This is the final post in my series on things to do in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The history of St. Petersburg is intertwined with that of one dominant dynasty, the House of Romanov. The city was founded by Peter the Great, the czar who turned Russia into a force to be reckoned with, and Romanovs were in the Winter Palace when the Russian Revolution shook the world in 1917. All in all, Romanovs controlled Russia for over 300 years.
Peter the Great, who ruled from 1682 to 1725, wasn’t the first Romanov. The family came to power after a period of famine and instability known as the Time of Troubles, where several noble families actually refused the crown. But Peter the Great is the tsar who not only expanded Russia’s territory, he opened up the country to European political, artistic and cultural ideas.
Peter the Great also started the Romanov habit of massive spending on his own pleasures and entertainments. He started laying out Peterhof as a Summer Palace with a strategic position that had access to the Baltic Sea, looking to Louis XIV’s Versailles for inspiration.
Visiting Peterhof, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, can be confusing and expensive. The property has several buildings, all with different hours and different admission costs. If you want to see everything, go on the weekend and be prepared for crowds.
One of the most easiest ways to get to Peterhof from St. Petersburg is to take the hydrofoil that runs from the historic center to a dock at Peterhof. It costs 400 rubles each way (about $17), and takes 45 minutes, but is often cancelled in poor or windy weather. Tours often include the cost of the hydrofoil, as well as tickets, in their prices.
If you love gardens, make sure you visit Peterhof between May and October; otherwise, the famous fountains will be turned off. In general, you want to come when the weather is fairly nice, as it can get chilly there off the Gulf of Finland. Winter visitors may be better off going to the Catherine Palace, which is in Pushkin (I would have loved to have seen this, but didn’t have enough time).
During our Peterhof visit, we skipped the palace itself and concentrated on the gardens (which I wouldn’t recommend – I wish we would have had more time to see the palace). However, as we were walking around, we discovered that the Imperial Chapel had recently opened to visitors. We toured the inside of the elaborate Russian Orthodox cathedral for a fee, checking out the glorious mosaics inside.
Peter the Great didn’t actually complete the construction of Peterhof; his daughter Elizabeth carried out the final plans (a consummate spender in her right, Elizabeth made it even more lavish than it was intended). The view in the photo above shows the fountain sequence known as the Grand Cascade and the Sea Channel that divides the Lower Gardens. At the time, the fountains were considered technologically advanced because they utilized differences in pressure instead of pumps.
The Lower Gardens were based on principles of 17th century French formal gardens. Some of the fountains in this area play “tricks” on visitors, spraying them when they get too close.
My trip to St. Petersburg was sponsored by The Eurail Group, but my opinions are my own.