Peterhof: the haunting beauty of Russia’s Versailles

(Photo credit: Maike Verlaat)

Besides the gorgeous Grand Palace, its surrounding park, and amazing views towards the Gulf of Finland, Peterhof is known for its fountains. So why go in winter when they are not functioning?

Yes, you guessed it: because you have the place for yourself. The first thing that pops up when researching the former summer palace of Peter the Great are hints about the crowds. If you want to avoid them and are not ready to get up at 4 in the morning to be the first in line, consider a trip off-season. Another plus: the Lower Gardens will be free of charge. Going in the warmer months between May and October, visitors will have to pay 500 roubles.

Once you set foot on the grounds, you’ll be surprised by Peterhof’s stunning beauty, even in the cold. The Peterhof Palace is in stark contrast with the actual town of Peterhof (known as Petergof by Russians) with its less-than-glamorous facade which you will see when you get to the Noviy Peterhof train station. The Upper Gardens at the ground entrance, however, succeed in building excitement the closer you get to the Grand Palace. Walking through the stunning pergola is like seeing the ghost of Peter the Great strolling through with a beautiful lady on his arm enjoying a private conversation.

Pergola at the Upper Gardens (Photo credit: Maike Verlaat)
Pergola at the Upper Gardens (Photo credit: Maike Verlaat)

Peter’s plan

Peter the Great did not initially intend for Peterhof to be as famous as it is today. The UNESCO World Heritage Site started out as the tsar’s retreat on his way back from Kotlin Island, where he built the commercial harbor for St Petersburg as waters close to the city were too shallow to serve this purpose. For his pleasure, he started the construction of a little palace right at the shoreline in 1714. As part of his Europeanisation of Russia, Peter named his villa “Monplaisir”, French for “my pleasure”.

With Monplaisir surrounded by the coast and forest alike, it’s not hard to see why Peter liked Peterhof so much that he decided to expand it based on the model of the French’s Versailles, with castles and gardens further inland. The Lower Gardens are just as fascinating in winter. With fewer people around, it gives you the chance to breathe and discover all the sights such as the Gothic Chapel, a large greenhouse, and the small dining cabin Hermitage.

The Grand Palace Museum

The prominence of the Grand Palace, as it is today, was not part of Peter’s initial plan. It was elevated later which also helps with the water pressure for the large fountain system. Don’t miss going inside, even if you are not a fan of museums. The approximately thirty rooms are rather small, so a tour won’t take too long. Filled with art and imposing furniture and decorations, every room is unique and themed in different ways. Especially outstanding is Peter’s Oak Study as well as the Chinese Study with jewel red and green walls. Since you are not allowed to block the rather narrow passage along the various chambers, going when there are less visitors will make your experience a lot more enjoyable.

So the next time you get the chance to go to Peterhof – just go, no matter which season it is.

View from The Grand Palace towards the water (Photo credit: Maike Verlaat)
View from The Grand Palace towards the water (Photo credit: Maike Verlaat)

How to get there

By Train
There are various options to get to Peterhof from St Petersburg. The fastest but most complicated way would be to take a commuter train from Baltiskiy Station to Noviy Peterhof which will take 45 minutes. A one-way ticket cost 58 roubles for adults and 29 roubles for students. Train schedules and tickets are available on this website. Unfortunately, there are no announcements or signs on the train, so watch the station names closely as they pass by. From there you can walk to the entrance in about 20 minutes. Otherwise, you can also take buses 350, 351, 352, 356 for five stops to get to Peterhof Palace.

By Bus
Alternatively, there are marshrutka minibuses running from Baltiskiy, Avtovo and Leninskiy Prospekt metro station directly to the park gates in Peterhof. Depending on traffic, buses will need about one hour and cost 60 – 70 roubles.

By Boat
If you decide to visit in summer, you can also take a hydrofoil for 30 minutes from Admiralteyskaya Naberezhnaya across the Gulf of Finland all the way to the Lower Park in Peterhof. The round-trip costs 750 roubles.

Check out Peterhof under a blanket of snow:


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