The dazzling 18th-century Catherine Palace is a perfect example of Russian baroque, its bright-turquoise exterior distinguished by row after row of white columns and pilasters with gold baroque moldings running the entire 985 feet of the facade. Although much of the palace's history and its inner architectural design bears Catherine the Great's stamp, it's for Catherine I, Peter the Great's second wife, that the palace is named. Under their daughter, Empress Elizabeth, the original modest stone palace was completely rebuilt. The project was initially entrusted to the Russian architects Kvasov and Chevakinsky, but in 1752 Elizabeth brought in the Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli. Although Catherine the Great had the interiors remodeled in the classical style by a pair of noted architects, the Scottish Charles Cameron and the Italian Giacomo Quarenghi, she left Rastrelli's stunning facade untouched.
gates designed by Rastrelli. The E mounted atop is for Catherine ("Ekaterina" in Russian). To your right, a visual feast unfolds as you walk the length of the long blue-and-gold facade toward the museum entrance. Sparkling above the palace at the northern end are the golden cupolas of the Palace Church. Entering the palace by the main staircase (not added until 1861), you'll see displays depicting the extent of the wartime damage and of the subsequent restoration work. Like Peterhof, the palace was almost completely destroyed during World War II. It was used by occupying Nazi forces as an army barracks, and as the Germans retreated, they blew up what remained of the former Imperial residence.
The largest and arguably most impressive room is the Great Hall (Bolshoi Zal), which was used for receptions and balls. The longer sides of the hall are taken up by two tiers of gilt-framed windows, with tall, elaborately carved, gilded mirrors placed between them. Light pouring in through the windows bounces off the mirrors and sparkles on the gilt, amplifying the impression of spaciousness and brilliance. The huge ceiling painting, depicting Russian military victories and accomplishments in the sciences and arts, makes the room seem even larger. Here it's easy to imagine the extravagant lifestyle of St. Petersburg's prerevolutionary elite.
On the north side of the State Staircase is one of the palace's most famous rooms, the Amber Room (Yantarnaya Komnata), so named for the engraved amber panels that line its walls. The room owes much of its fame to the mysterious disappearance of its amber panels in World War II. In 1979 the Soviet government finally gave up hope of ever retrieving the panels and began the costly work of restoring the room. Leaving the Amber Room, you'll come to the large Picture Gallery (Kartinny Zal), which runs the full width of the palace. The paintings are from Western Europe and date from the 17th to early 18th centuries.
The Blue Drawing Room, the Blue Chinese Room, and the Choir Anteroom face the courtyard. Each has pure-silk wall coverings—when the postwar restoration began, this extra supply of the original silk was discovered tucked away in a storage room of the Hermitage.
The beautiful park, with its marble statues, waterfalls, garden alleys, boating ponds, pavilions, bridges, and quays, is split into two sections. The inner, formal section, the French Garden, runs down the terraces in front of the palace's eastern facade. The outer section encloses the Great Pond and is in the less-rigid style of an English garden. If you follow the main path through the French Garden and down the terrace, you'll eventually reach Rastrelli's Hermitage pavilion, which he completed just before turning his attention to the palace itself. Other highlights of the French Garden include the Upper and Lower Bath pavilions (1777–79) and Rastrelli's elaborate blue-domed grotto.
In the English-style garden, the Cameron Gallery (Galereya Kamerona) forms a continuation of the palace's park-side frontage. It's off to the right (with your back to the palace). Open only in summer, it contains a museum of 18th- and 19th-century costumes. From its portico you get the best views of the park and its lakes—which is exactly what Cameron had in mind when he designed it in the 1780s. The double-sided staircase leading down to the Great Pond is flanked by two bronze sculptures of Hercules and Flora. From here, descend the stairs to begin your exploration of the park. Just beyond the island in the middle of the artificially created Great Pond stands the Chesma Column, commemorating the Russian naval victory in the Aegean in 1770. At the far end of the pond is Cameron's Pyramid, where Catherine the Great is said to have buried her beloved greyhounds. If you walk around the pond's right side, you'll come to the pretty blue-and-white Marble Bridge, which connects the Great Pond with a series of other ponds and small canals. At this end, you can rent rowboats. Farther along, up to the right, you come to the Ruined Tower. This architectural folly was built in the late 18th century merely to enhance the romantic ambience of these grounds.
Outside the park stands yet another palace, Alexandrovsky Dvorets, a present from Catherine to her favorite grandson, the future Tsar Alexander I, on the occasion of his marriage. Built by Giacomo Quarenghi between 1792 and 1796, the serene and restrained classical structure was the favorite residence of Russia's last tsar, Nicholas II. The left wing of the building is open to the public and hosts topical exhibits. Most of the interior was lost, with the notable exception of Nicholas's cabinet, a fine example of art-nouveau furniture and design.
Built in 1791 and originally intended for the education of Catherine the Great's grandchildren, the Lyceum later became a school for the nobility. Its most famous student, enrolled the first year it opened, was the beloved poet Alexander Pushkin. The building now serves as a museum; the classroom, library, and Pushkin's bedroom have been restored to their appearance at the time he studied here. In the school's garden is a statue of the poet as a young man, seated on a bench, presumably deep in creative meditation.
In summer you can enjoy carriage rides in the park (600R to 1200R), a Great Pond gondola ride (300R), and even electric car tours (250R). In winter you can enjoy sleigh rides in Alexander Park on weekends and holidays (600R-1200R).