One of St. Petersburg's most famous and popular visitor attractions, the palace and park at Peterhof (also known as Petrodvorets) are often referred to as "the Russian Versailles", although many visitors conclude that the comparison does a disservice to the grandeur and scope of this majestic estate.
Versailles was, however, the inspiration for Peter the Great's desire to build an imperial palace in the suburbs of his new city and, after an aborted attempt at Strelna, Peterhof - which means "Peter's Court" in German - became the site for the Tsar's Monplaisir Palace, and then of the original Grand Palace. The estate was equally popular with Peter's daughter, Empress Elizabeth, who ordered the expansion of the Grand Palace and greatly extended the park and the famous system of fountains, including the truly spectacular Grand Cascade.
Like almost all St. Petersburg's suburban estates, Peterhof was ravaged by German troops during the Second World War. It was, however, one of the first to be resurrected and, thanks to the work of military engineers as well as over 1,000 volunteers, the Lower Park opened to the public in 1945 and the facades of the Grand Palace were restored in 1952. The name was also de-Germanicized in 1944, becoming Petrodvorets, the name under which the surrounding town is still known. The palace and park are once again known as Peterhof.
The Grand Palace at Peterhof was designed to be the centerpiece of Peter the Great's "Russian Versaille". Work was halted after Peter's death in 1725, and Peterhof was almost abandoned until Peter's daughter Elizabeth came to the throne in 1740. Elizabeth commissioned Bartolomeo Rastrelli, who had already completed the Summer Palace in St. Petersburg, to build a genuinely regal palace. Rastrelli chose to retain the original building within his design, and the result is supremely elegant and surprisingly restrained. The long, narrow palace, which was built in the last decade before baroque made way for neoclassicism, has minimal decoration, and Rastrelli's chief stylistic flourishes are the two white pavilions with gilded cupolas at the end of the wings. Beige and white, the palace is majestic without being overwhelming, and provides a perfect backdrop both to the elegantly formal Upper Garden, and to the spectacular Grand Cascade.
The fountains of Peterhof are one of Russia's most famous tourist attractions, drawing millions of visitors every year. The most famous ensemble of fountains, the Grand Cascade, which runs from the northern facade of the Grand Palace to the Marine Canal, comprises 64 different fountains, and over 200 bronze statues, bas-reliefs, and other decorations. At the centre stands Rastrelli's spectacular statue of Samson wrestling the jaws of a lion. The vista of the Grand Cascade with the Grand Palace behind it, the first sight to great visitors who arrive in Peterhof by sea, is truly breathtaking. The Grotto behind the Grand Cascade, which was once used for small parties, contains the enormous pipes, originally wooden, that feed the fountains.
If you only have time to make one trip out of St. Petersburg during your stay, then it should be Peterhof, the greatest of all the city's suburban estates!!!! While the best time to visit Peterhof is of course the summer season, when all the varied buildings in the park are open to visitors and the famous fountains are in operation (early May to early October).