Russia’s imperial leaders were known for their extravagance. Grandiose baroque palaces, gold leaf interiors, perfectly manicured gardens – it was all the norm for 18th century royals. The best way to catch a glimpse of this lifestyle in modern-day St Petersburg is at Tsarskoye Selo, the former summer residence of the country’s Tsars. Now a museum complex under the umbrella of Tsarskoye Selo State Museum-Preserve in the town of Pushkin, just south of St Petersburg, it’s definitely worth a visit. From the regal Catherine Palace and Alexander Palace to beautiful gardens and Cameron Gallery, a tour of Tsarskoye Selo will open your eyes to a world of wealth and Russian opulence.
The 18th century was a wonderful time for construction in Russia and baroque palaces inspired by the Palace de Versailles were all the rage for those who could afford them. Catherine Palace, at the centre of Tsarskoye Selo, was built for Catherine I by her husband, Peter the Great, and designed by famous architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli. It’s renowned for its stunning blue and white façades and opulent interiors, the highlight of which is the Amber Room. A priceless piece of art, the dazzling chamber is covered in panels cut from the precious stone and decorated with amber detailing and golf leaf.
Next to Catherine Palace is the Cameron Gallery, a former bathhouse built by Charles Cameron who modelled it on the ruins of the Constantine Baths in Rome. While the waters have long since dried up, the ground floor is now used as a gallery space and the upper level is home to Cameron’s famous Agate Rooms. Another example of imperial Russian excess, the chambers are exquisitely designed and covered in semi-precious stones, paintings and statues.
Tsarskoye Selo’s secondary palace is considered one of the finest neoclassical buildings in Russia. Its architecture is classically opulent and steers away from the baroque style with its impressive Corinthian columns. The palace was commissioned by Catherine the Great for her grandson Alexander Pavlovich, who passed it down to Nicholas I, followed by Nicolas II – making it a true family heirloom.
Next to each of the Russian Palaces in Tsarskoye Selo lie stunning connecting gardens. Catherine Park is like something out of a fairy tale, with charming marble bridges crossing winding canals, boat trips on the lake and monuments to famous characters in Russian history. The sprawling garden is also home to a number of Turkish baths and a beautiful baroque pavilion called The Grotto. The neighbouring Alexander Park is a great place to escape the crowds in summer and while it has less attractions than its sister park, it is equally beautiful. Take a stroll over the Chinese Bridge and gaze at the remnants of the old Chinese Theatre, seek out the park’s ruined medieval pavilions or simply relax on the lawn and catch some sun before making your way back to St Petersburg.