A guide to the Hermitage

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  • 6 October, 2019
The Hermitage seen from Palace Square in St Petersburg.

A real maze in St. Petersburg filled with a collection of art that could only be surpassed by the Louvre in Paris. The Hermitage is overwhelming, one room even more beautiful than the one before, and there seems to be no end. It will take years to see the entire collection (no joke), so for visiting the Hermitage, you certainly need a plan!

The history of the Hermitage

The Hermitage originated in 1764 as the private collection of Catherine the Great, who had bought 220 paintings, to place them in the remote rooms of her palace – rooms that were known as the Hermitage, which from French means “a place of solitude”. However, the current Hermitage is far from a place of solitude – on the contrary, every year it attracts more and more people who want to get a touch of its beauty.

The Hermitage buildings have changed colours several times throughout its existence, having been yellow, pink and red. It acquired the current green tint just after WWII.

Did You Know?

During its life, the museum has seen many things happening: it grew from one building to several, it had a complete makeover, it survived the fire of 1837 as well as the famous assault and the Aurora shot – which marked the fall of the Russian Empire. It even survived those turbulent Soviet days, although it did lose quite some of its exhibits. There was a tremendous amount of money needed to rebuild the country and at times the Soviets could not find anything better than to sell works of art. That is why many precious pieces of art were lost, including works of Jan van Eyck, Titian, Rembrandt and Raphael. Those left Russia forever. For the museum staff, and for the country as a whole, this was undoubtedly a tragedy. Nevertheless, the Hermitage remained one of the largest museums in the world with a collection of over three million exhibits, from the Palaeolithic era up to the present day. All exhibits can be seen in a vast complex of six buildings, consisting of the Winter Palace and four adjacent buildings, and since 2014 the General Staff building, which is located on the opposite side of Palace Square.

How to visit this magnificent museum with maximum comfort? Continue reading and find out its secrets and life hacks!

The museum has its own cats that protect its collection from rodent pests. For them, there is even a special city holiday, called the “Hermitage Cat Day”, on which kittens born in the museum become available for adoption.

Did You Know?

How to get to the museum?

Imagine yourself on the incredibly spacious Palace Square in St. Petersburg – a square that is even large enough for the queues before the ticket offices of the Hermitage. Find the ticket offices by passing through the golden gate of the green-tinted Winter Palace.

Buying your tickets at the museum ticket office

Buying you tickets at the museum ticket office has the advantage of lower prices, compared to buying tickets online. An obvious disadvantage are the long queues. But, there is a life hack from locals to go around this.

The entrance to the General Staff building where locals buy their tickets to avoid large queues.
The entrance to the General Staff building where locals buy their tickets to avoid large queues.

The trick is to buy your tickets at the ticket office of the General Staff building, which forms part of the Hermitage museum, but is located on the opposite side of Palace Square. The ticket office can be found left of the arch. The queue at this branch of the Hermitage cannot be compared to the queues standing before the ticket offices of the main building. Here you can simply buy a ticket for the entire Hermitage museum (around € 10), or for just one branch of the museum, like only the General Staff building, for a price of around €5.

At the ticket offices, you can also buy a guided excursion which will guarantee you a brief but sufficient tour through the museum. It costs around € 4 and needs to be bought in addition to the museum ticket.

The Treasure Gallery is a special part of the Hermitage, consisting of the Gold Room and the Diamond Room. In the Gold Room you will find golden items created by the ancient Greeks, Scythians, and masters from ancient China and India. The Diamond Room offers a unique collection of jewelry that belonged to the Russian Imperial family.

The Treasure Gallery can only be visited on a guided tour, with a single ticket costing about € 5. Please note that these tickets cannot be purchased online.

Buying your tickets online

Tickets for the museum can also be bought online on the official website of the Hermitage. The price will be higher (€ 17), but in this case, you can avoid the queue towards the main entrance. With your printed voucher, you need to proceed to a special entrance which can be found in a side street, right of the main building. Your entrance will be in one of the buildings adjacent to the Winter Palace, called the 'Small Hermitage'.

In any case, make sure to pick up a free plan of the museum at the information point, located right after the ticket offices. Plans are being offered in many European languages. You can also figure out your route in advance, by exploring the official online indoor map.

Now, let's talk about what you can actually find inside the grand buildings of the Hermitage.

