Visiting the amazing State Hermitage Museum St. Petersburg – Do’s and Don’ts
When in St. Petersburg… the State Hermitage Museum is probably on most visitors itineraries unless their time in the city is extremely limited.
One of the largest publicly accessible palace complexes in the world, the Winter Palace and its annexes house an amazing collection of artefacts from the stone age to modernism, presented in the most opulent Tsarist state rooms and specialized galleries. This makes the State Hermitage Museum extremely popular! Visitors may endure long tickets queues and an amount of crowding that’s somewhat unbecoming for quiet contemplation of beautiful art. I think it is so stunningly beautiful and full of history, although the focus lies on its Imperial State Rooms and its art colelction. Post-Tsarist history, the October Revolution and its fate during the Second World War is somewhat neglected.
Best time to visit State Hermitage Museum
If you’re into art, and purely into art and indoor activities, the winter is the time to go! With the exception of New Year, visitor numbers drop massively, hotels drop their prices accordingly, the music season is on, and everywhere is less crowded.
Unless you visit outside the main tourist season, from about May to September, I highly recommend buying tickets online directly through the State Hermitage Museum Shop. If you purchase through the Russian language site, you pay 730 roubles (about 10 Euro) for one and 1020 roubles for two days, valid for 180 days. If you use the English language website, it goes up to almost twice that. No need to go through third party websites, which often charge you more. And once you have the ticket, there should be no queuing anyway.
When I visited in late September, there were no queues whatsoever to buy tickets on the spot. Perhaps 10 people were waiting in line to buy tickets and the self-serve ticket kiosks totally empty. If you want to buy tickets ont he spot, they will cost 700 roubles for foreigners and 400 roubles for Russian and Belorussian citizens. Probably worth risking it off season.
Also, there is free entry on 7. December and every third Thursday of the month to individual visitors. Visitors will be issued with free tickets, but it can get very, very crowded then… don’t want to try this out after a particularly crowded free visit to the Vatican Museums a few years back.
Visiting the State Hermitage Museum
First of all: The museum is closed every Monday as well as certain holidays. Check their website for up-to-date information
From what I heard, the main part of the Hermitage Museum is most crowded in the mornings, after it opens at 10.30. The evenings are generally quieter, especially after 17.00. You should take at least three hours to visit the most impressive state rooms, and bear in mind the museum closes at 18.00 or at 21.00 on Wednesdays and Fridays.
Plan at least three hours. If you can, purchase a ticket for two days. Seeing the whole flight of state rooms and galleries of what is known as the Winter Palace Complex (Winter Palace, Great Hermitage, Small Hermitage, New Hermitage and Winter Palace of Peter the Great/Hermitage Theatre) can easily take a couple days, and then there is the adjacent General Staff Building (the yellow crescent shaped building with its Admirality Arch in the middle) the Menshikov Palace across the Neva, the Museum of the Imperial Porcelain Factory, and the outlying “Staraya Derevnya” Storage Facility…
Where to Enter the State Hermitage Museum
If you buy a ticket on the spot, head across the Palace Square to the triple gate in the middle of the huge Winter Palace Front (with the Russian flag above it), leading you into the courtyard, main ticket office and ticket machines.
Those with pre-purchased “internet vouchers” should not use this entrance, but turn right and walk 200m to the right, past the Small Hermitage, to the “New Hermitage” entrance. It’s signposted, and the last entrance before the Winter Canal ( “Shuvalovsky Proezd” – in a small passageway between the Small and “New Hermitage”, can also be accessed from the Neva side).
Each entrance has toilets and a cloakroom, and I recommend you pick up a free Museum Plan here. The free plan is good if you’re happy to read very small print in dimly lit rooms, and for orientation as to where the “highlights” are – they are all clearly marked in the map, and are mostly all one floor above ground. Please note that the excellent Collection of Modern Art, first collectively displayed in a 1995 exhibition entitled “Hidden Treasures: Impressionist masterpieces and other important French paintings preserved by the State Hermitage Museum”, is tucked well away from the State Rooms now, which are mostly hung with 17th and 18th Century Art.
Highlights of State Hermitage Museum
This much depends on what you consider to be especially noteworthy, and people’ expectations and views are different. The galleries were chock-full of Chinese tour groups which crowd in front of a few notable old master paintings by Rembrandt, “The Return of the Prodigal Son” and de Da Vinci Madonnas and take as many pictures as possible with their cell phones and tablets. Being blessed with great access to the old master galleries od Berlin and Dresden, as well as easily accessible art galleries in Europe, they weren’t the main draw for me, but the impressive state rooms were what impressed me most, no, stunned me!
