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Historic Highlights of Germany from A to Z

Potsdam: a land of gardens, parks, palaces and lakes.

Potsdam is best known for the magnificent palaces and parks that date back to its time as the former royal seat of Prussia. Prussian pomp and splendour, a heritage of great architects and scholars, and a focal point during the Cold War: Potsdam offers a breathtaking panorama of culture and history.

300 years ago, the garrison outpost of Potsdam was transformed into one of Europe's most splendid royal cities. The Prussian kings, in particular Frederick William I and his son Frederick the Great, created a baroque dream in Potsdam and the surrounding area, to which their successors added great monuments to classicism. In 1990 the Palaces and Parks of Potsdam were awarded UNESCO World Heritage status – at that time still at the request of the two rival German states. The original site comprised the parks and palaces of Sanssouci, Neuer Garten, Babelsberg, Glienicke and Peacock Island. In 1992 the UNESCO site was extended to include Sacrow Palace and park and Saviour's Church, while in 1999 another 14 monuments joined the list, including Lindstedt Palace and park, Belvedere Palace on Pfingstberg hill, Kaiserbahnhof station and the observatory at Babelsberg Park. All told, the world heritage site now covers about 500 hectares of parkland, encompassing 150 buildings dating from 1730 to 1916. A good starting point for a walk through the historical centre of Potsdam is Alter Markt square. The Church of St. Nicholas, Lustgarten park, the Old Town Hall and the reconstructed Stadtschloss palace, now the seat of the regional assembly, make an ensemble of impressive grandeur. A 16-metre obelisk, complete with carved portraits of the great Potsdam architects Knobelsdorff, Schinkel, Gontard and Persius, rises up at the centre of Alter Markt. Opposite Alter Markt, tucked away behind a row of houses, lies Neuer Markt square. Dating from the 17th and 18th century, this is one of the best-preserved baroque squares in Europe and arguably the most beautiful square in the city.

The former coaching stables on Alter Markt are now home to the House of Brandenburg and Prussian History, which is well worth a visit. Next to this, Luisenplatz square connects baroque Brandenburger Strasse with the tree-lined avenue that leads to the entrance of Sanssouci Park. Three impressive city gates dominate the old quarter of Potsdam, each more splendid than the next: Brandenburg Gate, a massive triumphal arch commemorating the Seven Years' War, Hunter's Gate, named after the royal hunting lodge to the north of the city, and Nauen Gate, one of the most popular meeting places in the city centre and a fine example of the English neo-Gothic style. Nauen Gate gives access to the Dutch quarter, where the ambience and lifestyle are a bit more laid back. Lovingly decorated courtyards, cafés, offbeat bars and avant-garde galleries make this the perfect place for a leisurely stroll. No visit to Potsdam would be complete without a trip along the city's waterways on one of Weisse Flotte's beautiful old steamboats. Depending which route you choose, the boats go as far as Glienicke Bridge, which connects Potsdam to Berlin and is where East and West exchanged secret agents and spies until into the 1980s. Not far from the bridge, to the south-west, lies the Hans Otto Theatre building with its spectacular shell-like roof of layered red overhangs. Over in Babelsberg, the cameras are rolling at Europe's biggest and oldest film studios, where more than 3,000 film and TV productions have been made. Between March and October, you can make a trip to the district's Film Park for a fun-filled look into Germany's very own tinsel town. That said, all of Potsdam has a touch of star quality about it.