“Beauty will save the world”
Whilst this quote from the legendary Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky may be debatable, what cannot be argued with is the immense amount of beauty waiting to be discovered at the Winter Palace & Hermitage Museum. Located in Saint Petersburg, the cultural hub of Russia; the second largest art museum in the world (after the Louvre Museum in Paris) is simply a must see for lovers of art, beauty & history. In this insider’s guide, we’ll explore the palatial museum and see why it’s one of my favourite places in the world!
A step back in time
Located in Palace Square and overlooking the Neva River of Saint Petersburg, the State Hermitage Museum is housed within the “Winter Palace”. This was the official state residence of the Russian Imperial families from the period of 1732 to 1917; so when you visit here not only are you exploring a museum but also the most famous palace in Russia! The Hermitage Museum is actually named after the private rooms which Catherine the Great used to store an overflow of artwork. Within these rooms the Russian Empress housed a large collection of paintings she obtained through Johann Ernst Gotzowsky, a Berlin art merchant, in 1764.
Architecturally the exterior of the Winter Palace is designed in the Baroque period style whilst the interior is a combination of Baroque and Neo-Classical styles. The colours of the exterior have changed multiple times throughout history; from yellow & white, to red & white, to the green & white we now see today. It wasn’t until 1852 that a special section of the palace known as the “Imperial Hermitage Museum” officially opened to the public and became Russia’s first ever art museum.
Entering the Palace & Museum
As soon as you step inside the Winter Palace and Hermitage museum you will discover that there is extravagant beauty surrounding you from all angles! So prepare to have your breath taken away from the very first moment… This was evident as I ascended the “Jordan staircase”, with a red carpet, the ornamental rococo styled design and large grey columns constructed from granite. It was here on the staircase where guests for state dinners & official events would first enter the Winter Palace, and the entrance experience for all guests at the Hermitage still hasn’t changed.
White marble statues welcome you, the 18th century artwork of the Gods of Olympus on the ceiling will captivate you, whilst the gold accents will mesmerise you. It’s certainly a visual feast! I always take a few moments to admire this area as it is truly stunning and provides a sense of what is awaiting you further inside the Hermitage’s many rooms – of which there are over 1500 in total.
Peter the Great (Small Throne) room
There is no doubt left that you are visiting a palace once you enter the “Peter the Great Memorial room”, also known as the “small throne room”. It is here, with an 18th century throne on a red carpet, underneath a painting of Peter the Great with the goddess Minerva, that you can truly gain a sense of the glory of Russia’s Imperial past. Decorated with crimson velvet, this room was created in memory of Peter the Great, commissioned by Russian Tsar Nicholas the First in the early 18th century. There are two columns made of Jasper alongside the painting above the throne as well as crowns & the Russian Federation’s standard double-headed eagles adorning the room.
The Military Gallery is a personal favourite part of the Palace & museum for me. From the moment you walk into the gallery, it’s evident that from both sides of the walls that you’re in the company of Russia’s most respected and revered military generals, from the Great Patriotic War in 1812. There are 332 paintings which proudly decorate the red painted walls – I loved spending a bit of extra time in this gallery to look at the paintings individually as well as taking in the entire scene. It’s one of the rooms in which I really felt as if I was going back in time and soaking up Russian military history.
One of the paintings in this artistic wonderland which captivates me the most is that of Russian Emperor Alexander the First, at the far end of the Military Gallery. Bordered by two huge chandeliers, the portrait is immense. You can see the scale of the size of this painting in the following photo with myself in the foreground, looking up.
The Armorial Hall, or Guard room, was one of the main areas for entertaining within the Palace. A vast chamber designed for official ceremonies, the overall mood here in the hall is one of grandeur due to the opulent gold columns & decorations set against white walls and sparkling chandeliers. White sculptures of Russian warriors stand proud with the names of provinces etched on, guarding the room.
