I wasn’t sure what to expect ahead of my travels in Iran. I had been warned many times about the perils and potential dangers however, in my experience those types of dangers are always “in the next town” or “a few years ago” and rarely as the media would portray things.
Instead what I found was a beautiful dry desert country and the friendliest people I’ve ever encountered in my 18 years of travelling. This is exactly as I expected, and at the same time a complete surprise.
Travel in Iran – what to see and what to do
Iran is an ancient nation and still referred to as Persia. Historically it was a major empire but throughout history it has been overtaken many times and by many different empires such as Turks, Mongols, Arabs and more. Despite these defeats, Iran has now asserted itself as a political and cultural superpower and is a strong and proud nation.
Things are changing in Iran and for me it felt like a traditional country fighting to be modern, or a modern South Asian country struggling to retain its traditional values. Either way, changes are occurring and it’s an interesting time to watch people set in their old ways vs. those looking to embrace this brave new world. For example, drinking alcohol is banned and males and females socialising together is generally not accepted, but they both happen at house parties away from public eyes. Homosexuality is illegal but I was approached by many gay men in Iran, and some girls have dreadlocks and blue hair and ok, it doesn’t happen often but I personally witnessed this.
There are so many travel itineraries to choose. From the forests in the North to the coastal cities in the South, or the route I chose which covered a lot of desert. This did lean towards some very boring drives from point A to B but the cities I visited more than made up for it. My trip was 10 days so I made the most of my time by taking evening trains/buses when I would have just been in my room and a night bus. I followed an ambitious itinerary and would recommend the same to any organised person.
Day 1 – Turkish Airlines flight with afternoon arrival into Tehran
Day 2 – Full day exploring Tehran / late evening train to Yazd (6hrs) / midnight arrival and overnight
Day 3 – Full day guided tour of Yazd
Day 4 – Full day exploring attractions surrounding Yazd with driver / night bus to Shiraz (8hrs)
Day 5 – Early morning arrival and full day guided city tour of Shiraz
Day 6 – Full day exploring attractions surrounding Shiraz with driver
Day 7 – Early to morning local bus to Esfahan (6hrs) / afternoon exploring Esfahan
Day 8 – Full day guided tour of Esfahan
Day 9 – Half day free and afternoon bus to Tehran (6hrs) / arrival 22:00
Day 10 – Free day to explore Tehran and fly with Turkish Airlines
I stayed at a range of different accommodation throughout my time in Iran from hotels, to traditional establishments with rooms bordering a central courtyard. There are hostel dorm beds if you’re so inclined, and 5 star hotels but I opted for 2-3 star hotels in a single room and typically I paid US$30 per night with breakfast and Wi-Fi included. For more details on the accommodation, feel free to click through to the links to my city blogs on the itinerary section above.
The Visa On Arrival
I didn’t believe it was possible to get a visa on arrival but for most nationalities its a relatively easy process. This is not the case for British, American, Colombian, Canadian, Bangladesh, Iraqi and Jordanian passport holders who must arrive with the visa.
Firstly you don’t need to bother buying the insurance at the airport, I did but mainly because I got in the wrong queue. I’m still not sure of its purpose but it cost me US$18 and I never needed to prove I owned it. Clearly a successful and worthwhile purchase.
The actual visa process is pretty simple actually. First I joined the visa queue and was given a document with the hand-written amount to pay which turned out to be US$120 for a New Zealand passport holder (seems excessive considering I can travel repeatedly to America freely for US$14). I paid my visa fee in the bank queue, had it signed, jumped back in the visa queue and handed in my passport. Then I sat back, put my headphones in, tried for free Wi-Fi (failed) and waited for my passport to be handed back. The whole process took me approximately 1hour which isn’t too bad considering. I’d been told I needed to have an application number but I didn’t bother, they issued one on the spot which I understand is common. Keep in mind different nationalities pay varying amounts and you’ll need US$ or EUR in cash.
I travelled around Iran using a combination of different transport options, all of which were on time, clean, comfortable and cheap.
Local buses – Honestly I expected something from the Cold War but the local buses are probably better than the buses in London. They were on time, cheap (a 6 hr bus ride cost US$5) and served crisps, biscuits and a drink. These can be booked in advance through Persian Odyssey travel agency. The only thing is they tend to stop for anyone who waves them down so if you can handle this, then it’s worth the cheap price.
VIP buses – These upgraded buses were the only option available to me booking through this website from London and cost on average EUR25 per ticket. They were very comfortable, ran on time and only stopped at designated stations. Included is a free meal and seats which reclined to help catch a few zzzz’s.
Train – I only took one train from Tehran to Yazd and it was decent. I ended up being the novelty act for a local family who insisted on trying to talk to me in Persian for 6 hours and sharing their food with me.
Private driver – I hired a private driver for one day in each city excluding Tehran to explore the famous attractions outside the cities. On average they cost US$45 for a full day which is a bargain in any language. With the language barriers, much of the drive time was in silence, to the call-to-prayer or to the latest Adele album to show how modern they were. Typically I organised the drivers through my city guide.
What to wear
Anyone who travels to Iran knows what type of country it is and what the rules are, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that both men and women need to cover up. That means men shouldn’t wear shorts and singlets; no we wear long trousers and long/short sleeve shirts. Women should wear a headscarf as a minimum but the common sense applies to not showing too much skin. No shorts, no skirts and certainly no cleavage. I am typically a shorts and flip flops kind of guy and yes it gets hot, but it’s their playground, so their rules.
