“Go to Catherine Palace,” they said. “It’ll be fun,” they said.
You haven’t experienced Russia until you’ve taken a rural Russian train, so prepare yourself. Catherine Palace isn’t technically in Saint Petersburg, it’s in a town called Pushkin or Tsarskoe Selo (used interchangeably, because why not… THIS IS RUSSIA). There are also buses that go towards the area, but in my humble opinion the easiest and most straightforward way to get to Catherine Palace is by train from Vitebsk station in central Saint Petersburg. So, step one: get to Vitebsk. This is where the fun starts. I did a lot of research before I decided to embark on a day trip from St Petersburg to Catherine Palace, and my research told me that I should, with absolute certainty, go on a pre-booked group tour or with a private tour guide. I decided to ignore all of this because I am an independent woman and also because both group and private tours can be prohibitively expensive when you compare them to the incredibly reasonable single ticket prices. I now know that the reason why this guidance exists is because getting to Catherine Palace isn’t entirely straightforward, to say the least.
Once you’re inside Vitebsk station you’ll be tempted to go to the vast area on the main level which looks precisely like a ticketing hall and nothing else. There are even employees behind little kiosks who are there to sell you tickets, right? WRONG. All wrong. This is not the ticketing hall, and those people are not there to sell you tickets… they are there to shout at you in Russian and point to the staircase. So, step two: ignore the place that looks like the place to buy tickets and go upstairs, where this is nothing even remotely resembling a place to buy tickets. Now you’re in luck because I’ve done 40 minutes of wandering the station – very, very lost and desperately seeking someone who spoke English – for you. The place where you buy tickets is a little green stand by Platform 3. There, you can either use your fantastic Russian language skills to ask for a return ticket to Pushkin (Tsarskoe Selo), or you can do what I did… which is, with a sense of fear and desperation, repeat the word ‘Pushkin’ and make choo-choo noises until somebody hopefully understands what you mean.
Armed with what I really hoped was a ticket to Pushkin, I made my way to the platforms. All of the announcements were in Russian, so I had absolutely no idea where to wait or which train to get on. I began to realise that boarding a rural train in Russia when you don’t understand Russian was like a game of chance. Like Russian roulette but instead of either shooting yourself in the head or not, you either get on the right train… or not. Neither of these were games I wanted to lose. Once again, I wandered around the station seeking anyone who looked official (top tip: big scary men with a guns are your best bet). I finally found a big scary man with a gun so I walked over and held up my ticket, right in front of his big scary face, then threw my hands up in the air which I decided was the best universal body language for ‘help’. He sternly pointed to one of the platforms.
I waited at the platform, my fate resting in that man’s big scary hands. All of this pressure was exhausting, and I decided to reward myself with a pastry from one of the little snack kiosks on the platform. I had no idea what anything was, so I pointed to one that looked like it was filled with some kind of flavoured cream. About 30 minutes later the train arrived, and I cautiously boarded. For the first 15 minutes of the journey, the only other people in the carriages were large groups of men from the Russian army and I started wondering if I was going to war instead of going to Catherine Palace. I decided that if I was going to die in battle, I may as well eat my last meal… some kind of pastry filled with some kind of cream. But, per usual, Russia had other plans for me. I took one big bite of the pastry and immediately realised this was categorically not a pastry filled with cream. This….was… a pastry… filled… with… MASHED POTATOES. Cold mashed potatoes. In sweet pastry. Russia: 1, Courtney: nil.
Needless to say, the pastry went unfinished. I was tired and I was hungry, but I was going to survive because we pulled into the next station and the Russian army disembarked. I was not going to war after all. In place of the militia, the carriage was now teeming with Russian families and one very large man, wearing silver hoop earrings, who was relentlessly trying to sell everyone on the train plastic butterflies. Honestly, I couldn’t make this shit up if I tried. To my surprise, I appeared to be the person on the train least interested in purchasing a plastic butterfly. By the time we made it to Pushkin, the man in silver hoop earrings had sold them all.
Once you’ve arrived in Pushkin, with or without a plastic butterfly, you’ll want to exit the train station and look out for either the 371 or 382 bus. Pretty much every single person getting on these buses will also be going to Catherine Palace, so just get off when everyone else does. You’ll be dropped off in front of the Catherine Park, and you can buy your park only or park + palace tickets at the gate. The palace is just through the gates on the right hand side.
… but I have some bad news for you. The worst part isn’t over, because the queue to get into Catherine Palace is an utter test of faith. I went very early, and in the middle of the week, and I still had to wait for almost 2 hours. I needed to pee more than I have ever needed anything in my life, but I knew if I left the queue I’d never find my place again so I stood there in agony and watched the lady on the door like a hawk. Every 15 minutes or so she’d let about 1/8th of a person in. I decided I was going to die in this line. Next to me, a grown man was spinning a fidget spinner. I decided I was happy to die in the line as long as he was going to die in the line as well.
