Impressive. Gargantuan. Opulent. Grandiose. These are just some of the words used to describe Russia’s Peterhof Palace and Gardens, which still don’t seem to do the sprawling estate nicknamed “the Russian Versailles” justice. Located in the town of Petergof about a 45 minute drive from St. Petersburg, the grounds are nestled along the seafront overlooking the Gulf of Finland, and are considered Peter the Great’s crowning achievement.
The Russian tsar commissioned his extravagant summer residence back in the 1700s, and after being badly damaged a couple centuries later during World War II it was beautifully restored. That work resulted in Peterhof being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of the greater St. Petersburg area, and is now one of the country’s most popular attractions. Today, visitors passing through the gates are greeted by the sight of the palace’s sunshine-yellow exterior, majestically perched on a hill overlooking the expansive grounds that stretch as far as the eye can see.
Most tours begin with a visit inside the Grand Palace, which is made up of over two dozen rooms, all lavishly decorated with different themes—a nod to the wealth and worldliness of the tsar. Silk tapestries adorn walls and furniture, while frescos and statues line the long hallways done up in the baroque style. Perhaps the most impressive rooms are the White Dining Room which boasts exquisite chandeliers hanging from towering ceilings, and the dramatic ballroom where golden facades drip off the walls.
Heading back outside, guests make their way onto a walkway overlooking Peterhof’s crown jewel: the Grand Cascade. The most impressive out of the all the fountains found throughout the Lower and Upper Gardens—which Peter designed himself—the towering, golden gilded statue depicts Samson prying open a lion’s jaws. It’s a marvelous sight from all angles given the backdrop of the opulent palace and lush gardens, and is surrounded by dozens of fountains and more than 200 bronze statues. Visitors will want to ensure they’ve grabbed a spot around the Grand Cascade in time for the daily turning-on of the fountain, which sees water shoot out of the statue and hillside behind, all set to classical music.
Insider tip: Those lucky enough to time their visit for the annual opening of the fountains (usually at the end of May) can look forward to an all-day festival which includes performances and a spectacular fireworks show.
Once guests have their fill of the fountain, it’s time to explore the park—and hopefully they have comfortable shoes on. There are hundreds of hectares to explore, featuring meticulously manicured gardens, trellis’, numerous palaces and the canal-like reservoir that stretches away from the Grand Cascade. Popular spots include the checkered Chess Board Hill Cascade which is flanked by three dragons as well as Greek and Roman deities, along with the so-called joke fountains which spray water at unassuming visitors who have the misfortune of stepping on the paving stone or sitting on the bench that sets them off!
While touring the entire estate in just one visit is virtually impossible, even a quick tour through the Grand Palace and surrounding gardens is enough to give guests a taste of the opulent life of Peter the Great, making a visit to Peterhof Palace a must-do for anyone travelling to St. Petersburg, Russia.
IF YOU GO:
How to get there: Trains from St. Petersburg take about 45 minutes, plus a 20 minute walk to Peterhof’s gates. There are also a number of buses and guided excursions—including the popular hydrofoil trips across the Gulf of Finland.
Hours of operation: Peterhof is usually open every day except Monday. Click here for more information.
Need to know: Videos and photos are not permitted inside the palace, but are allowed outside and throughout the gardens.
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Globe Guide explored St. Petersburg in partnership with Viking Cruises.