Peterhof Palace is often referred to as the “Russian Versailles”. Located at the gates of St. Petersburg, it is a popular destination for tourists and is visited by hundreds of thousands every year. Peterhof occupies an important place in Russian history, as it stands as a symbol of the country’s westward orientation under Peter the Great and the supremacy in the Baltic Sea region that Russia occupied from the early 18th century. We would like to introduce you to the most beautiful palace complex in Russia here, go into the history of the complex and give you some practical tips for your visit to Peterhof Palace near Saint Petersburg.
The history of Peterhof Palace
Peterhof Palace was built in the middle of the 18th century. Peter the Great had initially maintained a small country house here. During the Great Northern War, Russia was able to expand its sphere of influence in the region, and Peter commissioned a feudal complex, also to underpin Russia’s claim to power. Even though the complex was not completed until long after the tsar’s death, it was based on Peter’s original plans. The architects Braunstein, Le Blond, Miketti, Rastrelli, Voronichin and Stackenschneider were responsible for the Baroque palace in several phases. Especially the name Rastrelli is still known to many today. The Italian was to make himself sublime at the same time with buildings such as the Winter Palace and the Smolny Monastery in Petersburg and the Church of St. Andrew in Kyiv.
Modifications to the palace
Large parts of the complex were ready for habitation during Peter’s lifetime, and from then on the palace served as a summer residence for the Russian tsars, while they usually spent the winters in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Under Peter’s successor, Tsarina Anna, further work was carried out. But it was not until Tsarina Elisabeth commissioned Rastrelli that the complex took on its present appearance, even though Peterhof was repeatedly remodeled over the course of time.
Destruction and reconstruction
In 1941, Peterhof was captured by German troops. In the chaos of the collapsing Russian front, employees of the palace at least managed to save some of the art treasures and fountains. Attempts to dig in some fountains, however, failed. After the capture of Peterhof by the Germans, Red Army soldiers tried to recapture the complex. The operation, which was carried out from the sea side, failed. Fierce fighting broke out in the gardens of Peterhof Palace. Some surviving Red Army soldiers hid in the extensive grounds, but were all eventually tracked down and killed. The Germans now proceeded to systematically destroy this symbol so important to Russia, blowing up parts of the complex and setting fire to other areas.
Even though everything to do with the tsars was actually hated by the communists, they set about rebuilding Peterhof Palace immediately after the end of the Second World War. The palace complex was too important for Russian history and Peterhof was too important as a symbol of the victory and resurrection of the Soviet Union. The reconstruction succeeded in a masterly manner, so that today one would hardly suspect that Peterhof is not the original complex. However, the name of Peterhof has been changed. In Russian it is also called Peterhof (pronounced “Petergof”) and after the horrors of the war it simply sounded too German. Peterhof thus became Petrodvorets, and it was not until the 1990s that the facility was given back its old name.
The structure of Peterhof
In view of such a huge area as Peterhof, it is easy to lose track of everything. But actually everything is not so complicated. The area is divided into the Lower Park, the Grand Palace and the adjoining Upper Park. The Lower Park is the largest and most spectacular area of Peterhof and has numerous technically elaborate fountains. To the east, the area merges into Aleksandrija Park, which occupies the largest part of Peterhof in terms of area and also offers several highlights. The lower park is crossed by a dead-straight canal that ends at a pier, which most of you will use to travel to Peterhof (read more below).
The Lower Park
Two grottoes, over 60 different fountains and more than 200 gilded bronze statues make up the 100-hectare Lower Park. It is therefore the most magnificent part of the complex and its splendor even outshines the Great Palace. In the following we would like to present you the highlights of this part of the complex.
By far the most significant sight of Peterhof and one of the most iconic photo motifs in Russia is the Great Cascade. It was designed by Peter the Great himself and includes two staircases over which the water flows into a semicircular fountain basin. In addition to gilded statues of several mythological figures, there are also several green and gold vases here, which contrast with the white marble work to create a beautiful overall impression.
The water from the Great Cascade flows into the fountain basin. Here is a sculpture depicting Samson conquering a lion. This is usually where the highest jet of water in all of Peterhof shoots into the sky. The figure of Samson was not chosen by chance. Although it goes back to the Bible, the lion is a clear symbol of Sweden, which was defeated by the troops of Peter the Great in the Great Northern War. From the fountain the long canal leads to the Baltic Sea. Here, too, there is a deep symbolism, because the victory over Sweden was to mark the dawn of a new age for Russia and to bring about its domination of the Baltic Sea region.
To the west and east of the canal are two of the most charming fountains in Peterhof. The Eve Fountain on the west side, just like its counterpart, was created by the Italian sculptor Giovanni Bonazza. It is surrounded by some beautiful buildings, reminiscent of Greek temples, designed to protect the courtly society from sudden rains.
East of the canal is the Adam Fountain, which, apart from the statue, is identical in construction to the Fountain of Eve. Adam and Eve, by the way, had a different meaning at that time than the one we know from the Bible. In the 18th century they were seen as a symbol of the grandparents of mankind and thus provided the tsar with the opportunity to cast himself as the grandfather of the Russian people.