Grand Church of the Winter Palace
Consecrated in 1763 and decorated in rococo style, the Imperial Church (or Grand Church) is one of the most visually magnificent places within the Winter Palace. Before being deconsecrated and dedicated to use as an exhibition hall in May of 1918, it was used as the formal church in the Palace, with a smaller area as a private place of worship for the Royal family. It was also here where the wedding of Emperor Nicholas the Second and Empress Alexandra took place in November 1894.
Once I saw the Grand Church during my first visit in 2017, I couldn’t think of a more beautiful place for a wedding ceremony! The three tier iconostasis is magnificent and light streams through an onion shaped ceiling dome, illuminating the golden aura of this religious haven. A painting of the Ascension of Christ by Pyotr Basinm encompasses part of the ceiling and Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke & John surround the dome on the corners. There is a feeling of quiet reverence & awe which I’ve experienced during both my visits here. For anyone visiting the Winter Palace, entering this Grand Church is an absolute must.
St Georges Hall (the Great Throne Room)
The main throne room and one of the largest rooms within the entire palace, the stately St Georges Hall was where the Imperial family held official ceremonies & receptions. Impressive columns draw your eyes up toward massive chandeliers & gilded ceiling decorations. The red throne at one end of the room was made in London and the floor is constructed from up to 16 varieties of parquet. The entire vibe here is certainly one of epic majesty, where you are transported back in time to grand & key events in Russian history; including the visit of the First State Duma alongside the Romanov royal family in 1906.
The Malachite Room
A formal reception room with a fireplace, columns, furniture & decorations all made from green malachite, this room was used by Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna, the wife of Nicholas the First. A large malachite urn is located in here along with stately furniture and artwork. It’s impressively regal with the juxtaposition of the green malachite against a red & gold colour theme and is where the Tsarina dressed Romanov brides before heading to their wedding ceremonies in the Grand Church.
Famous artwork within the Museum
The Raphael Loggias is a gallery of art based upon the 16th century gallery by Raphael in the Vatican City. Catherine the Great commissioned this in the late 1780’s and it’s not hard to understand why… Frescoes depict biblical scenes in the ceiling vaults and the open archways create a feeling of symmetrical brilliance. Elsewhere in the museum you will find the “Madonna and child” painting by Leonardo Da Vinci as well the “Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt, both famous masterpieces by the respective artists.
During my first visit in 2017 I actually got lost twice in the museum from my tour group! I was so distracted by all the spectacular artwork and there are a lot of rooms here to wander in and out of. It’s quite easy to miss a certain room or area of the Museum, so I’d recommend pre-planning if there are particular rooms or artwork you are looking forward to viewing.
An abundance of sculptures
I’d never really been “into” art or specifically sculptures, until I visited the Louvre in Paris during 2015 and then here at the Hermitage in 2017. The Hermitage has an amazing collection of sculptures from artists all over the world from busts to reliefs to statues.
Looking back through all the photos I have taken during my two visits, I took the most of the sculptures! My favourites were Cupid & Psyche, Pygmalion & Galatea and my top one being “Esmeralda & her goat Djali”. This divine artwork was made in 1865 by Antonio Rossetti. I didn’t know the story behind this sculpture until I googled it and learnt that Esmeralda (along with her goat Djali and the tambourine) is one of the key characters in the Victor Hugo novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”.
The Pavilion Hall
I’ve left the very best until last because this is easily the most popular Hall in the Palace! The Pavilion Hall of the small Hermitage is intricately decorated with gilt stucco work on the ceiling and there’s a total of 28 chandeliers lighting up the room. From the moment I first entered this hall I was bewitched by its beautiful design and sense of resplendence.
Inarguably the centrepiece of the room is the famous gold “Peacock Clock”, designed by Englishman James Cox in 1777. This masterpiece arrived in Russia two years later and still functions like clockwork in the 21st century. If you are lucky enough like I was, you may actually hear it chime on the hour and watch the intricate movements of the three life-size mechanical birds. Firstly the owl will begin to move it’s head, then the peacock lifts it’s neck & tail to display a fan of its feathers, followed by the rooster crowing. At the base of the clock is a fox, squirrel and the mushroom which houses the clock dial.
