Pushkin, Russia: Exploring Catherine’s Palace and Peterhof
The cruise port in St. Petersburg, Russia, on the Baltic Capitals cruise allows for an overnight stay. The offered excursions are expensive and have large groups of people to load and unload at stops. Because this didn’t sound like the way my friend Jo and I wanted to spend our limited time in St. Petersburg, she found a great private tour for us. Our itinerary mimicked that offered by the cruise ship but was less than half the price. When we are talking $400 per day per person, this is a significant savings. Here is how we spent the time on our first day visiting Catherine’s Palace and Peterhof in Pushkin, Russia.
(This article was originally published in August 2014, but was reworked and updated in March 2020)
Private Guide and Tour
Visiting Russia requires a separate travel Visa if your tours are not with the cruise line. Therefore, our private tour needed one. Our guide, Peter, took care of the details for us, and the cost was around 20 USD. He picked us up right outside the cruise ship on our first day at port. Due to heavy traffic from the St. Petersburg Economic Forum going on, our two-day tour had to be revised. We headed for Pushkin, a town thirty minutes away named for Poet Alexander Pushkin.
On our way, we made a quick stop at the hauntingly beautiful Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad, built in commemoration of the 900 days St. Petersburg was repeatedly bombed and attacked by the Germans. With eternal flames along the walls of the monument and classical music playing aloud, the memorial displays a broken ring representing their country moving on to new things. I had not read about this before our trip, but it was a hidden lovely.
Talk About Impressive!
Upon arriving at Catherine’s Palace, the summer home of Russian tsars, I was awestruck at first sight of this neoclassical and baroque style electric blue, white, and gold beauty. The palace was named after Catherine I, but its decor was mostly influenced by Catherine II. The word gaudy could have originated here. With gold and mirrors on nearly every surface of the palace, it meshed beautifully, showcasing the tremendous power and riches of this country.
The palace was gutted and destroyed by the Nazi’s during WWII. It has since been reconstructed to its original design.
Catherine’s Palace houses the world-famous Amber Room, made of eight tons of amber lining the walls and furnishings, ranging in every shade from green to deep brown. Photography is not allowed in this room. I found The Amber Room one-of-a-kind, but I preferred the richness of the portrait room, as seen below.
The grandiose Great Hall of Catherine’s Palace is the enormous ballroom, which at one time was bustling with dances and parties. The room’s tall windows, chandeliers, and sparkling mirrors appear even larger with the sun beaming in.
Some rooms at the palace are named after their primary decorative colors, such as the Chinese Blue Drawing Room, The Blue Formal Dining Room, and the White Formal Dining Room. Another lovely room was the Agate room, filled with unusual artifacts and valuables.
Even the Grounds Aim to Please
Upon exiting the Catherine’s Palace, one travels down a red carpet lined circular white marble staircases on either side to begin the visit to Catherine’s Park.
The park has many gardens, some English and some French. I didn’t find the gardens all that interesting, but the landscape was immaculate. You can even visit the Pyramid, a graveyard devoted to Catherine the Great’s dogs.
On the property is a music pavilion where we heard a lovely acoustic performance.
Jo, Peter, and I made a quick stop to an Orthodox Church in Pushkin, where Czar Nicholas II and his family attended. There was a service going on at the time. We borrowed head coverings and scarves from the church and watched the service, which was something new for me.
A Visit to the Russian Versailles
Next, came an unquestionably must-see visit to Peterhof Palace, Peter the Great’s last residence before his death. Often called “Russia’s Versailles,” the castle is stunning. My camera was ready to get to work, but much to my dismay, they do not allow pictures inside.
The furnishings in Peterhof Palace varied from luxurious lapis tables, hand-painted silk tapestries, impressive inlaid parquet floors, funky ornamental ceramic vases, and purple jeweled glass chandeliers. Corridors of the palace run the entire length of the castle, and parallel to the river.
