(CNN) — Situated sublimely on the banks of the Havel River, Potsdam is Germany at its most regal.
Sparkling with Baroque palaces, manicured gardens, and splashing fountains from its proud Prussian past, the "German Versailles" is the most popular day trip from nearby Berlin and a fairytale escape from the capital's heavy history.
Most visitors hop off the S-Bahn train and head straight for Sanssouci, Frederick the Great's immaculately preserved summer stomping grounds.
While the king's 18th-century pad may be the city's crown jewel and one of Europe's great showpieces, it's just one part of Potsdam's sprawling city-wide UNESCO World Heritage Site, which encompasses 150 buildings across 1,200 acres--the largest in Germany.
Away from Potsdam's glimmering ensemble of royal residences, the capital of the state of Brandenburg boats cafe-lined cobblestone streets, half-timbered dining rooms serving new takes on traditional German fare, and -- opening earlier this year -- one of Europe's most-anticipated modern art museums.
Playing in palaces
Potsdam has no less than 17 palaces.
Chances are you came to marvel at Potsdam's 17 palaces, and Sanssouci should be your first stop.
Built as a country retreat in the 1740s where Frederick the Great could escape the pressure of Berlin and live -- as the French name suggests -- "without cares," the estate's opulent Rococo digs, vine-draped terraces, and maze of landscaped gardens live on as a testament to the king's whimsical good taste.
You'll want to grab an English-language audio tour and spend at least half a day admiring the architectural treasures and ambling through the extensive parklands that connect many of Potsdam's other highlights.
It's a gorgeous two-kilometer stroll (or 16-minute bus trip) from Sanssouci to the gigantic dome-capped Neues Palais on the park's far end, marked by marble statues, bursting flower beds, trimmed hedges, and idyllic ponds.
Worthwhile detours include the Italian-style Orangerie Palace, the Baroque Bildergalerie (Germany's oldest museum), and the Chinoiserie tea house.
Want to take it all in? Climb 103 meters to the top of the Belvedere on the Pfingstberg for our favorite view in Potsdam, which stretches from the leafy grounds north to Berlin.
If you can pull yourself away from the Eden-like backdrop of Sanssouci Park, the triumphal Brandenberg Gate leads back to Potsdam's historic town center, which was largely decimated by WWII air raids.
Pedestrian-friendly Brandenburger Strasse is filled with cosmopolitan boutiques and leads toward the Dutch Quarter, whose steep-gabled brick facades feel like a quaint corner of Amsterdam.
Potsdam's picture-perfect (and recently restored) Old Market Square holds the Baroque St. Nicholas church and the brand-new Museum Barberini, which displays a vast collection of Impressionist and modern art pieces by Monet, Renoir, Sisley, and other masters.
Elsewhere, the English Tudor-style country villa Cecelienhof is where Stalin, Churchill, and Truman famously carved up Germany's post-WWII fate. Film buffs shouldn't miss Babelsberg, Germany's biggest film studio, where "The Blue Angel," "Inglorious Basterds" and many other movies were shot.
Sanssouci Palace, Maulbeerallee, Potsdam, 14469, +49 (0) 331 96 94 200
Neues Palais, AM Neuen Palais, Potsdam, 14469, +49 (0) 331 96 94 200
Orangerie Palais, 3-5, An der Orangerie, Potsdam, 14469, +49 (0) 331 96 94 200
Chinoiserie, Am Grünen Gitter, Potsdam, 14469, + 49 (0) 331 96 94 225
Belvedere on the Pfingstberg, 45a, Grosse Weinmeisterstrasse, Potsdam, 14469, +49 (0) 331 200 5793 0
St. Nicholas Church, Am Alten Markt, Potsdam, 14467, +49 (0) 331 27 08 602
Museum Barberini, 5-6, Humboldtstrasse, Alter Markt, Potsdam, 14467, +49 (0) 331 23 60 14499
Cecelienhof, 11, Im Neuen Garten, Potsdam, 14469, +49 (0) 331 96 94 200
Filmpark Babelsberg, 200, Grossbeerenstrasse, Potsdam-Babelsberg, 14482, +49 (0) 331 72 127 50
Eat like a king
Many of Potsdam's finest restaurants have views of Jungfernsee Lake.
