The Imperial palaces of Peterhof and Tsarskoe Selo, half an hour to an hour outside the city, are both splendid day-trips. Although entering the palaces is increasingly expensive, you can slip away from the crowds into the surrounding parks. As you leave St Petersburg on the bus, look out for the awe-inspiring war monument to Leningrad’s World War II sacrifice, and Lenin “hailing a taxi” near Finland station.
Most visitors with time for just one day-trip opt for Peterhof (Great Palace 10.30am–6pm, closed Mon & last Tues of month, R520, student R250; park 9am–7pm; R350, student R180), 29km west of St Petersburg, known as the “Russian Versailles” and famed for its marvellous fountains and impressive cascades. Though originally built between 1709 and 1724 for Peter the Great, each of the subsequent rulers made their mark here. Travel by hydrofoil in summer (at least one hourly 10am–6pm; R200 each way; 30–40min) from outside the Winter Palace or take minibus #224 or #424 from Avtovo (R30), or #103 or #420 from Leninsky Prospekt. Trains also run from Baltiyskiy station in the capital to Noviy Peterhof station.
Tsarskoe Selo (also known as Pushkin, after the “Russian Shakespeare” who was schooled at the neighbouring Lyceum school), 17km southeast of St Petersburg, centres on the Catherine Palace (palace 10am–6pm, closed Tues & last Mon of the month; R550, student R280; park daily 9am–7pm, R200, student R100). The ostentatious blue-and-white Baroque structure built by Catherine the Great is surrounded by a richly landscaped park. Scottish architect Charles Cameron’s elegant Neoclassical Gallery stretches high above it. To get to Pushkin, take minibus #299 (R30) from Moskovskaya behind the Lenin monument or #286 from Kupchino; alternatively, take a train to Detskoe selo from Vitebsky station.
The same minibuses take you to the more intimate Pavlovsk Palace (10am–6pm, closed Fri & first Mon of the month; palace R500, student R300, park R150, student R80), its magnificent Neoclassical interior set amid luxurious 1500-acre grounds.