Don't Let the News Put You Off
The land of nuclear crisis, axis of evil and fundamental Islam, right? Well... no, not really. Iran's a land of elegant and glamorous mosques, amazing history, delicious cuisine, and friendly and helpful people.
From Isfahan ("half the world" according to the locals), where mosques and bazaars ring the central square and families spend the evening picnicking by the river, to Shiraz and the ancient ruins of Persepolis, Iran is a land of rich history and breathtaking cultural splendour. Modern Iran is just as fascinating, from relaxing parks ideal for people watching to the insane traffic.
The Top Five Things To Do
- Smoke a shisha (water pipe) under the stars in a traditional garden-hotel in Yazd.
- Spend a long day touring the ancient Achaemenid ruins of Persepolis, Pasargadae and Nagsh-e-Rostam.
- Allow at least one carpet tout in Isfahan to serve you tea and give you a sales talk so famous even the Iranians are wary of it . . . but remember to haggle!
- Sit in a park in Tehran and watch the world go by.
- See the Tomb of Hafez by moonlight (they say if you have never been in love, this is a sure-fire spell to send you head over heals).
Ideas for your Route
It's worth remembering that by far the biggest costs are flights and visas, meaning it makes sense to do a longer trip if you can, as once in the country things are cheap (though not as rock-bottom as Syria or India).
Two weeks - Fly into Tehran and connect to a flight to Shiraz, or, if you can, fly direct to Shiraz. Make sure to see Persepolis and the Tomb of Hafez. Travel up to Yazd (by flight or bus depending on budget and time constraints - overnight buses are available). This would be the best place to treat yourself to a (still inexpensive) traditional hotel. Walk around the old town, and try to explore the Zoroastrian sites, both the Towers of Silence and the Fire Temple. This is also a good place from which to do camel treks. Catch the bus to Isfahan, home to spectacular mosques and shopping capital of the country. Finally, take the train to Tehran, where the crown jewels are definitely worth a look.
3-4 weeks - Include all of the above, but between Shiraz and Yazd fit in a visit to Kerman. Between Isfahan and Tehran lie the traditional village of Abyaneh and the truly charming oasis town of Kashan. At least one night in Kashan is time well spent, though at present the hotels aren't great. If you can, spend week four in the area around Tabriz, home to several fascinating castles and villages.
4 weeks+ - This gives you a chance to really get off the beaten track. Include all the above if possible, but you would also have time to visit some out of the way sights, and perhaps take a longer camel trek.
Pretty much everyone needs one. There is some talk of a scheme whereby citizens of certain countries could get a short visa on arrival, but this is vague and liable to change.
For UK citizens
You can expect to get a visa reliably, but it is complicated. First, you must contact an agency, who will arrange for a code to be issued from Tehran. It can be sent to any embassy of your choosing (meaning you can get a visa on the road).
For US citizens
In theory, you can only visit the country on an organised tour. In practice, people have got round this, but you would probably need to do a lot of research, and possibly not get away with it. Good luck!
For people of Iranian descent
Just a note of caution: if your parents are Iranian, even if you are a citizen of another country (possibly even if born there) you may be treated as Iranian by the authorities, thus making the paperwork for your visa somewhat challenging!
The Israeli passport stamp
If you have been to Israel, you cannot go to Iran. There really isn't any way around this one. While Israeli officials may be willing to stamp something other than your passport, Jordanian or Egyptian ones won't (so if you cross at any of those land borders, your passport will show evidence of travel to Israel). Even if you somehow managed to persuade the Jordanians and Egyptians to help out, that would leave a gap in your passport (you would have entered Jordan and exited Egypt with nothing in between). And yes, they really do check this carefully. In addition, you would have to directly lie on several forms. If you have flown to Israel you might get away with it, but it's doubtful.
Culture and Religion
Iran is an Islamic state. This doesn't just mean that the majority of the population are Muslims, it means the country is governed by Islamic law. This affects some of the practicalities of travel (see below) such as dress code. While there is a more-or-less democratically elected parliament, the final power lies with the Mullahs and the Ayatollah (the chief spiritual leader). It also means strictly no alcohol (do NOT try and import your own), no indecent images (and this includes normal women's magazines such as Vogue) and a dress code (see below). Note that Iran is Shiite Muslim.
The basic unit of currency is the rial. This is not available outside Iran. Moreover, credit and debit cards will not work at all. Take dollars, pounds sterling or euros, and change it there. Larger things, such as hotel bills and souvenir carpets can generally be paid for in dollars or euros.
Generally very good and very cheap. The rail service is unfortunately limited, but should be used wherever possible. Tehran-Isfahan first class is less than $10, refreshments will be served, films are shown, and there's more legroom than you could ever need. When travelling by bus, aim for Volvo buses, as these are more reliable, faster, and will provide aircon. Seats are assigned, and there is no overcrowding. They will also play films loudly; either bring good headphones and your own music, or give in and watch. Within cities, unless you speak the language, take taxis, and remember to haggle.