Treasures of the Winter Palace

Once a palace of the Imperial family, the Winter Palace and its four adjacent buildings – the Small Hermitage, the Old Hermitage, the New Hermitage and the Hermitage Theatre – have interiors that replete with everything that you can imagine. Ceremonial halls with magnificent fabrics on the walls and golden frames that blind the eyes. Wooden carved furniture, paintings, tapestries and sculptures. Too many things to mention. The 365 halls are better not to be seen in one visit, because such beauty makes you dizzy. That is why we will now tell you about the most beautiful halls and works of art which definitely cannot be ignored on a visit to the Hermitage.

The Jordan Staircase

The classic excursion route begins with this snow-white Jordan staircase, richly decorated with gilding. This entrance is also known as the Ambassadors' Staircase, as it was here where envoys of foreign powers and other distinguished guests of the Emperors entered the palace.

The Jordan Staircase will be the first marvel you see in the Hermitage. What else is waiting to strike you?
The Jordan Staircase will be the first marvel you see in the Hermitage. What else is waiting to strike you?

The official name of the staircase was given in honour of the church holiday of Epiphany, on which Eastern Christians celebrate the moment that Jesus was baptized in the waters of the Jordan River. This holiday takes place in the middle of the winter, on the night between 18 and 19 January. In several Orthodox countries, believers celebrate this day by plunging into ice-cold water through specially made holes in the ice, thereby symbolically washing away their sins. Every year, the Russian Imperial family did the same, and descended along this Jordan Staircase to the Neva, where the rite of purification took place.

The Pavilion Hall

In this room, you will not find chiselled statues and paintings, but its interior will leave you speechless with its luxury and grace. The design of the space combines antique, Moorish and Renaissance styles. Snow-white columns, openwork gilded lattices, arches and huge crystal chandeliers create the atmosphere of an eastern palace.

People waiting in the Pavilion Hall to see the Peacock in action.
People waiting in the Pavilion Hall to see the Peacock in action.

The most precious exhibit in the Pavilion Hall is the Peacock mechanical clock. Prince Potemkin gave it to Catherine the Second. It is a sort of sculptural composition consisting of a tree trunk with a dial and animals sitting on the branches. Once a week, on Wednesday at 20h, the museum keepers wind up the clock and all visitors can see the unique mechanism in action.

Raphael's Loggias

The paintings of Raphael's Loggias stayed untouched during the heavy bombings of WWII.
The paintings of Raphael's Loggias stayed untouched during the heavy bombings of WWII.

As Raphael's Loggias in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican had captivated the imagination of Empress Catherine the Great, she decided to create a copy of them to decorate her palace complex in St. Petersburg. After receiving permission from the Pope, Russian artists went to the Vatican in order to create copies of Raphael's originals. Raphael's frescoes were resembled by tempera on canvas, and put in a gallery designed by the architect Giacomo Quarenghi. A job that took 11 years to complete, but with an end result that looked exactly like the original frescoes. In total, 52 stories from the Old and New Testament are presented here, starting from the Creation of the World to the Last Supper.

Today we can still see Raphael's Loggias in their original form, as they did not incur any damage when the city was mercilessly bombed during the Siege of Leningrad.

The Knights' Hall

These knights seem ready to come to life and start a duel.
These knights seem ready to come to life and start a duel.

The Knights' Hall presents a rich collection of weapons, numbering nearly 15 thousand items. The collection of the Imperial Arsenal includes works of the most famous gunsmiths of Germany, Spain, France, Italy and other countries. These were firearms and other weaponry of the highest quality, lethally accompanied by unique pieces of tournament armour.

The main exhibits in this hall are the figures of 16th-century armoured knights on horses. And for an even stronger effect, the walls of this hall are decorated with paintings depicting military operations.

The Halls of the Ancient World

They say that a mummy in the Hermitage once woke up, sighed and continued to sleep. Even mummies get tired.
They say that a mummy in the Hermitage once woke up, sighed and continued to sleep. Even mummies get tired.

Like any major museum, the Hermitage has an extensive collection of exhibits from the ancient world, including Ancient Greece, Rome and, of course, Egypt. The items from Roman and Greek times were first collected by Catherine the Great, who bought many sculptures from noble families. Besides, a vast number of excavations funded by the Imperial Treasury were carried out on the Black Sea coast, thanks to which new works of art appeared in the Hermitage. Here you will find some of the earliest sculptures of Venus, Jupiter, Ariadne, and many others. But probably the most striking ancient corner will be the Hall of Egypt. In addition to traditional statues of ancient Egyptian gods, there is a mummy in this hall that causes goosebumps. Do you dare to see it?

