Engaging a tour guide is an excellent way to make sure you know what you’re looking at. There are a few extraordinary galleries, particularly the halls of portraits, which are of great historical as well as artistic value—these include the Military Gallery, with more than 300 portraits painted from life of every officer that served in the Napoleonic Wars (blank spaces are left for officers who died overseas or before their portraits could be paints), and the White Dining Room, where the Bolsheviks captured the leaders of the government, which stands as it did that day, the clock permanently set to 2:10, when they were overthrown.
We took a stroll through a special exhibit of French Impressionists (fitting, we thought, since the Hermitage is in constant and vicious battle with the Louvre for the largest overall collection of works) and were unpleasantly surprised by the conditions in some parts of the palace—the paintings sat under hazy lighting on cracked walls, next to windows open to the humidity and ocean air.
The upstairs galleries where the more permanent collection is housed are in more standard condition, and some of the works are super-protected—you can tell the paintings that have been slashed, attacked with acid, and otherwise damaged over the years, because they’re under glass with a motion-detector alarm.
We suggest you not pay the 15 rubles to be allowed to take pictures inside, though hundreds of your fellow visitors will—the experience of being inside surrounded by centuries of history and the arts is something you’ll never be able to capture in the frame anyway.
Insider Tip: Our tour guide, the excellent Alla Boromykova, has been bringing visitors around her hometown for more than 17 years, and is a veritable encyclopedia of local knowledge--plus there's nothing quite like watching someone who looks like your third-grade teacher bribing a security guard for parking. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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