Imperial Palaces

In the wilderness of the sparsely inhabited Baltic Coast, Russia's aristocracy - and particularly the imperial family - outdid each other trying to create the ultimate summer palace. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries the ruling class built fantastic fa├žades, opulent interiors and glorious gardens, so that they might enjoy lavish lifestyles even when away from the capital. Peterhof (p216) boasts the most amazing grounds, with its world-famous cascades; while the interior of the Catherine Palace (p220) at Tsarskoe Selo is unparalleled, especially with its over-the-top amber room. Konstantinovsky Palace (p219) - only recently renovated and reopened by President Putin - is the latest addition to this list of palatial properties.

Other lesser-known estates - built by various Russian rulers over the years - are still enormously impressive and generally less crowded. In 1743 Oranienbaum (p223) became the summer residence of the future emperor Peter III. Its main buildings received a complete overhaul in 2007, so it is in fine form today. Later in the century, emperors Paul I and Alexander III spent their summers at Gatchina (p223), enjoying the setting amidst beautiful parkland and a lovely lake. Dating from the early 19th century, the estate at Pavlovsk (p221) was another favourite destination of Paul I. It is surrounded by 600 hectares of shady, wooded grounds. All of these imperial palaces are an easy day trip from the city, easily accessible by train, bus or boat.

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