Berlin Germany tops my list of favourite cities. Berlin has so many museums there’s an entire island dedicated to them. For those who are more interested in palaces, there’s the nearby UNESCO listed Potsdam with 17 palaces. And then there’s the remnants of wars, both hot and cold, that are still visible throughout Berlin today.
Berlin is a place where you will never run out of things to see or do. And in the post below I’m only just scratching the surface of what Berlin Germany has to offer tourists. It’s one city I could visit repeatedly without ever losing interest.
How to spend 48 hours in Berlin Germany
Berlin in Germany is my favourite European city. If like me you enjoy learning about Cold War history, visiting museums, art galleries and love punk rock, then Berlin is the place for you.
If you’re interested in both intelligence or the history of spying and punk music, you can’t go past the Stasi Museum. The Stasi Museum has exhibits dedicated the role youth subculture played in the eventual collapse of the GDR through a loss of legitimacy.
Across Berlin at points where the wall once stood you can see cobblestones inserted into the pavement to mark its route. And while it’s much more difficult to tell the different sides of Berlin now, over 30 years on, there are still hints as to which part of Berlin you are in.
In Berlin Germany you can see historical remnants of the West-East divide. One particular remnant that I didn’t at first notice was the street lights. When crossing a road, East and West Berlin have different red and green lights to cross. And it became fun to look for the Ampelmännchen in East Berlin.
You definitely shouldn’t disobey the little traffic light man. As little old German ladies will tell you off in the street if you do. They take their traffic light man seriously in East Germany.
Getting to Berlin Germany
There are two main routes to Berlin Germany. The international airport and the Deutsche Bahn train. For either method I’d recommend looking at the OMIO mobile application.
OMIO makes travelling Europe a lot cheaper. I found it worked well in Germany in general. But on the German Deutsche Bahn in particular. If I booked 2 weeks in advance the Deutsche Bahn train across Germany became much cheaper.
I used OMIO to get a my ticket to Berlin from Bonn with a stopover in Köln. And then again for my next ticket to Copenhagen with a stopover in Hamburg. On these two train journeys alone I saved a couple of hundred euros by using OMIO.
Getting around Berlin Germany
The Berlin U-Bahn subway system and the S-Bahn above ground trains are your best option for transport around Berlin. You’ll never be far from a station and the trains run every 15 minutes or less. On important metro lines the trains arrive in intervals closer to 3 minutes or less. The various lines are also 24 hour and run all night long across the city.
Berlin U-Bahn and S-Bahn trains are clean, modern and fast. It was one of the aspects of Berlin that I miss in other cities. Being able to get anywhere in minutes without having to deal with cab drivers or complex routes makes the Berlin U-Bahn and S-Bahn systems the only way to travel in Berlin.
Is Berlin Safe for tourists?
Berlin is relatively safe. It’s a large capital city and basic precautions should be observed when travelling. Violent crime in Berlin is uncommon. You’re more likely to encounter pickpockets and opportunistic thieves in the U-Bahn (subway system) and at crowded events.
Just keep an eye on your valuables and your hand on your wallet in crowds and you will be fine. As Berlin is a modern European city you don’t need to carry a lot of cash everywhere because your cards will work in all ATM and eftpos machines. Almost all places also accept Apple Pay and Google Pay in Berlin.
Where To Stay in Berlin Germany?
If sightseeing in Berlin is your top priority, as it is mine, you should stay near to the Berlin Hauptbahnhof (Berlin Central Station). From the Hauptbahnhof I could grab a coffee and hop on a train to anywhere in the city in minutes. And most of the hotels around the Berlin Hauptbahnhof provide complimentary train passes for the duration of your stay.
With that said, I’ve stayed in two hotels near the Berlin Hauptbahnhof. The first was the IntercityHotel Berlin Central Station. And the second was Hotel Motel One Berlin-Hauptbahnhof.
IntercityHotel Berlin Central Station
The rooms at Intercity Hotel Berlin Central Station are large but the decor is old. Most of the facilities are beat up and you cannot guarantee that what they’re advertising on a given day actually exists on premises.
Take for example laundry facilities. When I booked it was because they advertised that they had a laundry. And when I got there it was closed like their bar, foyer area and most other parts of the hotel. I also found the staff quite rude.
