Pastoral farmland and jagged mountain ranges lie between these two capitals, along with a smattering of lively cities and elegant long-established towns. Hiking, partying or sightseeing can be prioritized according to taste, though the area’s troubled history over the past century, defined by two epochs of totalitarianism, is harder to avoid. Temporary escape can be found in the bohemian bars of Dresden or the pine forests of Bohemian Switzerland National Park, before a final stop-off confronts travellers with the darkest consequences of Europe’s imperialist past.
[Also see our travel article “Modern Art in Berlin and Historic Sights in Munich“]
A small city 20 minutes southwest of Berlin, Potsdam has been at the heart of pivotal events in successive periods of Germanic history. It was the Royal Seat of Prussia and played a key role in both World War II and the Cold War.
The Prussian period of this history has bequeathed an array of architectural splendors. Foremost among these is Schloss Sanssouci, a magnificent Rococo palace that rises above terraced vineyards. There are several other Prussian-era parks and palaces, and in 1990 swathes of the city received UNESCO World Heritage Status.
One of these palaces, the rustic Schloss Cecilienhof, hosted the Potsdam conference in 1945. Here, a couple of months after Hitler’s suicide in a Berlin bunker, Stalin, Truman and Churchill sketched out Germany’s postwar future.
An insight into East Germany’s fate over the following half-century can be gained at the nearby Memorial Site Leistikowstrasse. This unassuming old rectory became a major prison and interrogation facility in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), where suspects were tortured and jail terms and executions decreed in secret sessions from 1945. The prison building, with its eerie underground cells, has been preserved, and an exhibition space tells the stories of those unfortunate enough to end up there.
Alongside all this elegant architecture and intense history, Potsdam’s pretty streets are ideal for a leisurely stroll. A lively area in which to do this is the Holländisches Viertel, a district of red-brick houses built for Dutch workers which has since developed into a buzzing hive of cafes, bars, music venues and art galleries.
Dresden’s tourist board has designated this East German city “the Venice on the Elbe.” To English-speaking ears, for which Dresden brings to mind the aerial destruction meted out during WW2, this may sound like typical marketing hyperbole. But in fact, Dresden was nicknamed “the Florence of the North” as far back as the 18th century.
A viewing point on the south bank of the River Elbe suggests why, framing a beautiful cluster of baroque domes and spires. Among these is the Zwinger, a florid palace with rococo buildings enclosing a green courtyard that burbles with sculpted fountains. Alongside the Zwinger on the city skyline is the elongated dome of the Frauenkirche, a Lutheran church which collapsed two days after the Allied bombardment in 1945 and was rebuilt in 2005.
In February 1945, Dresden was consumed by a vast firestorm as Allied bombardment reduced the center to rubble and killed over 25,000 people. This event, and the history of war stretching either side of it, can be explored at the Military History Museum – a particularly thoughtful contemplation of the human causes and cost of warfare and violence.
At night, live music, drinking, dancing, smoking and general garrulous ramblings spread over the city. The best places to wander in the dark hours are in the Neustadt, or New Town. Traditionally home to the city’s artists and drop-outs, the area has gentrified greatly in recent decades. But there are still plenty of inventively dishevelled venues to discover, especially as you venture further out from the Elbe. This liveliness is epitomized by the Bunte Republik Neustadt, a chaotic non-stop street party which takes over the streets of the Neustadt for a whole weekend every June.
Reaching Dresden from Potsdam/Berlin is relatively straight forward and involves driving 200 kilometers south of the speed-limitless autobahn.
Bohemian Switzerland National Park, Czech Republic
Raised on a vast sandstone plinth, the Pravčická brána (Pravčice Sandstone Gate) is the largest natural stone arch in Europe. It stands above a wild and rugged landscape of pine forests, mountain meadows, crystal streams, jagged gorges and rocky outcrops, which sweeps up to and over the German border. This is Bohemian Switzerland National Park – a spectacular welcome to the Czech Republic. In the Park’s more remote stretches, inaccessible cliffs and ancient forest are home to black storks, peregrine falcons and lynx.
The gateway to the national park is the picturesque town of Hřensko. Conveniently, it is less than an hour from Dresden and is directly connected to Dresden by route 172, which cuts southeast over the Czech border.