If you follow the path from the Eve Fountain to the northwest, you will get directly to the Hermitage. Here the tsar and the court dined with a unique view of the Baltic Sea. The dining table was a technical masterpiece. With the help of rope hoists, it could be transported from the kitchen on the first floor through the ceiling to the dining room on the second floor. This allowed the courtly society to eat in peace without being “disturbed” by the sight of servants. If they wanted more food, they simply rang a bell and the table was re-set in the dining room. Initially, guests were also let into the dining room via an elevator, but after an accident a staircase was built. As the first part of Peterhof, the Hermitage was reopened as a museum after the war.
Peter the Great pursued an architectural vision which stated that every building in Peterhof should have its appropriate fountain. However, it was to take almost 100 years before the Lion Cascade was erected not far from the Hermitage. Due to design flaws, it was replaced in 1850 by the present fountain, which comprises a colonnade formed around a basin. On both sides of the construction two lions spitting water guard the area, inside the colonnade there is a statue of the nymph Aganippe.
Menager Fountain and Triton Fountain
To the west of the lion cascade is another fountain ensemble. It shows four little boys, each carrying a fountain bowl, and was made in England in the 1720s. The original tritons were stolen by the Wehrmacht and replaced with new ones by a Soviet artist in 1954. In the small park with its many marble statues next to it, huge fountains shoot up to 15 meters into the sky. The impressive technical construction is said to have been designed by Peter the Great himself and is still in operation in this form today, some 300 years after its construction.
South of this ensemble stands one of the most impressive complexes of Peterhof Palace. The so-called Golden Hill is based on the French model Marly-le-Roi west of Paris, which Peter had visited during one of his trips to Europe. However, it was not completed until after Peter’s death. The staircase cascade shows statues of ancient gods, but it owes its name to the gilded copper plates that form the steps here. Three particularly beautiful statues are enthroned at the top. The middle one shows Neptune with his trident raised and is supposed to symbolize Russia’s claim to dominion over the sea. In the 19th century, the marble statues were replaced by those made of Carrara marble, many of which survived the war unscathed.
Picturesquely situated on a land bridge in the Marly Pond is the Marly Palace, which also dates back to Peter’s visit to France. It served the tsar as a modest retreat, later as a guest house for high visitors and, especially in combination with the pond once used for fish farming, is a popular photo motif and one of the most important sights in the western part of the Lower Park. Today, paintings and things from the personal belongings of Peter the Great are displayed here.
Monplaisir Palace is the oldest part of Peterhof. Peter the Great designed the building himself in the Dutch style he loved so much and chose this location because it was ideally situated between the port of Kronstadt and Petersburg. Situated directly on the waterfront, the tsar furnished his palace with paintings he had acquired in Western Europe. In the vicinity of the palace there are numerous fountains, including some fun fountains, which provide a lot of pleasure, especially for children.
Orangery and Triton Fountain
An absolute eye-catcher in the eastern part of the Lower Park is the Orangery with the golden Trinton Fountain in front of it. The impressive fountain sculpture depicts Triton tearing open the maw of a sea monster, from which a fountain of water spills into the large basin. The orangery once served as a greenhouse for exotic fruits. The small garden around the orangery is also worth a visit; in addition to flower beds, there are also some fruit trees and vegetables are grown here.
To recognize a pyramid in the water fountain east of the orangery, you need a certain imagination. Nevertheless, it is one of the most beautiful fountains of Peterhof, also because here the water is in the center and not only serves as an accessory to sculptures or architectural constructions. East of the pyramid fountain begins the Aleksandrija Park, which invites to extensive walks.
The most unusual and amusing cascade of Peterhof is located southeast of the Orangery on the natural hill separating the Lower Park from the Great Palace and the Upper Park. Three colorful dragons “spout” water here in front of a stylized dragon’s lair, which flows down several checkerboard steps into a basin. Peter had actually commissioned a fountain to resemble a ruined fortress, another symbol of Russia’s victory over Sweden. His successors, however, then decided to give the cascade a lighter and more amusing touch, which surely must have amused many of the court’s illustrious guests. The marble statues on either side of the cascade were buried during the war and were thus saved from destruction.
Aleksandriya Park to the east of the Lower Park was not built under Peter the Great, but was commissioned some 100 years later by Tsar Nicholas I on the remains of the site of Alexander Menshikov, a confidant of Peter the Great. The tsar commissioned a fancy palace and a neo-Gothic church here, and Russia’s first telegraph station was also located here. The town also made history because it was here that Tsar Nicholas II signed a declaration after the 1905 revolution that led to the formation of the Duma, Russia’s first parliament.
