Construction of the Winter Palace that houses the Hermitage was begun in 1754 during the reign of Catherine the Great. The Architect was Rastrelli. The palace continued to grow and add artistic collections until the great fire of 1837, which destroyed the entire interior decoration of the sumptuous Imperial residence and with it a whole era in the history of the Palace. The palace was reconstructed and expanded, adding exquisite works by da Vinci and Raphael in the late 19th century. World War I saw the Hermitage used as a hospital, followed by its transition to a state museum in 1917.
In the 1920s and 1930s the new socialist government "nationalized" many extensive private collections into the Hermitage. At the onset of World War II, Russia moved the Hermitage collections to the Ural Mountains for their protection. In 1996 the President of the Russian Federation became the patron of the Hermitage and took responsibility for its renovation and upkeep.
Although we think of the Hermitage as primarily a museum, it was the home of the imperial Romanov family from Peter III to the last Czar, Nicholas II. In July of 1917, the Provisional Government took up residence at the Hermitage, setting the stage for the October Revolution. After consolidating its power, the Bolshevik government transferred its capital to Moscow, and since that time the Winter Palace has been associated primarily with its role as the Hermitage Museum.
Visitors to the Hermitage need to arrive early to avoid the crowds. Some cruise ship and other organized guided tours enter the building before individuals are allowed inside, so you might want to use a guide or take an organized tour to avoid the long lines and crowds. I've done three daytime tours of the Hermitage, and they were all about the same. On my first trip to the Hermitage, hundreds of buses lined up like sentinels in the huge Palace Square outside the museum. My next two trips, the buses parked off site and the guides used a cell phone to call the bus. Our guides took us to many of the most famous pieces of artwork, and then we had free time to explore (and try not to get lost) before leaving. We only spent about a half day at the Hermitage, which is like spending a half day in the Louvre or the Vatican Museum--not nearly long enough.
On our Baltic cruise on the Silversea Silver Cloud, we had a very special nighttime tour and concert in the Hermitage. Our small group of about 40 had the whole museum to ourselves. We were entertained by a small chamber orchestra and then toured many of the most famous rooms. It was one of the best shore excursions I have ever been on! Seeing the masterpieces with a small quiet group was very memorable.
I found the Hermitage much like the rest of St. Petersburg--a real contrast. Some of the rooms were beautifully restored and the antiquities, sculptures, and paintings artfully displayed. The opulence and architecture was amazing. Other rooms (especially on the second floor) were drab with the bright sun beaming through thin lace curtains onto the rare paintings. Since St. Petersburg is usually cool, there was no air conditioning in many of the rooms, making the space stuffy on our warm July and August days. Seeing the paintings exposed to the sun and heat made us cringe. Hopefully the ongoing restoration will include plans to prevent further deterioration of these one of a kind masterpieces.
The Hermitage Photo Gallery - 32 photos of the Hermitage