It's important to note that if you go to Pushkin not on an organised excursion during the school holidays, then entrance to Catherine Palace is only available 12-14.00 and 16.00-17.00. It is necessary to start queuing early. Also you have to join a guided tour, in Russian.
Work on the palace and park in Tsarskoye Selo was started in the early 8th century at a site called Saari Mois ("elevated land") by the local Finnic inhabitants. The place was eventually transformed into the Russian tsarskoye, or "Tsar's village". A small stone palace (1717-23, architect Johann Friedrich Braunstein) was first built for Peter I's wife, Empress Catherine I. Between 1752 and 1756, by order of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, the architect Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli united all the separate parts of the palace to create a single ensemble. This was the same architect that designed the Winter Palace and many other buildings in St. Petersburg. Prior to the 1917 revolution the Catherine Palace served as the summer residence for the emperor's family.
The Catherine Palace, with its majestic and sumptuous 306-m long blue, white and gold facade, main staircase and suite of halls, which abound with gilded woodwork, mirrors and amber, ranks among the masterpieces of Russian Baroque. It took over 100kg of gold to decorate the exterior of the palace alone, so it's not worth thinking about how much is on the inside!
Without a doubt, the highlight of any visit to the Catherine Palace is the Amber Room. It was completed in 1770 and was covered from floor to ceiling with amber mosaics; 450kg of amber to be exact. Unfortunately during the occupation of the Germans, the Amber Room was completely stripped and was shipped elsewhere. Still to this day no one knows what happened to the original amber room, some people believe that it was buried to keep it safe, others believe that the ship was bombed and it sank to the bottom of the sea, whilst others believe that it was just reused and sold on. Luckily for all visitors, they started reconstruction in 1982 and after spending $12million, the room was restored to its former glory in 2003.
Tsarskoye Selo flourished under Catherine II. It was during her reign that the Church and Zubov Wings of the Catherine Palace were built alongside the Cold Baths with the Agate Rooms, the Hanging Garden and the Cameron Gallery, named after the architect Charles Cameron.
The imposing Alexander Palace was erected between 1792 and 1800 by Giacomo Quarenghi for Catherine II's grandson, the future Emperor Alexander I. However it was mostly used during the reign of Nicholas II when it became his permanent home. Unfortunately during WW2 the palace was extremely badly damaged and nowadays it's only possible to visit a few of the restored rooms.
The architecture of the palaces blends harmoniously into the surrounding landscaped parks and gardens. The Catherine Park is punctuated with a host of pavilions (the Hermitage, the Grotto and the Admiralty), designed by such famous architects as Mikhail Zemtsov, Sabbas Chevakinsky, Antonio Rinaldi and Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli. It also boasts a variety of fanciful bridges, pergolas and sculptures. To commemorate the victory of the Russian Fleet over the Turks in the Bay of Chesme in the Aegean Sea in 1770, the Chesme Column was erected in the centre of the Great Pond. The landscapes of the Alexander Park with their romantic structures, such as the Chinese Village, the Arsenal and the White Tower, are no less picturesque. The palaces house remarkable collections of paintings, porcelain, furniture and fabrics. Visitors can explore Rastrelli's Grand Hall in the Catherine Palace and the Portrait Hall with its canvases by Dutch, Flemish, Italian and French artists. An exhibition, devoted to the last Russian emperor Nicholas II and his family, occupies the Alexander Palace.