When I was unsure about anything I asked. Iranians are extremely friendly people and will always give the best advice.
Narouz is the name of the Iranian New Year but is also known as Persian New Year. It ran from 20th March for 13 days and is typically when families and friends travel around the country to meet with each other, eat and celebrate the arrival of a New Year. It’s the same as New Year anywhere around the world, but lasts longer and without alcohol. I loved travelling during Norouz because I got to meet people from all over Iran, but it was extremely busy at all tourist sites. I’m pleased I experienced it but also struggled to find accommodation at times.
Keeping in Contact
If you absolutely, 100%, without a doubt cannot stand to live without Facebook, Twitter and many more websites you will need to buy your own VPN. My UK phone didn’t work the whole time I was there. You can buy a SIM card at the airport and if you’re not lucky enough to be loaned a VPN by a local, you’ll need to purchase one before you arrive to Iran. Try Tunnel Bear. Hotmail and WhatsApp do work and Wi-Fi is available at most hotels, so you can let your family know you haven’t been sold into slavery.
Money and currency
You can take GBP, USD or EUR which are all widely accepted at change bureaus. Upon arrival to the airport, there is a money change downstairs at the airport by the luggage belt but don’t change money here. Head upstairs (even though it means leaving arrivals) and you’ll find the rate is much better but only exchange enough for the taxi and a meal as the rate is much better in the city. Change money in any of the banks or money shops but not on the street as I was told there was a lot of counterfeit bills.
Keep in mind that you cannot withdraw money on a western credit card. You MUST take enough cash to last you – so take more than enough!
The money is very confusing, mainly because they have two names for the same currency but one has less zeros. The Toman is one less zero, and the Rial is the currency amount on the actual note itself. It is approximately 34,800 Rials or 3,480 Toman to US$1. Sounds easy to follow right? The trouble is they never say which currency it is, so I had a constant look of bewilderment on my face. Basically when I asked how much something was, if it didn’t sound like a ridiculous amount than it was typically too good to be true.
Do yourself a favour and book yourself a guide. These cities have too much history and can be like a maze trying to find your way around. A guide for the day will cost you roughly US$50 and they know their stuff. I can only recommend the guides I used who were all very good:
• Yazd Saghi Tavakkoli – firstname.lastname@example.org – US$50 for a full day
• Esfahan Golnaz Musavi / 09131063133 – 1.7 million Rials (US$48) for a full day
• Shiraz Azadeh (Tel: 09171052191 / email@example.com) – US$60 for a full day
– Taxis don’t have a meter so make sure you know the cost before you start driving, for that you should ask your driver. It’s worth asking the hotel how much you should pay, bargaining with the taxi driver and then showing him the amount of money.
– Talk to as many local people as you can and take their kindness at face value. I literally have never met such genuinely friendly people in my life. Not only can they give you the best information and open up the personal side of the country for you, but you can also help them with their English and make a Father or Mother proud of their child as you speak back to them in English. It can get annoying but remember that travel is a two way street.
I’ll leave you with some funny observations from my time in Iran. Those kind of daily routines that locals wouldn’t bat an eyelid at, but us tourists can’t get our cameras out fast enough to photograph.
– On the 13th day of Norouz, families are encouraged to go into nature and have a family picnic. My observation is that there are very few green or nature areas and as a result, I would see families sitting down on a rug in the middle of a busy intersection, or by the side of the motorway. There would literally be a small patch of grass and cars flying around them in every direction but they looked as though they were eating apples in the Garden of Eden
– Traditional women wearing a hijab taking selfies, and I’m not talking one or two, no I mean a sea of them. Read this blog for a bit of a giggle.
– Most traditional hotels I stayed in have rooms around a central courtyard which echo with every voice or bang. I found that Iranian people have absolutely no concept of time of the night/morning vs. the noise they make.
– It is common place to see men and women walking around with bandages on their noses from recent nose jobs. It’s a sign of wealth and almost fashionable to be seen sporting these bandages. Apparently some people wear bandages out regardless if they have had a nose job or not to show this apparent disposable income. A guide told me that surgeons are very busy for Narouz – “New Year, new nose”!
– Road signs and street markings are purely ornamental, they actually have no meaning. As a result some of the drivers are quite horrific.
– Iranians cannot walk in a straight line (quite like Londoners). They walk like they drive and that is saying something.
In summary, Iran is right up there with one of my favourite countries. It is beautiful but it was the people and their kindness that made it for me. As I get older and as cliché as it sounds, I enjoy countries where there are fewer tourists. Where local people haven’t become so blasé to foreign faces and tourist dollars. Iran surpassed all my expectations but its humble realness, was the Persian drug that will see me returning for more.
Fancy reading a blog on the “Disappearing bathhouses in Iran“? Well it’s your lucky day so here you go.
If you want to read more of my blogs from Iran, just click on the links below:
10 reasons why Iran is the perfect travel destination for Donald Trump
Guide to travelling in Shiraz, Iran
Your guide to travelling in Esfahan, Iran
Yazd city guide, Iran
Iran’s obsession with taking the perfect selfie
Tehran city guide and obtaining an Iranian visa
Bathhouses of Iran – washing away tradition