History of the Hermitage

When, in 1764, Catherine the Great purchased the art collection of Johann Gotzkowski, which contained a large number of works by Rubens, Rembrandt and Van Dyck, little did anyone suspect that this would form the basis of one of the world’s most celebrated art museums, the repository of millions of artistic masterpieces from around the world.

A New Winter Palace

Some 30 years earlier, it was Empress Anna who engaged a young Bartolomeo Rastrelli to incorporate the existing royal buildings on the Neva into a proper palace. Her successor, the ever-extravagant Empress Elizabeth, wanted something grander so in 1754 she signed a decree ordering the creation of a winter palace, closely supervising its design and construction. Her inopportune death in 1761 occurred only a few months before the Winter Palace was finally completed, but her legacy has been confirmed by what is arguably St Petersburg’s most strikingly beautiful palace.

Visitors and residents were wowed by the capital’s newest addition. But the palace, of course, was a private residence. After the death of Empress Elizabeth, Peter III lived here for only three months before he was overthrown in a palace coup and replaced by Catherine the Great. This grand baroque building thenceforth became the official residence of the imperial family.

The Imperial Art Collection

Collecting art was an obsession for Catherine, who purchased some of the most extensive private collections in Europe, including those of Heinrich von Brühl, Lord Robert Walpole and Baron Pierre Crozat. By 1774 Catherine’s collection included over 2000 paintings, and by the time of her death in 1796 that number had doubled.

Catherine and her successors didn’t much care for Rastrelli’s baroque interiors and had most of the rooms completely remodelled in classical style. To display her art, Catherine first had built the Small Hermitage and later the so-called Old Hermitage, and allowed prominent people to privately visit the collection on application. In the 1780s Giacomo Quarenghi added the Hermitage Theatre, which served as the private theatre for the imperial family; it is still used today although now for public performances.

The early 19th century saw the expansion of the collection, particularly in the field of classical antiquity, due both to the continued acquisition of other collections and rich finds of antiquities from southern Russia. More acquisitions followed Russia’s victory over Napoleon in 1812 and included the private collection of Napoleon’s consort, Joséphine de Beauharnais.

In December 1837 a devastating fire broke out in the heating shaft of the Field Marshals’ Hall; it burned for over 30 hours and destroyed a large portion of the interior. Most of the imperial belongings were saved, thrown out of windows or dragged outside to sit in the snow. Nicholas I vowed to restore the palace as quickly as possible, employing architect Vasily Stasov and thousands of workers to toil around the clock. Their efforts were not in vain, as the project was completed in a little over a year. Most of the classical interiors in the ceremonial rooms that we see today, including the Grand Hall, the Throne Room and the Armorial Hall, were designed by Stasov.

Russia’s First Public Art Museum

While Peter the Great opened the Kunstkamera, his private collection of curiosities, to the public in the early 18th century, it was Nicholas I who eventually opened the first public art museum in Russia. During a visit to Germany in 1838 he was impressed by the museums he saw in Munich – specifically, by the idea of buildings that were architectural masterpieces in themselves, designed specifically to house and preserve artistic masterpieces. He employed German architect Leo von Klenze and local boy Vasily Stasov to carry out such a project in the proximity of the Winter Palace. The result was the ‘neo-Grecian’ New Hermitage, adorned by statues and bas-reliefs depicting great artists, writers and other cultural figures. After 11 years of work, the museum was opened to the public in 1852.

At this time, the first director of the Hermitage was appointed and the collection as a museum, rather than the tsar’s private gallery, began to take shape. Various further acquisitions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries meant that the Hermitage had truly arrived as a world-class museum. Particularly important caches of paintings included the two Leonardo da Vinci Madonnas (acquired in 1865 and 1914), Piotr Semionov-Tien-Shansky’s enormous collection of Dutch and Flemish art, purchased in 1910, and the Stroganov collection of Italian old masters.

Expanding the Collection

It was the post-revolutionary period that saw a threefold increase in the Hermitage's collection. In 1917 the Winter Palace and the Hermitage were declared state museums, and throughout the 1920s and 1930s the Soviet state seized and nationalised countless valuable private collections, including those of the Stroganovs, Sheremetyevs, Shuvalovs, Yusupovs and Baron Stieglitz. In 1948 it incorporated the renowned collections of post-Impressionist and Impressionist paintings of Moscow industrialists Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov, including works by Matisse and Picasso.

During WWII, Soviet troops in Germany and Eastern Europe appropriated enormous numbers of paintings that had belonged to private collectors. In 1995, after years of keeping the paintings in storage, the Hermitage finally put these works, including those by Monet, Degas, Renoir, Cézanne, Picasso and Matisse, on public display. In recent years, the museum has been building a collection of contemporary art that currently numbers around 1500 pieces, a few of which are displayed in the General Staff Building – a tiny fraction of the 3.1 million items listed in the Hermitage's inventory.

Museums & Galleries

St Petersburg is a city of museums and galleries, famed around the world for its world-class collection at the Hermitage, but also for the stellar Russian Museum and the widely renowned Erarta Museum of Contemporary Art. Elsewhere, St Petersburg's smaller institutions focus on everything from the Arctic to zoology, via bread, toys, trams, trains, religion and vodka.

