Must-visit tsarist palaces in St. Petersburg
Friday, 6 August 2021
Founded by Peter the Great in 1703, St. Petersburg is not just a beautiful city with fascinating attractions, it was once the capital of Imperial Russia when this ancient land was ruled by the tsars. As a result, St. Petersburg has a captivating historical legacy and an incredible array of majestic palaces from the tsarist era. Despite the tumultuous period that saw the end of Tsarist Russia, many of these structures are not only still with us but have been preserved as must-visit tourist attractions.
From opulent royal residences to a noble palace that witnessed an empire-shaking assassination, it’s all here and waiting to be explored. To give you a taste of what to expect, we have highlighted a handful of these wonderful St Petersburg palaces, hopefully inspiring you to book a cruise in 2024 to Russia’s former capital city.
The Winter Palace
The Winter Palace is the most famous of St. Petersburg’s many palaces and is known the world over as one of the planet’s great royal residences. The Winter Palace was once the official home of the legendary Romanov emperors for 200 years, starting with Peter the Great and ending with the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II. However, the Tsar-Liberator Alexander II (named so for ending serfdom in the empire) was, in actuality, the last tsar to use this massive palace as his home. This beautiful green and white palace was constructed by numerous architects throughout the 18th century – with successive sovereigns redesigning things to their liking.
Today, the Winter Palace is home to the world-famous State Hermitage Museum – the second-largest art museum in the world, founded by Catherine the Great in 1764. Its total collection consists of over three million artistic treasures. Visitors can therefore not only look forward to exploring its historic halls but also laying eyes on priceless masterpieces by the likes of Rembrandt and Raphael, as well as sculptures from Antonio Canova.
Marie, from the travel blog Luxury Travel Diva, loved her time at the Winter Palace and says that the Hermitage Museum and the Winter Palace should be at the top of every wish list for a visit to St Petersburg: “I enjoyed the incredible art collections set in such impressive surroundings. You will step back into history and not want to leave. You can easily spend an entire day exploring the palace. My tips are to buy tickets online to save queuing and try to visit during shoulder season before the crowds arrive.”
The Yusupov Palace, built in 1770, wasn’t home to a member of the Imperial Family but this fascinating building on the banks of the Moika River has an enormous claim to fame – the murder of Rasputin. The elegant baroque palace is named after its former owners, the extraordinarily wealthy Yusupov family - a princely house that was said to have more money than the Romanovs.
Its place in history was guaranteed when one night, Prince Felix Yusupov and two accomplices murdered the notorious Grigory Rasputin. Rasputin was a much-loved friend and spiritual guide to Empress Alexandra, who relied on Rasputin’s healing abilities for her haemophilic son. Rasputin was a hugely controversial figure, however, with many Russians from across the social spectrum identifying him as the cause of much of Russia’s ills during WWI.
The team from St. Petersburg Travel Guide – who offer tourist information for the city - spoke to us about this palace’s fascinating history, emphasising that all the details regarding Rasputin’s murder are still unclear: “The Yusupov palace is interesting, first of all, as a place of Rasputin's murder. It’s a mystery – nobody really knows how Rasputin was killed. There has been a lot said about it, including explanations from the participants, but there is also a lot of doubt about their words.
“Rasputin influenced the life of the ruling family, and the way the Romanovs ruled the country led to the 1917 revolutions (in February and October). These revolutions ended up with the establishment of the Soviet Union, which still impacts our life, mentality and so on.
“The palace itself is a marvellous place to visit. So, this combination of beauty and history is just what makes it so special. When you come in, you step into a time machine and are transported to a crucial moment in history. For Russians, it's the history of their country, for others, it's the history of the Russian Revolution in October 1917 which shook the world. Rasputin didn't see any of the revolutions, but his life and activity without any doubt were a part of them. If the murder of Rasputin had not happened on December 30th, 1916, at the Yusupov palace, who knows what the history of the 20th century would have been.”
In the 21st-century, Yusupov Palace is open to the public as a museum. Sporting marvellously well-preserved interiors, visitors can tour the palace, visit the cultural centre, and even watch classical concerts and theatre productions at its beautiful rococo theatre.
St. Petersburg Travel Guide offers a few tips for visiting: “At the palace, some of the exhibitions don't include a visit to the site of the murder. So be careful when booking. We would strongly advise reading as much about Rasputin's story as possible. Even a very talkative guide is not able to tell you all the theories, rumours and stories about Rasputin and his last evening.”
Located in Petergof, Saint Petersburg, the spectacular and opulent Peterhof Palace is a must-visit. Peterhof was commissioned by Peter the Great as a direct response to the majesty of Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles in France. Peterhof was designed to be the Emperor’s summer home as he desired an imperial residence in St. Petersburg’s suburbs. The palace is one of the city’s most popular attractions, sporting a famous system of gold fountains known as the breathtaking ‘Grand Cascade’.
Peterhof is, in fact, a series of palaces and its surrounding grounds are a pleasure to explore. The likes of Catherine the Great and Nicholas I have all left their mark on certain aspects of this imperial treasure. Unfortunately, Peterhof was ravaged by the Germans during WWII but has been painstakingly restored and is now open to the public as the shining example of tsarist elegance that it once was.