Hotel Motel One Berlin-Hauptbahnhof
Hotel Motel One Berlin-Hauptbahnhof on the other hand is part of a hotel chain that I’ve used across Germany and other parts of Europe. Everything at Hotel Motel One is always modern, clean and meticulously maintained. And I love the mint scented shower gel they provide free of charge.
The service from Motel One staff is spectacular. I’d always have Hotel Motel One as my first choice. And their location near the Berlin Hauptbahnhof seals the deal for me.
I found the stock of Airbnb in Berlin Germany to be similarly priced to the hotels. While for a longer stay I would preference airbnb as they have kitchen facilities (whole apartments); for short stays I preference hotels for their facilities and points via rewards programs.
If an airbnb has a kitchen, is conveniently located and is priced at or below a nice hotel in the same area the airbnb will be my choice.
But in Berlin I found the Airbnb were all similarly priced to hotels but without the added hotel facilities. And all Airbnb were a little out of the way compared to the hotels that were available next to the Berlin Hauptbahnhof.
Tourist Attractions in Berlin Germany for First Time Visitors
Below are some of the more interesting sites I visited in Berlin. I’ve tried to lay them out based on their proximity to each other. With the exception of Sanssouci which is at Potsdam, all are within a short walk of each other.
These are the tourist attractions I visit whenever I’m in Germany. And there there ones I think you should visit too.
Brandenburg Gate | Berlin Germany
The Brandenburg Gate was originally built by Friedrich William II of Prussia between 1788 and 1791. It was designed by Carl Gotthard Langhans and was modelled on the gateway to the acropolis in Athens.
The Brandenburg Gate was to be a sign of peace and tolerance. But it has also served as a leading sign of partition, division and intolerance.
Some of the most recognisable photos of European division and conflict feature the Brandenburg Gate. With the torchlight procession in 1933 following Hitlers ascension to German Chancellor and the Volkssturm (‘Peoples storm’) procession organised by Gobbles in 1944 featuring prominently.
When the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961 the Brandenburg Gate fell just inside the Berlin Wall and became a militarised portal into East Germany. And the Soviets used the gate or a likeness of the Brandenburg Gate in their propaganda.
The Brandenburg Gate since its creation has served as the backdrop for armies marching and speeches. Notably, Napoleons army was the first to march through the gate and Napoleon stole the horse drawn chariot from the top of the Brandenburg Gate. Taking it back to Paris. It was later recovered following the defeat of Napoleon.
Speeches held at the Brandenburg Gate beyond those of the likes of Hitler, include US presidents Reagan and Kennedy. With Kennedy allegedly announcing ‘ich bin ein berliner’ instead of ‘ich bin berliner’. Thereby telling the crowd he was a sausage or a jelly donut.
What’s more interesting is the photos these presidential speeches garnered. Most people today wouldn’t recognise the area behind the gate in what was then East Berlin. The buildings and facades have been renovated or replaced and now no longer have the generic soviet facades seen in historical photographs of the area.
Brandenburg Gate during Berlin Festival of Lights
I was lucky enough to be in Berlin during the 2021 Berlin Festival of Lights. Which runs for 10 nights each year and lights up around 75 locations across Berlin with projected artworks.
As COVID was still an ever-present concern I was able to get a spot near the Brandenburg Gate for dinner one evening. Over the course of each night during the Festival of Lights, the Brandenburg Gate is given an ever changing colour as images and patterns, some historical and others not, are projected onto the gate.
For a couple of the colours and patterns in the images below, it would be hard to imagine armies marching through and armed standoffs occurring. I certainly doubt Hitler would have marched under a pink polka-dot gate. Or that Soviets would have fought for a neon green gate. And they likely wouldn’t have used a neon green Brandenburg Gate in their propaganda.
Maybe the Brandenburg Gate should be permanently painted to dissuade future aggressors from claiming it?
Unter den Linden | Berlin Germany
Unter den Linden is the the street that extends from the Brandenburg Gate to the site of the former Stadtschloss on Museum Island. The street is lined with ‘linden’ trees and the streets name is literally ‘under the linden tree’. These aren’t ‘lime’ trees as some suggest and shouldn’t be confused with citrus trees producing fruit.
During the last years of the Second World War most of the original trees were cut down and burnt for firewood. And the buildings lining the street were bombed to rubble. Including the Stadtschloss or Berlin Palace.
Throughout the Cold War Unter den Linden was a tank lined cul-de-sac. And the Lustgarten opposite the Berliner Dom was a parade ground and staging post for Soviet and East German troops.