A 15km circular hiking route commences from Hřensko. The route leads to the Pravčická Brána before following forest trails and suspension bridges to the foot of Malý Pravčický mountain. From here, the trail plunges into a rocky sandstone ravine carved by the River Kamenice. Soon after the walking trail comes to an end and the only way to proceed is by boat. A ferryman poles hikers through the cool waterways at the bottom of Divoká Gorge. From disembarkation, it’s a 1.5km stroll back to Hřensko, from where, if the park hasn’t convinced you into staying, you can drive on to Litoměřice.
Litoměřice, Czech Republic
One hour south of Hřensko , the royal city of Litoměřice provides a relaxing stop-off between the wild beauty of Bohemian Switzerland and the tragedy of Terezin. Situated at the confluence of the Labe (Czech for Elbe) and Ohře rivers, it sits in the middle of a fertile lowland region known for centuries as the “garden of Bohemia.” There are views over this pastoral landscape from the city’s main park.
Litoměřice’s historical center, ringed by Gothic fortifications, is a vivid patchwork of old streets and squares, lined with Gothic, baroque and neo-Classical buildings. At its heart is Peace Square, dominated by the finely-bordered white façade of the Old Town Hall. Beneath the Town Hall, a Gothic wine cellar descends three floors underground, turned into a restaurant selling modern twists on traditional Czech cuisine. This cellar connects to a maze of underground corridors running beneath the city.
Back on the surface, Litoměřice has a surprisingly vibrant food and drink scene. At night, the pretty Old Town streets are studded with wood-panelled bars selling Czech beer and local wines.
Terezín, Czech Republic
Behind this journey inevitably lurks the shadow of World War II. In the 1930s, the large population of ethnic Germans living in the Czechoslovak region bordering Germany, known as the Sudetenland, was used by Hitler as a pretext to demand its transfer into the Third Reich. This demand, further evidence of Hitler’s imperial intent, caused a diplomatic crisis which drew in the leaders of France, Italy and Britain. The Czechoslovak government fiercely resisted German claims. Hitler responded by threatening war. Ultimately, to the despair of the Czechoslovak government, France and Britain capitulated to the Nazi’s demands, mobilizing only when Germany invaded Poland a year later. The horrific history that subsequently unfolded is encapsulated here, in Terezín, the site of the largest concentration camp in Czechoslovakia.
Terezín was originally founded in the eighteenth Century by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, built as a fortress town to defend the fertile region of Bohemia. Two centuries later, the Nazis expelled the town’s 7000 inhabitants and transformed the defensive fortress system into a Gestapo HQ and concentration camp.
Known in German as Theresienstadt, the camp functioned primarily as a Ghetto for Czechoslovak Jews. It was not an extermination camp, and was in fact intended to be a “model settlement” demonstrating the Nazi’s humane treatment of Jews to the Red Cross and wider world. Despite this, around 33,000 inhabitants died in the Ghetto’s overcrowded and filthy conditions. A further 88,000 were deported to Auschwitz and other death camps. In total, more than 150,000 Jews were sent to the Ghetto and only 17,247 survivors were liberated at the end of the war.
Visitors can explore the camp’s chapel, kitchen, accommodation quarters and cells. A Ghetto Museum explains the camp’s function and routine. Artistic works produced by the prisoners while incarcerated – music, painting, and writing – are exhibited. Plaques and cemeteries commemorate some of the individuals interned in Terezín.
Terezin is only five minutes south of Litoměřice, and from Terezin it’s only a 45-minute drive south into the heart of the historic city of Prague.
See the drive from Berlin to Prague on the map:
Traveling from Berlin to Prague by bicycle
Modern Germany is an idyll destination for long-distance cyclists. Over 200 bike routes criss-cross the country, and, when you do end up sharing a road with motorized traffic, the drivers are generally very tolerant of pannier-laden cyclists waddling along in front of them for a few kilometers.
The country’s most popular bike path is the Elbe Cycle Route, which runs from Prague up to Dresden and then northwest to Cuxhaven where the river debouches into the North Sea. The path is particularly spectacular between Prague and Dresden, passing Terezín and Litoměřice before bending north through the pine forests and sandstone sculptures of Bohemian Switzerland National Park.
To reach Dresden from Berlin, the Elbe Cycle Route can be joined at Wittenberg. From here, well-signposted riverside paths guide cyclists into the Saxon capital. Berlin is around 100km from Wittenberg, a distance that can be covered by bike or aboard one of the hourly trains which run direct to Wittenberg from Berlin Hbf. This involves something of a detour west, and alternative routes directly south can also be mapped out. Either way, the roads are predominantly quiet, the inclines slight, and the landscape peacefully pastoral, with an explosion of rock-strewn drama as you pass from Germany into the Czech Republic.