It's a king among museums--which makes sense, considering Russian royals called it home for 150 years.
With nearly 3 million works of art, the five gold-encrusted buildings that constitute the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg are overwhelming, to say the least. A common piece of advice is to visit over several days. Even so, prioritizing is essential.
Start at the baroque, block-long Winter Palace, the oldest of the buildings, commissioned in 1754. The imperial family's former living quarters, located upstairs from the white-marble Jordan Staircase, are the museum's most historic rooms. In the Small Dining Room, members of the Provisional Government were arrested in 1917 by the Bolsheviks; a mantel clock reads 2:10, the supposed time when power was transferred. The imperial throne and 332 portraits of Russian and Napoleonic war leaders are nearby.
The Winter Palace is also where you'll find terrific artwork, including The Dance, Henri Matisse's 1909 masterpiece of five nude figures cavorting in a circle, on the second floor in the Impressionist and Postimpressionist collection. A ground-floor hall showcases the discoveries from fifth century B.C. tombs, including wood carvings and the world's oldest carpet, which is faded but still gorgeous, and adorned with deer and griffins.
You can't go wrong wandering the other buildings, but there are a few things to keep an eye out for. The 19-ton Kolyvan Vase, in the New Hermitage, was carved in Siberia and dragged over ice beds to St. Petersburg by 153 horses and nearly 1,000 men. The New Hermitage is also home to the world's largest collection of Rembrandt's paintings (there are 23), on the first floor. The Small Hermitage's architectural dazzler is the Pavilion Room, notable for its white-marble columns, 28 crystal chandeliers, and banks of windows.
Membership in the U.K.'s Friends of the Hermitage costs $148 and not only gains you standard entry for a year--you can also tour the open storage facility, with the imperial carriages and other pieces that most visitors never lay eyes on (011-44/207-845-4635, hermitagefriends.org).
Buying a Package vs. Going It Alone
Booking on your own is possible, though acquiring the $100 visa is complicated; paying $75 for a tour operator to do it is probably worth the expense. Eastern Tours includes flights from New York City, four nights' hotel, and a tour of St. Petersburg and the Hermitage from $999 through mid-April (800/339-6967, traveltorussia.com). Taxes and visas add $550 more. Admission to the Hermitage costs $13, and an extra $4 or $11 allows you to snap photos or use a video camera, respectively. To skip the admission lines, book at hermitagemuseum.org. You'll be e-mailed a voucher, which you should print out and bring with you to exchange for a ticket.