As I would discover, 15 or 16 hours is not nearly enough time to spend in the Russian city of St. Petersburg. Even though cruise ships make it possible to enjoy a longer than usual port visit, you’ll still come to the conclusion that your time there was much too brief, due to the fact that I have never been to a city that was so “me,” and that there was so much I could have seen and done.
Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve always loved learning and reading about the history of the Russian monarchy. I knew when I visited St. Petersburg on my cruise, I wanted one of the places I stopped at to be czar-related. So I settled on Peterhof Palace, dubbed the Versailles of Russia. Was a visit here worth it? Well, yes AND no. And here’s why.
Like most major European royal palaces (Versailles, Spain’s El Escorial), Peterhof is located outside of the city center, roughly a 45 minute drive. Granted, I did enjoy a lot of the drive including seeing dachas (a type of Russian vacation home) and then once we were in the village of Peterhof, the many old buildings that looked eerily haunting (and made my imagination run rampant when picturing these buildings in the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution and then especially during Communist times). Still, 90 minutes of the eight hour private tour I contracted were spent riding in a car, time that could have been spent enjoying a leisurely visit to St. Isaac’s Cathedral including climbing the cupola, or visiting the Peter and Paul Fortress which is the final resting place for Czar Nicholas II and his family (the czarist royal family I was always most fascinated by).
The interior was on par with most royal palaces in terms of sheer opulence. Not a bad thing, but not anything “out of this world” extraordinary, unlike a visit to the Taj Mahal, for instance. Don’t get me wrong, there were definitely some unique features of the palace’s interior, like the gallery of portraits of common Russian women, not something you’d expect to see in any royal residence. Just be prepared to stand in line to get your “blue booties” to place over your shoes and check any bag or other article that’s basically larger than an adult’s hand. Very Soviet Union factory-style efficiency.
A main reason people visit Peterhof is for its two beautifully designed gardens, the Upper Gardens and the Lower Gardens. The piece de resistance is undoubtedly the Grand Cascade leading into the Lower Gardens. There’s a total of 37 gilded bronze sculptures, 64 fountains and 142 water jets . It descends from the terraces of the Great Palace through the estate and finally into the Gulf of Finland. There’s even an official opening ceremony of the fountains each day at 11 AM. Queue up early for a prime viewing spot if you want to capture good photos or video, otherwise elbow your way in because it will be mobbed. Personally, I was blase on the opening ceremony of the fountains, due to the sheer number of people and could have skipped it and spent more time exploring the gardens.
Being the history nerd that I am, I actually would have loved a tour strictly on Peterhof during the Second World War. While the Nazis never made it INTO St. Petersburg, they had the city surrounded for 900 days and Peterhof was included in this. It was occupied by the German forces and suffered significant damage, almost to the point of destruction.
I will say this, I was lucky to book two port excursions, my all day private tour and then a small group tour at night of the Hermitage Art Museum. Had I not had this option available, I probably would have skipped out on making the trek to Peterhof. Not that the palace isn’t worthy of a visit, but rather that St. Petersburg is one of the most incredible cities I’ve ever visited. There is so much to see and do there, save a day trip for when you have more time.
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