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1. THE HERMITAGE The State Hermitage Museum is rightly considered one of Russia's foremost attractions. The institution boasts an incredible three million works of art, only five percent of which it has room to display - despite the luxury of having six buildings in which to house them. It is estimated that to see all the exhibits in the Hermitage you would have to walk twenty-four miles... The six buildings of the Hermitage form an impressive faade along the embankment of the River Neva in St. Petersburg, and none more so than the Winter Palace, the principle edifice of the museum and former home of the Tsars. Built in the 18th Century by the Italian architect Rastrelli it became the home of Empress Catherine II when she ascended to the throne in 1762. Shortly afterwards she bought Johann Ernest Gotzkowski's private collection of art and the so-called Small Hermitage building was constructed to display the 250 pieces. Successive collections were purchased and donated until, by the 20th Century, the Hermitage was one of the largest museums in the world. Today the collection on display is simply staggering and represents nearly every major epoch in the history of man, since Paleolithic times to the present day. To even give a rundown of the highlights is exhausting, but you can expect to see the likes of lion-headed goddesses from ancient Egypt, depictions of the mighty Hercules on millenia-old Greek pottery, lifelike statues of Roman Emperors from classical times, finely-crafted bronze vessels from the Near East and intricate wood-cuts of Geishas and Samurais from the Far East. Perhaps even more fascinating, at least for those interested in Russia's glory days, are the exhibits illuminating Russia's Imperial past. These include everything from waxworks of Peter I (Madame Tussauds eat your heart out!), to the cermonial attire of Tsars and Tsarinas, and even extravagant gold-inlay gala carriages and sledges, used for journeying to masquerade balls. Finally, no run-down of the Hermitage's treasures would be complete without making mention of the Museum's stunning collections of Western European art, which date from the 13th Century onwards. Works by Giorgione, Titian, Leonardo Da Vinci and Caravaggio will have history of art buffs foaming at the mouth in ecstasy, whilst one of the world's largest Rembrandt collections (over 20 pieces) plus impressionist oeuvres d'art by Matisse, Picasso and Gauguin could all prove too much for the over-enthusiastic connoisseur!...

 2. THE NEW HERMITAGE (GENERAL STAFF BUILDING) The State Hermitage Museum is finally dragging itself into the modern age. The museum – which began life in the 18th century as the private art collection of the Romanovs and morphed spectacularly through Catherine the Great’s art grabs in the auction houses of Western Europe to become quite possibly the greatest collection of European art in history – has been in need of modern hanging space for some time. That this has taken a while is hardly surprising, given that the main museum buildings are historically significant palaces which cannot be altered easily and were not built to be public galleries in the first place. The refitted interior of the General Staff Building. Image courtesy of the State Hermitage Museum, 2015 To mark the museum’s 250th anniversary, the Hermitage has reopened Carlo Rossi’s staggering early-19th-century General Staff Building, having totally refitted its interior. This is now a startling combination of sky-lit atriums, brushed concrete walls and spaces that could well have been newly built for the optimal display of modernist friezes and landscapes. The redeployment of the 19th- and 20th-century collections (formerly on display in the state rooms of the Winter Palace across the square) is now complete – the extra space means that in many cases new paintings, which had been hidden away in storage or in other buildings of the museum, have finally made it into the display. And this is no ordinary collection, but a roll call of the greats in modern European art. Many of the paintings here were culled by the Bolsheviks from the private collections of Russian businessmen Sergei Shchukin and the Morozov brothers, and even from that of German industrialist Otto Krebs, whose collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings was removed by the Red Army from the ruins of Nazi Germany in 1945. The paintings here include key works of Monet, Cézanne, Renoir, Degas, Gauguin, Seurat, Pissarro, Van Gogh, Matisse and Picasso, to name but a few.