This feels like that moment in my post where I should probably lighten the mood. Let’s talk about the history of Catherine Palace. You’ll probably be shocked to learn that it was commissioned by a lady named Catherine. Catherine I of Russia (real name: Marta) to be exact, who is not Catherine the Great. I still think she’s great though because this bitch literally came out of nowhere, rose through the ranks, and married the Tsar, Peter the Great (seriously guys, let her be great). She was supposedly the daughter of a peasant, but nobody can really confirm where the fuck she came from, so instead let’s focus on what we do know: girl knew how to build a palace, or rather how to tell other people how to build a palace. Both admirable in my eyes. When Catherine’s husband Peter eventually met his maker, her friends formed a coup and she became the first ever woman to rule as Empress of Russia. See… great. Unfortunately, Catherine’s original palace is no longer with us because her daughter, Empress Elizabeth, thought it was shit and had it torn down to build the palace that we see today. Elizabeth was a touch lavish, to say the least, so she covered just about everything in gold. She’s also responsible for the palace’s famous ‘Amber Room’ which, as the name suggests, is a room genuinely covered top to bottom with amber. All of this super fun decorating stopped when Elizabeth died and Catherine the Great moved in. She may have been great, but she was also a tight-fisted frugal wench. Things got even less fun when most of the original palace interiors were (purposefully!) destroyed by German troops towards the end of WWII, as if you needed another reason to hate the Nazis.
History lesson over. When you finally enter the palace, you’ll be given some rad brown cloth shoe covers so your ruddy peasant feet don’t damage the parquet floors, darling.
New kicks on, it’s time to enter the state rooms… with half of the human race. Part of the reason I was flying solo on this trip was because I literally cannot bear the thought of sticking to someone else’s itinerary and being herded around like a sheep, so I avoid most guided tours like the plague. Unfortunately, guided tours don’t avoid me like the plague and I ended up squashed between a Chinese tour group and a German tour group for my entire visit (joy). There’s really no way around sacrificing your personal space here, but at least if you’re by yourself you can try to shimmy through the groups and not be standing in a sweaty room for an hour while someone holding a flag shouts at you.
Unfortunately, photography inside most rooms of the palace is strictly prohibited (but understandable considering the swarms of people) so I can’t show you any of the stunning interiors. Be prepared for lots of gilt, lots of chandeliers, and holy fuck ton lots of amber. All bitching about crowds aside, it really is an incredible place, and worth every bit of the hassle. At the end of your visit, there’s a long hall with photographs and texts explaining all of the incredible work that was done to restore the palace to its former glory after the interiors were destroyed. There’s still a lot of work to be done within the palace, but the painstaking efforts so far are a testament to the Russian people, and there’s an area to donate funds to the restoration works if you feel so inclined. I’m looking at you, Germans.
Outside, the grounds of Catherine Park are absolutely stunning. The park is vast, and it’s a pleasure to walk through after dealing with the crowds inside. Pick up a map as it’s easy to get lost in the grounds, and there’s minimal signage. There’s quite a lot to see, so give yourself a good few hours to explore all of the outbuildings and to take in the woodlands, lakes, and vistas. My favourite bits were the marble bridge, the creaking summer house, and the little rotunda built with chunks of classical ruins. I spent a lot of time wandering around the forest and the fields of wildflowers and even made friends with the resident red squirrels, who are incredibly friendly and will run straight up your leg and into your palm if they think you have food.
After all of that walking, you’re going to want to do some eating. There are little snack stalls and street food stands directly outside of the palace, but you don’t want to eat shitty food… do you? Follow my instructions. Just past Catherine Palace, towards Alexander Park, is a lovely little restaurant called Solenya Varenya, and I highly recommend it for a lunch/dinner break during your adventures. The proper address is 2A Srednya Street. They serve up many of Russian cuisine’s star players including caviar, blinis, pelmeni (little Russian dumplings), and pirozhki (pastries – the proper kind that aren’t filled with mashed potatoes). I had a lovely filet of pike perch, which was accompanied by a fresh, herby sauce. I also had a couple of beers because I’m a total lush.
When I ordered a coffee after my meal, I was (easily) talked into trying the rum baba by the waitress. I’m glad I said yes because it was absolutely incredible and super boozy, which was great because I knew my next task was going to be finding my way back to Saint Petersburg. Christ alive.
Getting home isn’t as straightforward as doing your arrival process in reverse, and I learned this the hard way. The place where the bus drops you off is definitely not also the place where the bus picks you up, so I walked around for ages trying to find the right bus stop. Eventually, a bit drunk and very tired, I did something wild and just hopped on the first bus I saw. When I say bus, I mean van. Welcome to the wonderful world of mega-dodgy Russian mini-buses (they call them marshrutka), which are usually decrepit white rapey-looking vans with plastic numbers stuck onto the side of them. I have no idea if these things are meant to have an actual set route because mine went all over the town, seemingly wherever the other passengers requested. I kept trying to communicate “train station” to the driver, but he wasn’t having it so I just sat in silence and hoped someone else would need to go there too. Eventually, once I was the only person left in the creepy van, I had a bright idea and showed him my train ticket. Bingo. Straight to the station and back to Saint Petersburg.
I hope my trials and errors have served their purpose in providing others with a smooth journey. If you’ve discovered a better route to/from Catherine Palace, just comment below!