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30km (19 miles) W of St. Petersburg

Unquestionably the number-one day trip from St. Petersburg, Peterhof lures visitors with its Versailles-inspired palace, which overlooks a cascade of fountains and gardens opening onto the Baltic Sea. This scene is much better appreciated from April to October, when the Grand Cascade is flowing and the park is in bloom. Going to Peter the Great's summer palace by ferry or hydrofoil enhances the pleasure of the experience, giving you a sense of Peter's maritime ambitions and of the region's role as Russia's western frontier. The boat ride and extensive park make this a great summer outing for kids.

Essentials

You'll get much more out of Peterhof if the weather is clear, since a major part of the experience is seeing the fountains (Apr-Oct) and wandering the grounds. The trip can easily be handled on your own, though organized tours are readily available. Tours offer two main advantages: no worries about transport, and detailed descriptions of the sights. The disadvantages are that you may be stuck in a crowded, touristy restaurant for lunch, and you won't get to explore the grounds freely. Tour costs are not much higher than paying for transport and museum tickets on your own. Check with your hotel about tours, or try Davranov Travel (17 Italianskaya Ulitsa; tel. 812/571-8694; www.davranovtravel.ru).

Boat trips are the best way to get here from mid-May to early October, not least because of the breathtaking view of the palace as you pull up to the Peterhof pier. Two companies run hydrofoils from the docks on the Neva River in front of the Winter Palace. Russian Cruises (tel. 812/325-6120; www.russian-cruises.ru) is the better equipped and offers English-language commentary. The Vodokhod company (tel. 812/740-5858) is cheaper but more rudimentary. The 45-minute trip takes you along the forested banks of the Baltic Sea. Boats run several times a day. When you disembark, head up the canal for the palace; the entrance is on the opposite side. Organized tours will often take you there on a boat and back home on a bus.

From October to May the best way to go is by bus. Russian vendors hawk trips on direct buses from Nevsky Prospekt metro station. They cost about 500 rubles round-trip and take an hour and a half.

What To See & Do

The palace and grounds offer enough to fill a day, or at least an afternoon. Start with the Great Palace, and be prepared to squint at all the gold inside. The rooms run in a long line facing the park, which can make for bottlenecks if visitors reverse direction or when there are large groups. Many visitors say the palace feels too magnificent to live in -- and Peter felt the same, preferring Monplaisir, a small baroque bungalow close to the water's edge that was the first building in the Peterhof complex.

Peter chose Peterhof's location for his summer residence based on its proximity to Kronshtadt, the island fort that housed his fledgling Russian navy. Built in 1715 by Jean Baptiste Leblond, the Great Palace came to be known for its grand summer fetes, in which everyone was invited to explore the czar's domain. The palace was occupied by the Nazis during World War II and suffered severe damage; its painstaking renovation became the region's pride. Note the Throne Room, with its dizzying light and portraits of the Romanovs; the neighboring Ladies-in-Waiting Room; and the intricate wooden floors of the Western Chinese Study.

In the lush park, the Monplaisir house, the small red-and-white Hermitage, and the Marly Palace (with a carved wood desk that Peter himself made) are well worth exploring, too, and more atmospheric than the Great Palace. Before heading down into the park, spend a moment on the palace balcony to take in the view of the greenery and the Grand Cascade from above. If it's open, explore the grotto beneath the fountain to see the 18th-century engineering feats that helped pipe in water from springs in the surrounding Ropsha Hills and make the cascade's 64 water jets work in synchronicity.

The most elaborate statues and fountains are along the axis from the palace to the pier. Be sure to see Samson Fountain, with the biblical strongman tearing apart the jaws of a lion, symbolizing Peter's victory over Sweden in 1709. Off to one side are the musical staccato fountains that shoot up at unpredictable intervals, where children love to drench themselves in warm weather while trying to guess which one will go off next. The park also includes a labyrinth of paths and ornate iron footbridges, as well as several small pavilions and gazebos. Park pavilions have opening days and admission fees different from those of the palace; weekends are the only time everything is open.

Peterhof (Petrodvorets) Palace and Park is at 2 Razvodnaya Ulitsa (tel. 812/427-9223). Admission to the palace costs 520 rubles adults, 250 rubles college students and children; admission to the park alone costs 300 rubles adults, 150 rubles students and children. The palace is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11am to 6pm (closed last Tues of each month). Monplaisir and other buildings on the grounds have different hours.

Where To Dine

The most convenient dining options are on the grounds of the park itself. Imperatorsky Stol, in the orangerie near the Triton Fountain, is a cozy place for tea, snacks, or a full meal of decent and inexpensive Russian-European cuisine (tel. 812/450-6106). The Standart restaurant (tel. 812/450-6281), at the center of the Lower Park near the canal, has more elegantly and expertly prepared Russian fare, for a higher price. It's housed in the former Illumination Yard, which was used to store pyrotechnic equipment for the palace's extravagant balls. Outside the grounds are a few restaurants playing up the town's imperial heritage for the benefit of rich Russian and foreign tourists, with servers in period costume and ornate dining halls. One of these is Ofitserskoye Sobraniye (25 Ulitsa Konstantinovskaya; tel. 812/427-4903), housed in a former club for pre-revolutionary royal officers. Its extensive appetizer selection is more successful than the main courses.

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.