Probably the best known landmark in Saint Petersburg is the Hermitage. With over three million works of art (not all exhibited at the same time of course), including paintings by all the great European masters, it’s one of the biggest museums in the world. Not many visitors to the city will leave without having set foot in this sprawling palace/art museum to admire the architecture, the paintings and historic treasures of ancient Rome, Greece, Persia, Egypt and central Asia on display.
Short Hermitage history
A few words about the Hermitage. Founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great it has been open to the public since 1852, making it one of the oldest art museums in the world. The Hermitage itself was created after Empress Anna ordered Bartolomeo Rastrelli – the architect of many fine buildings in Saint Petersburg – in 1734 to incorporate the existing royal buildings along the river Neva into one building, the Winter Palace – the former residence of the tsars – becoming the heart of the complex.
Avoid visiting on a rainy Sunday
Due to its huge popularity it’s not always a joy to visit the Hermitage, especially during high season, when the crowds inside the six buildings of the museum can become stifling. We visited during the so-called White Nights in the second half of June – one of the busiest periods of the year in Saint Petersburg – on a rainy and chilly Sunday. As you can guess we were not alone.
Tour group crowding
It was fascinating to see all the tour groups crowd each other near the same works of art before rushing to the next, the people in the group all dutifully taking pictures of what was pointed out to them. We think that 99% of them don’t even see the differences in quality between the paintings, we certainly don’t (!), but just take the picture because they’re told it’s a great work of art.
Tips for escaping the crowds
Anyway, it still is possible to find a little peace and quiet during a visit when using some of the tactics we deployed.
1 First and foremost: Be there when the Hermitage opens its doors for visitors. Unfortunately this is rather late at 10.30 AM, so most people will make in on time to be there when this happens, even if they decide to stay in bed a little longer in the morning.
2 Buy your tickets at one of the ticket machines in the main entrance courtyard. Astonishingly there were hardly any people waiting there when we arrived at 10.15, while there was a long queue in front of the ticket office. After we’d bought our tickets at the ticket machine we could bypass the growing line of waiting people and walk (almost) straight in. It’s also possible to buy tickets online, but then you’ll pay almost double the price.
Third: Walk in the other direction the tour groups go. After we’d checked in our backpack (not allowed inside) and had walked up the beautiful Jordan Staircase to the second floor we immediately headed over to the Great Enfilade and the Great Church, which we could admire without too many other people around, as well as some of the rooms in the Great Hermitage we visited next.
Fourth: Walk in the opposite direction of the tour groups. Until we got to the highly trafficked Italian and Dutch art rooms things were quite normal, but then we entered a sea of tour groups all walking in the same direction. By moving into the opposite direction we got to enjoy some breaks in the endless stream of people. When we double backed to see the rooms surrounding the Winter Palace courtyard, things again normalized a bit.
Museum fatigue after five hours
Next we moved on to the third floor, which we found less interesting, from an architectural point of view there’s not much to see, so we descended to the first floor to see some of the treasures from ancient civilizations. By then museum fatigue had already set in so the attention we gave the items on display was haphazard at best.
Though we’re no connaisseurs of art, we still managed to spend five hours in the Hermitage. Our focus was more on the architecture of the building than all the art. It just is too much and we’re not really art lovers, except for street art. But that’s outside and that’s where we preferably want to be. Except when it’s raining…
We visited the Hermitage in June 2016