The majestic halls of the Hermitage shouldn't distract us too much from the amazing works of art, so let us tell you now something about the most famous pieces.

Madonna with a Flower by Leonardo da Vinci

The masterpiece Madonna with a Flower by Leonardo da Vinci is being observed attentively.
The masterpiece Madonna with a Flower by Leonardo da Vinci is being observed attentively.

Benois Madonna is an early painting by Leonardo da Vinci, presumably left unfinished. The painting was considered lost until 1912, when the Benois family brought it to Europe for a deeper examination, before putting it up for auction.

But the Russian people interfered here as they wanted the painting to remain in their home country. The Benois family followed up on that request and sold the Madonna for 150 thousand Rubles to the Hermitage collection. The amount was paid in several instalments, with the last payments made even after the October Revolution.

Madonna Litta by Leonardo da Vinci

When looking at this painting in the Hermitage, pay attention to the tiny bird the baby is holding in his hand.
When looking at this painting in the Hermitage, pay attention to the tiny bird the baby is holding in his hand.

This painting received its name from the Milan family Litta, which possessed the piece of art for most of the 19th century. Opinions of art historians regarding the authorship of the picture differ, with some believing that the painting belongs to the brush of one of the students of Leonardo – Giovanni Boltraffio or Marco d’Ojojo. The Hermitage, however, insists on the authorship of Leonardo da Vinci.

Despite its small size (44cm by 32cm), this painting invariably captures the eyes of visitors. A detail most visitors do not notice though, is that the baby is holding a chick in his little hand.

Danaë by Rembrandt

This monumental picture is located in one of the most famous halls of the Hermitage, which is dedicated to the works of Rembrandt. It houses 24 of the master's paintings, and is as such considered the largest collection of his works outside the homeland. The appearance of Danaë was inspired by the two women most familiar to Rembrandt, his wife Saskia van Uylenburgh, and his later lover Geertje Dircx. The picture depicts a moment from ancient Greek mythology, when Zeus came to Danaë in the form of golden raindrops onto her womb. Soon after, their child Perseus was born.

Danaë is one of the favourites in the rich Rembrandt collection of the Hermitage.
Danaë is one of the favourites in the rich Rembrandt collection of the Hermitage.

Danaë appeared in Russia in 1772, after being bought by Catherine the Great. Two hundred years later, this painting suffered a widely broadcasted act of vandalism by the Lithuanian Bronius Maygis, who doused it with an acid and damaged it repeatedly with a knife. As Maygis pronounced later, his action was entirely motivated by political reasons. He originally stated that he had committed his crime in protest against the Soviet rule in Lithuania, although changed his story later on to blame misogyny. Even though 27% of the canvas was damaged, the picture has been completely restored. Since 1997 it is placed in the hall of Dutch art from the 16-17th century, under an extra layer of armoured glass.

The Apostles Peter and Paul by El Greco

The dramatic portrait of the apostles Peter and Paul is one of the most famous works of El Greco.
The dramatic portrait of the apostles Peter and Paul is one of the most famous works of El Greco.

The fate of the paintings of El Greco – Doménikos Theotokópoulos – has remained unknown for a long time. After the artist's death, they almost got entirely forgotten for three centuries. With their very dark colours and remarkable technique, they were initially considered rather mediocre. However everything changed at the beginning of the 20th century, when the artistic community began to rediscover old artists. The works of El Greco began to appear at various exhibitions and vernissages, where wealthy collectors ended up buying them to enrich their galleries.

In 1911, the Russian statesman Peter Durnovo donated the painting The Apostles Peter and Paul to the Hermitage collection. El Greco produced this piece in 1592 in Toledo, where he lived till the end of his life. It is believed that El Greco depicted himself in the image of Paul (the figure in red). However, researchers are still arguing about this.

The Lute Player by Caravaggio

The Lute Player is the only painting of Caravaggio in Russia.
The Lute Player is the only painting of Caravaggio in Russia.

Caravaggio was a famous Baroque master from Italy who made a big impression in the arts community with his paintings based on the innovative technique of “cellar lightning”. As many art researchers say, drama is one of the core principles in his works. In his painting The Lute Player, there is romantic drama. The musical notebook depicted on the table contains the then-popular tune of a sad madrigal by Jacques Arcadelt, titled “You know that I love you”. The cracked lute in the hands of the young man as a symbol of unhappy love brings even more sadness to the image. Emperor Alexander I purchased the canvas in 1808. It is the only known Caravaggio work in all Russia.

These five paintings are just a sample of the enormous collection that can be admired in the Winter Palace. You can also find works by Rafael, Titian, Peter Paul Rubens and many more, while strolling from one amazing hall to the other. Better don't pass the sculptures blindly, as there you can see the famous Three Graces, as well as other works by Antonio Canova.

The Winter Palace still treasures traces of its Imperial past. One of the windows facing Vasilievsky Island is known to contain an inscription left by Empress Alexandra, the wife of Nicholas II. She used her diamond ring to engrave the following text on the window: “Nicky 1902 looking at the husars. 17 March”.

Did You Know?

With all this richness presented in the main complex, you might be questioning yourself what can we see then in the General Staff building? Well, let us move there to answer this question.

The General Staff building of the State Hermitage museum

The General Staff building, with left of the arch the 'secret' entrance to the Hermitage.
The General Staff building, with left of the arch the 'secret' entrance to the Hermitage.

The construction of this particular building in the style of Russian Classicism began in 1820 and lasted for ten years. The two massive wings of the complex are connected by a Triumphal Arch which is crowned with the sculpture 'Chariot of Glory' – a monument dedicated to the Russian victory in the war against Napoleon in 1812. Until 1993, this building consistently housed ministries and other official institutions. Starting 2010, part of the building underwent an extensive renovation in order to turn it into an exposition space of the Hermitage museum. The completion of this project was timed to coincide with the 250th anniversary of the Hermitage, which was celebrated in December 2014.

The main staircase of the General Staff building resembles an amphitheatre.
The main staircase of the General Staff building resembles an amphitheatre.

The first floor of the General Staff building houses museum premises, shops, a wardrobe, and a lecture hall. On the second floor, you will find an exhibition dedicated to the Russian Ministry of Finance, showcasing the genuinely restored cabinet of the Minister of Finance, a collection of numismatics and other artefacts. Other rooms on the second floor are filled with rare artefacts from African cultures.

Of most significant interest are the third and forth floor of the building. Here you will find an exposition of European paintings from the 19th century, the Museum of the Guard, the famous works by Fabergé – including the Rockefeller egg, which is the most expensive Fabergé egg in the world – and the pride of the collection: the works of Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. Don't miss the halls dedicated to such great painters as Van Gogh, Renoir, Monet and Picasso, or famous Russian avant-garde painters as Kandinsky and Malevich.

Impressionists

The paintings of the most famous artists are exhibited in the permanent galleries on the forth floor. Their walls are decorated with works that originally stem from the private collections of Shchukin and the Morozov brothers. These two families belonged to the greatest collectors of art in the beginning of the 20th century. When the Soviets came to power, their possessions were nationalized and put in the museums of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Visitors of the General Staff building will be able to see the paintings of graceful dancers by Edgar Degas, creations by Henri Fantin-Latour, Camille Pissarro, and Alfred Sisley. Two halls of the permanent exhibition are occupied by portraits from the hands of Auguste Renoir and Paul Cézanne.

A separate part of the exhibition is dedicated to the paintings of Paul Gauguin, where you will find some of his legendary works with Tahitians and vivid landscapes. But still, the masterpieces of Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse enjoy the highest recognition among the visitors of the General Staff.

Dance by Henri Matisse

The bright colours in Matisse's paintings involuntarily bring a feeling of joy.
The bright colours in Matisse's paintings involuntarily bring a feeling of joy.

The bright painting 'Dance' is done in only three colours – blue, green and orange. It was created in 1910 for the Moscow collector Sergei Shchukin, as a decorative panel for the main staircase of his mansion. After the October Revolution, the paintings of Shchukin were confiscated, and the 'Dance' ended up in the Hermitage. The canvas on display here is the second and most famous version of this painting. The first image was finished in 1909 and is currently on display in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The works by Pablo Picasso

Portrait of a Young Woman, one of the paintings by Picasso.
Portrait of a Young Woman, one of the paintings by Picasso.

