On our one way ticket to the Far East we never planned on stopping in Iran, a country we knew little about. However we had heard some amazing stories from backpackers who had visited Iran.
So we decided to go for it! And boy are we happy that we did. We spent one month travelling the country, from the date palm trees in the south, through the deserts in the west to the freezing mountains in the north.
Iran seems to offer everything a nature-lover can desire, where you can enjoy four seasons all-year round. Here you’ll find the hottest deserts on earth, the world’s largest water cave and the tallest mountains in the Middle-East. Not to mention, being repeatedly titled the most hospitable nation in the world by experienced travellers, with an unrivaled cultural heritage of ancient Persia.
But is it really safe to visit Iran?
At first our ignorant minds wandered about the Islamic State in Iraq and Afghani Taliban. How can it possibly be safe to travel to Iran, bordered between these two unstable countries? But we were wrong! After filtering through media propaganda and US embassy warnings, we found heaps of real travel stories, all mentioning how safe it is to visit Iran.
After spending 30 days in the country we can now share our own personal experience. We felt safe from day one! Even when wandering the streets after nightfall. Iranians have the utmost respect for travellers and make their efforts in convincing you that Iran is safe, disproving the media rumors. As a result of a strict Islamic regime, violent crime rates are low, even lower than in the US.
That being said, every country has its own set of rules and Iran might have stricter rules than most contries, but as a travelers it is your responsibility to respect them. These rules might bother some, for instance gender seperation and strict female dress codes. Women must cover their hair by law and dress approriately. However after a few days in Iran this gets into habit and by respecting their culture you will not face any trouble. Also, keep in mind that many Iranians disagree with the opinions of the ruling government. So don’t let your own thoughts of the islamic regime keep you away from visiting this beautiful nation.
Before going to Iran
When going to Iran you should try to plan it well in advance. The visa process can take up to one month and requirements depend on nationality. For example US, British and Canadian citizens cannot enter Iran without a guide and travellers that have a Israeli-stamp in their passport may be refused entry. Return ticket out of the country may also be needed.
One important thing to be aware of before you go; Credit and debit cards are useless in Iran due to US sanctions, so bring enough cash for the duration of your stay. So just to make it clear, take ENOUGH cash with you. Running out of money is the biggest problem travellers face in the country. It’s almost impossible to get your hands on more cash after entering the country.
To enter Iran, a passport valid for six months beyond the length of stay, with two blank pages, is required for most nationalities.
The visa process will start by you contacting an approved Iranian travel agent in order to get the so called “authorisation number”. We used Key to Persia and we were very satisfied with their service. However, we had to pay 35 EUR beforehand and it’s non-refundable, even if your application is not accepted. After receiving your personal data, they will apply to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and get back to you with the authorisation number if the MFA accepted your application (may take 2-4 weeks).
After getting your authorisation number print it out and take it to your closest Iran embassy. Since we don’t have one in Iceland, we got our visas from the Iranian embassy in Dubai. After our visit to the embassy we came back the next day to collect our visas. It turned out to be a convenient stopover since we were able to book super cheap tickets from Sharjah airport to Lar with Airarabia.
Backpacking Iran is incredibly inexpensive these days. Iran is a country that offers great value for money.
The Iranian rial, symbolised internationally as IRR, is the currency of Iran; however be prepared, prices are often quoted in toman = 10 rials.
As we mentioned before foreign cards are not accepted in Iran. So foreign currency will be needed, US dollars and euros are by far the most useful, though other currencies can at times also be exchanged. Bills in good condition as well as large bills tend to be preferred, but smaller denominations are also accepted.
A lot of Iranians are members on Couchsurfing, a website for free homestay with locals all around the world. So during our month in Iran we only spent 4 nights at a hotel. We got invited to one family after the other so we don’t have many hotels or guesthouses to share with you but we highly recommend the Couchsurfing community. It’s really the best way to get introduced to the local life, the Iranian cuisine and the their culture. Iranians are known to be one of the most hospitable people in the world and may well be the king of couchsurfing.
Tipping is not customary in Iran, however it’s highly appriciated by the locals and maybe expected from people working in the tourism industry.
When staying with a local family it’s a good idea to bring a small gift. It doesn’t need to be much but bringing something from your home country will truly make your hosts happy.
Almost every single tourist site in Iran has an entrance fee. Even the popular botanic gardens in the cities will charge you. The fee is usually around 4$ and is payed by the entrance gate.
However some mosques and shrines will be free of charge.
Solo travels in Iran
Solo travellers should not really face any safety problems. Things like theft are rare, because of the strict law system in the country and the overall hospitality of the people. Couchsurfing is a great way to connect with people and to meet other travellers.
Prepare yourself the traffic is quite overwhelming! It’s quite difficult to rent a car, so you either have to use public transport or hire a guide to drive you. Public transportation is very cheap, even domestic airfare.
- Hire a driver:
We hired a guide to drive us around for a whole day and it cost us 40$. Most guides are interested in meeting foreign visitors and will go the “extra-mile” for you.
- City busses:
Most Iranian towns and cities have local bus services. Bus numbers and destinations are usually only marked in Farsi, so you need to do a lot of asking around, but most people will be happy to help. Do take notice that most of the city busses are gender separated. Men will sit in the front and women at the back.
- Long distance busses:
It’s easy to get between cities and there are many busses running everyday. You can choose between a regular one and a VIP. The VIP usually cost around 4$ and the regular 2$.
Taxis are also really affordable, but the price needs to be bargained beforehand.
Hitchhiking always includes a small but potential risk. Hitchhiking in Iran is relatively easy and also well known in their own culture. From our experience drivers would offer us a free ride in return for some english practice or just out of sheer hospitality.