Today it’s a great place for a late afternoon or early evening walk. Its central park like median strip is lined with kiosks selling beer and currywurst. While the buildings on each side house important embassies and organisations.
Marx and Engels Forum | Berlin Germany
The Marx-Engels Forum is a park in the Mitte suburb of Berlin. On the edge of the park bordering Museum Island you can find statues paying homage to both Marx and Engels. It’s 200 meters from the Berliner Dom.
The park is a great place to just sit and relax with a coffee and there is the Block House Alexanderplatz nearby, which has the best steak in Berlin.
As someone who spent a large portion of my time in academia studying G.W.F Hegel, I can’t say I’m too fond of Marx. He just took Hegel’s model and inverted it. But he did so without understanding that unless the state protects and promotes individual freedoms then in times of crisis and war, citizens reflect on their time in the state and choose not to protect it.
And there’s also a problem of logic in Marx’s work whereby any utopian worker state still has to put forth a leader and maintain a hierarchy. Meaning there’s alway’s people sitting above and beyond the masses. People who engender opposition.
An opposition that Hegel covered in his Phenomenology and in his lectures under the topic of fanaticism. These are the revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries and terrorists that are a by-product of the state and that rise up to tear down the state apparatus. They’re an unresolved remainder of a dialectical equation that can never be balanced.
But I digress. For those who want to take an Instagram selfie while sitting on Marx’s lap or holding Engel’s hand, visit this park. Combine it with a trip to Museum Island.
Museum Island | Berlin Germany
Museum Island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are 5 museums on Museum Island. And both the Berliner Dom and the Lustgarten (park in front of the Berliner Dom) are part of the Island.
While the Island was built between 1830 and 1930 on order of the Prussian kings, the Nazi’s had other plans that involved demolition of the island as part of their creation of a large Third Reich capital. A capital that involved a huge section of Berlin. Thankfully the Nazi’s never got to implement their plans but the island was still reduced to rubble by allied bombing.
The buildings that occupy Museum Island were largely built or rebuilt following the Second World War. With a large part of the renovations occurring after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In 1999 Museum Island was accorded UNESCO status.
Entry to the Island is free but to visit the museums you will need a pass. The pass is available via the city of Berlin website. And the pass will give you access to 30 museums across Berlin.
Without the Museum Pass Berlin and a booked time slot to visit each museum you may not be able to visit a particular venue. In order to keep museums from becoming packed and to ensure the enjoyment of all visitors the staff will only let a set number of people with booked spots enter each museum per hour.
On weekends there is a flea market at Bode Museum opposite Museum Island. The Museum Island flea market has everything from fidget spinners to Nazi medals and Hitler Youth knives. I even saw some CCCP war memorabilia for sale.
Berlin Cathedral | Berliner Dom
Located on ‘Museum Island’ the Berliner Dom which is also known as the Berlin Cathedral is a great place to spend an hour or two. But be sure to book a ticket online before arrival as you may find your desired visiting time is unavailable. The cathedral and its crypts attract more than 720,000 visitors per year.
The Berlin Cathedral is a Neo-Renaissance building that holds the crypts of the Hohenzollern family. It’s the most important dynastic burial place in Germany and one of the most important in Europe. The crypts date from the 16th century to the early 20th century.
The original dome was destroyed and collapsed during an allied bombing raid in the Second World War and has since been restored to its former glory. The church was likely targeted by allied forces as Hitler had courted the protestant church and had tried to closely ally the Third Reich with Protestantism.
The restored Berliner Dom was reopened to the public in 1999. And it saw over 400,000 visitors in its first year.
Berliner Dom Facade and Dome
I found it fascinating to see the front entry archway or portal. Having seen historical photographs of mass rallies and Third Reich church services held on those very steps under the huge arched entryway.
Walking inside and seeing the domed ceiling that’s approximately 100 meters high is quite the experience. It’s eerily quiet inside the church and everything seems to reflect and echo sounds under the high dome. I was wearing squeaky shoes and found my self cringing with every step I took as my footsteps echoed around the immense interior.
On this lower level you can sit and take in the huge arches and high dome. And at ground level you’ll find the crypts. With the crypt of Friedrich Wilhelm I (1620-1688) to the left side of the dome on entry. You will find the staircase to the top of the dome behind the crypts.
