of East Germany until the fall of the wall in 1991.
Not far from Schloss Cecilienhof, the Soviets requisitioned 100 stately villas, to create a secret forbidden town, home to the KGB and high ranking officers. Only soldiers and spies were allowed to enter and, at its centre in Leistikow Strasse, was the notorious prison. People were brought here to be interrogated, tortured and even killed.
This was closed in 1991, at the same time as the barricades were torn down and the villas were returned to their owners in 1994. A 2.5km history trail, with a series of information panels, guides you through the key sites, including the headquarters of the Secret Service and the former prison.
Nearby is the iconic steel-structured Glienicke Bridge, spanning the Havel River, connecting Potsdam and Berlin. This was the border between East and West Germany and only allied military personnel and foreign diplomats were allowed access. It was used for the exchange of prisoners and became known as the Bridge of Spies, also featuring in the film of the same name. It reopened one day after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991 and a walk across it today feels like a step back in time.
Tell Me More About visiting Potsdam
Ryanair flies direct to Berlin Brandenburg Airport.
Germany Travel has information about the country.
Brandenburg Tourism has information about the region.
Potsdam Tourism has information about the city.
Hotel am Grossen Waisenhaus is a comfortable base near the centre.
To visit Sanssouci you need to book online through their website.