Taroof is a special art of Iranian etiquette or politeness, which is good to be familiar with. Taroof encompasses a range of social behaviours, from opening a door for a woman to denying a cup of tea at least three times before accepting the offer. After the third time the host will know whether you seriously don’t want a cup of tea or not.
Taarof may sometimes cause misunderstandings between both parties and can be a source for awkward situations in a social setting. For example when a host piles food on a guest’s plate despite the guest’s refusal. The host believes that the guest is Taarofing, but the guest is actually full and satisfied. This can also be confusing for tourists. We met a solo traveller from Brazil in Iran who was telling us how generous the Iranian people are. He told us that, yesterday, he had filled his motorcycle’s gasoline tank but when he asked the attendant “how much?” the attendant replied “ Its not a big deal, please, be my guest”. Having never heard of Taarof, our Brazilian friend, thanked him dearly for the free petrol and ran off on his bike, probably leaving the attendant very confused.
Must do things while visiting Iran
Enjoy Iranian cuisine, sitting on a Persian carpet
You won’t find many restaurants in the country, since Iranians prefer to cook at home. Most dishes include rice and meat (lamb, chicken or fish) mixed with various herbs and spices. Kebab with saffron rice is a popular dish, but the Fesenjan, a savory stew featuring duck, pomegranate and walnut, is a must try! Sitting on the carpet floor is the usual way of dining for most Iranians, whether poor or rich. At first we had some difficulties finding a comfortable position, but with every meal our muscles and ligaments seemed to get more and more used to the strain. Somehow sitting together on a beautiful Persian carpet makes the atmosphere more relaxed and less formal than dining at a dinner table.
Go back to ancient Persia and visit Persepolis
Did you know that Iran is home to one of the world’s oldest civilizations and hosts thirteen UNESCO World Heritage Sites? Perseoplis is one of them and one of the greatest ancient UNESCO sights in the Middle East. Built over 2500 years ago, Persepolis was the capital of the Persian Empire, back when it reached from Greece to India. The world empire was thought to have inhabited 44% of the world’s population during these times (the highest such number of any world empire). Its glory came to an end when Alexander the Great burned and sacked the city 333 BC, leaving Persepolis in ruins ever since.
Check out our blog from Persepolis here!
The so called Kalouts are a rare formation of towering sand rocks, scattered around in the Shahdad desert. Here you will also find one of the hottest spots on earth, with ground temperatures reaching as high as 70°C during summer. Here you won’t find any living creatures, except maybe the toughest bacteria.
Check out our blog from the Shadad desert here!
Meet the locals and learn to Tarof
Iranians are famous for being one of the most hospitable nations in the world. You won’t have to wait long to test this reputation. We hadn’t even landed in Iran, but already we were starting to get invitation to stay for dinner or overnight from complete strangers. Accept these offers once in a while and get to know the unique etiquette of Tarof, mentioned above, where denying a cup of tea at least three times before accepting is considered courteous.
Go Skiing in Dizin
In the Alborz mountain range, north of Tehran, you’ll find one of the highest ski resorts in the world, Dizin. This resort has a good number of pistes to choose from and at the top (4000 m) you’ll get a perfect view over Mt. Damavand, Iran’s tallest mountain.
Try the local wine in Shiraz
Shiraz is a beautiful city with many places worth visiting, from holy mosques and shrines to busy bazaars and botanical gardens. Many might be familiar with the city’s name from its reputation of producing the finest wine in the Middle East. Apparently, making wine for export is legal but consuming alcohol in Iran is illegal! Despite that, many Iranians in Shiraz will invite you to taste their own homemade wine, but behind closed doors.
Check out our blog from Shiraz here.
Visit half of the world in Esfahan
Once a capital of Iran and known for being one of the most beautiful cities in the world, with tree lined boulevards, historical bridges and Islamic architecture. There is a famous rhyme in Persian “Esfahan nesf-e Jahan”, meaning “Esfahan is half of the world”.
Check out our blog from Esfahan here.
Get lost in the ancient red village Abyaneh
Often referred to as the Red Village for its red mud brick houses and the surrounding mountain terrain (bearing the same colour due to iron oxides). The village is at least 1500 years old originating from the time of the Arab invasion, when many of the Persians fled to the mountains and deserts to escape forced conversion to Islam.
Check out our blog from Abyaneh here.
Sail into the largest water cave in the world
Take a 2.4 km boat tour inside Ali-Sadr cave, the largest of its kind. On the walls inside you’ll find pictures of animals and hunting scenes dating back 12.000 years.
Check out our blog from Ali Sadr cave here.
Bargain for a Persian carpet at the bazaar
It can take one person up to 6-12 months to weave a 1.5 x 1.0 m carpet depending on how dense you weave it (knots per square inch). They can cost you up to 5000$, but you can get them for cheaper, with fewer knots, made from cheap wool instead of silk, coloured with chemicals instead of organic dyes, but we couldn’t get our eyes off the irresistible and shiny silk carpets woven to perfection. Take your time, drink tea with the owners and visit a few different shops. When you find the right carpet, remember to bargain heavily!
If you are looking for a country off the beaten path, then Iran is the place for you. The tourism is quite underdeveloped and it’s remarkable to see how Iranians stay close to their old traditions. Due to sanctions and poor economy, the lack of foreign influence seem to have locked in the true Persian culture and way of life. This makes Iran a rewarding place to visit especially for curious travelers who want to learn the basis of the country, who its people are and what their culture stands for – ignoring political propaganda and news headlines. So hurry up while you can, you never know when the sanctions will be lifted off, blowing in a gust of Western influence.
“A traveler without observation is a bird without wings.”
— Moslih Eddin Saadi
Are you thinking about travelling to Iran? Find all our blogs about Iran here.
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