The State Hermitage Museum, Russia's most glorious repository of art, stretches gracefully along the embankment of the Neva River for nearly a quarter mile. It's actually a warren of six contiguous buildings, the most significant being the Baroque Winter Palace, constructed in the 1750s as a residence for Empress Elizabeth, the daughter of Peter the Great. Devastated by fire in 1837, it was rebuilt a few years later and became part of the Hermitage museum in 1917.
The museum also possesses the General Staff Building on Palace Square, now being refurbished as galleries for modern and contemporary art. Opening in stages, it is slated for completion in 2014, the 250th anniversary of the collection that began in 1764 with Catherine the Great's purchase of 225 paintings from a Berlin merchant. The Hermitage's holdings now number approximately three million items, only about 5 percent of which are displayed at any given time.
With more than 1,000 rooms, the museum is best seen over the course of days. But for those on a schedule, we've come up with a tour of the rooms one simply cannot leave without visiting. There's a lot of ground to cover, but it can be done in a few hours—not accounting for the inevitable detours or summer crowds. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes.
Ancient Greek Rooms
Owing to the victories of Catherine the Great over the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 18th century and subsequent digs by Russian archaeologists, the Hermitage boasts an unusually rich collection of artifacts from the northern Black Sea, where ancient Greece met the barbarian world. Among the highlights are a rare group of carved and gilded wood sarcophagi from the third century b.c., an unusual painted limestone sarcophagus decorated with scenes from the life of the deceased, and an exquisite fifth century b.c. painted oil vessel in the form of a sphinx.
Gallery of the History of Ancient Painting
This long hall takes its name from the 80 Georg Hiltensperger panels chronicling painting in antiquity that adorn the walls. But the real highlight is the group of 15 works by the Italian neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova. Some of his most famous creations are here, including Cupid and Psyche, 1796, and The Three Graces, 1813–16, which depicts the daughters of Zeus (who represent beauty, charm, and joy) in an elegant embrace. Catherine the Great was such a fan of Canova's, she invited him to move to St. Petersburg. He declined.
The collection of Italian paintings, spanning the 13th to early 19th centuries, takes up almost 30 rooms, and it's tempting to linger among the masterworks by Simone Martini, Raphael, Giorgione, Titian, and Leonardo da Vinci. Of the dozen known paintings by Da Vinci, two are here: the Litta Madonna and the Madonna with a Flower. The latter is also called the Benois Madonna, after onetime owner Maria Benois, who was forced to sell it to the Russian government in 1912 for 150,000 rubles, a fraction of the sum offered by a London art dealer.
The Hermitage has one of the best collections of Dutch art outside the Netherlands. Rembrandt's genius is celebrated with more than 20 paintings. The finest are Descent from the Cross, Abraham's Sacrifice, The Return of the Prodigal Son, and Danaë, which is of particular interest for an unfortunate reason: In 1985 a vandal doused it with sulfurous acid before slashing it two times. Restorers spent 12 years working on the painting, and most viewers today are hard-pressed to pinpoint the damaged areas.
Czar's Small Dining Room
While every room in the Hermitage has stories to tell, no other has witnessed as pivotal a moment as this one. In the early morning of October 26, 1917, the handsome Rococo-style space where the czar often dined with his family was the scene of the Bolsheviks' seizure of power. The French mantel clock remains fixed at 2:10, the time when the ministers of the provisional government who had holed up there were arrested…and the Soviet Union was born.
Matisse and Picasso Rooms
The museum owes the core of its early modern holdings to two very wealthy Moscow merchants—Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov, whose collections were appropriated by the Communists. Because of them, the Hermitage has one of the world's most compelling groups of Matisses, among them the mural-size Dance and Music, which Shchukin commissioned in 1910 for his mansion. Shchukin, especially, was a key buyer of Picasso's work, such as the 1903 Blue Period portrait of the Barcelona tailor Benet Soler.
The Hermitage's Treasure Gallery com-prises two vaults at opposite ends of the museum, so you'll probably have to choose between them. Visits to these rooms require separate tickets, and for security reasons only one small group is allowed in at a time. The Diamond Rooms have several hundred objects that trace the history of the jeweler's craft from the third millennium b.c. up to modern times, with Scythian, ancient Greek, Ottoman, medieval European, and Fabergé pieces. But we prefer the Gold Rooms, featuring approximately 1,500 items from the Black Sea region and Asia, dating from the seventh century b.c. to the 1800s. Among the most exquisite pieces are a rare fifth century b.c. Scythian comb depicting warriors in battle and gold plaques shaped like wild animals—such as a panther and a reindeer—that played major roles in Scythian mythology.
Spoils of War
After reaching the top of the magnificent Jordan Staircase inside the Hermitage, most visitors head to where there's more gold— the Imperial Throne Room or Grand (Nicholas) Hall. Few take the sharp left down an uninviting corridor, where a trio of rooms display paintings by Cézanne, Degas, Gauguin, Monet, Renoir, and Picasso. These masterpieces were once a dark secret: They are among the tens of thousands of trophy artworks looted from private German collections by Soviet troops after World War II. Stashed away in Russian museum vaults, they were assumed to have been lost until 1995, when a group was put on display in an exhibition titled "Hidden Treasures Revealed." Germany has repeatedly asked that the pieces be returned, but Russia has refused, claiming them as compensation for wartime losses.
Break Time Take an extravagant breather just outside the museum at Receptoria for French- and Italian-inspired delicacies. The locals may have something light, such as crabmeat tartare and fennel with beetroot confit, but you might try something more substantial to recharge, such as pigeon stuffed with foie gras and spinach. unch, $235. At 10 Admiralteysky Prospekt; 7-812/312-7967L.