Grand Escapades’ Travel Guide To Iran – Friendliness, Culture, Modernity: So Far Away From The Clichés!
Itinerary And Time Of The Visit
We spent two weeks in Iran in April 2014, and covered the cultural heartland of Iran: Shiraz, Isfahan, Na’In, Yazd, Kashan, Qom & last but not least Teheran. Due to the lack of time, we did not travel the north of the country, nor did we go to the deserts.
Why Travel To Iran?
Iran is one of the cradles of our civilizations and this was our main focus, to meet one of the oldest cultures in the world. The Persian Empire shaped the early history of mankind. It is famous for its craftsmanship, its architecture, tile work, its unparalleled Persian carpets and literature to name a few areas. No wonder, that nowadays the level of education is so high.
Challenges Organizing The Trip – What Would We Have Wished To Know?
All in all, this trip was fairly easy to organize, especially considering how few people travel to Iran individually. The vast majority of tourists travel with an organized tour.
- Organizing the visa was straightforward – The Iranian Embassy recommended an agency to get us the required Visa Reference Number. Once you have this number you can to apply for the visa. The agency recommended never replied, so we used Gashttour Travel & Tour Agency. The very responsive and flexible staff got us the Visa Reference Number within ten days (35 € per person). Getting the visa was then a straightforward, uncomplicated process at the Iranian Embassy in Vienna.
- Besides, Iran is very easy to travel – We never booked ahead although we traveled during Easter, when most European tourists arrive in Iran. Accommodation and transport is overcrowded when you travel during Norooz, the spring festivities, where literally all Iranians are on holiday, traveling their country. We were told that traveling might be challenging during Ramadan, due to the fact that many shops and almost all restaurants are closed during the day.
- The main question that arose before departure was what kind of clothes should Heidi take? – Actually, as it turned out we spent way too many thoughts on this subject. All the female tourists we talked to had worried about what to wear in Iran. Quite easy actually: baggy pants, a shirt that cover your hips and bum, very little cleavage, short scarf – otherwise most of it is wrapped around your neck and drives you crazy, especially in the heat. You are set, not matter where, in rural areas or in urban areas!
There are three things you should be aware of when traveling to Iran:
- The sanctions imposed on Iran are tight. Once you entered the country, you will have no access to cash. Forget your credit card! You have to take all the money you need with you in cash. This affects individual travellers the most, since you need to pay hotels, restaurants, bus, train & plane tickets as you travel, and not beforehand when using a tour operator. On top of that, there are tons of things you might want to buy, beautiful souvenirs, and of course astonishing carpets (we traded our Camera for one of them…). So bring enough cash! Some of the more tourist-orientated and more expensive carpet shops in major cities have bank accounts in Europe, which makes it possible to pay by credit card.
- The currency is devaluating fast, so keep an eye on the exchange rate. We experienced a drop of 7,5% over a period of 2 weeks.
- Toman, Rial / Rial, Toman… This is extremely confusing in the beginning. Always double check that the prices indicated or discussed are in Toman, and when looking at your bank notes, multiply the price by 10. Toman actually do not exist, but everyone quotes prices in Toman – 1 Toman is 10 Rials.
Highlights Of The Trip
- The people – Iranians simply redefine friendliness and hospitality!
- Esfahan – with it great Islamic architecture, Maydan-e Imam, the string of leavy parks and Julfa, the Armenian Quarter, that invites for strolls, day and night
- Qom, Iran’s (second) Vatican – Both Fatima’s Holy Shrine and Jamkaran Mosque are spectacular. And no, this city is not THAT conservative
- Persepolis and the Tombs of the Achaemenidean Kings Cyrius, Darius & Xerxes
- The diversity of highlights in and around Yazd, a place where you should plan enough time
- Visiting traditional houses in Kashan
- The Bazaar of Shiraz
- Amazing opportunities for photographers: Iranians are eager to pose for photos, even with complete strangers; astonishing architecture; illuminated buildings in the evening…
How To Go Off The Beaten Track?
