Visit the Russian State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg

If you're planning a cruise to Scandinavia and Russia one of the highlights is sure to be an overnight stay in St. Petersburg. Also known as the "Venice of the North," this canal-lined city boasts an abundance of historic, cultural, and architectural sites. One of its most significant cultural attractions is the sprawling state Hermitage Museum a must-see collection of six historic buildings including four museums, a multitude of rooms, and more than three million wildly impressive exhibitions of artifacts, paintings, and statues. One of the largest museums in the world, the Hermitage is so vast that it could take years to explore.

The baroque-style Winter Palace, the largest of the Hermitage's museums, was completed in 1762 under the guidance of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna. Catherine the Great purchased 255 paintings from Berlin in 1764, marking the official beginning of the museum.

The Winter Palace stands at the edge of the Neva River on one side and overlooks the Palace Square on the other side. This Russian museum was the official residence of tsars and their families until the revolution in 1917.

What treasures can you find at the Hermitage? Each building is a treasure in itself; together, they contain the largest collection of paintings in the world.

Treasure #1: The Western European Art Collection

Spanning from the 13th century CE to the present, this collection is so large that it is exhibited in 120 rooms on the first two floors in all four of the museum buildings. If you're partial to the Italian masters of the 1400s–1500s, you'll want to spend time as much time as possible in the 30 rooms of Italian paintings in the Old and New Hermitage buildings.

Within these rooms is the most extensive collection of Renaissance paintings in the world. Get close to masterpieces by such greats as Michelangelo, da Vinci, Raphael, Titian, and Caravaggio. Don't forget to stop by the Impressionists' works of art, too.

Treasures #2 and #3: The Gold Rooms and the Diamond Rooms

Two more treasure troves at the State Hermitage Museum are the Gold and Diamond Rooms. Together, these two rooms comprise the Treasure Gallery. The Gold Rooms contain artifacts from all over Eurasia, from the seventh century BCE through the 19th century CE. On display are more than 1,500 gold artworks.

The Diamond Rooms treat visitors to a time line of the development of diamond jewelry, dating from the present all the way back to 3,000 BCE. Leave the jeweler's loupe at home — these diamonds are encased in thick glass and under lights so bright that you might want to bring along your sunglasses instead.

Treasure #4: The Antiquities

About 106,000 items from the ancient civilizations of Rome, Greece, and the Northern Black Sea coastal region are on display on the ground floor of the New Hermitage. Beginning with items from 2,000 BCE through the fourth century CE, you'll find Roman sculptures, statues, and even a collection of ancient Greek terra cotta figurines.

Treasure #5: Prehistoric Artifacts

If prehistoric artifacts are your thing, visit the ground floor in the western wing of the Winter Palace. Of special interest are the world's oldest knotted-pile carpet and wooden chariot — wheels and all. Also on display are Paleolithic Age figurines carved over 20,000 years ago.

A cruise vacation is a great way to explore this region of Europe. With two-day experiences in St. Petersburg on many Scandinavian cruise itineraries, you'll have plenty of time to see the many attractions, including this one-of-a-kind Russian museum.

Inside the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia