South of Saint Petersburg many imperial palaces can be found. Two of those – the Catherine Palace in Pushkin (also called Tsarskoe Selo) and the Great Palace in nearby Pavlovsk can be easily combined in a self-guided, but long, day trip. Most people (read: tour groups) only focus on the splendor of the Catherine Palace, so it gets very crowded here. A visit to the more demure (but still gorgeous) Great Palace, which gets just a fraction of the visitors, is a more relaxed experience.
Getting to Pushkin and Pavlovsk
We started our day by going to Pavlovsk first. We’d read that the regular marshrutkas (minibus) that leave from Moskovskaya metro station (blue line 2) would take about 35 minutes to get to Pavlovsk, so we planned our departure from our hostel accordingly to arrive around the palace’s 10 AM opening time.
We didn’t make that as in the end the total travel time was almost two hours with walking to the metro, metro ride, finding the departure point of the marshrutkas (in front of the House of Soviets, but they stop near the metro station as well), waiting for it to fill, the ride to Pavlovsk and a 20-25 minute walk from the gate where we got dropped off through the palace park to the palace.
Burned down and restored
The late 18th-century white and yellow neo-classicist palace was built as a summer residence for Prince Pavel (who would later become Tsar Pavel I), the son of Catherine the Great. The original palace was largely burned down during WW II, but got completely restored to its former splendor.
Most of the furnishings, however, are original, as they’d already been brought to safety in the preceding years. Though less impressive than the rooms at for example the Peterhof and Catherine Palaces, they’re still marvelous to see (and sans the crowds of the aforementioned palaces!).
English landscaped gardens
The palace itself is surrounded by a large English garden, one of the biggest landscaped parks in Europe, filled with rivers, ponds, classical statues and temples. You could easily spend several hours there wandering along the many tree-lined paths or have something to eat, but we couldn’t linger too long with the Catherine Palace in Pushkin still waiting for us. So after a short stroll through the park we hiked back to where we’d been dropped off to catch a minibus for the short 5 km ride to Pushkin.
Park first, than palace
Here we made the mistake of walking all the way to the main entrance to Catherine Park, which you have to buy a ticket for first before you can buy a ticket for the Catherine Palace later on. We could have avoided the long queue to get in by entering through the Hermitage gate we’d passed earlier, but thought was the wrong entrance. No lines there and you get into the park much quicker.
Once inside the park another long line of waiting people greeted us to get access to the palace. Seeing the length of the line standing there in the burning sun (it was early afternoon, around 2 PM) we decided to explore the park first in the hope that at the end of the afternoon the line would have shrunken. The park extends around a big pond and has some beautiful pastel colored buildings like the picturesque Hermitage and Grotto Pavilion. Tip: Bring your own drinks into the park as they are expensive here.
Queueing for Catherine Palace
After enjoying some of the sights in the park Eugénie thought it would be wise get to the waiting line in front of the Catherine Palace that seemed to have shortened a little bit. Boy, were we wrong. It only seemed shorter because people were standing closer together. At the same time there were several tour group guides in the waiting line letting their guests slip in as the entrance got closer. Arrrgh. With only 200 people (through two separate entrances) granted access per 15 minutes it took us two hours of waiting to get into the palace.
It was 6 PM by then. Luckily opening hours had been extended. Once inside most people entering appeared to be in a tour group, just a few individual visitors like us going to the ticket counter to buy tickets (you can only do this by showing your entrance ticket to the park by the way, so don’t throw it away!). Strange, considering the fact that as an individual visitor you can’t enter the palace before 12 o’clock, entry to the palace being reserved for prebooked tour groups only until that time.
Once inside it was extremely crowded and the tour was over in about 25 minutes. You only got to see a few (some would say exquisite, others would say extremely kitsch) rooms, including the world famous amber room. Many people rave about it, we didn’t think it was that special. We’re just not big fans of amber, I guess. We can’t show you, though, as photography was forbidden in the amber room. Although most of the rooms were beautifully kitsch, we felt a bit let down by the short duration we actually spent inside the palace after such a long wait, a sentiment shared by others.
Once outside again we tried to get to the back side of the palace. For this we had to leave the park. Regretfully the gates were closed at this side for visitors as preparations were being made for a function later on. It was funny to see that, although this most cost a fortune, glasses were filled with the same cheap orange juice we bought at the supermarket. It’s all about the grand décor apparently and this was indeed impressive.
After a quick dinner in a nearby restaurant we headed back to Saint Petersburg arriving back at our room around 10 PM. Wow, what a day! The sights in Pushkin and Pavlovsk were great, the crowds at Catherina Palace being a bit of an anticlimax. We think it would be better to visit at a more quiet time of the year.
We visited Pushkin and Pavlovsk on a Monday in June 2016