The Big Three

If you're only going to visit three museums, make it a triad of art galleries: the Hermitage, the Russian Museum and the Erarta Museum of Contemporary Art. The Hermitage needs no introduction – suffice to say that one of the greatest art collections on the planet should always be top of your must-see list. The lesser-known Russian Museum displays Russian art from the medieval times until the early 20th century and is the perfect counterpoint to the Hermitage's Western Art collection. Finally, though it only opened in 2010, Erarta has established itself as one of world's best collections of modern and contemporary Russian art and should not be missed.

Newer Additions

While many of St Petersburg's most august museums are bastions of tradition, things are being kept fresh and exciting by several newer arrivals. Top of the list are the fabulous galleries at the General Staff Building, a major branch of the Hermitage that's home to a superb collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works by the likes of Monet, Matisse and Picasso. The dazzling Fabergé Museum, in a converted palace on the Fontanka, showcases the apex of Peter Carl Fabergé's jewellery making and features some 1500 of his unique creations including nine Imperial Easter eggs. A rather different tone is set by the exciting Street Art Museum, based on the territory of a laminated plastics factory in the suburb of Okhta. Here the brick and concrete walls act as canvases for celebrated and up-and-coming street artists from across Russia and around the world to create a different themed show each year. An old collection of boats, models and paintings has been rejuvenated by a new location for the Central Naval Museum in Kolomna. Nearby you'll find MISP, the Museum of St Petersburg Art (20th–21st centuries), with regularly changing exhibitions of modern and contemporary works by local artists.

Art Galleries & House Museums

Some of Russia's most famous artists, including Ilya Repin and Karl Bryullov, trained at the renowned Academy of Arts and the Applied Arts School. Both these schools have galleries open to the public that are well worth checking out. An appreciation of the arts continues to be fostered in the city. You can access the best of modern and contemporary arts at places such as the Kuryokhin Centre, Pushkinskaya 10, the Novy Museum, K-Gallery and Marina Gisich Gallery.

St Petersburg is also a city of literary titans. The flat where Pushkin breathed his last after his fatal duel is preserved as a museum. So too are the former homes of the writers Gabriel Derzhavin, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Vladimir Nabokov and Anna Akhmatova. Each provides some insight into the lives of these famed literary figures as well as a chance to glimpse how Russians lived in the past.

The Best of the Rest

Other smaller and often lesser-known museums that are well worth building into your itinerary include the fascinatingly macabre Kunstkamera, Peter the Great's private cabinet of curiosities (think babies in bottles); the Russian Museum of Ethnography displaying traditional crafts and cultures from across the region; the Museum of Political History in a palace that was home to the famous ballet dancer Mathilda Kshesinskaya; and the excellent complex of museums at the Peter & Paul Fortress, the kernel of 18th-century St Petersburg and home to a good museum covering the city's history.

Need to Know

Opening Days & Hours

Nearly all museums close at least one day a week. This tends to vary, although Monday and Tuesday are the most common days. Be aware that in addition to this, many museums close one day a month additionally for cleaning; it’s worth checking a museum’s website for these details.

Language Issues

Things are getting better but few museums have full signage in English. Audioguides, increasingly available in English, are a great way to understand a collection. Guided tours in English vary enormously in quality and usually need to be booked in advance.

Ticket Prices

As a foreigner you will often be charged a ‘foreigner price’, anything from 50% to 100% more than the Russian price. That said, children, students and pensioners all normally receive discounts on entrance fees, even as foreigners, so it’s always worth asking.

Best Lists

Museums & Galleries
  • Hermitage Everybody's first-choice museum will not fail to amaze even the most jaded traveller.
  • Russian Museum Visiting the city's stellar collection of Russian art over the centuries is a sublime experience.
  • Erarta Museum of Contemporary Art Trek out to this excellent survey of Soviet underground and contemporary Russian art.
  • Kunstkamera See Peter the Great's collection of curiosities, freaks and babies in jars. Not for the faint hearted!
  • Fabergé Museum A must for anyone interested in late Imperial Russian jewellery and decorative arts.
Museums for Arts & Interiors
  • Hermitage Alongside the amazing art collection are the palace's fabulously decorated rooms.
  • Museum of Decorative & Applied Arts This little-known gem of a museum contains thousands of beautiful objets d'art.
  • Stroganov Palace A branch of the Russian Museum with gorgeously restored state rooms.
  • Yusupov Palace The location of Rasputin's murder offers some of the city's best 19th century interiors.
  • Menshikov Palace Beautiful Petrine interiors at this branch of Hermitage on Vasilyevsky Island.
Museums for Kids
House Museums
  • Anna Akhmatova Museum at the Fountain House The unusual house-museum of St Petersburg's most famous modern poet is both tragic and uplifting.
  • Pushkin Flat-Museum 'Russia's most famous address' is the house in which its national bard died in 1837.
  • Dostoevsky Museum This gloomy museum is a sufficiently suitable place to explore Dostoevsky's troubled and brilliant life.
  • Derzhavin House-Museum A wonderful chance to visit an 18th-century mansion brought back to its original splendour.
  • Kirov Museum Take a look at how the Bolshevik elite lived in the 1930s, when Kirov was one of Russia's most powerful men.