Berlin is fabulous, but if you need a break from the city’s energy, nearby Potsdam offers a charming cityscape, rich cultural exploration, and a few bona fide dining destinations, making for a great day trip. Located on the Havel River just southwest of Berlin, Potsdam is the capital of the state of Brandenburg and former Prussian royal seat. Thanks to the elegant style of King Fredrich II (Frederick the Great), the city’s main attraction, the sweeping Park Sanssouci, provides a rich landscape of parks, gardens and Rococo architecture to explore. Within the historic city center you’ll find pleasant outdoor cafés perfect for leisurely dining, museums to stroll through and a laid-back city scene that offers a relaxing respite from busy Berlin.
Potsdam is an easy 45-minute train ride from Berlin; the capital’s S-Bahn S7 train makes regular stops from central Berlin to the main Potsdam Hauptbahnhof station. Regional trains are slightly faster, and make farther stops into town, taking visitors directly to Potsdam-Charlottenhof and Potsdam-Sanssouci, where they can access two sides of the Sanssouci park and the area’s impressive palaces. Potsdam offers many scenic bike rides, and visitors from Berlin often bring bikes along on the train. Bike rentals from Potsdam Per Pedales are also available in the city with reasonable daily rental rates of around 11€ (there are discounts offered for afternoon and weekly rentals). If you prefer to drive, the A115 highway brings you directly to Potsdam; the ride should take you anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour.
What to See: Palaces and Movie Stars
Unlike most of Potsdam’s historic center, which was heavily damaged in the World War II bombings, the palaces inside Park Sanssouci remain intact. Embarking from a regional train at the Potsdam-Sanssouci stop puts you in walking distance to the park’s larger Neues Palace, which includes many Baroque paintings and impressive Rococo-style interiors, and can be toured in roughly two hours for a mere 8€. From there, visitors can walk through the park grounds, which are home to a number of gardens, regal statues, a historic windmill and the elaborate gilded Chinese Teahouse. On the opposite end of the park sits the Schloss Sanssouci, a smaller palace that was summer home to the Prussian royals and has extravagantly adorned rooms as well as its own stately groomed gardens.
Head toward the historic district and you’ll come across Potsdam’s miniature Brandenburg Tor, a Roman-style triumphal arch similar to the Berlin landmark. The city’s picturesque Dutch Quarter is steps away from the gate, with its distinct red brick homes. A number of nearby shops, cafés and restaurants offer a break from sightseeing. The outdoor seating at bistro Masion Charlotte allows for people-watching on a sunny day (along with an enjoyable menu of French café classics including a Breton-style fish soup, foie gras with seasonal fruits, and a wine list heavy on Bordeaux, Rhone Valley and Burgundy. Sweets lovers can get a taste of German-style cheesecake at Café Guam, which has dozens of varieties on display; the selection rotates, but flavors might include blackberry, poppy seed, currant, apricot, marbled chocolate, and cherry on any given day.
After a midday break, enjoy one of Potsdam’s other historic attractions with a switch from royal families to the stars of the silver screen. The German film industry is based in the area — many of Germany’s early silent films were produced here, and modern day filmmakers including Quentin Tarantino and George Clooney continue to use the location and studios. It was used for Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and Clooney was recently in town directing The Monuments Men, set for release in late 2013. A visit to the Potsdam Filmmuseum gives visitors a peek at the history of film production in the area, while the theme park-like Film Park Babelsberg provides a behind-the-scenes look at movie making.
Although Potsdam is not an incredibly large city, there is plenty to see throughout the area. The local bus and tram tourist lines — which stop by many of the parks, gardens, and museums — offer an easy, comfortable way to take in all of the sights. Or, if the weather is particularly nice, embark on a boat ride along the Havel River for a relaxing view of Potsdam’s landmarks.
Where to Eat and Drink
End a busy day of sightseeing with some of the best food in Potsdam; the city offers a number of worthy dining destinations. For a fine-dining experience, try out Friedrich-Wilhelm, where chef Alexander Dressel creates an ambitious Italian-influenced menu —a modern take on the regal style of the Prussian king
— with dishes such as Iberico ham and pepper salad or chilled asparagus purée, King crab and caviar. Although it’s a little off the beaten path in the nearby wooded Wildpark, the restaurant and accompanying Relais & Châteaux Hotel Bayrisches Haus offer a luxury option — the well-appointed, spacious rooms provide sprawling views of the nearby woodland scenery — for visitors who would like to spend the night in town. If you’d prefer to dine inside the historic district, enjoy a meal at Restaurant Fiore, tucked inside the ritzy Hotel Am Jägertor. Fiore offers an inventive take on regional classics — pickled baby carrots come along side iced carrot foam; Waldorf salad is deconstructed into apple gel and walnut oil — and an outdoor terrace with vistas of the nearby Hunting Tower and cityscape.
For a more casual evening, the family-owned Specker’s Landhaus offers house-made pastas, local game, seafood dishes and other specialties in a charming farmhouse-style dining room. And Ma Cuisine, one of Potsdam’s newest locales, proffers a modern French menu by Scottish chef Tim Cumming within an enchanting Dutch Quarter space.
End the evening with a nightcap at BAR-O-meter, a vaulted cellar lounge that is appreciated for its impressive cocktail list. Or, plan ahead and schedule your trip around one of Ma Cuisine’s whiskey tastings: Held every few months, with an upcoming tasting on May 12, the events feature a rare collection of whiskeys from the Scottish proprietor’s collection.
Photos courtesy of Hotel Bayrisches, Friedrich Wilhelp Restaurant, SPSG, Sanssouci, Mittelrisalit, Wolfgang Pfauder, Neus Palais