Due to Islamic law (see above) a strict dress code is enforced. Women may only show their face and hands. Men may show their full head, and may wear short sleeved shirts and sandals (in practice, women might get away with sandals, but play for safety and take shoes as well, as the strictness of the enforcement varies. Men should aim for long sleeved shirts when visiting mosques). In practice, many Iranian women wear huge quantities of make-up, have their headscarves so far back they're more or less neck-ties, and wear figure hugging montaus (the loose knee-length light jacket worn over trousers by most Iranian women). Play for safety however: trousers or jeans, with a montau and headscarf or pashmina over the head. Monatus are best bought once there, so for your first day or two take a loose long sleeved shirt or (and these are ideal-I've stocked up while they're in the shops) a shirt-dress. Chadors (the black cape-like things) are not necessary at all, and are a complete pain to wear. Certain mosques may require you to wear them; however these are not on the main tourist route, and those that do will most likely provide them.
Shopping, Touts and Haggling
Haggling for pretty much everything is the norm, though long distance buses and trains at least tend to be fixed price. Hotels may or may not be willing to negotiate depending on season and how business is going. Iran has very little in the way of touts. Imam Square in Isfahan is the only place where you are likely to encounter them, and they are far from aggressive, though very persuasive. Do be aware that even among Iranians, Isfahani touts and in particular carpet sellers have a reputation. Haggle like mad, and if possible take someone who knows what they're looking at along, especially when buying carpets. Another option is to do much of your shopping elsewhere, where prices may start out lower, and sellers are less tourism-focused-Shiraz has a good bazaar, Tehran an enormous one. When haggling, stay friendly! Buying a carpet, vase, teapot or tablecloth is as much about social interaction and your memory of the event as it is about the thing itself. If you are happy with the price you are paying, that's what matters; don't worry about whether you could have got it cheaper.
Travelling as an unmarried couple/mixed-sex group
In theory this should be a headache, in practice it's not a problem (I travelled for two weeks with a male friend, so have tested this bit fairly thoroughly!). Most people will assume you are married. If you are a couple, let this continue. If not, it's up to you. My friend and I sometimes did, but with two hotels we were completely honest, and still had no problem getting a twin room.
This one is a bit more complex. On local buses within cities, men and women sit separately even if related. However, on trains and long-distance buses, men and women sit together. However, an unrelated Iranian man and woman would not sit together, but you don't need to worry about this rule unless travelling alone, in which case sit next to someone of your own sex. Unrelated men and women may not be alone together, so men, do not put an Iranian woman in an embarrassing (not to mention frankly dangerous) situation by ending up alone with her, and women, don't be offended if men avoid you! Men and women do not shake hands with each other.
Unless you find a segregated pool or beach, this is really out of the question for women.
Iran has a very high rate of serious and fatal road accidents. Don't even think about self-driving unless you have previous experience in similar countries. When crossing the road, move at a steady constant speed and in theory the traffic will flow around you. In practice, I tend to find an Iranian to hide behind! Watch out for the extremely deep drainage ditches at the edge of roads.
There is very little crime. Your passport will be kept by your hotel in any case. Don't keep money anywhere too accessible (try an inside pouch of a bag, not your back pocket). Nothing more than these fairly basic precautions should be necessary.
Consult a travel clinic or GP to make sure. It is likely you will be vaccinated for typhoid, diphtheria and polio. You should make sure your tetanus is up to date. It might also be worth considering rabies, especially if going to more remote areas. Carry a basic kit of plasters, rehydration salts etc. Medical care in Iran is very good (I've tested out this bit as well) so if you do need to visit a doctor, don't worry. Finding one who speaks English is fairly easy.
Be aware that if travelling with a man, everyone will talk to him not you. There's not much you can do about this, other than making sure your man is well trained (i.e. will consult you at some point in the bus reservation/taxi haggling/carpet buying process) and occasionally use it to your advantage (you are much less likely to be bothered by touts).
Also, do be aware that Iranian women simply don't go anywhere alone (even across town if they can avoid it). So you will stand out and draw attention. However, you are still perfectly safe, simply follow the rules you would anywhere (don't go off alone with a man, or group of men, basically). If you do feel awkward, there are plenty of women-only areas in many parks, and some restaurants and cafes will have women-only or family areas. Don't worry about being rude: no-one will be offended if you insist on sitting next to a woman on a bus or train.
One pleasant thing about Iranian culture is that, especially in summer, families tend to be out fairly late at night. On main streets and in busy areas there will be plenty of families and groups of friends picnicking, strolling around and generally relaxing. In this atmosphere, walking home from a restaurant at 10 or 11pm is perfectly safe. Equally though, wandering isolated areas alone after dark is of course a bad idea.
About the Author - Deborah Barnard
I'm 23, female, and currently in Edinburgh. I still feel kinda like a student (I studied English Literature and hope to do postgrad) but am actually looking for "real" work at the moment. I just got back from a month in the Middle East (Turkey, Jordan and Egypt). I'm keen to travel more and try new places (next on my hit list are Southern India, Malaysia and Singapore, and Oman), but suspect I will also keep returning to the Middle East, as I love the region.