25km (16 miles) S of St. Petersburg
For an intimate view of imperial country living during St. Petersburg's rise to world prominence, visit the baroque Catherine's Palace at Tsarskoye Tselo (formerly called Pushkin). This is almost always viewed together with a trip to nearby Pavlovsk to see Czar Paul I's classical castle and sculpted gardens. It was here that Russian engineers laid the country's first railway line, connecting these two royal resort towns, in order to shuttle nobles between palaces for summertime balls. Today anyone can ride the train, a 5-minute, 20-ruble ride, and view a model of the original train that took Czar Nicholas I and his family on their first ride. The world-famous Amber Room -- gutted by the Nazis and recently meticulously reconstructed -- is the major draw at Catherine's Palace; the rest of its rooms are marginally less impressive.
Tsarskoye Tselo and Pavlovsk each can be visited on its own, but their proximity to each other and convenient transport between them make for a pleasant dual-destination trip. Nearly all organized tours combine the two. You could fit both into 1 day, extend the trip over a weekend, or visit each separately. If you're visiting both, it makes most sense to hit Tsarskoye Tselo in the morning, then head to Pavlovsk for a picnic lunch in the park before visiting the palace there.
Many St. Petersburg hotels offer tours, as do Davranov Travel (17 Italianskaya Ulitsa; tel. 812/571-8694; www.davranovtravel.ru) and Frigate Tours (tel. 812/331-3333; www.frigate-tour.com). You can also get a riverboat to Tsarskoye Tselo from the pier in front of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg during the warmer months. Getting there on your own is not too difficult, but getting around once you're there requires a great deal of walking. A good tour guide or detailed book about the palaces (available at bookstores in St. Petersburg) is recommended. Organized tours usually take you by bus to Tsarskoye Tselo first, then to Pavlovsk.
If you're on your own, Russian tour buses run direct to Tsarskoye Tselo from in front of Nevsky Prospekt metro station; the trip takes about 40 minutes and costs about 500 rubles round-trip. You can also take a suburban train (elektrichka), which leaves Vitebsk station in St. Petersburg for Tsarskoye Tselo, then continues on to Pavlovsk. The ride costs about 200 rubles and takes about 45 minutes, then another 5 minutes to Pavlovsk, but you must be able to read the names of both towns in Russian to make sure you don't miss your stop. The train station at Tsarskoye Tselo is a sight in itself, with its Art Nouveau sweep and murals showing stations along the route, as well as the Royal Waiting Room upstairs. The walk to the palace takes a good 15 minutes, or you can hire a taxi.
What To See & Do
The town's original name, Tsarskoye Tselo (Tsar's Village), comes from the palaces and parks built by empresses Catherine I (Peter the Great's second wife) and Elizabeth I (their daughter). The electric-blue, white, and gold Catherine's Palace (Yekaterinsky Dvorets) -- the world's longest palace, at nearly 300m (984 ft.) -- is the town's central star. In the Soviet era, the town was named after the adored Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, who studied at the lycée here for 6 years in the early 19th century and later had a dacha (country house) in town. The Pushkin-related sights are worth visiting only if you speak Russian. The town has since readopted its pre-revolutionary name, but many Russians and much literature about the town still refer to it as Pushkin.
Although the palace was named after Catherine I, it was Catherine II (the Great) who was responsible for much of its interior design. It was built in stages, each of which reflects the character of the empress in charge at the time. Its baroque, festive features come from Elizabeth's favored court architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli, who later designed St. Petersburg's Winter Palace, while the simpler, neoclassical interiors came from Catherine the Great's English architect Charles Cameron. The facade of the palace is as sunny as the muted green face of the Winter Palace in Petersburg is misty, and much of the interior of Catherine's Palace glares even more brightly than its exterior. The gold cupolas of the palace church rise above one end of the facade, and a flowery, ornamental "E" (the Russian initial for Yekaterina) tops its entrance.
