How to Make the Most of Your Time at the Hermitage – An Expert Shares Her Tips
Positioned in the heart of St. Petersburg, Russia, the Hermitage is the second largest museum in the world, and one of the world’s greatest. It would take months for a person to stop and examine each of the exhibits here, which include works by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Gogh, Matisse, Gauguin, and Picasso, as well as treasures from ancient Rome, China and imperial Russia.
The fabulous rooms with their inlaid floors and gilded woodwork, and the grand double entry staircase are works of art in themselves.
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Olga Hayes – Hermitage and St. Petersburg Travel ExpertOlga Hayes, Senior Private Journeys Specialist and native of St. Petersburg, worked for many years as a senior curator for the State Russian Museum, specializing in icons.
When Olga was six years old, she began taking a weekly enrichment class at the Hermitage, designed especially for children with an aptitude for and an interest in art. Every Sunday, the class spent an hour or two in different sections of the museum and presented a project at the end of the year. After 10 years of Sundays at the Hermitage, and a Doctorate in Russian Culture, Olga is the ultimate insider at Russia’s greatest museum. In her official capacity at the Russian Museum, she worked closely with Hermitage staff, and when she makes her annual visit to St. Petersburg, she always stops in to visit.
The Hermitage: Before Your Visit
Make a plan before you go, and give yourself enough time. Even if you were to walk quickly, it would take more than a day merely to pass by every exhibit.
Check out the Hermitage website. It’s extensive, filled with photos, and tells you about current and permanent exhibitions. The website has some planning tools to help you make a list of the items you want to see. Try out these online tools:
- Trip Planner – Helps you to create and organize your visit
- Interactive map – Review the layout of the three floors to get a perspective of what is found where
Most people will enter the main floor of the Hermitage by climbing the majestic Jordon staircase, then walk through 11 magnificent official halls, once used for state business and royal audiences. After this introduction, it’s best if you either have your game plan in place, or have a MIR guide with you to lead you to your must-see exhibits.
The Hermitage: Inside Scoop
- When to Go
- Oops: Travel Bloopers
- Take a Moment to Recharge
- Hire a Guide
- Shop Savvy
- Double Your Pleasure
To Everything There is a Season: When to Go
Summer or winter – each has its advantages.
In summer, the lines are longer, but it can be more pleasant to stand out in the sun. I recommend getting in line a half hour before opening time (10:30am). Usually you don’t have to wait more that 40 minutes to get inside, and then you have all day to browse.
I usually don’t recommend paying for the early opening if you’re on your own. Big groups of passengers from the river cruise ships typically take advantage of the early entry option, so I find it more satisfying to enter at the usual time and not have to contend with them. If you’re with a private group, or a tour, paying for early entry can be a good option, because the crowds are still smaller than during peak hours.
In winter, you can arrive only 10 minutes before opening time, and should be able to enter quickly. The halls are much quieter in winter, and your experience may feel more personal and special.
Oops: Travel Bloopers
The main mistake Hermitage visitors make is trying to fit in too much. You simply can’t see it all, so decide on your “must-sees” and map them out.
Note: The famous collection of French Impressionist paintings has been moved across the Palace Square to the General Staff Headquarters. You can buy a “complex” ticket in the main building, good for entry (during one day only) to the main complex, General Staff, Menshikov Palace, Winter Palace of Peter I, and the Imperial Porcelain Factory Museum. It’s best to finish at the main building before you go over to admire the French Impressionists, since once you’ve left each building, you can’t re-enter.
Take a Moment to Recharge
If you take a break for coffee, tea, or a bite to eat, and recharge your batteries, you’ll be able to enjoy yourself for much longer.
On the ground floor near the coat check is a handy cafeteria that serves fast and moderately priced Russian and international food. You can purchase coffee, tea and pastries, as well as sandwiches, pizza and piroshky here without taking too much time out of your day. It’s a good place to rest your legs and take a break.
There is an elegant sit-down restaurant in the Hermitage, with excellent (but expensive) cuisine, tablecloths, china and wait staff; personally, I hate to spend too much time eating when I’m at the museum. If you’re ready for an hour and a half break, go ahead and give it a try. It’s definitely worth the price.
Of course, in the vicinity of the Hermitage there are many varied restaurants and cafés, but the catch is that once you leave the museum, you can’t re-enter without standing in line all over again. Don’t leave until you’re ready to.
Hire a Guide
I recommend that you hire a local MIR guide to get the most out of your time. They will ask you about your preferences and time limitations and put together a great tour for you, giving you background, history and anecdotes about the works of art.
It is a much richer and more rewarding experience, in my opinion, than wandering on your own, reading the plaques that explain what everything is. If you say, “Surprise me,” your guide will – with all their own personal favorites and the exhibits that they feel are essential for a first-time visitor.
Are Photos Allowed?
Visitors are allowed to take photos inside the Hermitage free of charge, however, the Hermitage reserves the right to deny permission to photograph or change their policies without notice. No flashes are allowed, and taking photos or videos of temporary exhibits is prohibited.
There are some very nice shops on the first floor near the café. You can buy books, postcards, and real Russian souvenirs that come with certificates verifying their provenance. There is a shop selling beautiful replica jewelry, some set with real stones. I highly recommend shopping here, because everything is high quality and authentic.
Follow the rules, which are simple: Don’t Touch and Don’t Argue. If the room attendants who oversee each room say anything to you, listen to them and do what they tell you. You can be thrown out for arguing.
You’ll be required to leave any coats and backpacks at the coat check, which is sizeable and convenient. You can carry your purse with you. Food and drink are not allowed in the museum – even the ubiquitous water bottle – but you can stop in at the café any time for a refresher.
Stay on the lookout for Hermitage cats! Normally they stay in the basement during the day, but it’s possible you may see one roaming the halls along with you.
Double Your Pleasure
At this writing, with an exchange rate of 59 rubles to the dollar, it costs approximately $10.00 for an all-day entry ticket to the Hermitage (about $13 for entrance to both the main building and the General Staff Headquarters, where the French Impressionists are living.). If you are staying for a few days in St. Petersburg, it’s my recommendation that you go back to the Hermitage more than once, if it’s at all possible. You could even drop by for an hour to seek out and contemplate the masterpiece of humanity that touches you most deeply. It would be money well spent to enrich your soul this way.
Each person will have his or her “essential” exhibits at the Hermitage, and they may all be different. For example, whether you love antiquities, Asian art, Flemish painting, Russian icons or 20th century art, you’ll find much to appreciate. Say you are a fan of Matisse, you must make sure you give yourself plenty of time to appreciate the Hermitage’s collection of some forty striking works by the visionary artist.
My MIR colleagues also have some favorites to share:
“No one does [light and shade] better than Rembrandt; thankfully the Hermitage has an entire room devoted to his works. Grab a seat before the crowds descend and spend time (nearly) alone as you take in – behold – the two dozen masterpieces of this master artist.”
“The highlight of my visit to the Hermitage was witnessing the winding of the beautiful Peacock Clock, located in Pavilion Hall. It’s more than just a clock, it’s a 240+ year old automaton that methodically transforms from a stationary golden statue to a moving work of art, wondrously exploding with whimsy.
The clock is so ornate and complex, these days it only shows off for people at 7pm on Wednesdays (subject to change). If you can’t time your visit for this once-a-week winding, there’s a video of it in action next to the Peacock Clock display.”
MIR can arrange a private striking of the Peacock Clock for groups – for an extra fee, of course.
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Top photo: Gallery of military portraits in the Hermitage. Photo credit: Jonathan Irish
PUBLISHED: March 14, 2017