Christmas markets all over Germany switch on their fairy lights this week, but few cities have as much to offer in the season of glühwein and glad tidings as Potsdam, just 30 minutes south of Berlin. Start this walk in front of the monumental Nikolaikirche (00 49 331 270 86 02; nikolai-pots dam.de) facing the even more impressive Potsdamer Stadtschloss. Here, in the old town square, is where Christmas markets used to be held under the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Ironically, the dark-pink city palace is Potsdam’s newest building. It was completed this month and in January the Brandenburg state parliament will move in. The exterior is an exact replica of the 17th-century building ruined by RAF bombing in 1945, and has components of the original façade. A local businessman paid €27m to have it rebuilt.
Crossing Friedrich-Ebert-Strasse past the stable block of the old Schloss (now a museum of German film, but under renovation), you come to Neuer Markt, the site of Potsdam’s annual Polnischer Sternenmarkt. For centuries, the kings and emperors of the House of Hohenzollern practised pragmatic tolerance, which meant that Potsdam filled up with Poles, Dutch, Huguenots, Jews and Czechs from Bohemia. The Polish Christmas market, held at a former royal coach house, is a chance to buy bigos stew, borscht soup, pierogi dumplings and other culinary specialities that make up the 12 symbolic dishes of the Polish Christmas Eve table. Polish musicians, street theatre and jazz animate the scene.
Now cross the former canal that turned Potsdam into an island in the 18th century. This Dutch-style watercourse was filled in during the Communist era to create a car park, but is now being excavated. Walk up Wilhelm-Staab-Strasse, a beautiful sequence of Baroque houses restored by the GDR in the early 1950s. Each is different but there is a harmony of style which stops suddenly if you turn into Ebräerstrasse (Hebrew Street). After restoring the Jewish Prayer Hall, the cash-strapped authorities gave up and built soulless apartment blocks.
Continuing north, you’ll come to Brandenburger Strasse where the Blauer Lichterglanz (Blue Lights) market is held. This is Potsdam’s main Christmas event. It runs from the Catholic church of St Peter and St Paul (00 49 331 230 7990; peter- paul-kirche.de) 750m to the Brandenburg Gate (which predates Berlin’s by almost 20 years) and the western edge of the city.
The smell is intoxicating – mulled wine, cinnamon, waffles and sizzling sausages. More than 50 huts line the cobbled street. They sell Christmas decorations, hats and scarves, wooden toys and just about anything you might want to eat or drink. From here, go west and at the intersection with Lindenstrasse, note the seven-metre wooden Christmas Pyramid, with a full Nativity scene.
Pass under the Brandenburg Gate into Luisenplatz, where you will find a festive fairground and storytelling booths. On the far side of the square is the Wiener Café (00 49 331 60 14 99 04; wiener-potsdam.de) – an authentic import from Austria with marble tables, red leather chairs and some of the city’s best hot chocolate.
From Luisenplatz, wander into the park of Schloss Sanssouci past the Friedenskirche (00 49 331 9694 200, spsg.de). Queen Victoria’s daughter, Vicky, and her husband Fritz, the short-lived German emperor and father of “Kaiser Bill”, are buried here.
Sanssouci (00 49 331 9694 200; spsg.de; €12) was the summer palace of King Frederick the Great of Prussia and it stands as a tribute to his aesthetic vision. He may have been an adept king, accomplished composer and friend of philosophers, but you do get the impression he would have been truly happy as an interior designer. Six stepped terraces containing vines and figs for the king’s table lead up to Frederick’s gilded Baroque bungalow, where he lived with his dogs in artistic isolation whenever he could.
From the palace, walk along the top of this ridge past a huge working windmill towards Krongut Bornstedt (00 49 331 550 6510; krongut-born stedt.de). There are a number of palaces and royal guest wings up here but this royal farm is by far the sweetest. Kaiser Wilhelm’s widowed mother lived here. She wrote letters so critical of her son that the correspondence had to be smuggled out of Germany by the British ambassador after she died. Another Christmas market, the Romantischen, is held in her spacious farmyard.
Further north is the Bohemian Christmas market in the old weavers’ quarter of Babelsberg, but it may be time for lunch at the Brauhaus (Brewhouse) (00 49 30 191 01554; krongut-bornstedt.de) and a glass of Bornstedter Buffalo Beer. Should you not want to walk further, bus 695 will take you back to the railway station.
This year, the Dutch quarter’s Sinterklaasfest (St Nicholas Festival) has been cancelled so the 18th-century Jan Bouman Haus Museum (00 49 331 280 3773; jan-bouman- haus.de; €2) is hosting an exhibition about Dutch Christmas until 30 December. Good dEATS (00 49 331 5839 9306; gooddeats.com) is Potsdam’s first vegan café, with hand-made chocolates and truffles.
Adrian Mourby travelled with Rail Europe (0844 848 5 848; raileurope.co.uk), which offers return journeys from London to Berlin from £157. The fastest journey from St Pancras takes just over nine hours, with connections required in Brussels and Cologne. Berlin’s S-bahn suburban train runs frequently to Potsdam from Berlin Hauptbahnhof and Potsdamer Platz (fare €3.20, journey time 30 minutes).
By air, the obvious airport is Berlin Schönefeld, which is served from Bristol, Edinburgh, Gatwick, Glasgow, Luton, Liverpool and Manchester by easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com); from Stansted and East Midlands by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com); and from Leeds/Bradford with Jet2 (0800 408 1350; jet2.com). From the airport’s own station, hourly trains to Potsdam take 40 minutes for a fare of €2.90,
The writer stayed at the Ritz-Carlton Berlin (00 49 30 33 777 6300; ritzcarlton.com/berlin), situated next to the Potzdamer Platz S-bahn station with direct links to Potsdam. Doubles from €322, including breakfast.