Potsdam: An Alternative Architectural Guide

Potsdam resident John K. Peck takes us on a tour of his favourite local buildings…

Potsdam, once one of Central Europe’s primary centers of power, now sits firmly in the shadow of its former offshoot, Berlin. And while the ‘Royal City’—famed for its associations with Frederick The Great, the Potsdam Conference and the Bridge of Spies—may never again rival the German capital in terms of cultural cachet, the former seat of Empire nonetheless offers a rich and varied array of sights and highlights that can be linked together across its unique geography of waterways, parks and forests. 

Looking beyond the major sights such as Sanssouci, Neuer Garten, Museum Barberini, and the charming Innenstadt—as well as modern attractions like the Biosphere and the Filmpark Babelsberg—a string of secondary sites reveals a lesser-known side of what is today the Brandenburg capital. Explored independently or paired with the city’s main tourist attractions, they offer additional reasons for Berliners and other visitors to make the trip across the southwestern border—and for native Potsdamers to veer off the more familiar paths.

Prussian Ruins: Krongut, Teufelsbrücke, Katharinenholz

The crumbling towers of the former imperial shooting range hidden in the wooded terrain of Katharinenholz. Image by John K. Peck.

The iconic Sanssouci Palace and surrounding park, massive and far-reaching as they may be, represent only a fraction of the land that once belonged to the seat of Prussian power. To the north and west of the park are remnants of the palace’s former military, agricultural and trade infrastructure; while some are still in use, most are ruins or faint shadows of their former selves.

In the still-active category is Krongut, the former royal market on the small-but-pretty Bornstedter See. While the site has been in near-continuous use since the twelfth century, during the Prussian era it was administered by the crown to varying degrees, with the brewery, markets and farm serving as suppliers to Sanssouci as well as representatives to the outside world.

A fire wiped out the entirety of the structure in 1846, and the buildings that stand today are from 1848. They retain the same country estate feel that has defined Krongut for the last several centuries, offering brewhouses and restaurants alongside bakeries, gift shops, and outdoor spaces featuring open-air seating in the summer and wood fires and mulled wine in winter. 

Krongut Bornstedt in Park Sanssouci. Image by Olebole, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Further to the west, hidden by thick trees and vines and crumbling back into the earth, lies Katharinenholz—a huge forested park that sprawls out from the northwestern border of Park Sanssouci. Where the two areas meet, spanning the Teufelsgraben irrigation canal, is a remarkably well-preserved nineteenth-century stone bridge, the Teufelsbrücke. The arched viaduct rises high above the former canal, which once carried outflow from the Bornstedter See westward to the Golmer Loch; while it was originally built to allow foot travel from Krongut to nearby Schloss Lindstedt, the bridge now connects two quiet residential neighborhoods.

Die Teufelsbrücke in Potsdam. Image by karstenknuth via Wikipedia.

North of Schloss Lindstedt, where the wooded terrain of Katharinenholz grows wilder, the crumbling towers of the former imperial shooting range rise up like walls of long-forgotten jungle temples. The area was used for much of the nineteenth century to train artillerymen, with trenches dug into the earth to catch stray bullets, but after complaints from those downrange (who apparently caught the occasional stray bullet) a series of reinforced stone walls were built as backdrops for targets.

They’re massive: reinforced at the bottom and tapered towards the top, they have a curious, almost pyramidal look. Their current conditions vary, but since they were made to withstand bullets (and indeed show extensive pitting and damage from decades of use), they are mostly still intact, with plentiful graffiti scrawled along the lower sections. Well-hidden by foliage in summer, the structures are easier to find and move between in winter. The raised earth walls that run along and between them, themselves overtaken by vegetation, add to the otherworldliness.

Note: while yet another ‘Kaiserliche Schießanlage’ exists east of Glienicke Brücke on the Berlin side of the Berlin/Brandenburg border in similarly crumbling condition, the eastern version lacks any large structures and is at a substantial remove from central Potsdam.

Brauhausberg: ‘The Kremlin’ and Das Minsk

The abandoned Landtagsgebäude, former senate building of the state of Brandenburg. Image by John K. Peck.

