The State Hermitage Museum is the most famous tourist attraction in St. Petersburg. Over 30.000 exhibits are on display. I show you how to plan your tour with my Hermitage museum guide!
The Basics about the State Hermitage Museum
When people think of the Hermitage they actually mean the iconic Winter Palace built by Empress Catherine the Great on the banks of the Newa. But that is only telling half the story: the collection of this world-class museum is so huge that it won’t even fit into the roughly 1.500 rooms of that enormous building. The tickets for the Hermitage will gain you access to many more outbuildings. Most famous of them is the General Staff Building right opposite the grand façade on Palace Square, impressing visitors with a gigantic neoclassical archway.
Even if you were to stay a week in St. Petersburg (here are 20 amazing things to do), spending all your time in the teal coloss, you probably wouldn’t be able to see all artworks. Since most tourists got much less time for their tour through the museum, planning ahead of the actual visit really pays off. Here is my Hermitage museum guide:
Before you go: Also check out my guide on the Catherine Palace in Pushkin – another must see in St. Petersburg
Collections in the State Hermitage Museum
The hermitage is home to a wide range of collections that have been acquired since its founding in 1764 by Catherine the Great. Different tsars left their own imprint on the first public museum of Russia. As a result you will find artwork beginning with the dawn of time of human history, from the Egyptian and Roman times, way through medieval and Renaissance times up until the classical modern period and the present. Now mind you – no matter which section you will want to explore – the actual building is worth its own tour. You will find gold leaf and stucco everywhere you look in such abundancy it makes you cry of joy (and very soon a sensual overload).
Sometimes the background is so impressive that it competes with the artworks displayed in front of them. From a certain point of you view that is probably one of the two drawbacks of the museum that only finds a rival in the Louvre (Paris) and the British Museum in London. And here is the other: The presentation in the main building sometimes seems outdated and the artworks poorly illuminated. The sheer size of the collection can be so overwhelming that a more focused curation might actually enhance the tour.
But let that not discourage you – not going to the Hermitage Museum when you are in St. Petersburg should be considered a mortal sin. Be aware, however, that you will need a full day – even if you rush through the museum and cut back on the collections you are less interested.
Where to get tickets for the Hermitage
The ticket office for Hermitage State Museum is located inside the main building. Basically you will have to walk through one of the three big arches facing Palace Square (right in the middle), walk all the way through the courtyard and enter the building through one of the two sides of the main entrance (during Summer 2015 there was some reconstruction working going on in that courtyard). If you come to visit during summer time you probably won’t be able to miss the huge queue outside, making these directions superfluous. Buying a ticket directly at the ticket office is, however, not necessary and actually not recommended. The wait will waste a good portion of the day. Rather buy your tickets online at the official ticket shop of the museum. If that is not an option for you, there are a couple of self-service ticket machines in the courtyard before the main entrance.
Please be aware, though, that it is not possible to buy tickets for neither the Gold nor the Diamond Treasure Rooms online. You are only allowed to visit these sections of the Museum on a scheduled guided tour. Tickets are sold exclusively at the ticket shops inside the Museum. So basically I recommend you to buy your tickets online and then see if you can get easy access to the ticket office once you are inside to save you a lot of unnecessary waiting time. If you got a larger group you could probably arrange for a special tour guide to get you through as well.
All outbuildings (like the General Staff Building) will have their own ticket offices. You don’t have to worry about that since your tickets will be valid there as well. Ever since early 2015, you have to visit the General Staff Building! Parts of the collections on the third floor of the Hermitage Winter Palace have been moved from there!
When to visit the Hermitage Museum
Should you be visiting St. Petersburg mainly to see the collection of the Hermitage, I advise you to go in winter! The whole winter palace is well heated and there are not even half as many tourists there as in summer. Believe me! You don’t want to wait a quarter of an hour to see one of the two Da Vincis with elbows pushing into your ribs from both sides.
Summer or winter – either way, I recommend you check the opening times online or together with the concierge at your hotel and be there as early as possible. You will need all the time you can get inside and the queue will be less long early in the morning.
The ticket shop offers a two day-ticket at a discount and you should probably be getting those. It will afford you more time to really breathe in the collection and not force you to rush through rooms thinking: “Ah – another 10 Rembrandts, but I already saw those 20 Rubens the room before, so let’s skip that!” (And this is no exaggerations – you will remember these words, believe me!). Now you don’t necessarily have to spend two full days at the Hermitage (even if you could). Rather you should take in as much as your brain can process without overcharging and leave the rest for the next day. You can go shopping the rest of the day or simply enjoy the street life of this great city.
The general opening hours for the State Hermitage Museum is 10:30 am until 18:00 pm. Be aware that the museum is closed on Monday, while it is opened till 9 pm on Wednesday.
The first Thursday of every Month entry is free. So you might want to schedule your visit around these dates. In Summer the Hermitage usually is open way longer. There is a lot of construction work going on at the moment though, so again do check in advance!