3. OTHER MUSEUM BUILDINGS Elsewhere in the enormous General Staff Building there’s also new space given over to temporary exhibits, a display of art nouveau creations, a dazzling collection of gifts sent to successive tsars from all over the world, and a huge exhibition of 19th-century landscape painting. The entire project is an enormous success and makes now a very exciting time to visit the museum. Of course, a shortage of display space is no new problem for the museum. With more than three million items in its collection, the venerable institution has been bursting at the seams for decades. One partial solution was the construction of the Hermitage Storage Facility in the north of St Petersburg. Now a decade old, and still growing (its second state-of-the-art wing was completed in 2012), it houses a collection which would be a major sight in itself anywhere else in the world. Dwarfed by the masterpieces in the Winter Palace it may be, but the Storage Facility (which can be visited only by guided tour) offers a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at how the museum is curated, its cast-offs in some senses as fascinating as its highlights. The Hermitage also includes St Petersburg’s first real palace, that of Prince Menshikov on Vasilyevsky Island. It contains little notable in the way of art but is full of furniture and period objects. A visit here is a fascinating way to see how aristocrats lived in the early 18th century as St Petersburg was slowly coming to life, having been ordered into existence by Peter the Great as a ‘window on Europe’ for his colossal and backward empire. The Museum of the Imperial Porcelain Factory, located a fair way from the city center in the south of St Petersburg, is the place to go for anyone interested in the art of porcelain. While it’s not possible to see the actual factory floor, the entrance ticket to the Hermitage includes a visit to the fascinating museum here. It documents the evolution of Imperial Porcelain Factory from its creation in 1744, when its remit was purely to produce porcelain for the imperial family and court, to the present day, when its products are sold around the world. Most fascinating are the designs undertaken by the factory during the 20th century, which see experimentations in art deco and art nouveau morph into constructivism and then agitprop pieces of socialist realism as the century wears on.

4. THE HERMITAGE CATS The most famous museum in Russia, the State Hermitage in the heart of Saint Petersburg, is guarded by 70 cats. Visitors don't usually see these "employees" in the exhibition halls of the magnificent buildings of the Hermitage. They work in the labyrinths of the basement, where the maintenance network is located, hunting rats and mice. For the last 200 years, these cats have been an inextricable part of Russia's greatest museum. In the old Winter Palace the first cats appeared during the reign of Empress Elizabeth, who was very annoyed by the number of mice and rats in the residence. As a present she received five selected rat hunters from the town of Kazan in Tatarstan. Until the October revolution in 1917 the Hermitage cats were looked after by special servants, because it was considered the Tsar's will and they were granted a monthly allowance for food from the empire's treasury. In Soviet times state finances changed and suddenly there weren't any more resources available for the loyal guards of Hermitage. The cats had to be fed and taken care of by volunteers. During the siege of Leningrad in World War II all of the Hermitage cats died. When the war was finally over in 1945, two railway wagons of new cats arrived in Leningrad. In the late 1960's a new threat endangered the guards of the Hermitage: overpopulation. The employees of the museum had to catch the majority of the cats and transport them to the surrounding country side. In the last few years the number of cats has risen dramatically, mainly because many homeless animals have been brought in to seek asylum in the premises of Hermitage. The staff has launched a campaign to find new homes for the additional guards and after interviewing potential hosts, 15 cats have been sent to good homes. The employees of the Hermitage now collect money to help take care of their four-legged friends.

5. THE HERMITAGE EGYPTIAN COLLECTION The collection was established in 1852, the year the museum was made open to the public, when it purchased the collection of statuettes from Countess Alexandra Lavalle, previously stored in her mansion on English Embankment, and received the items collected in Egypt by Maximilian, Duke of Leuchtenberg, including two black basalt sarcophagi of the Late Period, now displayed in the middle of the hall, as well as the sculpture group of Theban governor Amenemheb with his wife and mother (14th century BC). In 1853 the statue of Sekhmet (15th century BC), brought by Alexei Norov from Theban Necropolis of the Eleventh dynasty of Egypt in the 1830s, was moved from the Imperial Academy of Arts to the Hermitage; some items were purchased for the museum from antiquities traders in Egypt and collections of Russian merchants or received as gifts. In 1862 the collection expanded significantly, as the Castiglione collection, which was purchased by the Imperial Academy of Sciences from Carlo Ottavio Castiglione in Milan in 1826 and consisted of more than 900 items, core of the Egyptian museum of the Kunstkamera, was transferred to the Hermitage. However, there were no Egyptologists in Russia at that time. Vladimir Golenishchev became the first Russian egyptologist and started to work in the Hermitage in the 1870s. At the insistence of Golenishchev in 1881 the remainder of the Egyptian museum of the Kunstkamera was moved to the Hermitage; the Hermitage collection continued to grow in the 1880s, when Coptic written monuments and two fragments of Egyptian water clocks were acquired. In 1891 Golenishchev published the first complete inventory of the collection. Since the 1870s Golenishchev had collected an impressive private Egyptian collection, which was sold to the Pushkin Museum in Moscow in 1909, shortly before he emigrated. For a few years, as the building for the Moscow museum was being constructed, the items were also stored in the Hermitage. Soviet orientalist Vasily Struve was in charge of the Hermitage's Egyptian collection from 1918 to 1933; the highlights of the exhibition include the mummy of priest Petese (10th century BC) and a fragment of a tablet of Ramesses II's peace treaty with the Hittites (13th century BC).