Mainly set in the magnificent Winter Palace and adjoining buildings, the Hermitage fully lives up to its sterling reputation. You can be absorbed by its treasures for days and still come out wanting more.

The enormous collection (over three million items, only a fraction of which are on display in 360 rooms) almost amounts to a comprehensive history of Western European art. Viewing it demands a little planning, so choose the areas you’d like to concentrate on before you arrive.

Catherine the Great, one of the greatest art collectors of all time, began the collection. Nicholas I also greatly enriched it and opened the galleries to the public for the first time in 1852.

It was the post-revolutionary period that saw the collection increase threefold, as many valuable private collections were seized by the state, including those of the Stroganovs, Sheremetyevs and Yusupovs. In 1948 it incorporated the renowned collections of post-Impressionist and Impressionist paintings of Moscow industrialists Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov.

The State Hermitage consists of five linked buildings along riverside Dvortsovaya nab. From west to east they are:

Winter Palace

This stunning mint-green, white and gold profusion of columns, windows and recesses, with its roof topped by rows of classical statues, was commissioned from Bartolomeo Rastrelli in 1754 by Empress Elizabeth. Catherine the Great and her successors had most of the interior remodelled in a classical style by 1837. It remained an imperial home until 1917, though the last two tsars spent more time in other palaces.

Small Hermitage

The classical Small Hermitage was built for Catherine the Great as a retreat that would also house the art collection started by Peter the Great, which she significantly expanded.

Old Hermitage

At the river end of the Little Hermitage is the Old Hermitage, which also dates from the time of Catherine the Great.

New Hermitage

Facing Millionnaya ul on the south end of the Old Hermitage, the New Hermitage was built for Nicholas II, to hold the still-growing art collection. The Old and New Hermitages are sometimes grouped together and labelled the Large Hermitage.

State Hermitage Theatre

Built in the 1780s by the classicist Giacomo Quarenghi, who thought it one of his finest works. Concerts and ballets are still performed here. In the same building but accessed from the Neva Embankment are the remains of the Winter Palace of Peter I.

As much as you see in the museum, there’s about 20 times more in its vaults, part of which you can visit at the Hermitage Storage Facility. Other branches of the museum include the east wing of the General Staff Building (home to the Hermitage's amazing collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist works), the Menshikov Palace on Vasilyevsky Island, and the Imperial Porcelain factory in the south of the city.