If St. Petersburg is the star of the show, then its suburbs are the supporting cast needed to tell the story. For every aspect of the city's past—the glamour and glory of its Imperial era, the pride and power of its military history, the splendor of its architecture, the beauty of its waterways—there's a park, a palace, a playground of the tsars somewhere outside the city limits with a corresponding tale to tell.
From the dazzling fountains of Peterhof on the shores of the Gulf of Finland, to the tranquil estate of Pavlovsk to the south, to the naval stronghold of Kronshtadt, what surrounds St. Petersburg is as important to its existence and identity as anything on Nevsky prospekt. It might seem odd to tell you to get out of the city almost as soon as you've arrived, but you'll understand why once you've strolled through palatial rooms and vast grounds in the footsteps of the aristocrats and officers who made Russia a world power.
What draws most visitors, and residents as well, out of St. Petersburg are the elaborate residences where royalty and aristocracy retreated for relaxation. Of all the palaces in Russia, the one that generally makes the most distinct and lasting impression on visitors is Peterhof, on the shore of the Baltic Sea, some 29 km (18 miles) west of St. Petersburg. More than a mere summer palace, it's an Imperial playground replete with lush parks, monumental cascades, and gilt fountains. Tsarskoye Selo, now renamed Pushkin, was a fashionable haunt of members of the aristocracy who were eager to be near the Imperial family. After the Revolution of 1905, Nicholas II and his family lived here, more or less permanently. Pavlovsk was the Imperial estate of Paul I. The estate of Lomonosov, on the Gulf of Finland, is perhaps the least commanding of the suburban Imperial palaces. It is, however, the only one to have survived World War II intact.
Two islands offer different experiences—Kronshtadt is a former naval stronghold, and Valaam is one of Russia's most sacred places.