St. Petersburg’s Hermitage needs little introduction, with this renowned Russian jewel-box of a museum counting amongst the world’s great art collections, coming filled to the brim with more than three million invaluable works of art (which attract nearly as many annual visitors). Founded in the mid-18th century, thanks to the collecting whims of Empress Catherine the Great (and largely situated within the gilded and frescoed halls of the dazzling Winter Palace, former residence to the once-ruling Russian czars), the word on the wonders contained here is widely out, with the Hermitage top of mind for just about every tourist on the Russian circuit (myself included, during my visit earlier this month).
In order to ensure that you’ll have every second you’ll need to lap up this lavish collection (trust me, you’ll need it), I’ve whipped up some tips on maximizing your time with the masterpieces, so that you don’t spend the bulk of it waiting on line and bumping elbows instead. Plus, a few money-saving ideas for making the most of your museum budget.
- Book your tickets online instead of standing on line. Purchase tickets online beforehand and avoid the long ticket-office queues (which easily run more than an hour in peak season). Rates are a bit higher ($18 for a one-day ticket versus $13 at the museum; or, $26 for a two-day pass, available exclusively online), but also incorporate the extra fee charged at the museum ($6.50) to take photos or video, essentially saving would-be photographers some pocket change.
- Split your visit over two days. Upgrade to a two-day ticket (available for advance web bookings only) and divide your time ogling the collection over a couple of days rather than cramming all of those masterpieces into one marathon visit. Plus, two-day tickets include admission to several additional Hermitage-run buildings like the Menshikov Palace and the Winter Palace of Peter the Great.
- Know when to go. Avoid high-season visits between May and September, when the crowds are at their thickest. Brave the cooler Russian temps outside between October and April, and enjoy the treasures of the (well-heated) Hermitage in relative solitude. Skip out on heightened weekend crowds with a weekday visit, and, during high season, avoid mornings altogether to avoid the cruise ship crowds. The Hermitage is closed on Mondays, and keeps extended (and slightly less-crowded) hours on Wednesdays; ticket sales end an hour before the museum closes.
- Go on a guided tour. If you’re short on time, and have the rubles to spare, a private guided tour can help ensure that you not only catch the major museum highlights, but also jump ahead of the lines outside (guides get special entry access). Book a private English-speaking guide with a reputable provider like Alex’s Tours and Travel (rates from $50–$90 per person for three hours).
- Get your bearings before you get there. With a vast collection spanning hundreds of rooms, spilling over numerous buildings, and bursting at the seams with works by blockbuster artists (Da Vinci, Raphael, Titian, El Greco, Rembrandt…the list goes on), your best bet for covering the most ground is to go in with a game plan. Utilize online resources like the Hermitage’s virtual tours, which provide excellent preparation. Once there, hit the computerized information stands to print out suggested routes, and also pick up a free colored map – though, regardless of how prepared you are, allow time for getting lost; it’s a given.
Money-Saving Tips for Visiting the Hermitage
- Visit the first Thursday of the month. The Hermitage opens its doors free to all on the first Thursday of every month.
- Know who gets in free (or cheap). School-age children and college students skip out on the entrance fee, while Russian citizens get a deep discount on admission, paying just $5 (with proper ID).
- Skip the pics. Russian museums are known for tacking on extra fees for visitors looking to take photos or videos, and the Hermitage is no exception, requesting a $6.50 fee for the right. If not pre-booking online (where tickets are automatically inclusive of the photo fee), I say skip out on the pics – you can nab great ones from the Hermitage website or from a Google search to add to your private collection.
Incurable travel addict, longtime travel scribe, and mindful money-saver Elissa Richard is currently indulging her insatiable wanderlust on an epic 14-month journey around the globe – intent on making it every step of the way without busting her modest budget. Follow her along the way as she reports back with budget-savvy travel tips from the mountains of Transylvania to the wilds of Tasmania, and from the little-trodden temples of Burma to the bustling bars and clubs of Buenos Aires. A vagabond in search of value, just for ShermansTravel!