The State Hermitage Museum is the largest museum in Russia, St. Petersburg's top attraction and one of the largest museums in the world. It rivals with such world-famous museums as Louvre in France, The National Gallery, The British Museum in England, and The Prado Museum in Spain. Its collection numbers over 3,000,000 works of art with major display occupying 365 rooms of The Winter Palace, Little, Old, New Hermitage, and The General Staff building.
The Hermitage Museum collection consists of Prehistoric, Antique, Western European, Russian, Oriental, Numismatics art departments and two Treasure reserves (Gold rooms). The Hermitage building - The Winter Palace - was built in 1762 by order of Empress Elizabeth (the Italian architect Rastrelli designed it). It was meant to become the main winter residence of Russian czars. The name Hermitage was given to a future museum by Catherine the Great who dreamt of her personal art collection to appear close to The Winter Palace. Little Hermitage (French - 'Ermitage' - an 'abode of a hermit') really was an abode of Catherine who only showed her precious art to distinguished guests and friends.
The Hermitage Museum art collection originally consisted of Flemish and Dutch art. It was a result of the first purchase made by Catherine the Great from Berlin art-dealer Gotskovsky. Later on, the Hermitage collection was greatly enriched with over 600 paintings of Saxon prime-minister Count de Brule, over 400 paintings of the French aristocrat Pierre Crozat, and a scandalous purchase from the heirs of the English prime-minister Sir Robert Walpole.
Catherine the Great would continue to hunt for more: she learnt about interesting deals and auction sales in Europe, spent enormous sums of money striking bargains with European nobility and royalty, sent Russian diplomats and ambassadors abroad to purchase valuable art pieces, made friends with European art-connoisseurs, followed advice of her friend, French philosopher Deni Didrot. Since Catherine's time, collecting works of art became the royal tradition. Each emperor would enrich the Hermitage collection: Alexander I purchased Josephine de Beauharnais's collection from Malmaison, Nickolas I and Alexander II enlarged the collection of Greek and Roman antiques. Hermitage remained a closed private royal collection until the middle of 19th century when the royal family decided to partly open it up for noble visitors and New Hermitage building was added to The Winter Palace complex.
Only after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 did it open its treasures to the public. By then its collection was greatly enriched with the nationalized nobility's collections.
The hardest times started in 1941 when Nazis besieged Leningrad and the museum had to be abandoned. Its collection was evacuated to Siberia, only empty picture frames were left on the empty palace walls. Long years of restoration followed. Now, again, the Hermitage boasts of the world second largest collection of French impressionists, second largest collection of Rembrandt, priceless works of Leonardo da Vinci, Rafael, Titian, Rubens, Michelangelo, Caravaggio and more.
Even if you are not an art-lover or a historian, you will find much of interest: the medieval knights exhibition at New Hermitage, ancient mummies display at the Egyptian vestibule, breathtaking interiors, imposing staircases, richly decorated halls and the czars' living rooms of The Winter Palace.
During the tour you will view masterpieces from the old masters, highlights of its European art collection, a large collection of French impressionists, and get to admire the shining Winter Palace halls and galleries.