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Why go now?
The former seat of the Prussian royal family, on the edge of Berlin, is a 1,000-year-old city of palaces and gardens that survived 40 years under state communism in good shape. There is more than enough to reward a serene weekend of exploration of Potsdam in its own right, rather than just being tacked on to a trip to the high-energy German capital. Relics of the old emperors' tasteful extravagance abound, while new money is bringing in style and colour.
The best approach by air is to Berlin Schönefeld on easyjet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) from Bristol, Gatwick, Glasgow, Liverpool and Luton, or Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from East Midlands, Edinburgh and Stansted. An hourly direct train takes 52 minutes to reach Potsdam's main railway station, the Hauptbahnhof (1).
British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Lufthansa (0871 945 9747; lufthansa.com) fly from Heathrow to Berlin Tegel; from here, take bus 109 to Charlottenburg S-Bahn station and catch the S7 train to Potsdam.
Get your bearings
The Hauptbahnhof (1) has a tourist information office (00 49 331 2755 8899; potsdam-tourism.com) open 9.30am-8pm daily (Sundays 10am-4pm Sunday). Buy a bus/tram pass here for €3.90 a day and take one or the other to the door of your hotel: nearly all routes start and finish at the station.
The city's main Tourist Office is on the corner of Brandenburgerstrasse and Schopenhauerstrasse, opposite the Brandenburg Gate (2); 9.30am-4pm at weekends, to 6pm other days.
The atmospheric city has plenty to commend it, but what lies on the fringes is truly remarkable. Sanssouci is the name of both the Royal Park and the Schloss (3) at its centre. The entrance to the park is about 300m north of the Brandenburg Gate (2), where the Hauptallee starts, finishing 1.5km or so to the west at the Neues Palais (4).
The Mercure Hotel (5) on Lange Brücke (00 49 331 2722; mercure.com) is a Communist-era goliath, beautified by subsequent refurbishment. Its 15 storeys ensure that most guests will have a pleasant view of the city and the pre-war film projector displayed in the lobby is a reminder of Potsdam's, and neighbouring Babelsberg's, cinematic past. Doubles start at €70, including breakfast.
Historians may want to stay at Cecilienhof (6) at Neuer Garten (00 49 331 37050; relexa-hotels.de) the palace used for the 1945 Potsdam Conference that finalised Germany's post-War fate. It was built for the children of Kaiser Wilhelm II during the First World War, but was completed only a year before his abdication and exile to Holland. It is designed in the stockbroker Tudor style and is surrounded by an English garden and lake. Doubles start at €161, including a breakfast fit for a Kaiser.
The Voltaire (7) at 88 Friedrich-Ebert Strasse (00 49 331 23170; nh-hotels.com) is named after the French philosopher who spent several years in Potsdam with Frederick the Great. He would approve of the current foyer with shelves of books, an open fire and armchairs. Doubles from €70, room only.
Take a hike
Start, as you would in Berlin, at the Brandenburg Gate (2). Twenty years older than its more celebrated namesake, it was completed in 1770.
Walk along Brandenburgerstrasse and turn left into Lindenstrasse for Lindenstrasse 54 (8) (00 49 331 201 5714; pw-gedenkstaette- potsdam.de.vu), Potsdam's saddest building. Used as a political prison under the Nazis, the Soviets and then the East German Stasi, it was morbidly nicknamed the "Linden Hotel".
Visitors are spared none of the horrors of what happened here, partly because most of the guides (€3 for the tour) are former inmates; open 10am-6pm daily except Monday.
From Brandenburgerstrasse turn right into Dortustrasse and at the end turn left into Breitestrasse (Broad Street). Here there is a temporary museum on the site of the former Garnisonkirche (9) (garnisonkirche-potsdam.org). The Garrison Church was Frederick the Great's (1712-1786) resting place for more than 150 years, but remains notorious for the handshake between President Hindenburg and Adolf Hitler in March 1933 that consolidated the Nazi leader's rise to power.
The church was destroyed by the East German government in 1968, in an appalling act of ideological vandalism; plans to rebuild it by 2017 are forging ahead, with many locals sponsoring bricks for €100 each.
Continue along Breitestrasse for 200m to a palace that has now been converted to the Film Museum (10) (00 49 331 271 8112; filmmuseum-potsdam.de) covering the history of the nearby Babelsberg Film Studios from their founding in 1911 to the present day. Some will want to see Jude Law clips; others will prefer Marlene Dietrich. The museum opens 10am-6pm daily, with the film showings at 6pm, 8pm and an additional late showing at 10pm Thursday to Sunday. Admission €3.50.
Lunch on the run
The Alexandrowka café/restaurant (11) at Russische Kolonie 1 (00 49 331 200 6478; sakuska.de) is one of 13 wooden houses of the "Russian Colony" built in 1826 to commemorate the death of Czar Alexander I. Pop in here for a selection of 100 per cent Russian cuisine, including beetroot soup (€5.50) and pancakes with salmon caviar (€7.50). Open 11.30am-10pm daily except Mondays in summer, closing earlier the rest of the year.