In the early eighteenth century, the royal brewery was built on Brauhausberg, overlooking the city. The following centuries would see various structures rise and fall on the hill’s southward-facing slopes, a process that has continued to the present day. Near the top of the hill sits the abandoned Landtagsgebäude, the former senate building of the state of Brandenburg.

Built in 1902 as a military school, the building played numerous roles during the turbulent twentieth century, serving as an archive for the Third Reich up to and during World War 2, and the headquarters of the SED during the Cold War years, during which time it became known locally as the ‘Kreml’, or ‘Kremlin’. Post-reunification it was adopted as the home of the Brandenburg state parliament from 1991 to 2014, after which it was abandoned.

In 2023, a fire (suspected to be arson) broke out in the building, causing a partial collapse of the roof and upper floors. The building remains in a tenuous state, both protected and condemned, and while neither the building nor its surroundings is open to the public, the view from the northern Am Brauhausberg perimeter road remains imposing and impressive. In the summer, untamed jungle-like vines overtake the walkway up to the front door, at the side of which can be found concrete vases, a strange amalgam of DDR-era concrete and neoclassical forms.

Just down the hill is Das Minsk, a museum situated in the former Belarusian restaurant of the same name. Refurbished and newly opened in 2019, it serves as a sort of shadow collection to the nearby Museum Barberini’s major nineteenth- and twentieth-century works. The exhibitions here mostly relate to the former DDR and current eastern states, ranging from paintings and photography to documentary-style shows; a recent one covered Louis Armstrong’s 1965 tour of East Germany.

Das Minsk museum. Image by John K. Peck.

The socialist-modernist building originally dates from the 1970s, built from designs by Karl-Heinz Birkholz und Wolfgang Müller, and while it was renovated to modern standards for its reopening, details such as the DDR-era tilework have been preserved. Distinctive red tiles form a band that travels around the sides of the building, while a mosaic of geometric human forms faces the staircase at the west side; while the latter piece was conceived in 1989, it was only created in 2019 with the building’s opening, offering a bridge between pre- and post-unification Potsdam. The building is set against the hillside and its various staircases and entryways create a multi-tiered ensemble that’s southward-facing to gather maximum sunlight all year round.

Telegrafenberg and Albert Einstein Park

Einsteinturm in Potsdam, designed by architect Erich Mendelsohn. Image by John K. Peck.

The Royal Prussian Geodetic Institute, founded nearly 150 years ago, is perched among the rolling southeast Potsdam elevation known as Telegrafenberg. Known today as Wissenschaftspark Albert Einstein, the site has been home to numerous observatories and research buildings, including the world’s first astronomical observatory, the Michelsonhaus, completed in 1879.

Other stargazing structures soon followed, including the Kleiner Refraktor (1879), which was built as part of an international project to map the night sky; the small building remains today, next to a recreation of the ‘optical telegraph’ tower that gave Telegrafenberg its name. The latter was part of a network of analog signal towers that stretched from Berlin to Koblenz, allowing delivery of messages in a matter of hours rather than days before being rendered obsolete by the electronic telegraph in the 1840s. 

The Großer Refraktor. Image by H. Raab via Wikicommons.

Just down the path from the Kleiner Refraktor sits its big brother, the Großer Refraktor, commissioned in 1899 by Kaiser Wilhelm. The observatory housed a pair of refractors, the larger of which was over 12 meters and intended for spectroscopy; it was essential to Johannes Hartmann’s confirmation of interstellar matter in 1904. The building survived damage during World War Two and remained in use until the 1960s. It fell into disrepair in the ensuing decades, but was ultimately repaired and refurbished and can now be toured in its full glory with both refractors intact.

The most remarkable building on the site, however, is the Einsteinturm, built in 1922 to test its namesake’s Theory of Relativity. The building, designed by architect Erich Mendelsohn, was oriented along a perfect north-south axis with a rotatable observation tower. Mendelsohn’s original vision of an entirely reinforced-concrete structure proved impossible for such a radical design, which featured organic, almost shell-like curves and flourishes, and ultimately it was constructed out of a hybrid of brick, concrete, steel and masonry.