- Tourism has experienced a sudden and huge boost in 2014, but individual travelers, who use public transport like us are so rare, they actually are the big attraction in Iran.
- Like always and everywhere: take your time, as there are lots of things to see off the main tourist drags.
- Just say “Yes!” when you are invited. People will get out of their way to make you feel welcome.
- Visit the holy cities! Qom turned into a true highlight of the trip, even though most Iranians gave us a puzzled look when we announced our plan to go there.
- Our best guides sometimes were cab drivers we stopped by chance. Even if their English is poor, they can help you see really different things. Twice they turned into a real travel guide and took us to very special places.
- We have never done CouchSurfing, but heard some young German tourists rave about it in Teheran, luxurious accommodation, breakfast like in a hotel and hosts that took them around. A way to travel we truly consider for the next trip there.
What Will We Especially Remember?
Getting our picture taken with groups of students (mostly girls) at every place we visited. We had never been so high in demand!
- Talking to complete strangers on the street, on buses, trains, sometimes for hours – And getting a great insight of the every day life of Iranians
- In public Iranian women wear a chador or a “manteau” (a short, light frock that can be very colorful). In northern Teheran and in Esfahan women sometimes looked stunning through the way they dressed!
- Cab drivers who turned into friendly guides, in Esfahan and in Qom. We also had those who overcharged us, big city boys in Teheran, but that was an absolute exception.
- If shoes are an important part of clothing for women in the western world, it is the headscarf and the purse in Iran. Whereas surprisingly many elegantly dresses women wear sport shoes.
- Iran is no party destination (you cannot legally purchase alcohol and clubs do not exist) like Southeast Asia, where young people travel in throngs. In Iran they are the exception, even among the few who travel independently. The majority of the tour groups are made up of retirees.
What Would We Do Differently?
- Unfortunately we arrived and left from Teheran, much better would have been to arrive in one city, like Shiraz, and leave from another city, like Teheran or even Tabriz. It costs the same, but allows you more time in the country.
- Not stay in the center of Teheran, but in the northern part, near the metro line
- Stay overnight in Zein – O – Din Caravanserai near Yazd
- Travel more by train – very efficient and very comfortable
- Take enough cash to buy one or two carpets. They are simply special. A great place to do so is Na’In.
Is It Safe & Is It Morally Justifiable To Travel To Iran?
Like so often when we talk about our travelling plans, the question “Isn’t it dangerous to travel there?” pops up. Iran was no exception, on the contrary! Iran has a reputation of supporting terrorism, the land of fanatic ayatollahs where women are forced under the chador, not to mention the endless media coverage about Iran’s nuclear program.
We did not believe a minute that it would be dangerous, just the opposite. And it proved to be one of the safest countries we have traveled so far. Like always, our minds are manipulated by our daily diet of western media. During a presentation by “Rückenwind” – Anita said, “If you have prejudices about a country, then travel it”. We couldn’t agree more!
Besides, several times we were confronted with the question whether it is morally justifiable to travel to “such countries”. Do not be mistaken – our enthusiasm for Iran does not mean we support (in any way) a brutal and suppressive regime. Human Rights abuses are wide spread in Iran, corruption also as described in our article on Esfahan’s dried river. Elections seem to have little relevance, since who can run is decided by a closed circle. The “Council of the Guardians of the Constitution” control the country’s legislation and most of the oil production.
In our opinion, one should make a difference between the (amazing) people and culture of Iran and its regime. While traveling independently, you can ensure that your money will mainly go to a middle class being wiped out by the embargo and who deserves better than what is currently happening.
Best Time To Visit Iran
Iran can be baking hot in the summer and freezing cold and rainy in the winter. So the best time to visit the country is in early spring and fall. The north of Iran might be enjoyed in the summer months as well, but we have not been there yet.
Communication (Language Barrier?)
Communication in Iran was extremely easy. Little surprising, in a country with such a high level of education! Even if people don’t speak English, they go out of their way to help you.