Berliner Dom Staircase and View from the top of the Dome
There’s three points that need to be made about the roof of the Berlin Cathedral. First, the staff and signs will warn you the staircase to the top is not for the faint of heart. And you should believe them.
Signs are everywhere warning that the stairs are tough going. And that there is no turning around once you start your ascent. Once you start the climb you cannot go back. Only up and over the 100 meter high dome. I saw the signs and thought really, how hard could it be? Well, halfway up I can tell you I really felt it in my legs. There’s a lot of stairs.
The second point that needs to be made is that the green roof is made of copper. And the gold crosses and golden globed lightning rods sit atop the copper domes. Both metals being highly conductive and 100 meters in the air. Taller than all the surrounding buildings.
My first though when I spotted a lighting storm approaching on one visit, was of becoming the human equivalent of microwaved popcorn. I never saw lighting hit the cathedral but I definitely wouldn’t want to be on the highest point around. Surrounded by copper and gold. During a lightning storm.
So if there’s a forecast for nasty weather, best avoid climbing the stairs that day. Otherwise you might have to run back down the stairs in order to avoid a shocking experience.
The third and final point that needs to be made about the dome is the view out over Museum Island and greater Berlin is spectacular. It makes all those stairs worth the exercise. From the top you can view some of the canals and watch tour boats roll by. The Berlin Cathedral roof has the best view in town.
Friedrichstraße | Berlin Germany
Friedrichstraße is a major arterial road in central Berlin Germany. It’s lined with restaurants, cafes and shops. Friedrichstraße runs along an East West axis though the city. And it’s on Friedrichstraße that you’ll find Checkpoint C. Also known as ‘Checkpoint Charlie’.
Checkpoint Charlie is one of the most recognisable Cold War remnants in Berlin. It’s famous for being the point in October 1961 where tanks from the USSR and US faced off across the border following the construction of the Berlin Wall.
In popular culture Checkpoint C, which is called Charlie based on the NATO phonetic alphabet, is almost always shown as the point where prisoner exchanges occur. Yet in reality prisoner exchanges were conducted at Glienicke Bridge near Potsdam.
The Glienicke Bridge was under full Soviet control. All other portals into East Germany, including Checkpoint Charlie were under East German control.
While the site has been altered a lot since the unification of Germany and the end of the Cold War its still worth noting that some of the differing approaches to the former border are present. Albeit now occupied for different ends.
The US and allied forces never recognised the division between West and East Germany as an international border. And they never built it up as a true border.
However on the Eastern side the East Germans built fortifications and staging areas. And some of these are still present. Yet they’ve now been taken over by hipster art collectives and makeshift bars.
I found the placards explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis particularly interesting. As less than a month later I too, would be in Cuba.
Berlin Wall Memorial | Topography of Terror
Everyone visiting Berlin Germany visits the Berlin Wall. But not a lot of the Berlin Wall is left. There are two main places in Germany that the Berlin Wall can still be observed. The first is the East Side Gallery and it’s nearby Berlin Wall Museum. The second and more interesting site is near to Checkpoint Charlie and is the Berlin Wall Memorial and Topography of Terror.
At the Berlin Wall Memorial and Topography of Terror visitors can not only see the grey concrete wall. But also a timeline showing the horrors of the Nazi regime and Gestapo. As the site it sits on is the site of the former Gestapo headquarters in Berlin.
Between 1933 and 1945 the principal instruments of Nazi persecution and terror were located on this site. It housed the headquarters of the Gestapo, the high command and security service of the SS (Schutzstaffel) and from 1939, the Reich Security Main Office.
Walking along the base of the wall there is a long sequence of boards detailing the rise of National Socialism and the Nazi party. With the dividing grey concrete of the Berlin Wall as a backdrop the boards detailing the rise and functions of the Gestapo also hold individual stories of persecution, terror and death.
Across the site there are 15 stations in addition to the main building and its indoor displays. These stations include the excavated rooms used for interrogation, imprisonment and torture of over 15,000 people.
You can expect to be confronted with individual stories of people who were rounded up as enemies of the state and party and this site is where their stories began. More-often than not, those same stories ended a short time later in concentration camps and death.
Topography of Terror
The museum is called the Topography of Terror. With an emphasis on the terror. As such it’s not really a child friendly place. So if you have kids as some of the visitors there did when I went, you might want to explain to them what they’re seeing. And keep them on a leash so they’re not disrupting everyone else reading the large number of informational card.
