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Built for Empress Elizabeth by Bartolomeo Rastrelli, the architect of St. Petersburg's Winter Palace, the Catherine Palace is undoubtedly Tsarskoe Selo's top attraction, particularly renowned for the extraordinary Amber Room. Less well known, and currently much more dilapidated, the Alexander Palace is nonetheless a neoclassical masterpiece, and has a particularly poignant connection with the family of the last Tsar, Nicholas II.
The town of Pushkin, which surrounds the Tsarskoe Selo estates, is St. Petersburg's most charming suburb. Renamed in Soviet times to honour Russia's greatest poet, the town has numerous sights connected to Alexander Sergeevich, including a museum in the former Imperial Lycee, where he was schooled.
Like Pushkin, TsarskoeSelo is one of St. Petersburg's must-see attractions, and can easily occupy visitors for a full day. And, like Pushkin, it can be very crowded during the tourist high-season in the summer. Arrive early or be prepared to join long queues, especially for the Catherine Palace.
The Catherine Palace is named after Catherine I, the wife of Peter the Great, who ruled Russia for two years after her husband's death. Originally a modest two-storey building commissioned by Peter for Catherine in 1717, the Catherine Palace owes its awesome grandeur to their daughter, Empress Elizabeth, who chose TsarskoeSelo as her chief summer residence. Starting in 1743, the building was reconstructed by four different architects, before Bartholomeo Rastrelli, Chief Architect of the Imperial Court, was instructed to completely redesign the building on a scale to rival Versailles.
The interiors of the Catherine Palace are no less spectacular. The so-called Golden Enfilade of state rooms, designed by Rastrelli, is particularly renowned and forms the focus of the palace tour. Guests enter via the State Staircase which, although it blends effortlessly with the rococo grandeur of Rastrelli's interiors, in fact dates from the 1860s. With its ornate banisters and reclining marble cupids, it gives a taste of what is to come. The Great Hall, also known as the Hall of Light, measures nearly 1,000 square meters, and occupies the full width of the palace so that there are superb views on either side.
The Catherine Park, like most of the parks around the Imperial palaces, features both a formal garden and a landscape park. The Formal Park, which is directly behind the Catherine Palace, was laid out during the reign of Empress Elizabeth by a team of architects supervised by Rastrelli. Characterized by the rigid symmetry of its alleys and box hedges, the garden is well maintained, although its most interesting structures - the Upper and Lower Baths and the ruined Hermitage Pavilion - are not currently open to visitors.
While Peterhof may be the most elegant of the Imperial Palaces around St. Petersburg, Tsarskoe Selo is undoubtedly the richest and most varies in terms of architecture and historical interest. To fully explore the two palaces, the ample parkland, and the other sights of the town of Pushkin would require considerably more than a single day. In the summer, when there are regularly over 7000 visitors a day, queuing for the Catherine Palace can further cut into your time, so arriving early is strongly recommended.