Is Catherine’s Palace Worth Visiting?
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Catherine’s palace is one of the most famous summer palaces of the Russian Royal family. It is a destination that people from all over the world flock to see (especially after being featured in HBO’s “Catherine the Great” miniseries. Despite its world fame, there are some things that you should consider before attempting to visit it during the summer tourist season. With a lot of misinformation and misguided advice online, we figured we’d help clear things up from an insider’s perspective.
Here are the top three reasons why we recommend that you either substitute Catherine’s palace for another summer palace, or visit it as a part of the small private tour:
#1: The layout of Catherine’s Palace can cause discomfort for older guests and children
Catherine’s palace was built to be used as a summer residence for the Royal family. It’s made up of two very narrow galleries, which makes it impossible for groups to skip rooms that are crowded or bypass huge groups. (Just think about large tour buses of people). In other words, once you’ve entered the palace, you are stuck until the groups ahead of you have continued through the gallery and let you move. You can’t turn back either, because the groups behind you will be doing the same.
Furthermore, because this museum is housed in an actual palace, bathrooms are located only in two locations at the ground floor. Which is very far from the main galleries.
Another important point to consider is that there is only one elevator in the palace. Long lines for the elevator means less time spent in the museum, which the rest of your group might find troublesome.
If you are traveling with children, elderly relatives or anybody who feels discomfort in crowded places, we strongly suggest you reconsider visiting Catherine’s palace as part of a tour group. We recommend you either visit one of the other summer palaces or visit Catherine’s palace as a part of a private tour, allowing for more flexibility.
#2: Capacity restrictions can lead to unpleasant surprises
In the past six years, Catherine’s palace’s popularity has sky-rocketed, thanks in part to more frequent social media appearances. Because of this, the museum’s management decided five years ago to start limiting the number of international guests in tour groups to 10,000 people per day. More recently, the museum has decided to limit the number of daily tour group guests to ONLY 8,000 per day, starting in the Summer of 2019.
To put this number in perspective, Royal Caribbean ships arriving to St. Petersburg have around 3,000 guests on average. The St. Petersburg port typically has 3-6 cruise ships docked on any one day during the summer, meaning that 3 cruise ships would be enough to reach the museum’s new capacity restrictions. This of course isn’t accounting for ships carrying more passengers or tour groups who are arriving by air (and there are many!).
This past year, we encountered situations where the museum’s administration cancelled reservations made more than 6 months in advance, only three days before the tour because of capacity concerns.
If you stay in St. Petersburg in a hotel or AirBnB, you will have a better chance of visiting Catherine’s palace. But do not expect that you’ll be able to get buy admission at the gate, lines for independent tourists are usually unreasonably long. This past summer saw record lines, with tourists waiting up to 5-7 hours just to purchase tickets.
If you’d like to visit Catherine’s palace on your own, be sure to purchase your tickets online, otherwise you will spend your whole day in lines! This brings us to our next point:
#3: Poor crowd management inside the museum
In order to protect the museum and its exhibits, the museum only allows organized tour groups to enter at their assigned time slot. Despite this, independent tourists, school groups, and other tour groups of locals can overcrowd the venue and create enormous lines. These lines typically extend through the park and lead to a 1-1.5 hour wait beyond the assigned entry time! Once, you’ve entered the palace, expect another 1-1.5 hour wait to get through the turnstiles and enter the museum.
Here is a quick video showing the line just to enter the museum’s yard (where you’d expect to see the two subsequent lines that I just mentioned):https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Jae6BnxiWA
To drive the point home: a round trip to Catherine’s palace from the port requires 2 hours on the road, a 30 minute stop to use the bathrooms, and 2-3 hours of waiting time just to get pass the turnstiles. For guests staying ashore, time is not an issue, but for cruise ship passengers, this situation can lead to a very stressful day in port.
What are the alternatives to Catherine Palace?
If you have your heart set on visiting Catherine’s palace during the summer, please, consider one of our private tours. Small groups will allow for more flexibility, and often no wait times for groups of fewer than 9 people.
If you’d like to tour another palace, we suggest a visit to the underappreciated Pavlovsk Palace. This museum, unlike Catherine Palace offers not only state rooms and reception rooms, but also bedrooms, boudoirs, make-up room, etc.
Despite having a greater range of exhibits, Pavlovsk does not have same capacity issues that Catherine’s palace has. Furthermore, this museum has a square shape, which makes it easier to visit the rooms avoid crowds and flexibility and avoidance of the crowds. These all mean a much more enjoyable and timely visit for you and your travel companions.
Although Catherine’s Palace is a one-of-a-kind palace with great historical significance, its popularity in the summer months often mean that it might not be feasible to visit as a guest in a tour group arriving by cruise ship. St. Petersburg is filled with other historically significant and unforgettable sites, so unless Catherine’s palace is on your bucket list, you should take these points into consideration before planning your shore excursion.
We hope that you found this information useful, if you have any questions or would like advice on planning your trip to St. Petersburg, do not hesitate to contact us . Remember, a bit of planning now will mean a much more enjoyable visit for you and your companions!
Here’s a summary of our main suggestions for Catherine’s palace:
- If you are arriving by cruise ship: visit Pavlovsk Palace or Peterhoff palace instead of Catherine’s palace OR arrange a small private tour to visit Catherine’s palace.
- If you are not bound by the restrictions that come with arriving by cruise ship, purchase your tickets online, print them, and only then arrive to Catherine’s palace. Be sure to purchase your tickets at least 4 weeks in advance.
- If you are planning your visit some time from September to late April (the low season), don’t worry about waiting in lines. There typically aren’t many visitors during these months, so you will not need to worry about planning your visit far in advance or avoiding the palace altogether.