Berlin’s most popular day-trip is Potsdam – the Versailles of Germany. And like Berlin, the best way to see this spectacular sprawling area of palaces and gardens is by bicycle.
It’s just a half hour train trip from Berlin: buy the A, B and C daily transit pass and you can travel there by train or slower tram. You can rent a bike in Berlin and take it on the train with you, or in the main station of Potsdam, exit towards the river, turn right and 200 yards down there is a bike rental shop.
They’ll give you a map that guides you to an incredible 20 km bike ride past palaces, fountains, gardens and the tree-lined lanes of Sanssouci. You’ll also bike to a wonderful pedestrian town of cafes and shops, on to the famous site where Truman, Stalin and Churchill decided the fate of Europe after WWII, over the “spy bridge” where East and West Germany often exchanged prisoners, and along a lakeshore to palaces turned into beirgardens.
Sanssouci (“Without worries”) is the Versailles of Germany – a UNESCO World Heritage Site of 700 acres filled with a dozen palaces, working windmill, and elaborate gardens and fountains, all with landscaped trees lining the roads. What a bike ride!
There is no traffic, all flat paths and there is something amazing around every corner. It was started as a summer resort by Frederick the Great in 1744. Frederick is one of the greatest figures in German history…so great that Hitler had his body dug up and placed in a huge tomb in Berlin. After the war, Frederick’s body was rescued and is back at Sanssouci now, under a simple stone slab, that always has a fresh potato on it (Frederick introduced the potato to Germany).
You can tour Sanssouci Palace, built in 1745, where Frederick actually lived, and the even grander New Palace with 200 rooms, that he built to host guests. But the grounds are equally impressive. There are miles of tree lined paths, an Orangerie, a working windmill and all sorts of other buildings.
If it’s time for beer, from the park, it’s an easy pedal to the quaint pedestrian streets of Potsdam. Be sure to walk your bike (or get stern glances from locals) but you’ll pass beautiful shops, flowers and cafes to the Dutch Quarter, a centuries old street with red tile roofs. There’s a large choice of beer gardens.
The Cold War
The Allies chose Potsdam as the place to meet after the war, and it was here that Europe was divided into East and West. Cecilienhof, the former residence of Crown Prince William, was the site of the conference where Truman, Churchill and Stalin met to change the world. It’s in a pleasant park with tours of the house. On the grounds, there’s a brewery with an outdoor beer garden offering views of the lake.
Fittingly, in the division of East and West Germany, Potsdam was right on the line. The Glienicker Bridge was one of the most famous dividing lines, and a place glorified in Cold War novels where spies were often exchanged. You can bike over this historic bridge, and follow the lakeshore back to town. And yes, there are pretty beer gardens all along the way.
The Final Solution
A short bus ride from Potsdam is another house worth touring – the House of the Wannasee Conference. At noon of 20 January 1942, a meeting of approximately 90 minutes took place in the dining room of this lakeside guesthouse. Representatives of the SS and various Nazi ministries attended this meeting, which was convened by Reinhard Heydrich, Head of the Security Police. The subject of the meeting was the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” In a little more than an hour in this room, the process was put together for the deportation of all European Jews to camps in Poland and Eastern Europe, where they would be exterminated. While the decision had already been made by Hitler, it was here, in matter of fact language, that the instruments to carry it out were arranged.
It is chilling.
The meeting was transcribed, so with photos and the actual words of the participants, you see the full horror of the Nazi regime. Photos and maps show how the process was carried out. Nothing brings home the true horror of World War II and the Holocaust than the casual way in which the murder of millions of people was discussed. It is positively horrifying and a stark contrast to the beautiful grounds and the prosperous country that East Germany is today.
If you go: Potsdam