“That way to the Malachite Room!” The elderly museum attendant in St Petersburg is helpfully pointing down the corridor. Apparently, we look lost in the maze of the Hermitage Museum. It is 10.40 AM. The museum has just opened, and we have already hurried past the most famous room in the Winter palace with its green Malachite columns, stopping only briefly for a photo on the way to our main sightseeing aim.
It is the Silk Road section we are looking for, and we are planning to spend as many hours there as we like. Luckily, the attendant lady knows her museum well and can advise us about left and right turns. Finally, steps lead down to about 20 rooms of Central Asian treasures. And treasures there are!
Sightseeing highlights in St Petersburg
We have been dreaming about sightseeing in St Petersburg Hermitage for years. Whatever archaeological site or a museum we visited in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, or Turkmenistan, for work or privately, it was always the same. The most spectacular objects and wall paintings – were almost always said to be in the Hermitage in St Petersburg. And after several hours among the treasures of Nisa, Bactria and Toprak Qala, from Varakhsha and Penjikent, we could still at least glimpse into the main galleries with their amazing collections of European paintings.
However early November is not exactly a pleasant time for sightseeing in St Petersburg, one of the northernmost Russian cities. We arrived from the airport at night in a cold drizzle. Natalya, who knows very few English words but is expert at explaining things in simple Russian, showed us into our rented flat near Nevsky Boulevard.
During the next days we work our way through our list of St Petersburg sightseeing must-sees. The Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood with its art deco murals is an impressive start, even though the colourful onion domes suffer from the rainy weather and some scaffolding. For the Russian Museum next door we have to queue for over an hour in the cold. Mind you, the paintings (and some decorative arts) are worth it.
Wonders of the Hermitage Storage
The (separate) Hermitage Storage Facility was an absolute highlight of our St Petersburg sightseeing trip. With a collection of approximately 3 Mio items, the Hermitage Museum belongs to the largest museums in the world – and not even the huge Winter Palace can accommodate all those treasures, let alone make them accessible.
The new storage facilities built over the last decades (and more are to come!) combine scientifically adequate storage rooms with restoration workshops and at least some opportunities for visitors to see objects that are not on permanent display. Luckily we could arrange a guided tour in English on the spot (usually you should pre-arrange these tours), and it was quite marvellous. We particularly liked the door of Gur Emir Mausoleum in Samarkand, the Russian icons, and the Tsarist coaches and sledges.
Russian modern art
With so much to see and little time, we combined two museums for modern art in one day. The Marble Palace was built by Catherine the Great for one of her lovers. Today it houses a collection of (Western) modern art donated by German art patron Peter Ludwig.
The afternoon was barely enough for the Russian modern art at the Erarta Museum. You could easily spend the whole day there and delve into Russian contemporary art! After all, it is rare that you have a chance to see Russian contemporary art outside of Russia.
Yet more St Petersburg sightseeing!
In between, we visited a number of other museums, some historical places, the major churches and convents such as the Alexander Nevsky Monastery with its graveyards of famous artists, the Smolny Cathedral and St. Isaak’s Cathedral. We had Georgian and Dagestani (!) food, and walked around the city to discover a couple of bronze statues of Lenin and Marx …
Six days in winter was by far not enough to explore the sightseeing wonders of St Petersburg in spite of our total commitment. We will have to come back …
Note: We were not sponsored in any way or received money or other benefits for and during our trip to St Petersburg. All expenses were fully paid by ourselves.