Basically, most young urban Iranians speak English, even German was partly spoken, as many young people learn the language hoping to get a working visa for Germany.
Getting Around In Iran
This is surprisingly easy and cheap. Infrastructure is modern, comfortable and reliable.
Domestic flights are cheap and widely available, a good opportunity to travel longer distances
- Trains are cheap, the service is excellent and tickets easy to get, even on very short notice.
- There are different categories of busses and even the cheaper classes are do-able. Busses are quite comfortable, usually on time and fast (for instance, for the 490 km from Shiraz to Esfahan, it took us approx. 6.5 hours)
- Chartering a cab, even for longer distances, is also a very good and not so expensive alternative. For instance, the 135 km from Qom to Teheran cost us 25 € in a cab, door-to-door.
Only very, very few Non-Iranian tourists use public transport, so the European main travel season did not affect the availability of tickets.
Please check “Challenges In Organizing The Trip”.
Also note that most hotels and guesthouses tend to keep your passport for the time of your stay. If you go on an excursion outside of the city where you are, you should have your passport with you, or at least a copy of it… on your Smart Phone.
Photography – Iran: A Photographer’s Dream!
Iran is a (travel) photographers’ dream! Stunning architecture, amazing colors, and people eager to pose for and with visitors…
- Wide Angle Lens – We have never used our EF-S 10-22 mm lens as often as during this trip, especially to take pictures of the outside and inside of mosques.
- Tripod – Unfortunately often forbidden inside mosques or museums, but again, we used it more than ever. Many sights are illuminated at night, so the tripod enabled endless exposures and stunning pictures.
- Timing – The real challenge is to be at the right place for the perfect light, like for the “Blue Hours”, shortly after the sunset. Getting up early enough for the soft morning light can even be harder…
- People – We have never been that high in demand as in Iran. This is an amazing opportunity to take pictures of people, men, women, clergymen, young and old. Just take the time to talk to people, connect with them and the rest is easy: we were almost never turned down!
While in Iran, you will take many pictures inside buildings (especially mosques) and will hence struggle with too little light. To make matters worse, often tripods are forbidden inside. Therefore, a full-frame camera, enabling you to use higher ISO settings (above 800, at times as high as 3.200), as well as lenses allowing to shoot at wider aperture (ideally f2.8) can be a real help.
When using wide angel lenses at lot, a tool – LightRoom 5, the new Upright – Automatic Perspective Correction – is equally helpful. It corrects the tilted perspective by cropping the picture. Think about taking a wider frame of the subject, if possible!
Best Opportunities For Great Pictures
- Maydan-e Imam / Esfahan – People, mosques, palaces and most important: all these are beautifully illuminated at night reflecting in the large pool.
- Julfa Quarter / Esfahan – People, Mediterranean atmosphere
- Qom – Shrine of Fatima and Jamkaran Mosque, try to get an authorization to take photos inside the mosques – our cab driver got us one for Jamkaran Mosque – unique. Again, magnificent shots at night!
Best & Most Inspiring Travel Blogs For Iran
Obviously, Iran is (still) not on many travelers list, so we found very few travel blogs writing about Iran. This might change quickly though, as Iran seems to be on many people’s list and the number of tourists arriving has been soaring in the last months.
If you find other good blogs on Iran, do not hesitate to contact us…
Uncornered Market – Audrey and Dan get it just right… As always! A very inspiring description of their trip to Iran
Goats On The Road – Very good insights about independent travel in Iran from Dariece and Nick. Let’s hope they will also do at some point one of their “Goats Guide” for Iran
Chasing The Unexpected – Angela gives excellent and absolutely current information on travel to Iran, and great insights about this country. The Article “10 Reasons Why You Should Travel To Iran Now” got it exactly right.
Conclusion About Iran…
During this first (short) trip, we discovered an amazing country, far away from the clichés – fabulous cultural treasures, probably the friendliest people we have ever met, a highly modern society, and… a country very easy and safe to travel, even though it is still really Off The Beaten Track.
Our advice? Go NOW! Before this becomes common knowledge…