With all the magnificent fountains and beautiful parks, one could easily forget that there is also a palace here. The Great Palace was built from 1714 and was already largely completed in 1723. At that time, however, it looked different, Peter was not known for his pompousness, so the current appearance goes back to rebuildings and decorations of his successors. The famous Rastrelli also laid his hands on this baroque-classicist masterpiece. Almost completely destroyed during the war, it is a miracle that today, after its reconstruction, the palace looks exactly like the original.
Inside the Grand Palace, you’ll find numerous magnificent representative rooms, such as the throne room and the ballroom. But it’s the smaller, more intimate rooms that make the estate so appealing. Chinese and Turkish salons, Peter’s study and much more await you here and you should plan at least two hours for a visit to the Grand Palace.
The Baroque Palace Church on the east side of the Great Palace is a masterpiece of Rastrelli and was commissioned under Tsarina Elizabeth Petrovna. Although it appears more modest than many of the monumental church buildings in Saint Petersburg, it is nevertheless of great importance, close several important weddings took place here, tsars were baptized here and the imperial family gathered here to pray after great victories. However, the rather plain exterior should not hide the colorful splendor inside. The church adjoins the so-called Olga Wing, which received this name when a third floor was built in honor of the marriage of the tsar’s daughter Olga to Prince Charles of Württemberg.
On the other side of the palace rises the Treasury with its golden dome. Rastrelli was also responsible for this building, originally it was called the Armorial Pavilion. This place was also used for the accommodation of state guests. Today, the Treasury displays state gifts, valuable ecclesiastical paraphernalia and objects from the personal possessions of the imperial family.
The Upper Park
The Upper Park can by no means compete with the Lower Park in terms of splendor, especially since it is much smaller. However, the strictly symmetrical layout is still worth a visit. The Upper Park of Peterhof consists of five water installations – two square fountains directly by the palace, the Oak Fountain and the Neptune Fountain in the middle and the Mesheumnij Fountain at the park exit. Incidentally, the square fountains serve an important purpose, as they feed water to the fountains in the Lower Park.
The Neptune Fountain is the largest and most magnificent installation in the Upper Park and depicts the god of the sea, who watches over Peterhof and is, of course, also a symbol of Russia’s maritime quest for power. Interesting historical detail: originally, the sculptures of the fountain were supposed to stand on Nuremberg’s main market square, but Tsar Paul I seems to have offered something more. And so today the baroque Neptune Fountain stands in the middle of an otherwise strictly classicist landscape.
Across the street, beyond Peterhof Palace, is another site you should definitely visit, Olga Pond. There are two interconnected islands here, each with a pavilion from the tsarist era. The Olga Pavilion was a gift from Nicholas I to his daughter for her wedding to Charles of Württemberg and brings a little Mediterranean flair to the far north, because it was built in the Sicilian style. It was there that Charles had asked for Olga’s hand in marriage. She will not have had much of the pavilion, because after the wedding the two moved to Stuttgart in Southern Germany. The Tsarina Pavilion on the second island, on the other hand, is said to be reminiscent of ancient Pompei.
But the most beautiful building on Olga Pond is the Peter and Paul Cathedral. It is 70 meters high and thus one of the highest Orthodox churches in the world. Built around 1900, it is strongly reminiscent of Moscow’s St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Church of the Blood Savior in St. Petersburg. Originally, the Soviets wanted to blow up the building, but fortunately it did not happen. Therefore, today, at the end of your visit to Peterhof, you can visit one of the most beautiful churches in the surrounding area.
Practical tips Peterhof Palace
- You should know that the fountains are not active all year round. The annual fountain opening depends on the weather and is celebrated with a big party. Usually the fountains and cascades are active between April and October. You can find out the exact dates on the website of the Peterhof Museum.
- There are several ways to get to Peterhof. The fastest and by far the coolest is to take the hydrofoil Meteor. With the Meteor you will be in Peterhof in only 35 minutes from Petersburg. Alternatively, you can take the train, the nearest station is called Noviy Pedrodvorets. From there you can take a shared cab to Peterhof, or you can walk the distance (about 15 minutes).
- There are countless tickets for Peterhof. After all, there are 23 museums to explore! No matter which area you choose, the Upper and Lower Park should definitely be part of your Peterhof visit. Important: The entrance to the Lower Park is only possible once. To get to the Upper Park you have to leave the Lower Park. If you want to go back to the Meteor, you have to buy a new ticket.
- We recommend that you book a tour of Peterhof. On this tour* you will be picked up from your hotel in Petersburg. During the four-hour English-speaking exploration of Peterhof Palace, you’ll learn everything you need to know about the complex. You want to combine a visit to Peterhof with a tour of the Catherine Palace in Tsarskoe Selo/Pushkin? Then this tour* is just right for you. It is also available in English, German, French and other languages, lasts 7 hours and also includes a pick-up at the hotel in St. Petersburg.
Book tips Peterhof Castle
- Bingel, Markus (Author)
This book shows you Saint Petersburg in all its splendor and takes you back to the times of the Tsars.
- Heike Maria Johenning (Author)
This classic tour guide deals with Saint Petersburg, but also its surroundings and gives a good overview of Peterhof Palace.
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