St. Petersburg was designed as an imperial city. While most cities grow outward from a church or meeting place, Peter the Great put a slab of rock on a marsh and instructed that his city be built there. The city is elegant, western, and designed to show imperial majesty. Palaces and retreats for the royal family and their relatives can be found all over the city and the environs. These are my four favorite palaces:
The Hermitage (Winter Palace), St. Petersburg
The Hermitage was built by Catherine the Great in 1764, and from that point was the main residence of the tsars. It is currently one of the largest art museums in the world, with the largest collection of paintings. It’s position on the Neva River made it vulnerable in World War II, and the paintings were stored in the cellars with the museum curates standing guard. Admittance was free for me, and I went at least four times. One day is not enough to even spend much time in one section. My favorite painting was Jean Leon Gerome’s ‘Pool in a Harem,’ which had undergone extensive restoration work.
Catherine’s Palace, Pushkin
I visited this palace twice, and it was a pleasure both times. The layout of this palace was used for the animated film ‘Anastasia,’ even though it wasn’t the residence of the Romanov family before their exile. The palace is surrounded by beautiful gardens, which take a full day to explore on their own. It was originally built as a summer palace for Catherine the First.
Alexander Palace, Pushkin
The Alexander Palace was the last and favorite residence of Nicholas II and his family before they were exiled and later executed. Only the three main rooms are showed to the public. After spending the day at Catherine’s Palace, Mom and I rushed over to this nearby palace hoping that it was still open. My limited Russian was put to good use with the cheerful ladies who oversaw the place. The colossal palace next door usually consumes all of the visitors. Since only a few rooms are open, it is possible to do the tour in less than half an hour, and there are many artifacts from the royal families. Mom and I are both interested in the Romanov story, so this palace was special for us.
Peterhof Palace, Petergof
This is the showcase palace of St. Petersburg. It was designed by Peter the Great and is nicknamed the ‘Russian Versailles.’ In the summer, all of the fountains are going, and there are even special fountains that are attended by workers to secretly spray people as they walk by. The gardens are extensive and have many buildings that require additional admission. Our biggest frustration was that they closed the palace early, so we had to come back the next day and pay the general admission again, plus the cost to enter the palace. The workers in the palace also put me in a bad mood, because their job was to strictly and humorously contain tourists, while the workers in the smaller buildings were much more knowledgeable about the artifacts under their care and were eager to share what information they knew. Since this palace is such a tourist draw, we were trapped by groups speaking many languages on either side of us.