Jäger means "hunter" in German so it is possibly appropriate that the main shopping street in Potsdam is Jägerstrasse. The town has been firm in keeping out supermarkets so expect individually managed shops here.
Feuer und Flamme (12), in a courtyard at Jägerstrasse 39 (00 331 200 0340; feuerundflamme potsdam.de) offers an exotic selection of hand-made candles, torches, lighting fixtures and cast-iron grills.
Truly German cafés are few and far between in international Potsdam, but Café Heider (13) at 29 Friedrich-Ebertstrasse (00 49 331 270 5596; cafeheider.de) is proud of its 100-year history. It remained in private hands throughout the Communist era, enabling it to house dissidents and allow commercial transactions that could not take place elsewhere.
Try Obstler Schnapps here: a strongly distilled mixture of apples and pears; or, come a little earlier in the day and enjoy these fruits as part of a torte (cake). Open from 8am weekdays, 9am Saturday and 10am Sunday, closing times vary according to demand.
Dining with the locals
Before sunset, climb the Pfingstberg to the Belvedere (14) folly, a castle commissioned by the eccentric Wilhelm IV. The castle and park open 10am-8pm in summer, with earlier closing in the spring and autumn. Access to the lookout was restricted before reunification as it offered views into West Berlin as well as the hidden Soviet ghetto with its sinister KGB agents. Admission €3.50.
Nowadays, locals get married at the Belvedere and then celebrate at the Restaurant "Am Pfingstberg" (00 49 331 293 533; restaurant-pfingstberg.de) just below it. Open at noon daily except Monday, the restaurant closes at 10pm (4pm on Sundays).
Try the potato soup and venison ragout with a hot cranberry and apple sauce for €19.70 per person, offering enough sustenance for the 1.5km walk back into the town centre.
Sunday morning: go to church
Begin at Nikolaikirche (15), the 160-year-old masterpiece whose dome reopened to the public last year, offering views over the city. Worshippers still argue over whether it owes more to St Paul's in London or St Peter's in Rome; 00 49 331 270 8602; nikolaipotsdam. de). Open daily 9am to 5pm, though it is closed during the Sunday morning service. The St Peter und Paul Kirche (16) (00 49 331 2310 7990; peter-paul-kirche.de) is a mish-mash of influences, built in the late-19th century to a Greek design with Byzantine wall paintings. Behind it is the Soviet cemetery. Nearby, the 18th-century French Church (17) (reformiert-potsdam.de) was built for the Hugenot community that had fled to Potsdam and other Prussian towns to avoid persecution. After Napoleon's defeat of Prussia in 1806, the church served as a stable for the French cavalry. It opens 1.30-5pm daily.
A walk in the park
Sanssouci roughly translates as "care free" and that's the best way to approach a morning here. The Schloss Sanssouci (3) (00 49 331 969 4190; spsg.de; 9am-5pm daily; €8) was largely designed by Frederick in the French Rococo style. He arranged his private apartments according to personal taste and often ignored current trends. On the way to the Neues Palais (4) (00 49 331 969 4255; 9am-5pm daily except Friday; €5), wander off the main path, admiring what Frederick's successors added. These include the Dutch Windmill (18) (00 49 331 550 6851; 10am-6pm daily; €2) and the Orangerie (19) (00 49 331 969 4280; 10am-5pm daily except Monday; €3).
Out to brunch
The Bornstedt Estate (20) (00 49 180 576 6488; krongut-bornstedt.de), part of Sanssouci, pays testament to the passion Prussian kings had for all things Italian. The crafts village opens daily from 10am, and the adjacent café offers liver dumplings in Viennese sauce for €6.50.
The Neuer Markt (21) is actually a misnomer, being, as it is, the centre of Old Town. Fortunately it was spared both the RAF bombing raids and East German urban planning, providing instead a fine example of the 18th-century Greco-Roman architecture so prevalent in Potsdam.
The Haus der Brandenburgisch-Preußischen Geschichte (House of Brandenburg and Prussian History) at the Kutschstall, Am Neuen Markt 9 (00 49 331 620 8550; hbpg.de) covers 900 years of local history in one large room. Of most interest is the large model of Potsdam as it looked in 1912. Open 10am-6pm at weekends (to 5pm from Tuesday to Friday); admission €4.50 for the main "Land and People" exhibition.
Icing on the cake
In Schiffbauergasse (Ship Builders' Lane), a collection of run-down factories has been converted into a combined business and cultural centre (00 49 331 289 1953; schiffbauergasse.de).
The FLUXUS+ Museum (22) at 4f Schiffbauergasse (00 49 331 601 0890; fluxus-plus.de) houses multimedia installations, including sculpture, music and painting. Open noon-8pm daily except Mondays; €7.50.
Additional research by Greg Fountain