If you want to see the beautiful Romanov palaces in and around Saint Petersburg, the Alexander Palace will rarely be recommended to you. The classic, soft-yellow palace does not have the splendour that Romanov Palaces are known for. Then why do I find this palace a must-visit? It was the favourite residence of the last Tsar Nicholas II and his family. This was also the place where the family lived in captivity for months after his abdication and before their brutal death. The palace tells the story of an important part of the recent history of Russia.
Tsarskoye Selo, the Russian Tsar’s Village
The palace is in the village of Pushkin, about 30 kilometers outside of Saint Petersburg. That may sound far from the city, but it’s easy to reach as it is right next to one of the biggest tourist attractions in the area.
Pushkin is the current name for the old town of Tsarskoye Selo, or: Tsar’s Village. This was the place where the Russian Tsars spent their summers outside the city in their beautiful summer palaces. The biggest tourist attraction today is the lavish Tsar Palace of Tsarina Catharine I: the Catherine Palace. A visit to the Catharine and Alexander Palace can easily be combined in one day.
The easiest way to get to Pushkin is to join a guided tour to the famous Catherine Palace. It is very expensive and I don’t like to spend my day with a fixed group of tourists. Fortunately, you can also easily get here by public transport. A big plus: it will give you a different view on the real Russia!
How to get to the Alexander Palace by public transport
There are two ways to get to Pushkin. You can take the local train from Vitabesk Station to Detskoe Selo (Pushkin). From there you take the bus to the palace itself. Another option is to take the metro to Moskovskaya, Zvezdnaya or Kupchino metro station and take the marshrutka to Catherine Palace from there.
I would recommend this second option, as a ride in a marshrutka is one of the best things to do in Saint Petersburg. The driver probably won’t speak any English. There will be no English signs. And maybe local people with chickens will board the small van.
You pay in a marshrutka immediately after getting in. Just leave the money in the box next to the driver. There are no bus stops. You simply have to signal the driver by waving your hand. You tell the driver where you’d like to get out and he will stop there for you. But don’t worry as a tourist with no Russian vocabulary, because it will be immediately clear to everyone in the bus that you want to get off at the Catherine Palace. Simply because all travellers do.
Tip: check this site which describes in detail how to find the right minibus at the metro stations. I wish I already had this description when I was looking for it. I was just very lucky to find it right away without knowling where to look.
The home of the last Tsar Nicholas II
The Alexander Palace was built by the famous Catharine the Great at the end of the eighteenth century. Catharine built the palace for her favourite grandson, the later Tsar Alexander I. He lived here in the summer months, until he became Tsar and inherited the larger Catherine Palace.
After Alexander I, it was inhabited by his brother – the later Nicholas I – and after him by Tsar Alexander III. The wife of Alexander III gave birth here in 1868 to their oldest son: the later Tsar Nicholas II. This Nicholas would also become the most important and last occupant of the palace.
Nicholas II was a friendly man and a real family guy, but he just wasn’t so good at running an empire. He and his wife Alexandra preferred to retreat to his Alexander Palace in Tsarskoye Selo and avoid state affairs.
Nicholas and Alexandra had four daughters: Olga, Tatjana, Maria and Anastasia. You might know the famous youngest daughter Anastasia from the animated film and the stories about how she might was the only survivor of the tsar family. But Nicholas had a problem: daughters could not succeed him. So after four girl, the pressure on the couple to have a son was incredible. To everyone’s delight in 1904, Alexandra gave birth to the baby boy Aleksej.
But soon after his birth, the boy appeared to suffer from hemophilia, a hereditary disease in the family of Alexandra as the granddaughter of the British Queen Victoria. The disease was kept secret for the royal family and the people to hide away the failure of the czar couple. The Tsar and his wife withdrew themselves from public life to their beloved Alexander Palace.
Revolution and house arrest
That was the moment the famous monk Rasputin made his debut. His prayers were said to stop Aleksej’s attacks and even heal him. Nicholas and Alexandra believed all of it. Rasputin gained more and more power, while getting drunk and enjoying himself at sex feasts with the nobility of Saints Petersburg. Nicholas was already doing bad in public opinion, but his connection with the sex monk seriously damaged his reputation. Rasputin’s influence only came to an end after the Tsar’s family and friends killed him. That wasn’t an easy job though: Rasputin was poisoned and shot several times after which he was thrown into the frozen Neva.
It couldn’t help the Tsar though. The country was already in such a bad state that the October Revolution was unavoidable. In 1917 Nicholas was forced to renounce the throne, also on behalf of his son Aleksej. Nicholas didn’t feel too bad about it, as he was thinking of a bright future for him and his family somewhere on a remote country estate. But that futre turned out to be quite different and not soo bright.
Nicholas, Alexandra and their children lived in house arrest at the Alexander Palace af first. They were assigned a part of the palace as their living and sleeping quarters. At set times they were allowed into the garden of the palace for walking or sports. The family was eventually moved to Tobolsk and later to Ekaterinburg. There, the entire family was brutally murdered.
Tip: learn more about Nicholas and Russian history in the new Netflix series The Last Tsars, an interesting combination of a drama series and documentary.
The Alexander Palace as a museum
After the downfall of the Romanovs, the palace became a museum and – during the Second World War – Nazi headquarters. Serious renovations took place only in the 90s, when an exhibition about the Romanovs was organised in the palace. Before the 90s, any interest in the old Czar family was strongly discouraged by the Soviets.
Ever since the 90s the palace transformed into a museum dedicated to the Romanovs and Nicholas II in particular. I visited the palace in 2014 and saw the private rooms of the last royal family. The bedrooms with walls full of icons, the children’s clothes and personal belongings gave it a very intimate atmosphere. It was exactly this atmosphere – so different from many opulent Romanov palaces – that made my visit so special. I was surprised there were hardly any other visitors.
I visited the palace in 2014 (when I was less fascinated with photography, soI have only a few photos of the palace). The palace has been closed for a long renovation since 2015. It is scheduled to open again in early early 2020.