Most of the site involves quite a bit of reading. Its one I’d recommend for those interested in history and in learning more about the instruments of state terror employed by the Nazis. If you’re looking for pretty pictures and opportunities to take selfies for Instagram, this really isn’t the right place for you.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
It’s in Berlin Germany that you can expect to see the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. And on Hannah-Arendt strabe no less.
For those who don’t know, Hannah Arendt was the Aristotelian political philosopher who survived the holocaust. She was present at the trial of Adolf Eichman and wrote the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.
Arendt’s central thesis, boiled down to its simplest parts, is that Eichman was the village idiot who just went along with orders because it gave him purpose. It made him a somebody and through his identification with the state and party he defined his identity. It’s something every Israeli should read with an eye to being Israeli and against Palestinians.
Arendt was also for a short time in a relationship with International Relations theorist Hans Morgenthau who claimed to be a ‘political realist’. But he obviously learnt nothing from Arendt. For a tear down of Morgenthau vs Carr, I’m the author of the most widely plagiarised essay on the subject.
As for the memorial itself? It’s a bunch of concrete cubes of differing sizes that seems to be the favourite Instagram selfie spot of everyone visiting Berlin. And its used by large numbers of people to practice parkour. So I didn’t take any photos of it.
Stasi Museum | Berlin Germany
You’re going to need to set aside almost a whole day to see the Stasi Museum in Berlin Germany. At 22 hectares or 54 acres, the former headquarters of the East German secret police is huge!
The Stasi were one of the most prolific secret police organisations in history. Where there was 1 Gestapo member for every 2000 people under the Nazis, it’s estimated that roughly 1 in 66 East Germans was a full time spy for the Stasi. And that’s not including part-time spies, informants, public servants and bureaucrats who would feed the Stasi information.
Stasi Records Archive | F16 Central Persons Index
As one of the largest and most prolific state security organisations to have ever existed, the Stasi held files on an estimated 5.6 million people. Under the Stasi Records Act, today those records are accessible to the public via the Stasi Records Archive website.
When visiting the Stasi Museum it’s possible to visit the F16 Central Persons Index. And when visiting the index you can access records and learn about the unique filing systems and technologies employed by the Stasi to maintain and access their voluminous databases.
Computers were only starting to be developed in the last few years of the Stasi’s rein and most of their databases are paper files using an index card systems. Though some of their later filing was done on magnetic reels. It’s these paper files and magnetic reels in the Central Persons Index that the Stasi tried to destroy once they knew their time was coming to an end.
In late 1989 and early 1990, East German citizens began occupying offices of the Ministry for State Security (MFS) or Stasi as they are better known. This was necessary to prevent the Stasi from destroying files.
The Central Persons index doesn’t just cover subjects of interest and informants. It includes collaborators and the details of Stasi personnel themselves. And the Stasi had begun to destroy these files beginning with the index cards.
In the world of secret paper files and index cards you can think of the files like encrypted files on a computer. And the index card is like the decryption key. Without the index card or ‘key’, the files become a 111,000 meter long stack of encrypted paper garbage. The index cards identify what file belongs to which person and where other corresponding files are located throughout the organisation and across the country.
Stasi Museum | House 1
House 1 (Haus 1) is the main building in the compound to visit as part of the Stasi Museum. House 1 is where Erich Mielke served as the head of the Stasi from 1957 to 1989.
As the longest serving head of a secret police organisation in the soviet bloc one can only imagine the evil that Erich Mielke was involved in. Today you can tour his office. House 1 has apartment like quarters and came with service staff. At times Mielke would live in House 1. Not surprising since more than half the planet would want him dead.
In the photos below you’ll notice I’ve included a rather colourfully graffitied building with large gates. That’s the former headquarters of Stasi counter-intelligence. It’s now a functional crack house. Replete with drug addicts and foil covered windows.
Stasi Museum | Spy Kit
Also in House 1 are displays ranging from Stasi prison vans and spy kit such as bugging devices to weapons and uniforms. The bugs were placed everywhere, often inside doors. And the Stasi drove around with IR strobes built into the doors of their cars (pictured below) to shoot photos in complete darkness.
The innocuous looking van pictured below was used to transport people snatched off the street for interrogation between Stasi locations. Without drawing the attention of passersby. It was also used as a mobile torture chamber with detainees driven around town to disorient them.