Peterhof Palace’s walls are adorned with ornate sconces, silk wallpapers, and master oil paintings. Some of the ceilings are hand-painted (called a plafond) with lovely frescoes. Elizabeth is painted in many of the scenes. Peterhof could hold thousands of people at one time; thus, it was used for grand balls, masquerades, and large dinner parties.
Peterhof, completed in 1721, was similar to Catherine’s Palace with that rooms were decorated in a single color scheme. The rooms that tied for my favorite were the Crown Room (the bedchambers), and the mint green Throne Room, which was green trimmed in red. There were two eye-catching Chinese themed rooms with valuable jeweled walls.
More than 5,000 hand-painted ceramic dishes (many being Wedgwood) are on hand in the elegant dining rooms. The portrait gallery contained 130 works by Prague artist G. Grott, Elizabeth’s favorite artist. Upon his death, she bought all his remaining portraits (mostly featuring children) and hung them in this gallery. The expressions captured are amazing.
The Fountains at Peterhof are one of St. Petersburg’s most popular attractions. Outside the palace is the Grand Cascade fountain, featuring a most impressive series of fountains, and a whimsical grotto underneath the water.
Each garden has a creative fountain in the shape of something special (Adam & Eve and Sun, were just a few). Walking into the opulent gardens was like falling asleep and having the most heartwarming dream.
The landscapes housed vibrantly colored flowers and the biggest tulips I had ever seen, all the same sizes and heights. The perfectly manicured terraced gardens, ornate footbridges, and gazebos offered many areas to take pictures, rest, or admire.
Peterhof Reigns Supreme
Do not miss the photo spot at the seawall, where you can view the city of St. Petersburg and the cruise ships across the water. For a fee, you can take pictures with male and female costumed interpreters. I loved their outfits!
Peterhof had dozens of school children the day we were there to celebrate the end of the school year. The kids wore ribbons and sashes and were enjoying playing in the interactive fountains. Some of the fountains even played back, with the help of a water controller hidden behind the bushes.
There were no English speaking workers, but Peterhof does have concession stands on the property and a gift shop. I purchased a lovely souvenir book to take home.
Jo and I ate a delicious beef stroganoff lunch, a Russian classic, at one of the restaurants on property. The restaurant prices were affordable, with plentiful portions and free WiFi. Our guide was kind enough to treat us to lunch.
All in all, it was a sensational day.
Pushkin, Russia Extras
FYI: Admission to Catherine’s Palace is 550 rubles for adults, and Peterhof was around the same.
Tip: You must pay for toilet use nearly everywhere in the Baltics. The price was typically 50 Euro cents.
Tip: Shorts and sleeveless shirts are frowned upon at historical attractions. One of the churches we visited required a head covering.
A Historic Russian Short Story
Marta Helena Skowrońska, came from a poor family. She later became Peter the Great’s mistress. Marta Helena converted her religion to Orthodox, and her name was changed to Catherine. In 1707, Catherine and Peter the Great were secretly married. They bore twelve children, of which only two lived to adulthood.
Catherine was Peter’s second wife and chose to become a Tsarina. Peter died in 1725, and after several hurdles, Catherine became Empress and ruler of Russia. It is rumored that one of her many lovers had Peter killed. Two short years after taking the throne, Catherine passed away.
After Peter II and Ivan VI (the next rulers,) Catherine and Peter the Great’s daughter, Elizabeth, became one of the most famous rulers of Russian monarchs. Elizabeth loved to host parties and dance, maybe the reason she owned over 2,000 pairs of shoes. Singl and childless, Empress Elizabeth introduced her chosen successor, her nephew Peter, to Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst.
Upon Sophia’s conversion to the Orthodox religion, she became known as Catherine II, in memory of Elizabeth’s mother. Proceeding the death of her husband Peter, Catherine II became the longest-ruling female leader in Russian history. Her rule was called Russia’s golden age and she became known as Catherine the Great.
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