Please be aware that artworks may go on loan or be rearranged.
The Ground Floor of the Winter Palace is mostly plainly decorated rooms with ancient artefacts from all over the world. Highlights include the Treasures of the Golden Horde Khanate in Room 69, as well as various Assyrian, Greek and Roman artefacts. A lot of the Ground Floor is also given over to administrative offices, cafes and cloak rooms.
Here is where the most opulent and most famous Old Master paintings and sculpture are concentrated, especially on the Neva side of the Winter Palace and both the Old and New Hermitage buildings. You can easily walk through miles and miles of corridors to see them all. One of the grandest entrances of all times is the Jordan Staircases, leading from the Ground Floor up to the “Neva Enfilade”, a flight of very grand, light-flooded state rooms overlooking the Neva river. It is signposted throughout the entire complex, a good orientation point, and crowded.
Rooms 190-191, the main reception rooms of the palace, with its centre piece, relatively restrained, light-flooded Great Nikolai Hall (191), followed by the equally impressive Concert Hall (190). From here, its just a few steps into the Malachite Room (189), where, you guess it, everything is embellished with the semiprecious stone.
Continue anticlockwise, and you’ll come a cross an overladen gold and red velvet boudoir (306), and, continue towards the Small Hermitage. You can see Fragonard’s “The Stolen Kiss” (286) on the way, then continue ro the War Gallery of 1812 (197), which is a long red room hung with a few hundred military portraits. Also turn right before the War Gallery to see the Grand Church of the Winter Palace, now deconsecrated as part of the Museum (271). Almost full circle and back to the Jordan staircase now, you can check it its any less crowded, and take a look at the Small Throne Room, another red and gilt-fest of relatively modest proportions.
From the Passageway behind the Jordan staircase (202) you can now enter the Small Hermitage with its Neva-facing Pavilion Hall with its famous Peacock Clock (204). Ok, its an overdimensional late 1700’s gilt peacock automaton under a glass dome, but people went crazy with their selfie sticks that it was hard to get close. There are a singing owl and rooster, too, which continue to delight you at certain times of the day, but I didn’t hang around for the performance.
You could hurry away from the peacock madness to the next long gallery (255) for some German Art, of which the highlight is Lucas Cranach the Elders Madonna and Child under an Apple Tree.
Old and New Hermitage Building
Perhaps by now you have worked the appetite for the Old Masters, and now, as you enter the Old Hermitage passing the pretty Council Staircase, look for a throng of people in front of Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son”.
Moving anticlockwise, you can stay with the Flemish Masters and admire the Rubens Hall (247). Then move on and leave the pretty Main Staircase to your left before turning into the extremely impressive Raphael Loggias. Whether the tour groups don’t make it here or whether most people are already tired by now is uncertain. But they were less crowded on my visit, but one of my highlights. They’re not-quite-exact copies of the Vatican Museums Raphael Loggias. Beautifully light yet ornate, they impress by their sheer length of painted walls.
Back in the Old Hermitage now, look out for some fine Italian Art and sculpture in Rooms 230 und 232. One is a small sculpture of a crouching boy by Michelangelo. The other on is “The Lute Player” by Caravaggio. As you move on, take in two very different small portraits of the Madonna and Child by Leonardo Da Vinci. Nzmed the Litta and the Benois Madonna. They are on every tour group itinerary and very crowded.
And with that… you should have seen the most famous highlights of the Winter Palace!
A much smaller floor, consisting only of a few Winter Palace Rooms, this holds religious Art from the Far East, Central Asia and the Byzantine Period. If its peace and quiet you are after, you shall find it here.
The General Staff Building
In my ignorance, and totally stunned after three hours of gilt, plaster, velvet and more paintings that I could look at, I didn’t make it here. But if you are into 19th and 20th Century Art, may I suggest you visit here forst or on another day, as this part of the museum holds about 1000 artworks, among them works by Degas, Monet, Matisse, Kandinsky and other famous names.
Tour of the State Hermitage Museum
Depending on the time of day, and how much time you have, I would try to make a leisurely circuit of the First Floor (one above ground) first, as this holds the most impressive state rooms, and some of the famous Hermitage art works. If you start at the Main Entrance, I would head to the Jordan staircase and follow and anticlockwise route from there as described above. If you enter with an internet voucher, use the Shuvalovsky Entrance, and either follow omnipresent signs for the Jordan Staircase or head upstairs towards the Raphael Loggia and start from there.