I was fortunate enough to be able to hear the clock chime and witness the birds move up close, during my second visit to the Hermitage last year. This sight is one of the highlights of the museum so it can be challenging to really see the clock properly amidst the throng of tourists. However it was well worth the wait! This magnificent clock is still wound by hand from a timekeeper on Wednesday evenings.
Once I had admired the Peacock clock & witnessed it’s beloved performance, it was time to appreciate the rest of the glamour of the Pavilion Hall. Light coloured marble abounds through columns and there is an intricate mosaic design on the floor which looks out onto a garden area outside with a fountain. Paintings on the ceiling carefully watch you as you wonder at the magnificence of this beautiful part of the palace.
The finer details
Address: 2, Palace Square, Saint Petersburg, Russia
Opening Hours: Closed Mondays, January 1st and May 9th
10.30am to 6.00pm – Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday
10.30am to 9.00pm – Wednesday, Friday
Cost: 700 Rubles – gains entry to the Main Museum Complex and its branches
Free entry – for all visitors on the third Thursday of every month, March 8th, May 18th and December 7th
Pre-purchase a skip the line ticket and gain VIP entry so you don’t waste your time waiting in line. I’ve done this on both visits now and was relieved I chose that option as I avoided the very long queues to enter the museum. On both visits I purchased my tickets through my travel agent.
A slight warning… visitors can go a bit crazy here! I witnessed a literal stampede of tourists running towards me as I was standing in front of Rembrandt’s most famous painting and then found I was surrounded whilst they were trying to take photos. In fact, I heard them running before I even turned around, just in time to see them all racing towards me – it was one of the most unusual experiences I’ve ever had in a museum… So keep your eyes and ears alert as people can get very excited here!
Facilities at the Palace & Museum
This is a major tourist attraction in Saint Petersburg and has all the facilities you would expect from a first class world destination. There is a souvenir shop just before you exit the museum – so if you find something you like, I’d recommend you purchase it. I made the mistake of thinking I would wait and come back however you won’t be able to walk back into the souvenir shop without having to re-enter the museum again and go through ticketing and security screening.
The Hermitage also has a café with a limited seating area which is very popular, considering most visitors will spend at least half a day exploring the palace and museum. I bought a sandwich & a coffee there which were both delicious after a whole morning of exploring and walking around. It wasn’t too expensive either considering the cafe is within the museum.
There are bathrooms at the entrance to the museum so I would recommend you visit here if needed as otherwise it will be hard to locate these a few hours into your day. Also keep in mind you will need to check coats, large bags & jackets into the cloakroom at the entrance prior to going through security screening.
Photography is allowed throughout the museum however flash photography and selfie sticks are banned – both to prevent damage to the artwork and museum as well as for safety concerns!
Russia definitely has a deeply rich cultural history, so if you are interested in visiting there, you can also check out a couple of my articles I have written on the two main cities; Top 5 things to do in Moscow and A City Guide to Saint Petersburg. Both of these articles were featured on the “We Are Travel Girls” website!
I simply can’t visit Saint Petersburg without making a return trip to the Winter Palace and Hermitage Museum, because no matter how many times I wander around admiring the beauty & soaking up the deep culture housed within the walls, I leave wanting to come back! My first tour guide from Saint Petersburg (a local named Viktor) advised that it would literally take months to see everything in the museum. Whilst the Louvre retains the top spot as the largest art museum in the world, in my opinion the State Hermitage Museum is a worthy contender for the most beautiful one!
Wandering through the Winter Palace and admiring the beauty of the Hermitage Museum is one of my most treasured memories. It’s why I keep returning there – because you really feel like you are taking a step back in time. And that is something which to me is absolutely priceless.
I hope you have enjoyed my article on the Winter Palace and State Hermitage Museum! Have you visited there yet or would you like to? Let me know in the comments below!