Throughout House 1 and outside in its courtyard you’ll find references to subculture and in particular, punk subculture. Punk music was instrumental (pun intended) to the collapse of the East-West divide in Berlin Germany.
All forms of art and culture were bound up with and controlled by the state. And any deviation from the norm was considered a threat and the Stasi would intervene. From the late 1970’s onwards with the rise of punk music in the west and its infiltration into the east The Stasi began cracking down. But with greater oppression came greater resistance.
Having backed the wrong side in the 1930s and sided with the Nazi Party the protestant churches in East Berlin Germany started making their facilities and parishes available to punk groups. And throughout The Stasi Museum you’ll find many placards (like those pictured below) detailing the odd relationship between church and punks as they both fought the state.
Stasi Museum | Stasi Training Materials and Disguises
Berlin Germany must have been awash with border and immigration officers. And tourists. Because the training materials taken from the Stasi archive suggest that they were most often dressed as tourists and when they needed to inspect documents or get closer to a subject, as immigration officers.
The Stasi did have their own uniforms. But they could hardly go marching around town in their own uniforms as a ‘secret’ organisation. So they adopted the robes of tourists and immigration officials when they needed cover.
In what was probably the worlds biggest shell game the peanut (Stasi officer) was everywhere but under the cups the crowd was watching. Instead of being in the buildings and uniforms everyone expected, The Stasi officers were in the crowds and watching on with everyone else.
As you can see from the photo below, the goofy looking Stasi officer is dressed as a tourist. And he has cameras all over him. The Stasi officer can click off photos everywhere and of anything. And really, who’d suspect ’00 Jackass’ below of being a spy?
German Spy Museum | Berlin Germany
In Berlin Germany you’ll find the German Spy Museum. It’s one for the younger crowds and has both a chronological history of intelligence collection and ‘spy craft’ and a large collection of weird gadgets, bombs and weapons.
It’s not as historically accurate and detailed as The Stasi Museum or the Topography of Terror which cover The Stasi and the Gestapo specifically. The German Spy Museum houses devices and gadgets from all over the world. While it does have the bulk of its holdings from Germany, its focus is more global.
In the Germany Spy Museum I found the canisters used for smuggling items across borders and for dead drops most interesting. The agencies from where these items originated could hide just about anything in plain sight.
The German Spy Museum also had an intact Stasi vehicle with IR strobes built into the door (see video below) like that discussed above in The Stasi Museum. The doors of the vehicles were fitted out with one-way coloured perspex and powerful IR strobe lights. Through an earpiece the driver would hear a beep indicating the lights were active and could use their camera with an advanced laser rangefinder to take photos in complete darkness. Pretty advanced stuff for Berlin in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.
The rat explosive was comical. Apparently dead rats were hollowed out, filled with explosives and primer and then left in boiler rooms near coal fired heaters. The building occupants would then find the dead rat when putting coal into the burner and toss the dead rat into the fire too.
All in this is great museum for those with kids. Or for those with ‘no time to die’ (pun intended) as its relatively quick to see this museum.
Sanssouci Palace | Sanssouci Park
Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam is Germany’s answer to Versailles in France. That’s right folks. In the outer suburb of Potsdam in Berlin Germany you’ll find a German Versailles. And in true German fashion it’s smaller and makes more efficient use of space.
The parks and gardens are the real drawcard of Sanssouci Palace and its surrounding park. And the complex boast several buildings and palaces of interest.
In Potsdam there are a 17 palaces spread over Sanssouci park and two other parks (Babelsberg Park and New Garden). Potsdam is the largest UNESCO site in Germany. You definitely won’t be able to see Potsdam in its entirety in a single day. If you were to explore all of Potsdam it would take 3 or more days.
To visit Sanssouci Park and walk around the outside of the palaces and their gardens is free. However you will need a ticket to enter the palaces. And they all open on different days of the week. I should also note here that there are limited spots and you really will need to book ahead if you’re wanting to tour the inside of specific palaces.
If you’re planning to do what I saw most people doing when I visited Sanssouci, which was to turn up and try to buy a ticket on the day, you’ll be turned away. Most visitors when I went found themselves unable to buy a ticket as they were sold out. Or they arrived wanting to see a specific palace and found it wasn’t open on that particular day.
