The Winter Palace, a fabulously large green, white, and gold building on the side of the Neva River, houses the world-famous Hermitage Museum, home to the largest collection of paintings in the world. The total number of pieces kept by the museum is figured to be somewhere around 3 million. Naturally, only a small portion of the collection can be displayed at any given time.
The Hermitage began in 1764 as the private collection of Empress Catherine the Great. She commanded Russian ambassadors around the world to purchase the best pieces of art they could find. Through their work, she grew her collection, which went on public display (to the “respectable set”) in 1852. Today, the Hermitage is one of world's most important collections of art.
Exhibitions are held in a complex of buildings, mostly lined up along the Palace Embankment of the Neva River. However, only four of these are open for public display: the exhibition in the Winter Palace, the Small Hermitage (Catherine’s former “salon” where she held parties with games), the Great Hermitage (the original exhibition hall), and the New Hermitage (erected under Tsar Nicholas I in the middle of the 19th century). Among the other exhibition areas is the Hermitage Theater. Held in a state close to that in which Catherine commanded performances, this Palladian-style theater occasionally stages theatrical works today.
This is not a photo. This is a painting of one of the Hermitage halls by Russian artist Eduard Gau. Amazing attention to detail!
The adjacent Palace Square is just as rich in history. It was toward the Alexander Column, the great monolithic red granite monument to Tsar Alexander’s role in crushing Napoleon Bonaparte’s army during its invasion of Russia, that an army of peaceful protesters marched with Father Gapon when the Imperial Guard gunned down scores of them near the Narva Gate (Alexander’s answer to the Arc de Triomphe erected by Napoleon in Paris). The event, later described as Bloody Sunday, destabilized the Tsarist regime so much that the Communist Revolution became inevitable. It was because of this event that on this square, where the 1825 Decembrist Rebellion failed, the Bolsheviks succeeded in storming the Winter Palace.
Of course, all of our private tours to St. Petersburg include at least 3 hours of touring with a professional guide at the Hermitage. Among the highlights of what a visitor will see is the Renaissance collection with its Raphaels, the Impressionists (including works by Cezanne and Monet), and the 20th century painters (such as Picasso, Matisse, and Kandinsky). Highlights of tours of the historic Winter Palace include the Malachite room, the Great Nicholas Room (the scene of many enchanting and glittering imperial balls), the Concert Hall, and the display of the imperial carriages. There are a wealth of fascinating exhibits, including archeological finds from Russia's ancient Scythian culture, artifacts that reach back in time to the age of Christ and earlier. Indeed, the Golden Room contains amazing gold and silver antiquities, including mummified human and horse corpses from burial mounds, as well as a preserved 2,500-year-old carpet, but excursions through this exhibition do cost extra and must be booked in advance.
The Hermitage's popularity, of course, means that lines can be long, but there are a few tricks to getting around them. We recommend getting a guided tour, which can be procured from the excursion office located on the premises. Of course, a better idea is to ask your travel specialist to arrange it for you..