When the ship visited St. Petersburg last October, I finally had the chance to visit the Hermitage Museum. I was a day officer during that time and that means no navigation duties and no watchkeeping duties. One of the perks of being assigned as day officer is the longer free time to do what I always love doing – and that is exploring.
As one walks through St. Petersburg’s Hermitage museum, the latter sentiment can be really felt. Spanning a complex of buildings with a floor area of over 230,000 square meters, the museum is the largest of its kind in the world (Russians seem to love having the biggest of everything!). Its massive collection — over 3 million items, of which only a small portion is on permanent display — first came to be during the reign of Empress Catherine the Great, back in 1764. Its doors had been open to the public since 1852.
The character of the museum not only comes from its unrivalled collections, but also from the actions of its staff. Its director Mikhail Piotrovsky has publicly spoken out many times about the importance of museums in resolving global conflicts, by being a melting pot of common cultures and histories.
Every visitor, wherever they may be in the five publicly-open buildings of the museum, will feel this sentiment strongly. I definitely did, when I visited it last month! With that, let me take you through the various gilded galleries of the Hermitage.
Around the World, From The Beginning of Time
The Winter Palace is one of the grandest in the complex, with its unmistakable Russian architecture. Think Anastasia, or Anna Karenina! It is also in the western wing of the Palace’s ground floor that one of the most valued prehistoric collections in the continent can be found.
The artifacts here can be traced back to the Stone and Iron Age of Russia. Among the most fascinating displays is the world’s oldest surviving knotted-pile carpet, dating back from the 3rd or 4th century BC. It is surprisingly well-preserved, even despite the age and the torn bits. The colors and designs are still clearly visible!
In the eastern wing of the Palace stands a collection of Egyptian antiquities, including artifacts from ancient Babylon, Assyria, and Mesopotamia, and Nimrud. This is one of the earliest exhibits, established the same year the Hermitage itself opened. From ancient sarcophagi and water clocks to sculpture groups and and a real mummy, this wide hall is a must-see for all fans of ancient Egyptian culture. This is also one of the first sections that most visitors will see, as the beautiful Jordan Staircase leads here.
And you don’t have to fly over to other parts of Europe just to see classical antiquities. All you have to do is to move over to the stately Old and New Hermitage buildings in order to view ancient Greek and Hellenistic works. While fans of Greek sculpture will find the display a bit lacking, the collection does not fail to wow with its exquisite gems and potteries. It even houses the authentic Venus of Tauris (Venus Tauride), which dates from the 3rd or 2nd century BC. Like the more famous Venus de Milo, this version of Aphrodite has lost both arms — but at least its head has been preserved!
And of course, a trip through classical antiquities isn’t complete without a trip through the Jupiter Hall, which is dedicated to busts and images of the Ancient Greek/Roman pantheon!
A Taste of Royalty
The Hermitage is also home to various displays of jewelry and precious artworks. The First Treasure Gallery is located at the New Hermitage building, and contains an extensive collection of western jewels. On the other hand, the Second Treasure Gallery located back at the Winter Palace also contains precious materials from Asia, such as gold ornaments and the like. Note that you can only visit these galleries as a part of a guided tour, so take that into account when planning your visit.
One of the most striking displays of royal grandeur is the Malachite Room, which is also located in the eastern hall of the Winter Palace, from the Jordan Staircase. It is among the set of rooms dubbed the Great Enfilade — a series of neoclassical spaces decorated in every possible way to showcase the greatness of Imperial Russia. The Malachite Room itself uses around 2 tons of the precious stone for which it is named. The place was originally designed as a drawing room for the wife of Tsar Nicholas I.
Malachite is also a predominant decor in the Nicholas Hall, which was the main ballroom of the palace before it became part of the Hermitage. And since we’re talking about royalty, what better way to remind us of the idea than to find our way through the Gallery of Russian Tsars, which contains portraits and paintings of the Romanov Emperors?
And if you think you’ve had enough, wait until you make your way through the Golden Drawing Room. This is extravagant in the extreme — a whole room plated in gold! This room is located in that part of the Winter Palace that also houses recreations of actual private rooms during the 19th century.
Everything for Everyone
Just like what anyone would expect for a museum this size, the Hermitage also contains hundreds of thousands of artworks, coins, stamps, and more! These items come from all over Europe, from various times. There are Rubens and Rembrandts, Monets and van Goghs, Renoirs and Picassos. There are also religious artifacts, along with items from the Italian Renaissance. There’s everything for everyone!
Just by this alone, The Hermitage has accomplished its mission to be a melting pot of cultures from across space and time, a focal point where people from all over can look back. No matter who you are or where you’re from, you’ll always find something here you can relate to, something you will find worth preserving for posterity.
Of course, it’s easy to see how you can spend the whole day just winding through the Hermitage’s many rooms, so they also have a hotel where guests can stay! And if you haven’t had enough of grandeur, you’ll also find a shop that sells everything from postcards to replicas.
While tickets can be purchased on site, it’s much more practical to skip the long lines and buy them online through the Hermitage’s official website. There are one-day and two-day passes available. If you feel like penny-pinching, you can also go to the Museum every first Thursday of the month — there are free tickets for everyone! Of course, the lines are also much longer, but the museum is only closed on Mondays and every January 1 and May 9, so you have a lot of time to plan what may be one of the most exciting museum visits of your life.
Hermitage Museum Photo Gallery