What to see at the Hermitage Museum
The Museum issues little floor plans with all highlights marked. There is also an app you can download. Getting a local Hermitage museum guide might actually be worth a consideration – he or she will greatly add to the experience and will know what to see in the allocated time (and what not). At the very least you should get an audio guide. Now as to what to see in the museum that probably really depends on personal taste – however a few highlight can be named that you really should have seen:
1. Leonardo da Vinci
The collection of the Italian Renaissance Art houses two paintings from Leonardo Da Vinci and are probably the biggest attraction of the whole museum. Especially in summer, there will be a huge crowd (the above picture was taken in July! you can see the tiny painting in the back; more details on the picture above).
2. Gold Treasure room
You will definitely want to see the Gold Treasure Room featuring a truly impressive collection of ancient gold items from before Christ. I frankly haven’t seen anything even remotely similar anywhere else around the globe! Truly spectacular!
3. Raphael Loggias
The Raphael Loggias, copied straight from the Vatican should be on your list of things to see there as well. They are basically just a very long corridor, but oh so richly decorated (expect a crowd!).
4. The Golden Peacock Clock
Inside the East Wing of the Winter Palace, you will find the famous golden peacock clock. A truly ingenious work of art. Once the Peacock would open its huge wheel each hour, though today only a video installation will show you how it worked.
5. Monet, Matisse, Van Gogh
The Rooms in the General Staff Building are dedicated to the Western European art of the late 19th and early 20th century – Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, Renoir, Matisse, Cezanne or Gaugin – there is no master of the classical modern you won’t find here.
6. The throne room
Like I already pointed out, the Hermitage Museum once has been a palace. So there is little wonder that a throne room can be found as well. It is quite opulent as are the adjacent suites! Do visit!
As for the rest of your stay you really have to identify your personal highlights and go there first. There really is not one best route through the thousands of rooms of museum. Since you can (and sometimes have to) walk for miles it is best to work out a route beforehand. Not all your personal must-sees might be connected by a straight walkway and erring down the long hallways will take a lot of time. You might have to shuffle around the sequence as well to come up with an efficient route.
Now if this advice sounds a bit exaggerated to you, go back to the beginning of this article and check the facts. 1.500 rooms, 3 million items and about 10 outbuildings. The grand facade of the hermitage’s main building alone stretches for 250 meters and it houses collections on three floors. Without a map you will get lost! Without a proper predefined route you will not see a tenth of what you actually wanted to see – barring jogging through! Along with your tickets the museum will issue a little Hermitage museum guide and map. USE THEM! :)
What not to see in the Hermitage Museum
Down in the first floor you will find a huge collection focused on ancient Greece and Egypt. Now if you’ve never seen an Egyptian sarcophagus or a Greek amphora you might want to consider checking this part of the collection. There are no true highlights to be found there like in the British Museum or say the Pergamon Altar in Berlin, though. Most Hermitage museum guides do not really mention these at all. So better save those for another visit or another day.
On the third floor, there is some Art from Asia and Asia Minor. Probably the same can be said about these rooms: While interesting in itself, there are other museums in the world that really specialized on these cultures. Rather save your time and head to the General Staff Building. You don’t want to miss that!
Side note: Personally I visited both of these collections more than once. But when it comes to art, I’d consider myself some sort of freak :P
The General Staff Building
In late 2014 the Hermitage Museum began moving its famous collections of paintings from the late 19th and early 20th century to the General Staff Building. The General Staff Building is located facing the Winter Place on Palace Square, so it is only a short walk (well actually the palace is huge) from the main entrance of the Hermitage Museum.
Before this part of the Hermitage was easily skippable (though they usually had lovely temporary exhibitions in there). Now it is where you will find the Van Goghs, Matisse, Monets, and Cezannes. So do plan at least 1 and a half hour to see those (will be rushed! can easily take a 4 to 5 hours as well).
The interiors are very modern (but pleasing) and quite different from the Winter Palace. Personally speaking the modern way of displaying art really makes it possible to focus on the actual artwork, rather than on all the splendour around it! So far most of the tourists did not realize (or realize to late) that the modern highlights of the museum are located elsewhere, so the General Staff Building feels rather empty. I am quite sure this won’t last for long.
Last tips in my Hermitage Museum Guide
There is only one café in the whole building. It is right in the middle on the ground floor. It is a good idea to plan your tour in a way that you will come back to this place for a lunch or tea time break. If you are a smoker you might be in trouble. Smoking obviously is prohibited inside the building, but on top of that, there are no easy ways out or smoking areas. So best prepare yourself for a day without a smoke!
Unlike in most western museums taking pictures is allowed in most rooms. You will have to purchase a special photography permission though. They just ask a couple of Rubles for it so you definitely will want to get that.
If you are planning to go to Moscow and see the Kremlin you can skip the Diamond Treasure room. You fill find similar exhibition at the Armory inside the Kremlin– only of a higher quality and quantity (Here is my article on the breathtaking Kremlin Museum). If you don’t go to see Moscow: Both the Diamond and the Gold Treasure Rooms present gold from ancient times. You will not want to see both – especially on a tight schedule. The exhibits from that time are virtually the same. I found the Gold Room to be more interesting and a higher quantity of outstanding artwork, even though the Diamond room has some items from Fabergé on display (though nothing spectacular).
Thus ends my Hermitage Museum Guide. If you feel to add from your own experience or like to ask some further questions about the museum, please feel free to use the comment section below! Otherwise you can help me by sharing this article on your favorite social media network.
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