Among stiff competition, the elegant Neo-classical crescent of Gatchina Palace is one of St Petersburg’s loveliest palaces, built for Count Gregory Orlov, a favorite (read: lover?) of Catherine the Great, in 1782 by the maestro Antonio Rinaldi, who was responsible for many churches and Imperial palaces around the city. After Orlov’s death, Gatchina was home to four generations of the Romanov Tsars before being requisitioned by the state in 1917. All but destroyed in World War II, the doors of the palace only reopened when refurbishment started in 1985; it is so breathtakingly huge that restoration still goes on today.
Today a visit to this most romantic of palaces encompasses a treasure trove of Romanov riches — what style these guys lived in — in a series of ever-more opulent rooms; the standout collections among the art, coins and armory being the moving black-and-white photographs charting the life of the Romanov family, more than 30,000 rare Russian books and priceless 16th-century Sèvres porcelain.
The palace is surrounded by landscaped gardens that could take all day to explore. They are ornamented by winding pathways through birch trees, bridges hopping across to islands in the lakes, fountains, orangeries, aviaries and a variety of wood and stone follies — including the Priory Palace, which was given to the Romanovs by the Maltese Knights of St John in 1799 — as well as greenhouses nurturing tropical plants and botanical gardens neatly divided into parterres.
1 Krasnoarmeysky prospect, Gatchina. Open Tue–Sun 10am–6pm; closed Mon and first Tue of month. Admission adults RUB 300; students RUB 150; family ticket RUB 700 (entry free with St Petersburg Card). Gatchina Palace is 28 miles (45 km) south of St Petersburg along the Kievskoe highway and there’s a train from Baltiysky railway station or a shuttle bus from Moskovskaya metro station.