The building survived World War Two and the Cold War years, but like the Großer Refraktor found itself in dire need of repairs in recent decades. Now fully renovated and free of scaffolding, the structure’s impressive modernity is on full view, resembling an earthbound spaceship facing the stars.

Havelbucht and the Rechenzentrum

The mosque-like Dampfmaschinenhaus. Image by A.Savin, WikiCommons.

West of the Innenstadt, the Havel forms a small inlet that juts northward towards Breite Straße, the main east-west artery through central Potsdam. Only a waterway running under a railroad bridge connects the inlet to the larger river, just large enough to allow access for smaller boats. The result is a body of water known as the Havelbucht, which has the feel of an urban lake, with docks, a shoreline path, and even a small marina along its shoreline.

On the northern shore, just a few meters from the traffic of Breite Straße, sits the Dampfmaschinenhaus, also known as the ‘Moschee’ (mosque). The building dates from the nineteenth century, when it was used to pump water from the Havel to Sanssouci’s many fountains. While built to resemble a mosque, the building was never used for religious purposes, with its style simply intended to convey an ‘exotic’ look (as with other orientalist Sanssouci outbuildings such as the Chinesisches Haus and Jägertor Obelisk, the latter even featuring faux-hieroglyphics along its faces).

Its impressive architectural flourishes, such as two-tone walls and a minaret-like tower, are viewable from the street, while the interior is now a small museum of technology with perhaps the most uncharacteristic opening hours of any German attraction: the first Sunday of each month, plus holidays, from May to October. 

Restaurant Seerose, Potsdam, by GDR architect Ulrich Müther. Image via Wikimedia.

Just east of the Dampfmaschinenhaus is a relatively well-preserved example of the combined whimsy and severity of DDR leisure architecture. The Seerose, built in 1983, housed various cafes and restaurants from its opening, through reunification to the present day (where it now hosts an Italian restaurant), with numerous changeovers and occasional periods of disuse. The structure features concrete curves that originate from a central point to create an octagonal rosette, the large parabolic arches of which are inset with glass, giving the structure an airy feel with open sight-lines.

During the restaurant’s early years, the interior was mostly separated by walls between sections, like segments of an orange. Interior photographs from the DDR era also show various artistic flourishes and ornaments which have sadly been mostly removed in favor of a more minimal aesthetic.

East of the Havelbucht on Breite Straße is the Garnisonkirche, which was severely damaged during WWII, demolished in 1968, and is currently being reconstructed. Directly adjacent to the construction site sits another prime example of DDR-era architecture, though in a more precarious state than the Seerose: the Rechenzentrum. Built in 1971 as a cultural center, the building is most notable for the tile mosaic ‘Der Mensch bezwingt den Kosmos’ (‘Man Conquers the Cosmos’) at street level. The eighteen panels feature striking socialist-utopian scenes of science and space travel, including the famous tile astronaut in zero gravity.

“Der Mensch bezwingt den Kosmos” by Fritz Eisel, 1972, as seen in the Rechenzentrum. Image via Wikimedia.

The Rechenzentrum’s science-themed mosaics are a sort of provocation toward the former church whose footprint it overlaps; in an equally ‘sort of’ rebuttal, the church’s construction site now edges up against the building and partially covers the easternmost panels of the mural. The juxtaposition of architectures is even more striking at the bizarre ‘Turmspitze’ assemblage on Breite Straße, where the steeple of the former church sits caged like a zoo animal, with a wrought-iron fence keeping the public separated from an iconic religious artifact as it awaits its return to the top of the steeple.

Kolonie Alexandrowka

The Alexander-Newski-Gedächtniskirche, a beautifully preserved Orthodox church with traditional onion-shaped domes and a striking pink-and-white color scheme. Image by John K. Peck.

Built in 1827 by the Kaiser to memorialize his recently deceased friend Czar Alexander I, Alexandrowka is a sprawling Russian-style colony with traditional wooden buildings and apple orchards laid out in a distinctive oval-and-cross pattern.

The buildings and grounds are impressively well-preserved, with many still in use as private residences; a central restaurant and the Museum Alexandrowka offer, respectively, traditional food and recreations of nineteenth-century life in the colony. The orchards continue to produce a plentiful harvest each fall; in addition to being turned into juice and cider, the apples of Alexandrowka inspire an annual festival on the grounds. While the colony is open to the city on all sides, its location tucked against the Pfingstberg, with only a tram line and a dirt road delineating its northern perimeter, means through-traffic is light most of the time. 

