I landed in Saint Petersburg from Moscow in April yet the weather was still freezing cold. Snowflakes dropped on our noses and technically it was not the best time to visit the city. For one thing, the famous fountains in the Peterhof Palace operate only from early May to early October.
It was a shame that I couldn’t see how the spectacular fountain works, however, there was some sort of excitement walking in the gardens under the naked trees, in anticipation of the coming of spring…
Here, I am sharing the travel highlights of Saint Petersburg, a Russian port city on the Baltic Sea that served as the imperial capital for two centuries.
Founded in 1703 by Peter the Great, Saint Petersburg is located in the north-western corner of Russia with 300 years of history and close proximity to northern Europe. It was appalling how quickly the city was developed as the second-largest city in the country with a high level of scale and exquisiteness, owing to the three ambitious and visionary Tsars: Peter the Great, Elizabeth Petrovna, and Catherine the Great. One of the city’s most magnificent landmarks is the Winter Palace. The palace was the residence of Russian Monarchs for years and now part of the palace is restored as the world-renowned State Hermitage Museum. The palace is located in the heart of the city by the river and it’s a huge complex. Not only the museum has a marvelous collection of first-class artworks from all over the world, but also the rooms in the palace are something to see.
For info and tips on these rooms, I wrote about them in The Best Rooms to Explore in the State Hermitage in Saint Petersburg.
After marveling at the jaw-dropping beauty of the Winter Palace, we didn’t stop. The next day we continued our explorations of the refined Russian historical architectures in the outskirts area: Peterhof Palace (a.k.a the Summer Palace) and Catherine Palace. Both attractions are located about 30 kilometers away from the city center but in different directions. Catherine Palace is in the south and Peterhof Palace is in the west by the sea. We planned to visit Catherine Palace in the morning and then Peterhof Palace in the afternoon by taxi. Taxis in Russia are generally cheap and I have some tips.
I wrote about those in 3 City Highlights in Moscow You Must See Before You Leave.
We stayed in a hostel right in front of the Russian Museum and Mikhailovsky Garden. As we headed out in the morning to have some breakfast, we had already wandered past some amazing landmarks like the Savior on the Spilled Blood. We had a simple breakfast (as there were not many choices in the area) and then we got a taxi to take us to the Pushkin District where Catherine Palace is located. It took us 20 minutes to find a taxi, and somehow US pop music is popular in the country. I heard Calvin Harris, David Guetta, Ed Sheerin, and Taylor Swift songs playing in boutiques, cafés, salons, and taxis… as the taxi driver was playing loud and funky music, I found it was kind of contradictory to the moody and cold sceneries outside the window. As we got out of the taxi we saw that the area is rather quiet – I was a little worried about whether we could get a taxi to Peterhof Palace afterward (given that it took us 20 minutes to get one in the city center), but well, then I figured I would worry about that later after lunch.
One thing that makes Catherine Palace recognizable is its vibrant color of blue, white, and gold. There were so many palaces in the countries but I quickly remembered the three main palaces during my research: The Hermitage is in green, Peterhof Palace is in yellow and Catherine Palace is in blue.
Catherine Palace: Blue, White, and Gold
The Catherine Palace was originated in 1717 by Catherine I of Russia. It was later demolished by Empress Elizabeth in 1733 as she thought the residence was “outdated” and rebuilt the palace in Rococo style. The structure was completed with a much grander edifice and flamboyant. Each room in the palace was decorated meticulously in different colors and themes. We entered the main grand hall in luxurious gold and then walked through each room where they showcased delicate artworks and valuable artifacts that simply blew me away. Personally, I love the interior of the Catherine Palace the most out of the three palaces in Saint Petersburg because it showed a different side of my impressions of the Russian icy exterior. The colors and patterns on the wall showed femininity and romance from a female perspective.
As I was wandering in the giant garden through the naked trees, frozen ponds, and static fountains, I had a moment and finally understood the excitement of the anticipation of spring. I wondered, how magnificent and joyful it would be when the palace is embraced by green in the summer. And then we headed to the “official” Summer Palace – Peterhof Palace. We had lunch in a nearby café of the Catherine Palace and, luckily, we found a taxi driver right outside (who didn’t speak English, but he understood when I said the keyword “Peterhof” and he agreed to take us to Peterhof Palace half the price of what the driver asked to take us from the city to Catherine Palace, and it should be farther from the Catherine Palace to Peterhof Palace).
Peterhof Palace: The Grand Cascade’s Waterworks!
The Peterhof Palace, commonly known as the Summer Palace, is a complex of palaces and gardens and it is referred to as the “Russian Versailles”. It was built in 1705 during the reign of Peter the Great. Originally it was a site at a favorable location where the tsar could clearly see Kotlin Island and Saint Petersburg by the ocean. Later, the palace was expanded based on the design of Versailles, of which Peter the Great hired French architect Jean-Baptiste Le Blond to do so.
While the interior of the Grand Palace (photo is not allowed anyway) is less impressive than those rooms in the Winter Palace and the Catherine Palace. The Grand Palace is, still, an impressive building with over thirty rooms. Peter’s Palace was expanded for Empress Elizabeth later.
The draw to Peterhof’s Palace is all about the Grand Cascade and Samson Fountain. So, imagine how disappointing it was for us to visit there in April and missed the spectacular “fountain show” the palace had to offer. The fountains where the Peterhof Palace overlooks today were later installed in the 18th century after Peter the Great by the engineer V. Tuvolkov. I could imagine the design and engineering of such large-scale fountains were no easy tasks; and therefore, it was fascinating for me to know that the Grand Cascade waterfall and all the water fountains require no pumps at all. The water of the fountain and waterfall were collected from natural springs in the Upper Gardens of the palace and were carried to the Grand Cascade and the lower garden fountains through a long aqueduct by gravity pull. I wondered it would be the reason that the fountains did not operate in winter due to the water is still …frozen? (and cue the music: “let it go… let it go… The cold never bothered me anyway.) The end.