The Hermitage

Aleksandr Demyanchuk/ТАSS
The story of Russia’s most important museum, and one of the world’s greatest collections, began in the 18th century, when Empress Catherine the Great found Rubens’ Descent From the Cross at one of the Winter Palace’s storerooms and was so impressed that she began her own collection. At first it included only paintings, but quickly expanded to sculpture, furniture, tapestries, drawings and everything else. Today, the museum with more than a million items occupies the Winter Palace and the adjacent buildings of the Palace Embankment.

The Hermitage is spread across the palace, not just the great halls, but also the private quarters, corridors, passages, former kitchens, cloak rooms, servant and guard rooms that just a hundred years ago were occupied by the members of the royal family, members of their court and servants. It’s very easy to get lost among the endless hallways and suites and it’s impossible to see the whole collection in just a day or two; the best thing to do is to mark a few goals and spend your time at the museum accordingly.

The Hermitage Museum website has a “Plan your visit” option. For example, you can take a quick look at the rooms with the earliest cultural artefacts of Eurasia on the first floor of the museum, and then move on to the Scythians with their animal-style ornaments and — the most important point of the itinerary — the world’s oldest surviving carpet that was found in the Pazyryksky burial mound. Another option is to spend half a day with the treasuries of the Egyptian collection. It’s great fun to walk among the Roman and Greek busts searching for likenesses with your friends. You can spend hours studying flowers and animals in the Rafael Room, or you can join the crowd in the Da Vinci Room and work your way up to Madonna Lita and Madonna Benois. Back in the time the Bolsheviks sold off the best of the collection’s Titian works, but there’s plenty of Rembrandt. The master’s later works, such as The Return of the Prodigal Son or The Portrait of Old Man in Red; the still-lifes of Snyders; the wooden sculptures of the German Renaissance; Goya; Velázquez; Gainsborough; Florentine mosaics; the 1812 gallery; the Peacock Clock and Middle Age armour; coins and vases; rooms upon rooms upon rooms…

If all this gets your head spinning, take a good long look at Neva and the Peter and Paul Fortress and head for the exit, studying the inlaid flooring and Morelli door handles as you go.

First Thursday of every month, December 7 - free admission