Speaking of the marvellous gardens that are oh-so-popular with visitors during the summer months, Elizabeth from the travel blog The Fearless Foreigner shared with us what she loved most during her visit: “While the Peterhof Palace is an extravagant building, my favourite part about visiting was the gorgeous grounds around the palace. There are so many impressive fountains and beautiful gardens. It's easy to get lost and get away from the crowds. You don't feel like you are at a tourist attraction when you are wandering around on the various paths.”
Offering a top tip, Elizabeth advises: “My biggest tip is to be aware of what type of ticket you are purchasing. You need different tickets to access all the various buildings on the grounds. There are some combined tickets as well.”
Yulia from the adventure travel blog, Miss Tourist, was very impressed with Peterhof, believing that it actually succeeds in besting the Palace of Versailles: “Is it better than Versailles? In my humble opinion, yes, but you should come and see it and decide for yourself!
“One of the best things are the gardens, I could spend days just strolling around and I’d still marvel at what I see. There are 64 fountains, and my favourite ones are called ‘Shutkhi’, which is a special kind of fountain. Shutkhi would roughly translate as a ‘joke fountain’ as they like to trick you. Some are hidden small fountains, which can pop-up up when you step on a random stone on the sidewalk and splash you in the face with water! They were created to poke a little fun at all the elegant people that used to walk around with their fancy garments and complex dresses back in the 18th century. The second kind are fountains that appear from time to time, forming an arch of water and you can walk below them without getting wet! How cool is that?”
Yulia’s advice for visitors is to take a guided tour for the best experience, which can include transportation to the palace itself: “Definitely don’t skip the chance of a guided tour if you get to visit Peterhof Palace. You’ll learn so many things about its fascinating history, as well as facts about life during Imperial Russia’s time. Or, if you want to keep your trip on a budget, then at least get the audio-guide.
“Also, I would highly recommend buying your palace tickets online in advance. The lines might be really long when you get there and the price is the same if you buy online, so there’s no point in wasting time in line when you could already be inside looking for Shutikhi!
“And lastly, if you have more than one day to spend in the city, check the weather and visit Peterhof Palace on the sunniest day. The palace is beautiful when it rains too, but you can’t enjoy it as much and spend as much time there if it keeps pouring!”
No tour of the glamorous tsarist palaces of St. Petersburg would be complete without a trip to Catherine Palace. Located in Pushkin – formally known as Tsarskoye Selo – Catherine Palace is an enormous Baroque masterpiece by Italian master Bartolomeo Rastrelli. Named after Catherine I – wife of Peter the Great – it was originally commissioned in 1717 but its magnificence was truly developed by Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, who used the palace as her main summer residence.
It’s easy to imagine what the glory and majesty of Imperial Russia must have been like when exploring the palace and grounds for yourself during a tour.
Lindsey, from the travel blog, Have Clothes Will Travel, spoke to us about what she enjoyed most about visiting the Catherine Palace: “I was blown away by how lavish Catherine Palace is! This palace has over 100 kilos of gold in it, not to mention its famous Amber Room – which is a room decorated in real amber panels. I also really enjoyed wandering the beautiful grounds of Catherine Palace, even in the winter.”
Lindsey also offered a top piece of advice for those planning a visit: “I highly recommend purchasing your tickets to Catherine Palace ahead of time. The lines to get tickets the day of can be several hours long! You can book your tickets online up to 14 days in advance. Also, be sure the ticket you book states it is for ‘the historic interiors’ – so you can see the inside of the palace.”
Tsarkoye Selo isn’t just home to the Catherine Palace, it is also home to the slightly more modest Alexander Palace – the main residence of the last tsar, Nicholas II, and his family. Catherine Palace is certainly the main attraction due to its extravagance, but Alexander Palace shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s currently undergoing an expensive renovation, with former rooms used by the Tsar and Tsarina being carefully restored.
The Mikhailovsky Palace is situated on the banks of the Moika River, has been the home of the State Russian Museum for more than a hundred years and a charming palace for much longer! The palace was built in 1819 for the Grand Duke Mikhail Pavlovich, the son of Paul I and brother of then Emperor Alexander I (defender of Russia from Napoleon’s invading French army). Designed by the master of neoclassicism Carlo Rossi, the palace was later transformed into the Russian Museum by 1897. The external architecture has barely changed over the last two centuries, meaning visitors can witness the palace in all its former glory.
Surrounded by lovely gardens, today’s Russian Museum delights locals and visitors alike with its sensational collection of Russian art. Its prized assets are its collection of 19th-century works, depicting fascinating scenes of aristocratic Russian life and that of the nation’s peasantry. There are also examples of ancient Byzantine icons, which are so important to Holy Russia’s artistic legacy.
Palaces you have to visit in St. Petersburg
- The Winter Palace
- Yusupov Palace
- Peterhof Palace
- Catherine Palace
- Mikhailovsky Palace
As you can see, there are some truly special palaces to visit in St. Petersburg and these are just a handful of the options available. Everywhere you look in this incredible city there are fascinating treasures from Russia’s tsarist past to uncover.
If this has inspired you to visit Russia’s former capital, make sure to check out our Nordic Treasures cruises.
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