Atop a wooded hill just north of the main colony is the Alexander-Newski-Gedächtniskirche, a beautifully preserved Orthodox church with traditional onion-shaped domes and a striking pink-and-white color scheme. As the church’s square footprint is modest, most of its bulk is vertical, with spires reaching skyward and a gilded cross atop the highest point; between its placement at the top of a hill and its relative height, the building often catches sun on its southern face during winter months.

The church remains active, and on Sundays congregants gather outside for tea and conversation after services. Despite their bucolic settings, the colony and church are close to the city center and  well-connected by tram and bus, so can serve as either destination or detour for those bound for the Neuer Garten or Pfingstberg.

Tracing the Wall: Schwanenbrücke to Park Babelsberg

View over Glienicker Brücke from the wooded hills of Park Babelsberg. Image by John K. Peck.

Neuer Garten, the imperial park east of Sanssouci that is home to Schloss Cecilienhof (site of the Potsdam Conference), thrusts into the wider east-west arm of the Havel known as the Jungfernsee. On sunny days, with views of the Romanesque Heilandskirche among the reeds on the far shore, it can be hard to imagine the area’s tense, sporadically violent and occasionally fatal Cold War history as a no-man’s-land between East and West.

Northeast of the Neuer Garten, the plain, functional Schwanenbrücke footbridge crosses the Hasengraben canal and opens into a wide, tree-lined stretch of parallel paths, telltale sign (as with similar parks around Berlin) of a place where the Wall once stood. Halfway down on the water sits the Kaiser’s former sailing station, Kongsnaes, built in 1896 in striking Viking-style by Norwegian builder Holm Hansen Munthe; it’s now home to a restaurant. 

At the end of the pathway stands the entrance to Glienicker Brücke, the ‘Bridge of Spies’ where East and West exchanged prisoners. Apart from its historic significance, the 1907 bridge is noteworthy for its beautiful riveted-steel construction, with restored colonnades, sidewalks on both sides, and unbroken views of the waterways to the north and south; halfway across, a metal plaque in the sidewalk delineates the former border.

A close-up of the Glienicker Brücke, aka Bridge of Spies. Image by John K. Peck.

While the eastern section of the bridge is the gateway to former West Berlin, proceeding several hundred meters further east and cutting south leads to a strange anomaly: Klein Glienicke, an extension of the DDR into the otherwise West-German landmass. This ‘exclave’, as a pocket of the former East surrounded by West Berlin, was a counterpart to the West-Berlin exclave of Steinstücken for which the opposite was true, and was only reachable by crossing the small Lankestraße bridge from Park Babelsberg.

Visiting required passes and stringent checks for non-residents, throttling most of the population and businesses out of the tiny fortress-like village during its decades-long isolation. Post-division, life has returned to the area, with a cafe and Biergarten nearby and only a few memorial columns to mark its former history. 

South of the bridge, the wooded hills of Park Babelsberg roll southward, with winding paths and various Prussian-era structures. The Schloss Babelsberg is an attractive if overly cleaned-and-scrubbed structure set into a hillside—a somewhat rare geographical formation for Germany’s flattest Bundesland. Further south, more curious structures pop up on hilltops, including the Flatowturm, which offers dramatic views of the city and greater Havel.

Getting to Potsdam from Berlin

The RE1, RB23, and S7 all pass through Berlin via the central east-west line en route to Potsdam; while there are several major stops in the city, Potsdam Hauptbahnhof serves as a good starting point for most of the spots on this list. Somewhat confusingly, a Berlin ABC ticket covers all of Potsdam, whereas a Potsdam ABC ticket ends at the Berlin city limits. A day ticket of the former thus covers the trip to the city and all transportation once there, including S-Bahn, regional trains, buses and trams. If you’re in the mood for a hike, there’s also a very beautiful walk from Wannsee to Potsdam.

For a map of the sites mentioned in the article above, click here

Next in Off The Beaten TrackThe Mysterious Woman of Andrews Barracks »