A Guide to St Petersburg Palaces

The gates of Catherine Palace
The gates of Catherine Palace | © GORBACHEVSERGEYFOTO / Pixabay
Photo of Anastasiia Ilina
30 June 2018

Visiting St Petersburg, you won’t be short of palaces and churches to visit. It’s quite literally overwhelming. If it all just doesn’t fit on the itinerary, you’ll need to pick and choose. All of them deserve attention, be it for their art collections or exquisite interiors. To make it easier, we’ve made a guide to St Petersburg’s palaces. This is not an extensive list of palaces, rather the highlights to consider for a first visit.

The Winter Palace

Map View
Facade of the Winter Palace | Facade of the Winter Palace
The Winter Palace is now better known as the Hermitage Museum. When it was first constructed in the eighteenth century under the rule of Peter the Great, it was intended as an imperial residence in the newly built capital of St Petersburg. The first Winter Palace was a modest two-story building, but with every new ruler came an addition to the grounds. It continued to expand and become lavishly decorated. The rulers would use the palace as their main residence during the winter months. In the mid-nineteenth century, after an attempted bombing in the palace, it became apparent that it was not a safe location for a residence anymore. It was only used for receptions and ceremonies. Currently, the Winter Palace houses an extensive art collection, one of the largest in the world.

Catherine Palace

Map View
Catherine Palace | Catherine Palace
A visit to Catherine Palace is well worth the travel time outside of St Petersburg. Named after Catherine I, wife of Peter the Great, the palace was commissioned by their daughter, Elizabeth. She is said to have chosen the radiant blue exterior as a tribute to her mother’s eye colour. The interiors of Catherine Palace demonstrate the lavish setting of the original royal residence, and rooms showcase exquisite objects preserved from the royal era. A highlight of the visit to Catherine Palace is the Amber Room – a reception hall decorated head to toe with Baltic amber. After visiting the palace, take time to also enjoy the beautiful gardens.

Peterhof Grand Palace

Building, Museum
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Fountains in front of Peterhof Palace | Fountains in front of Peterhof Palace
Peterhof was first planned by Peter the Great, who wanted to have an imperial residence in the suburbs. It was also strategically located on the Gulf of Finland, halfway to the port city of Kronstadt. Peterhof is not just a palace, it also features a large park with an exquisite system of fountains and gardens. Unfortunately, Peterhof was the least lucky of all St Petersburg landmarks during the war. The palace was completely destroyed during the Second World War and had to undergo a complete restoration. A permanent exhibition in the palace shows the condition the rooms were in after the bombings, comparing them to the current restored state.

Pavlovsk Palace

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Pavlovsk Palace on a quiet autumn day | Pavlovsk Palace on a quiet autumn day

Named after Emperor Paul I, Pavlovsk was established as an imperial residence at the end of the eighteenth century. The land was a gift of Empress Catherine the Great to her son Paul and his wife to celebrate the birth of their first child. Arguably, it was also a way for the empress to distance herself from him, as she was not keen about Paul becoming the next ruler of Russia. Still, Paul and his wife, Maria, made a home for themselves here, building a relatively modest palace in the neoclassical style. The interior of the palace allows visitors to gain insight into the life that the royal family enjoyed in their sanctuary. A large park surrounds the palace, and it is popular with locals who enjoy outdoor sports.

Shuvalov Palace

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Shuvalov Palace - now home of the Faberge Museum | Shuvalov Palace - now home of the Faberge Museum

A St Petersburg palace that did not belong to the royal family is the Shuvalov Palace. It was constructed in the eighteenth century for the count and countess Vorontsov, and it was later acquired by Maria Naryshkina (mistress of Alexander I). Naryshkina’s husband acquired a large collection for the palace and lavishly decorated it, making it a frequent gathering place for high society. Although the palace’s collection has now been dispersed to other museums, Shuvalov Palace is now home to the Faberge Museum. There are numerous works from Faberge craftsmen on display, including, of course, the infamous Faberge eggs.

Yusupov Palace

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Yusupov Palace from the River | Yusupov Palace from the River

Some used to say that the Yusupov Palace belonged to the richest family in Russia, even richer than the Romanov royal family. Needless to say, they spared no funds for the construction of their homes. The rooms of the Yusupov Palace all have a unique style: some were inspired by Italian art, others by oriental motifs. Many of the interiors have been preserved since the nineteenth century. The palace also has a private theatre that occasionally hosts shows for a small audience. For those interested in the macabre, the Yusupov Palace was the scene of the infamous murder of Grigory Rasputin, who was lured in by a group of aristocrats wishing to seize his influence on the royal family. An exhibition dedicated to the events of that day is open in the basement.

Gatchina Palace

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Statue of Paul in front of Gatchina Palace | Statue of Paul in front of Gatchina Palace

The Gatchina Palace was originally built for count Grigory Orlov, who was a favourite of Catherine the Great. Unfortunately for him, the palace was only completed two years before his death, giving him limited time to live there. Catherine the Great bought the palace back and handed it to her son Paul; his statue can be seen in front of the palace. It was later used by Paul’s son, Alexander I, and grandson, Alexander II. Following Alexander II’s assassination, his heir, Alexander III (yes, this is a lot of Alexanders), feared assassinated himself and hid out in the palace for two years. Since Gatchina is located about 40 km (25 miles) outside of St Petersburg, it was very close to the Nazi lines during WWII. Unfortunately, it suffered severe damage, and restoration work has continue to this day.