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Spotlight Russia: 7 golden travel tips

By Steve Dorsey, for CNN
updated 9:23 PM EST, Mon February 10, 2014
Men: don't be afraid to give a woman flowers. Men: don't be afraid to give men flowers, either. The custom is widespread. Men: don't be afraid to give a woman flowers. Men: don't be afraid to give men flowers, either. The custom is widespread.
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Flowers rule
People dress up for everything
Winter can get pretty steamy
You're not required to drink vodka
Winter can be tough on shoes
Superstitions about money are common
Unauthorized cabs abound
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • You won't be made an outcast for refusing vodka
  • You'll have plenty of chances to break out your fancy evening gear
  • Chivalry rules -- expect to give or be given flowers

(CNN) -- What lies beyond Sochi?

Only the largest country in the world in terms of area.

Post-Olympics, should you find yourself stretching out to explore the rest of Russia -- especially Moscow and St. Petersburg -- a little cultural background can help you make the most of this dazzling land.

Chivalry rules

You can't miss them: flowers are everywhere in Russia, even in the bitterest cold.

Men give women flowers for almost any occasion -- it needn't signal romantic interest.

Women carrying huge bouquets down the street or in the Metro is a common sight.

MORE: Dacha, chacha and a gay bar: 9 ways Sochi surprises

It's a sign that relations between the sexes are still largely traditional.

Women are offered food and drinks first.

Men are expected to take a woman's coat and to walk her back to her hotel, car or even elevator.

Chivalry can appear charming or antiquated, depending on your view, but either way it's best to go along if you want to make friends.

Just heading to the store ... Russians will dress up for almost any occasion.
Just heading to the store ... Russians will dress up for almost any occasion.

You'll get good use out of a suit or evening dress

Sure, you'll want to be dressed up for the ballet or to get into a "face-control" club (a Russian specialty where bouncers judge your suitability for the premises in a glance).

But many Russians love any excuse to pull the sharpest, newest clothes out of their closets.

READ: St. Petersburg -- 12 best sights in the city of the czars

Going out to dinner or just visiting a museum -- there are any number of reasons to get dressed up.

Coat checks are everywhere, so you won't need to hang on to that bulky top coat.

But winter might ruin your shoes

You'll know this if you already come from a cold climate, but no small amount of shoes are sacrificed to a Russian winter.

Puddles, mud and snow can spell a tearful goodbye to your most expensive Oxfords or Manolos.

Some Russian urbanites advocate chunky snow boots for the sidewalk and a change of footwear for indoors.

Not all Russians drink vodka

Go to a big dinner with Russian friends and you should be prepared for plenty of vodka toasts.

You'll also find the drink in endless varieties -- from vodka made from melted icebergs to "ecological" vodka to bottles that come with their own knitted warmer.

That doesn't mean you're obliged to get obliterated as soon as you pass customs.

"I've met a lot of Russians who don't drink," says Fiona Spoon, a British student in Moscow.

"It all depends on who you meet."

When with Russian friends, you won't be pressured to drink, especially if they think you've had enough.

It's not cold everywhere in winter

It may seem unusual for a country that's hosting the winter Olympic Games -- and that contains what's said to be the coldest continually inhabited place on Earth -- but Russians can be sensitive to the cold.

Many who can afford it skedaddle to the Mediterranean and other warm places on package vacations at the first sign of snow.

If you're in Russia in winter, you need to get used to cars, museums and hotel rooms heated to an inferno, while outside it might feel arctic.

The solution is to bring clothes you can layer to keep cool or warm, whether you're inside or outside.

Spot the official taxi? It\'s not always easy.
Spot the official taxi? It's not always easy.

Unauthorized cabs abound

Unlicensed taxis operate alongside the legal version in many Russian cities.

Laws introduced over the past few years -- including requiring every cab to use a meter and an orange light on the roof and to bear checked stripes on its sides -- appear to have been only a temporary deterrent.

As in many cities worldwide, unlicensed cabs are cheaper and often more common than official taxis and so they still abound -- even though plenty of Russian residents and visitors have tales of being ripped off.

MORE: Russia's 10 ritziest hotels

You'll see unlicensed cabs outside Metro stops and near bars, where they'll blurt out "taxi" when you walk by.

For registered taxis, you can download the popular GetTaxi app, which helps you to locate an official cab nearby.

Keys don't belong on the table

Whistle while walking down the street or listening to your iPod, and you may get strange looks: it means bad luck.

Wonder why shop assistants place money on a small dish instead of into your hands? Some believe money carries negative energy.

Other ill omens include putting empty bottles or keys on a table (it signifies financial loss) or standing on any kind of threshold (where it was once thought bad spirits dwelled).

Omens of imminent financial reward include finding a spider on your clothes or, a weird notion that prevails in other countries, too, being the target of a pigeon's sloppy toilet habits.

READ: Sparkle, dazzle, flash: Moscow's gold-standard shopping

Steve Dorsey is a freelance journalist who has reported from Russia on subjects from the Bolshoi Ballet to Kremlin politics.

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