There’s a guy I know who came to St. Petersburg in the winter in shorts. It was just a thing he did – wore shorts everywhere. Even he after a while began to respect the local cultural code: bought a pair of tweed pants to go to the Philharmonic and made a point of reading the program to figure out when to clap.

In many ways, St. Petersburg is an island when it comes to how people think, act and even dress. Locals, especially true natives who’ve been here for generations, like to think of themselves as the keepers of this special spirit. Oftentimes you’ll hear that someone is a “cultured” person, meaning that they’re not fostering a rare form of bacteria but adhere to the standards of the local culture and therefore are accepted in “polite society.” Here’s how to make your way in.


We’re not saying it’s true for every single inhabitant, but in general, people like to think that they live in Russia’s “cultural capital.” You might hear a complicated, polite sentence when someone’s just asking you to pass the salt. You might find a complicated, polite way of calling someone a jerk, especially if you spit out the peel of sunflower seeds straight onto the sidewalk. Even when you’re shoved against a crowd of strangers on the metro and your face ends up in someone’s armpit, it wouldn’t be appropriate to ask them to move, because “ne prilichno” (impolite).

Dress for Success

Forget shiny and bright. A coworker recently bought a pair of black leather boots and a black backpack, elegant and yet understated, perfect for a trek from the metro station to the office.  When I asked her why it looked exactly like her previous black boots, she said that you don’t mess with perfection. That’s how natives roll here. Less bling, more class. If there’s a giant logo across the back of your jacket, people will see it more of a target for jokes than a sign of respect. Unless of course, you can pull off an artful combination of a neon parka and woolen knee socks, but then you’d be considered an art object.

Don't Be Loud

If you’re loud, you’re either drunk or stupid, or both, as far as the locals’ opinion goes. More often than not you’ll hear people lowering their voices when they’re talking in public among themselves. You’ll draw strange glances if you’re talking loudly on your phone in a café or on a bus. Same goes for slurping soup or tea or anything else hot and delicious – slurp as if the Queen is watching.

Manners Maketh Man

Life in St. Pete is a perfect opportunity to practice for audience with a royal, wherever it might be. Used to win belching competitions? Practice keeping it in. Feel weird eating with a fork in the left hand? Take the knife in the right hand and shred a steak into tiny bites. And don’t be the person who takes the last cupcake.

The Last Clap

It’s no joke that St. Petersburg has probably a thousand theaters and concert halls that vary greatly in atmosphere and repertoire. Unless you’re going to a specifically avant-garde establishment, consider it an important cultural event and dress your Sunday best, which generally can’t include sweats or sneakers. Jeans are iffy. A bowtie is always welcome.

And keep in mind that an average sonata consists of four movements. Pros clap at the very end.