The Picasso collection is undoubtedly the pride of the museum. It is made up of the former Sergei Shchukin possessions. By 1914 his collection contained an estimated number of 51 works by Picasso, making it the most extensive private collection of paintings by this artist in the world. Critics of those days called Shchukin “crazy” for his love for such extraordinary art, but thanks to his taste the Hermitage currently boasts one of the richest Picasso collections in the world. Here you will find many works from the blue and pink period of the painter, and, of course, works related to cubism. One picture, however, is more popular than others, The Absinthe Drinker. But unfortunately this drinker is rarely home, as it is often taken to exhibitions abroad.

Did you know that Picasso was also fond of making ceramics? Here you can see those exhibits as well.

Effect of Fog at Waterloo Bridge by Claude Monet

Step back a few meters and you will see that the bridge is really there.
Step back a few meters and you will see that the bridge is really there.

Claude Monet's painting of the Waterloo Bridge has an unusual optical effect. If you come close to the picture, then it is practically impossible to distinguish anything else but the same tone of random strokes. But as you move away, the contours begin to emerge gradually, and from a distance of about two meters, a definite composition appears in front of the viewer. Standing like this, you can see the objects sharply separated from the background, and even the movement of the water in the river can be felt. No wonder many people call this painting “magical”.

Russian avant-garde

Moving further along the exhibition on the forth floor, you will face works by Wassily Kandinsky as well as the most famous piece of Kazimir Malevich. They are considered to be the two leading Russian avant-garde artists of the early 20th century, and the founders of abstract art.

With the advent of such artistic trends as Fauvism and Cubism, the style of painting quickly changed. French Impressionists began the tendency of tearing away from objectivity and reality, which used to be so important in classic art. With their creativity, they inspired many national art schools. Perhaps the most striking example of this were the Russian artists. They became acquainted with Impressionism at exhibitions of the Shchukin collection, which inspired them to bring their works to a radically new level. The Abstractionism that started to emerge from then, basically paved the way for all the modern art we have today.

Composition VI by Wassily Kandinsky

The hall of Wassily Kandinsky, with on the left side his famous Composition VI.
The hall of Wassily Kandinsky, with on the left side his famous Composition VI.

The Hermitage has a whole hall dedicated to the works of Wassily Kandinsky. One of his most famous works here, Composition VI, was created in Munich in May 1913 – one year before the outbreak of WWI. A vibrant picture is painted with free and sweeping strokes. Initially Kandinsky wanted to name it “The Flood” – thereby giving away that he was inspired by this prominent Biblical motif. However, later, the artist abandoned this idea. He didn’t want the title of the work to interfere with the perception of the audience, and decided to let the viewer himself choose what he sees. By looking closely, you can see the outlines of a ship, animals and violins maybe..?

The Black Square by Kazimir Malevich

What is hiding in the depth of Malevich's Black Square?
What is hiding in the depth of Malevich's Black Square?

The Black Square by Kazimir Malevich is one of the most famous works of Russian avant-garde painting. It is a vivid embodiment of the ideas of Suprematism – the direction of art, which uses simple geometric forms to describe the surrounding space and movement. But the Black Square is not so simple. Firstly, it is not a square. Take a closer look and realize that the lines are not parallel. Secondly, it is not black. There are four variants of this painting, all with a completely different colour depth and none of them purely black. But most importantly, nobody needs to tell you what is the point of this painting, because, after having a good look, everyone will find it himself.

Thus, if you start your way from the Winter Palace and move on to the General Staff building, you will follow the way the art travelled, from primitive drawings, through the Renaissance to Suprematism. For a good preparation of your journey, we will round up now by sharing a couple of interesting facts about the Hermitage.

Get ready for your visit

The striking Imperial interior of the Winter Palace.
The striking Imperial interior of the Winter Palace.

You can talk endlessly about such a grandiose place and its history, but before continuing we give you the opportunity to visit this magnificent museum first!

  • In 2018, the Hermitage was visited by about 4.5 million people.
  • The museum displays more than three million exhibits in 365 halls.
  • The total exposition space measures 233,345m2, and requires a 20km walk to see it all.
  • On Wednesday and Friday the Hermitage has extended opening hours, and on the third Thursday of the month the entrance is free. Monday is a day off.

What else to do near the Hermitage?

With the Hermitage in the heart of St. Petersburg, you can bet that there's plenty to do in the area. Have a calm walk through the Alexander Garden, a drink in one of the nearby bar streets, or go back to the USSR and have a legendary doughnut called 'pyshka'. Find your best options on our Streetwise map of St. Petersburg.

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