Travel Through Europe Without Leaving Brandenburg’s Capital
This blog post was written in collaboration with Potsdam Tourism.
Berlin is widely recognized as a multicultural, international city. But did you know that when you visit Potsdam, you’ll be able to travel through Europe – and beyond?
Many of Potsdam’s lesser-known architectural gems testify to the regal city’s international heritage. Beautifully preserved buildings are scattered throughout the town and in the surrounding countryside, from elegant English castles to Roman ruins and Renaissance palazzos gracing the hilltops.
In this blog post, we’ll look at 12 places to visit in Potsdam – the perfect cure for wanderlust in between holidays to feel like you are travelling through Europe.
Ancient Roman Influence in Potsdam
Did you know that when you visit Potsdam, you can seemingly travel to ancient Rome?
I briefly wrote about Ruinenberg Hill (literally meaning hill of ruins) in my post on the 12 Most Instagrammable Places in Potsdam.
It is one of my favourite places in the area to feel like I’m stepping back in time. And this actually was Prussian King Frederick the Great’s idea when he commissioned the ruins back in the 18th century. At the time, it was trendy for royals around Europe to build their own ruin parks.
Originally, Ruinenberg Hill did have a practical purpose. The site was meant to feature a reservoir, supplying water to the nearby fountain in front of the vineyard terraces of Sanssouci Palace.
However, the project soon had to be abandoned due to technical difficulties.
Today, visitors can amble about the area freely to discover the remains of an amphitheatre, a temple and a pyramid.
Italian Heritage in Potsdam
When you visit Potsdam, you’ll soon notice that Italian heritage abounds. Architectural wonders attest to Mediterranean influences across the centuries.
Located at Potsdam’s Old Market, you’ll find the Museum Barberini. The stately mansion is a reconstruction of a villa built 250 years ago to resemble the Palazzo Barberini in Rome.
The residence was also commissioned by Frederick the Great, this time to mirror contemporary Italian architecture. The Barberini Palace was used as a residential house as well as a public space for art and culture.
World War II bombings destroyed the first version of the palace, but during the early 21st century, patron Hasso Plattner, one founder of the SAP SE, rebuilt it to reflect its original 18th-century splendour.
Since 2017, the Museum Barberini has been a world-class destination for art lovers, harbouring a vast collection of impressionist works by household names such as Van Gogh, Renoir, Monet and Picasso.
To say that the Belvedere Pfingstberg has a purely Italian style would actually be untrue. This beautiful palace has elements reminiscent of ancient Greek colonnades, while the twin towers were inspired by the Italian renaissance.
In reality, this palace, too, was built in the mid-18th century by another Prussian king (Friedrich Wilhelm IV). The Belvedere Pfingstberg was to be a viewing platform, doubling up as a destination for lavish royal events. This monarch was quite hands-on and sketched the plans for it himself.
Today, the Belvedere is open to the public – and a great spot for photoshoots. You can also rent the space for private events.
St. Nicholas’ Church
St. Nicholas’ Church is definitely one of Potsdam’s icons, perhaps the most defining feature of the city’s landscape besides Sanssouci.
The evangelical place of worship saw the light at the beginning of the 19th century, built on the ground where a previous church had burned. In fact, various churches have graced that exact spot for over 700 years.
Once again, the Prussian royals displayed their fascination with Italy by commissioning this church. It won’t take long to note the resemblance of this Potsdam landmark to St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, especially with regard to the dome.
Not only is St. Nicholas’ Church an important part of Potdam’s heritage, but it is also a wonderful spot to get a bird’s eye view of the city. Visitors can climb to the top of the dome to access an observation deck with 360-degree vistas over the city and the surrounding countryside. (Entry costs 5€.)
St Peter and Paul Church
Another Potsdam church worth mentioning is the lesser-known yet equally historic St Peter and Paul Church.
This place of worship marks the end of the Brandenburger Straße. This is the main street in Potsdam’s historic centre, leading to the Golden arches known as the Brandenburg Gate Potsdam (which is actually much older than Berlin’s version).
The church’s bell tower was modelled after the San Zeno Basilica in Verona, Italy. The original Italian church was built in phases between 900 and 1300 AD, so don’t be surprised if Potsdam’s version looks much older than it actually is. In reality, it was built around 1870.
English Heritage in Potsdam
Prussian royalty may have been impressed by Italian elegance, but English flair wasn’t overlooked, either!
If you’re wandering through Babelsberg Park, you might think you’ve magically been teleported to another era when you see the sumptuous Babelsberg Palace appear. This stunning building, the summer home of German Emperor William I, will have fans of Victorian period dramas swooning.
