Berlin is fabulous, and you'll certainly want to spend quite a bit of time there, but don't forget to earmark a day (or two or three) for the surrounding state of Brandenburg. A land shaped by lakes, canals and waterways, large swathes of it are protected as biosphere preserves and nature parks, creating a delightful escape from the urban hustle for Berliners and visitors.
Culture lovers, too, will be rewarded. Headlining the list of discoveries is the drop-dead-gorgeous park and palace of Sanssouci (the 'German Versailles') in Potsdam, a mere half-hour train ride from central Berlin. The Spreewald, one of Germany's most unique landscapes, is home to the indigenous Sorb ethnic minority, who cling to ancient customs and traditions in handsome remote hamlets. A sobering antidote to all that splendour – and no less important or memorable – is the Nazi-era concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, north of Berlin.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Around Berlin.
This glorious park and palace ensemble is what happens when a king has good taste, plenty of cash and access to the finest architects and artists of the day. Sanssouci was dreamed up by Frederick the Great (1712–86) and is anchored by the eponymous palace, his favourite summer retreat, a place where he could be 'sans souci' (without cares). His grave is nearby.
Frederick the Great's famous summer palace, this rococo gem was designed by Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff in 1747 and sits daintily above vine-draped terraces with the king's grave nearby. Admission is limited and by timed ticket only; book online to avoid wait times and/or disappointment. Otherwise, only city tours booked through the tourist office guarantee entry to the Schloss.
About 35km north of Berlin, Sachsenhausen was built by prisoners and opened in 1936 as a prototype for other camps. By 1945, some 200,000 people had passed through its sinister gates, most of them political opponents, Jews, Roma people and, after 1939, POWs. Tens of thousands died here from hunger, exhaustion, illness, exposure, medical experiments and executions. A tour of the memorial site with its remaining buildings and exhibits will leave no one untouched.
The 16th-century Spandau Citadel, on a little island in the Havel River, is considered one of the world’s best-preserved Renaissance fortresses. With its moat, drawbridge and arrowhead-shaped bastions, it is also a veritable textbook in military architecture. These days, the impressive complex multitasks as museum, cultural venue and wintering ground for thousands of bats. Climb the 30m-high Julius Tower for sweeping views. Top international artists perform at the Citadel Music Festival in summer.
Halfway between the Hauptbahnhof and the Altstadt, the Alter Markt is the site where Potsdam's settlement began. Under Frederick the Great, it evolved into one of Europe's most beautiful squares and, until its destruction in WWII, remained the city's commercial and social hub. In 2005, Potsdam's government decided to tear down the GDR-era buildings and reconstruct the historic ensemble. Nearly completed, it includes the Potsdam city palace, the Museum Barberini, the old town hall and the St Nikolai-Kirche.
In 1905 Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Erich Heckel and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner founded Germany’s first modern-artist group, called Die Brücke (The Bridge). Rejecting traditional techniques taught in the academies, they experimented with bright, emotional colours and warped perspectives that paved the way for German expressionism and modern art in general. Schmidt-Rottluff’s personal collection forms the core of this lovely presentation of expressionist art.
The final palace commissioned by Frederick the Great, the Neues Palais has made-to-impress dimensions, a central dome and a lavish exterior capped with a parade of sandstone figures. The interior attests to the high level of artistry and craftwork of the 18th century. It's an opulent symphony of ceiling frescoes, gilded stucco ornamentation, ornately carved wainscoting and fanciful wall coverings alongside paintings (by Antoine Pesne, for example) and elaborately crafted furniture.
The original Barberini Palace was a baroque Roman palazzo commissioned by Frederick the Great and bombed to bits in World War II. Since January 2017, a majestic replica has added a new jewel to Potsdam's already bursting cultural landscape. It houses a private art museum, funded by German software impresario Hasso Plattner, and mounts three high-calibre exhibits per year with an artistic arc that spans East German works, Old Masters and modern greats such as Gerhard Richter.
The 18th-century fad for the Far East is strongly reflected in the adorable Chinese House. The cloverleaf-shaped pavilion is among the park's most photographed buildings thanks to its enchanting exterior of exotically dressed, gilded figures shown sipping tea, dancing and playing musical instruments amid palm-shaped pillars. Inside is a precious collection of Chinese and Meissen porcelain.