Long isolated behind the Iron Curtain in former East Germany, Potsdam's dining scene was once limited to working-class German comfort food like pork knuckles and calf's liver served in working-class pubs.
Since the city's reunification, there's been an influx of international cuisine, as well as an emphasis on modernizing German staples with a locavore twist.
Schmiede 9 epitomizes this trend, dishing out modern regional cuisine that changes each week--like wild boar ragout with mushrooms and local beer--in a half-timbered former blacksmiths' workshop.
Located between the Belvedere and Orangerie in Sanssouci Park, Drachenhaus -- literally "Dragon House" -- has a four-story Chinese-inspired pagoda tower but actually serves seasonal German fare (surprise!). Its three terraces make for a great pit stop between palace-hopping.
In the heart of the Dutch Quarter, red-brick Maison Charlotte oozes personality with its original floor tiles from the south of France, handmade Normandy plates, and garden dining. You won't find fresher oysters, Breton fish soup, or a more extensive wine list in town.
Raise a glass or three at Meierei Brauhaus, a resto-brewpub set in a castle-like structure built in 1790 on the Jungfernsee Lake.
See that empty field nearby? The Berlin Wall once ran right through it. Today, the place runs through plates of smoked bratwurst and pints of its seasonally rotating beer list. (We like the Berliner Weisse.)
Schmiede 9, 9, Am Neuen Markt, Potsdam, 14467, +49 (0) 331 200 688 7
Drachenhaus, 4, Maulbeerallee, Potsdam, 14469, +49 (0) 331 505 38 08
Maison Charlotte, 20, Mittelstrasse, Potsdam, 14467, +49 (0) 331 280 54 50
Meierei Brauhaus, 10, Im Neuen Garten, Potsdam, 14469, + 49 (0) 331 704 32 11
And sleep like a queen
The Brandenburger Tor Hotel is just steps away from the Brandenburg Gate.
Hidden inside a courtyard, Remise Blumberg, ("the coach house") is about as close as you can get to staying at Sanssouci Palace without an invite from Frederick himself. Guests at this nine-room gem of a B&B enjoy free public transportation tickets, bike rentals and fresh breakfasts served by innkeeper Annette.
Those looking to live like royalty should book a room at the elegantly restored 19th-century Hotel Villa Monte Vino. Perched on a hill above the Sanssouci vineyard, the inn is surrounded by romantic gardens, equipped with a sauna, and boasts dreamy five-story tower where you can take in sweeping views of the city.
A stone's throw from Brandenburg Gate, the four-star Hotel Brandenburger Tor Potsdam is also conveniently located next to Potsdam's Information Center. If you can't be bothered to leave your plush mattress or tub to walk next door, the hotel can easily organize sightseeing tours for you.
Guest House Villa Fritz feels like a country chateau and is surrounded by lakes and rolling parkland. It's a short bike ride (rentals available at the B&B) or 12-minute walk to the Dutch Quarter, but with canopy beds, chandeliers, and nary a tour group in sight, you might never want to leave.
Remise Blumberg, 26, Weinbergstrasse, Potsdam, 14469, +49 (0) 331 280 32 31
Hotel Villa Monte Vino, 27, Gregor Mendel Strasse, Potsdam, 14469, +49 (0) 331 201 33 39
Hotel Brandenburger Tor Potsdam, 1, Brandenburger Strasse, Potsdam, 14467, +49 (0) 331 877 00 000
Guest House Villa Fritz, 132, Berliner Strasse, Potsdam, 14467, +49 (0) 331 237 01 13