Built in phases between 1835 and 1849, Babelsberg Palace is a masterpiece of English Gothic revival style. The palace is so crucial to Potsdam – and global – heritage, that it was UNESCO-listed in 1990, alongside Sanssouci Palace and Cecilienhof.
You can easily make a day trip out of visiting Babelsberg Park, as there is a lot to do besides seeing the castle. Stroll through the expansive gardens, go for a dip in the Havel River, or enjoy some traditional German fare at the beer garden – the choice is yours.
Russian Heritage in Potsdam
A short tram ride from Potsdam’s central station, a Russian world awaits.
Potsdam also has a Russian Colony, Alexandrovka. Here, you’ll find a cluster of traditional wooden homes surrounded by fruit trees. These houses were commissioned by King Frederick William III in 1826 in honour of the deceased Tsar Alexander I, a personal friend of the Prussian royal family.
This settlement originally housed Russian soldiers working at court. The fruit trees were part of a larger agricultural experiment run by the Prussian state, and there were over 600 varieties. Today, the entire area remains heritage-listed.
Visitors can learn more about Potsdam’s Russian settlers at the onsite museum and sample traditional dishes at the restaurant next door.
Alexander Newski Chapel
Within easy walking distance of Alexandrovka, the pretty Alexander Newski Chapel awaits. The oldest Russian orthodox church in Germany, it was built for the Alexandrovka soldiers and their families between 1828 and 1829. Some 200 years later, the church still welcomes worshippers.
Dutch Heritage in Potsdam
When you visit Potsdam, don’t skip the city’s Dutch heritage!
Potsdam’s delightful Dutch Quarter is a favourite amongst residents and tourists alike, brimming with shops, cafes and culture.
The characteristic red-bricked houses are about a century older than many of the other architectural wonders described in this post. They were, however, also built on the order of a Prussian king to house Dutch workers involved in a variety of royal projects.
Today’s visitors can sample Dutch specialties – like poffertjes – or purchase unique souvenirs, often hand-made by local artisans. Rain or shine, a wander through Potsdam’s Dutch Quarter won’t disappoint.
Swiss Heritage in Potsdam
As you’ll see, the Swiss also left their mark in Potsdam.
Swiss Chalets in Klein Glienicke
Somewhat further on the outskirts of Potsdam, in the part of town called Klein Glienicke, you’ll run into several beautiful Swiss chalets.
These were once part of a 10-home Helvetic-style village created by Prince Carl of Prussia. He was extremely well-travelled and did not keep his admiration for Switzerland a secret. He revered the country so much that he designed an alpine settlement closer to home.
During the years of the Iron Curtain, Klein Glienicke was a barrier zone between East and West Germany. Many of Prince Carl’s chalets were caught in the crossfire of history, but 4 of the original structures remain to this day.
Beyond Europe: Global Heritage in Potsdam
When you visit Potsdam, not only will you see that the city has cultivated a variety of European communities over the years, but that international influences have also helped shape the landscape.
Chinese House in Sanssouci Park
Even Prussian emperors were hit with a case of wanderlust. In some cases, Frederick the Great looked beyond European borders for inspiration. This is how he came to build the glistening Chinese House, nestled at the heart of Sanssouci’s gardens. The petit yet impressive pavilion was a favourite of his for more intimate gatherings.
The Prussian court wasn’t the only European royal family to be inspired by the Far East in the 1760s. Indeed, examples of Chinoiserie can be found throughout Europe, especially in France.
Steam Engine Building (Mosque)
Potsdam’s Dampfmaschinenhaus (in English: Steam Engine House) is often also referred to as a Mosque. Indeed, it was built to resemble a Moorish-style mosque by Friedrich Wilhelm IV in 1843.
The monarch was known by his contemporaries as a romantic, and his sense of aesthetics and fantasy points to this. He wasn’t satisfied with purely bringing to life Prussia’s most sophisticated steam engine. He wanted Potsdam to have the most beautiful one, too.
Back in the day, the Dampfmaschinenhaus supplied water to Sanssouci’s fountains and you could see the “Mosque” from the royal palace. Still today, it is an impressive and unexpected sight.
Bottom Line: When You Visit Potsdam, You Discover the World
As you now know, when you visit Potsdam, you can easily cross off an additional 8 countries!
You’ll not only learn about many of the royal city’s architectural treasures but you will also dive deep into the stories of the people who lived in – and shaped – these quarters.
So next time you have a case of wanderlust, make sure to visit Potsdam! And don’t forget to check out the official Dein Potsdam blog for more inspiration.