What not to do in the State Hermitage Museum
Don’t try to see it all in a hurry
I think three hours are an absolute minimum to see its “highlights”. My preferred route would have been to take a ticket for two days, see what I want on the first day and then come back and re-visit my favourites or finish up what I wanted to see and visit the 20th Century Art in the General Staff Building
Rely on buying tickets on site in high season
I’ve seen pictures of queues and I think there is a better way to spend your time than standing in a line that’s a few hundred metres long. Purchase tickets through the Museum Website in advance, print the voucher at home, and you’re set to visit with no queue. In my opinion, it is pretty unnecessary to purchase through a third party web site, too, they’ll just charge you more and you get no added value. I am interested what a private tour of the galleries would look like – haven’t considered it, but I would certainly be interested in one next time, especially as I only came across some historically significant rooms (like where the revolutionaries stormed the winter palace and arrested the provisional government) by chance.
It’s the “October Staircase” (71) leading from the ground floor and the room is the “Pompeian Dining Room”(188) just off the Malachite Room.
Please, don’t eat and drink in the Galleries!
This should go without saying, but it doesn’t. I’ve seen a few tourists take swigs from a thermos, then empty the dregs onto the parquet floors! I was speechless. Now I wish I had said something or asked the nearest minder to come and at least kick them out of the museum. There are cafes near the main entrance and on the ground floor of the Small Hermitage, as well as seating areas where you can eat your picnic. It might be a good idea to bring a bottle of water and a snack, as the cafe can be a bit expensive, or come with a full stomach. There aren’t water dispensers, and the tap water is not recommended to drink, so bring own water.
Prepare for your visit of the State Hermitage Museum
I recommend watching the film “The Russian Ark*” which will take you on an entertaining tour of some of the most lavish Hermitage State Rooms.
You can also do a virtual visit of the Hermitage through their website. It’s a rare sight of rooms uncrowded. Along the virtual visit, you will get some decent floor plans to help plan your visit. They also have information on the various artworks.
I spent two nights at the centrally located M-Hotel, which is about 20-30min walk from the Winter Palace along Nevsky Prospect – or 5min by bus. You can find a detailed review here.
Pale Royal (2 stars) might sound grand, but you can stay there for as little as 30EURO for a double. Housed in a grand old building in a really lovely part of town, it’s central but away from anything touristy. You have several bus lines at your door step, but the metro is at least one km away. Rooms are super comfortable and cosy. This is one if you like public transport, cosy cafes off the beaten track, and don’t mind walking a bit.
MarLen is a guesthouse in the same part of town as Pale Royal (Tsentralny), still a bit further off the beaten track, but has the advantage of a metro station (Tschernishevskaya) a couple of blocks away, as well as s stunning and quiet location right by the beautiful Transfiguration Cathedral.
How about a hotel in a stately mansion on the banks of the Moika river, and less than a minute walk from the Winter Palace? For under 100EURO per night? Try the four-star Pushka Inn. It is Russian-style ornate inside while the exterior is classicist-restrained, but price and location are unbeatable.
For something cheaper and quirky, try the Baby Lemonade Hotel and Hostel. Still in Tsentralny, this time just a short stroll from Nevsky Prospect Metro. But just off the convenient Sadovaya street with is very convenient tram line and a stop right outside the hotel. It has pop music themed modern rooms starting from about 55EURO, and also hotel beds from 11EURO.
A stunning hotel really close to the Winter Palace (600m) is the Boutique Hotel Villa Perlov. Stately mansion outside, an unique mix of modern and traditional inside its light airy rooms, prices here start at about 200EUROs for a suite.
Belmond Grand Hotel Europe is a historic 5-star hotel super central just of Nevsky Prospect, yet quietly located in a side street. The Russian Museum, Mikhailovsky Theatre and Philharmonic Hall all less than a minute walk away. A true European “Grand Hotel Style hotel with all the chintz and marble, it would by my choice if travelling as a couple. Where else can you stay at a Grand Hotel for about 150EURO per night? Admittedly this would be in the low season, but the chintz and gold are all the same.
This trip was entirely self funded. I have received no monetary or non-monetary rewards for linking aside from some affiliate links. I will only review and recommend places that I have stayed in myself unless otherwise stated. You can trust me for the whole, unbiased truth. More details on my affiliate link policy are here.