Personally I went for the gardens. I’ve seen inside plenty of palaces. And the gardens are the real drawcard of Sanssouci. With each subsequent monarch adding their own touch to the landscaped surrounds.
Sanssouci Travel Tip: When you visit Sanssouci wear good walking shoes. It’s 2.5 kilometres between Sanssouci Palace and the New Palace. And in all likelihood you’ll far exceed your 10,000 steps for the day walking around Potsdam and Sanssouci Park.
Sanssouci Palace | Potsdam | Berlin Germany
Sanssouci Palace was built by Frederick The Great as his summer palace. It was designed and built between 1745 and 1747.
Built in Rocco style as opposed to Versailles baroque style, Sanssouci Palace features 13 rooms over a single level. Sanssouci was never designed to be a seat of power but rather an escape for the king from the pomp and ceremony of the royal court.
Where Versailles grew to eventually become the de facto capital of France, this was never on the cards for Sanssouci. Rather Sanssouci was designed to be an escape from royal duties. It was somewhere the monarch could go to enjoy his garden. And the place Frederick wished to be buried.
Thus if you’re visiting Sanssouci just to pay €20-€30 and see inside the palace, you’re missing the point of the site. The site is not the palace. It’s the gardens.
Surrounding the palace you’ll find water features, vineyards, fruit trees of all kinds and the bare gravestone of a man that composed over 100 flute sonatas and considered himself a simple philosopher and yet, bore the tile ‘Frederick The Great‘.
Even Napoleon who wasn’t known for his modesty, upon crushing the Prussian Army at the twin battles of Jena and Auerstedt, addressed his followers by the tomb of Frederick and began by stating “Hats off, gentlemen, if he were still alive, we would not be here.”
Frederick The Great | Sanssouci
When Napoleon spoke by the tomb of Frederick the burial site was not that chosen by Frederick himself. Even before the construction of Sanssouci Palace was complete, Frederick had made his wishes clear.
Frederick was to be buried without pomp and ceremony, without embalming, in a simple grave surrounded by his dogs on the terrace of Sanssouci. If he was to fall on the battlefield he was to be buried in the first convenient location and returned to Sanssouci in the winter.
Yet despite Frederick making his wishes clear, it wasn’t until the collapse of the GDR and the reunification of East and West Germany that Frederick would get his final wish.
He was entombed with his father Frederick I at Potsdam by his nephew who succeed him to the throne in 1786. Hitler had Frederick’s tomb hidden in a mine and it was located by allied forces and relocated to Marburg in 1946. In 1953 Frederick’s remains were once again relocated. This time to Hohenzollern Castle (Burg Hohenzollern).
On the day of his death 205 years later Frederick’s remains were once agin relocated. This time to Sanssouci where he lay in state. After nightfall and without pomp or ceremony and according to his wishes, Frederick’s remains were finally lowered into the simple tomb he built for himself at Sanssouci.
Sans Souci translated from French means, ‘without worries’ or ‘carefree’.
Frederick The Great | Sanssouci Potatoes
Visitors to Sanssouci are often puzzled by the small mounds of potatoes left everywhere at Sanssouci Palace. It had me confused when I saw it.
The potatoes are particularly prevalent around and on, the small gravestone of Frederick The Great. As it turns out this isn’t a slight of the great man himself. But a way of honouring him.
In a stunning use of reverse psychology Frederick popularised the potato in Prussia. At the time the simple potato was labelled the ‘devils apple’ and nobody wanted them. So Frederick set a plan in motion.
Frederick gave orders that potatoes were to be planted in all the royal gardens and that they should be lightly guarded. Lightly guarded so they would be easy to steal. And stolen his potatoes were.
Frederick had reasoned that what was worth guarding, was worth stealing. What the king had planted and guarded must be a worthy prize and worth consuming reasoned his subjects.
They thereby stole his potatoes and consumed them on mass. No longer were potatoes the ‘devils apple’ but a prized food that found its way in to a whole host of German dishes. Making potato an easily cultivated staple food in Prussia.
Park Sanssouci | Potsdam | Berlin Germany
Park Sanssouci is huge. It’s approximately 290 hectares or 716 acres. The main central avenue is roughly 2.5 km long. Just the hedge quarter alone is home to over 3000 fruit trees.
From the Obelisk opposite the Church of Peace (the building surrounded by water in the picture below) to the New Palace (next section) is 2.5 km. Roughly halfway between the Obelisk and the New Palace is located the Orangery Palace (pictured bottom right).
