Despite its long history, the city of Potsdam has often been considered not much more than a suburban afterthought to Berlin. But if you take time to delve a bit deeper than its well-known royal palaces and gardens, you’ll find it’s Berlin playing second fiddle.
Founded some six hundred years earlier than Berlin, Potsdam’s history is inexorably intertwined with the development of the German capital. Although Berlin technically became Germany’s first city when the country united in 1871, the militarized Imperial court nevertheless chose to remain in Potsdam. The Hohenzollerns preferred the smaller and more easily-fortified town where they had risen to prominence as the rulers of Prussia.
Today, Potsdam is a proper city in its own right of around 160,000 and the capital of the state of Brandenburg, which surrounds Berlin. With its 18th-century Dutch quarter, the 19th-century Russian colony – the former was the original home of imported émigré artisans and the latter a space set-aside for the repatriated Tsarist prisoners of the Napoleonic wars – not to mention its numerous impressive castles, much of its rich and decorative history still remains intact. This fact has made Potsdam into a less grand Versailles-style tourist magnet for people visiting Berlin. And Friedrich the Great’s Sanssoucci palace – a Rococo retreat where he indulged in his habit of entertaining visiting philosophical dignitaries – is undoubtedly still the city’s most famous landmark.
But it would be wrong to say that picturesque pomp was the only thing which Potsdam has going for it. The presence of the important film studios at Babelsberg, as well as the sprawling Golm Science Park, both contribute to the city’s modern image. At the same time, Potsdam’s historical charms are currently in the process of colliding with more contemporary circumstances. Urban regeneration begun in earnest after reunification has driven the town’s rents up to a level even higher than those of pricey Munich. Meanwhile, Potsdam’s city government is continuing apace with its large-scale rebuilding projects, including efforts to reconstruct the imposing Potsdamer City Palace, or Stadtschloss, destroyed in the Second World War as well as the old Jewish synagogue obliterated by the Nazis.
But somewhere between these extremes of old and new, the endearing quirkiness of Potsdam shines through. Featuring a central train station complete with a built-in zoo, the town also includes a bodyguard training school. There is a rich tradition of this kind of oddness here: amongst its other curios, Sansoucci park incorporates a pyramidal refrigeration unit, a reconstructed Chinese Pavilion, a kitchen styled like a ruined Roman temple, and the Orangerie, with its Egyptian portal and sphinx.
Many of these follies owe their existence to Friedrich-Wilhelm II, the alchemy-dabbling nephew of Friedrich the Great who extended his uncle’s architectural experimentations into occult and other off-beat areas. Their combined effect leaves the impression that Potsdam’s closest urban cousin isn’t Versailles, but rather the Welsh seaside resort of Portmeirion. Similarly eccentric and Arcadian, both settlements summon the image of an oddly disturbing garden paradise where pastoral folk meander around in an endless summer.
Portmeirion famously served as the stage-set for the cult British television series The Prisoner, where an ex-secret agent is trapped in some odd little town. In some stretch of the imagination, Potsdam can leave an impression of a post-unification German version of that show. Of course, instead of being dragged back to Portmeirion by a roving white balloon, most visitors to Potsdam will be dragged back to Berlin by the S-Bahn.
Potsdam is easily accessible from Berlin via the S7 and S1 S-Bahn lines and Deutsche Bahn’s regional train service.