The palace's masterpiece, the Amber Room, is a crucial part of every tour. Museum guards sometimes restrict visitors' time there to control crowds. Its unrivalled concentration of amber, its unusual concept, and its dramatic history make it worth all the hype. The room actually feels small compared to others in the palace. It takes you a moment to realize that its walls are lined in amber panels, using nearly a ton of stone (or technically, petrified sap). Florentine mosaics portraying the five senses combine a staggering array of shades of amber, from milky green to deep rust brown. Furniture inlaid with amber occupies the room. Many of the works, however, are copies of long-lost originals. The original engraved wall panels were a gift to Peter the Great from the king of Prussia in 1716, then were stolen by Nazis who occupied the palace during the siege of Leningrad. One of the mosaics, Smell and Touch, is an original, discovered in private hands in Bremen, Germany, in 1997. The palace itself suffered even more widespread damage when the Nazis retreated -- they blew up many of its masterpieces on their way, and the reconstruction took decades.
The other chief highlight of the palace is the Great Hall, a grand ballroom lined with two tiers of windows interspersed with mirrors, much like Versailles's Hall of Mirrors. When the sun shines, the hall sparkles with reflections off the mirrors -- perfect for balls on sunny midsummer nights. The palace holds chamber music concerts during the White Nights. The Grand Hall's ceiling painting runs nearly the length of the room, and depicts Russian military victories and accomplishments in the sciences and arts.
Similarly luxurious halls elsewhere in the palace are the Agate Pavilion, a bathhouse of polished Siberian stone; and the Blue Drawing Room, Blue Chinese Room, and Choir Anteroom, all of which have intoxicating silk wall coverings. The Green Dining Room is one of the first imperial rooms in Russia to incorporate a fireplace and marble mantelpiece; until then, the preference had been for Dutch-tiled corner ovens.
Leave plenty of time to explore the grounds, in particular the Marble Bridge over the Great Pond, and the Pyramid, where Catherine the Great's favorite dogs were buried. The pavilion on the island was built for the musicians who accompanied royal boat trips on the pond.
Catherine's Palace (Yekaterinsky Dvorets) is located at 7 Ulitsa Sadovaya, Pushkin (tel. 812/465-9424; www.tzar.ru). Admission to the park is 180 rubles adults, 90 rubles college students and children 8 and over; admission to the palace costs 550 rubles adults, 280 rubles students and children. The park is open daily sunrise to sunset; the palace is open Wednesday through Monday from 10am to 6pm (closed last Mon of each month).
The Amber Room -- Originally constructed in 1701-1709 within the Charlottesburg Palace, the panels of what was to become Tsarskoye Tselo's Amber Room were give by the Prussian King Friedrick Wilhelm I to his then ally Peter I in 1716. They were not unpacked and installed until 1755, however: a task that required some eight tons of amber and that took 10 years to complete. Attempts to protect it from the German invasion of 1941 proved futile: the panels were too fragile to move, and its disguise (under wallpaper) was discovered by the Nazis in less than 36 hours. Initially transferred to Konigsburg (now Kaliningrad), the original panels have never been recovered, and rumors of their current locations abound. Some claim they were destroyed in the Allied bombings of Konigsburg, others that they were torpedoed in transit. A group of German treasure hunters claimed to have found evidence of them near the Czech border in early 2008. Reconstruction of the new Amber Room began in 1979 (with financial support from Germany), and it opened in 2003.
Where To Dine
Cafe Tsarskoye Tselo in the palace itself is the most convenient but least interesting lunch option in the vicinity, with hot and cold drinks and small open-faced sandwiches. (Its entrance is opposite the lycée; tel. 812/470-1349). A more picturesque spot is the Admiralty (Admiralteistvo), on the second floor of the pavilion of the same name on the shore of the Baltic Sea, at the other side of the Great Pond from the palace (Yekateriinsky Park; tel. 812/465-3549). The cuisine is primarily Russian, and service is friendly. Slightly farther from the palace, along the park's edge, is Staraya Bashnya (Old Tower) restaurant, concealed in the cluster of buildings called Fyodorovsky Gorodok (14 Akademichesky Pereulok; tel. 812/466-6698). Russian items such as garlicky beef dumplings (pelmeni) and beef stroganoff are particularly worthwhile. The restaurant is small, so reservations are a good idea before you make the trek out there.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.