The Orangery Palace has a facade that’s over 300 meters long. Yet the central building with twin towers on the roof is the main building. At the rear of this Orangery Palace is a large greenhouse.
The plans for the Orangery Palace were set in motion by King Friedrich Wilhelm IV and included an aqueduct system that was never completed. The aqueduct system would have run from the Triumph Arch near the Obelisk and Church of Peace.
Park Sanssouci was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1990. The park is held up as a prime example of 18th and 19th century landscaping in Europe.
Sanssouci Park | New Palace
The New Palace and Communs is far less modest than Sanssouci Palace. It was built at the end of the Seven Years War by Frederick The Great (Friedrich II). And it was rarely occupied by Frederick.
Instead the king preferred Sanssouci. The New Palace was built with 200 rooms in Baroque style to entertain royal guests and visiting monarchs. It was built to display the greatness of Prussia. It was designed to impress others and wasn’t built by the king for himself.
For Frederick the New Palace was a fanfaronade, a boastful or excessive monument to Prussian greatness and not of himself or his monarchy. And the New palace is described as an excess of splendor in marble, stone and gilt.
Much of the furniture in the New Palace remains intact. Following the Revolution of 1918 the Weimar Republic had allowed the exiled monarch Wilhelm II to export 34 train carriages of furniture taken from the upper floors of the palace.
The palace escaped bombing in the Second World War. And the furniture taken by Wilhelm II was discovered by the Dutch in the 1970’s and returned after the reunification of Germany. Allowing it to survive pillaging by the Soviet troops stationed in Potsdam during the Cold War.
The Communs | Potsdam | Berlin Germany
Opposite the New Place is the Communs. It acts as a counterpart to the New Palace. The Communs housed the kitchen on one side and the service quarters and guard house on the other. In the centre is a large victory arch style entryway.
On the top of the Commons and on the buildings on either end of the Communs are many statues of mythical figures. In their later years the buildings on either end of the Communs became part of the Potsdam University. And one building became the philosophy department and the other a library.
Berlin Germany | Conclusions
There are a lot of tourist attractions in Berlin Germany and its surrounds. Far more than anyone could see in months. Let alone a week.
My top 5 places would be Sanssouci in Potsdam, the Stasi Museum, Topography of Terror, Berliner Dom and Checkpoint Charlie. If I could only visit 5 places in Berlin it is those 5 sites I would say are the best places to visit in Berlin Germany.
Potsdam is one area of Berlin that’s high on my list of places to visit again. Because there is far more to see and do in Potsdam than anybody could in a single visit. Returning to Berlin and visiting Potsdam again, I would likely look for a hotel or airbnb in Potsdam for 3 days and stay in the area to try and see as much of Potsdam as I could.
I’d also like to see more of the Stasi Museum. When I visited I spent an entire day just going though the main building and records archive. At different times of the year and when hosting exhibits, other buildings and archives are periodically opened to the public. From what I saw in the buildings I was able to visit this time, any future displays or exhibitions at the Stasi Museum would be of interest to me.
More adventurous Pursuits | Berlin Germany
For people more adventurous than me and who might be looking for crazy things to do in Berlin there are slingshots and tethered hot-air balloon rides near to Checkpoint Charlie. I had a look at them while I was nearby but decided I prefer to see more of the historical aspects of Berlin. As opposed to being up in a balloon or shot into the air on a reverse bungee style slingshot.
Berlin Punk Music
I’d also like to explore more of the punk and metal music venues that are all over Berlin. For those who like punk music or metal and rock, Berlin has a huge variety of music venues differentiated by genre.
Punk in particular, as it played such a seminal role in the eventual collapse of the GDR is incredibly interesting to me. And the Germans take their punk music seriously. I’ve never seen another country with so many different subcultures all grouped together in their respective areas. But the punks top the list. They don’t just listen to punk music. They get fully into the style of dress and sport the huge punk Mohawk haircuts.
The punks and other subcultures in each German city have specific places where each evening you will see them come from all over the city to congregate. Always in their same spots each and every day at the same time. They maybe punk or part of another subculture, but they’re still German and punctuality is important in Germany.
I’ve also heard rumour that there are still, from time to time, punk concerts held in churches to replicate the East German days under the GDR. I don’t know how true that is but if I could ever locate one I’d definitely choose to go.
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