Grand Escapades’ Travel Guide To Iran – Friendliness, Culture, Modernity: So Far Away From The Clichés!
Itinerary And Time Of The Visit
In April 2014, I spent 2 weeks in Iran and covered the cultural heartland of the country (most of which has now turned into the “Tourist Trail”, except Na’In & Qom): Shiraz, Esfahan, Na’In, Yazd, Kashan, Qom and last but not least Teheran.
In September 2017, I spent 3.5 weeks and wanted to discover less visited parts of the country and covered Tabriz & Northwest Iran (Zanjan, Soltaniyeh, Takht-e Soleiman); Teheran; Mashhad & Torbat-e Jam; the Southwest of Iran (Sushtar, Choqa Zanbil & Shush); before returning on the “Tourist Trail” (Kashan, Esfahan, Yazd & Shiraz).
Why Travel To Iran?
Iran is one of the cradles of our civilizations and this was my 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, its tile work, its unparalleled Persian carpets and literature to name a few areas. No wonder, that nowadays the level of education is so high.
Tourism has boomed over the last few years, and the lifting of international sanctions accelerated this phenomenon. The itinerary Teheran – Kashan – Esfahan – Yazd – Shiraz is now very popular, especially amongst (large) tour groups, mostly elderly Europeans. This had a clear impact on the experience I had on my second trip, at least in more touristy places.
But the good news is: it is still extremely easy to go Off The Beaten Track and to experience unique places void of foreign tourists. This is maybe why Iran should be on your list in the short term, before tourism took a too heavy toll, and the unbelievable hospitality and the genuine interest in foreign visitors turn into sheer indifference or worse, greed…
Challenges In The Organization Of The Trip – What Would I Have Wished To Know?
All in all, these trips were extremely easy to organize, especially considering how few people travel to Iran individually. Indeed, the vast majority of tourists travel with an organized tour.
- The main question that might arise before departure is what kind of clothes should a woman take? This is what we wrote back in April 2014: “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 or in urban areas!”
- The sanctions imposed on Iran are still 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 (I traded my Camera for one of them in April 2014). So bring enough cash! Some of the more tourist-orientated and more expensive carpet shops in major cities have bank accounts in Europe or Dubai though, which makes it possible to pay by credit card.
- Organizing the visa is now straightforward – Most European citizens can now apply for a 30 day Visa On Arrival at 6 major international airports, and though it is time consuming (it took me approx. 2.5 hours in the middle of the night), it is fairly easy. Be sure to have proof of a hotel booking for the first night(s), and a phone number for this reservation that immigration officers can call – And they might very well do so! You can alternatively apply online for a visa. Note that I did not use this option, but heard it is easy and straightforward. The visa costs 50 € (payable in cash in € or USD) for most European citizens.
- Besides, Iran is very easy to travel, though you might want to book some of your accommodations and transports a few days ahead… The days when you could just show up at any place and find a good accommodation are long gone, at least in touristy places. Especially in Teheran, Kashan, Esfahan, Yazd and Shiraz, you should book a few days, maybe even a few weeks ahead if you want to find a fairly priced mid-range accommodation. Transports might also be a challenge on specific routes, and train tickets are now sold out a few days ahead of time. Domestic plane tickets are quite easy to organize locally on a few days notice, at any reliable local travel agency. In less visited parts of the country, some night VIP buses tend to sell out quickly.
- Traveling during Iranian holidays might be a little tricky, though… Accommodation and transport is overcrowded when you travel during Norooz, the spring festivities, where literally all Iranians are on holiday, traveling their country. I was told that traveling might be really challenging during Ramadan, due to the fact that many shops and almost all restaurants are closed during the day. You actually might want to avoid this period for your trip… Also beware that traveling during the Ashura, the country simply stands still during 3 days.
- 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, and for bigger amounts sometimes 10.000 Rials, to make things even more confusing…
Highlights Of The Trip
- The people: Iranians simply redefine friendliness and hospitality!
- Esfahan: Discovering this city will most probably be the highlight of everyone’s visit to Iran, offering some of the finest architecture of the whole country, and actually some of the finest architecture I experienced altogether during my many trips.
- Mashhad & Qom: Iran’s two Holy Cities! Iran is known for its beautiful mosques – some of the largest, oldest and finest in the world. But without any doubt, the largest, and some of the most delicate shrines & mosques can be found in Iran’s two spiritual capitals.
- Strolling the relaxed historic town of Tabriz: the largest city of Northwest Iran and the center of Iran’s Azeri population is a crossroad and melting pot of several cultures. Its glorious, if turbulent history bestows this widespread city some of Iran’s most remarkable cultural heritages.
- The diversity of highlights in and around Yazd, a place where you should plan enough time.
- Visiting traditional houses in Kashan.
- Discovering one of the cradles of humanity in Shush, Shushtar & Choqa Zanbil: in Southwestern Iran, in the desert not far from Iraq and Kuwait, the Elamites developed one of the first great civilizations in Human History, with amongst others the first fix human settlement ever created, dating back to the 5th Millennium BC!
- I did not enjoy Teheran on my first visit back in April 2014: too big, too congested, too polluted, too noisy, too hectic… But surprisingly, I quite appreciated this tentacular & chaotic megacity on the second trip in September 2017, and decided to stay longer to discover Teheran more in depth.
- Antic Persepolis and the Tombs of the Achaemenidean Kings Cyrius, Darius & Xerxes
- The Gardens of Shiraz
- Amazing opportunities for photographers: Iranians are eager to pose for photos, even with complete strangers; astonishing architecture; illuminated buildings in the evening… Iran is a country where I made some of my best shots!
How To Go Off The Beaten Track?
- Basically, as soon as you leave the “Tourist Trail” (Teheran, Kashan, Esfahan, Yazd & Shiraz), you are Off The Beaten Track and will meet very few foreign travelers! You might actually very well be one of the very few foreigners in town in many other cities…
- 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, at least when you leave the “Tourist Trail”.
What Will We Especially Remember?
- Getting my picture taken with groups of students (mostly girls) at many places I visited, at least off the “Tourist Trail”. I had never been so high in demand, even in China!
- 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 major cities, women sometimes looked stunning through the way they dressed!
- 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?
- On the first trip, I arrived and left from Teheran – I improved things on the second and arrived in Tabriz up north and left from Shiraz down south. It costs the same, but actually allows you more time in the country.
- Travel a little later in the season than I did on my second trip: temperatures were high in September, and in the southwest (Ahvaz, Shushtar, Choqa Zanbil & Shush) “life threatening” (43+ degrees Celsius during the day and no less than 27 during the night), as the Lonely Planet put it. Moreover, I couldn’t go to the desert (I really wanted to discover the Dasht-e Lut, but would have faced temperatures above 50 degrees Celsius)…
- Take holidays into account, and especially (but not only) the Ashura: the country truly stands still during 3 days, with nothing, absolutely nothing working: shops, museums, points of interest, and of course bus & train stations are simply closed…
- Not stay in the center of Teheran, but in the northern part, near the metro line, even though hotels might be pricey there, especially for a solo traveler…
- Book a few days or even a few weeks in advance on the “Tourist Trail”: hotels, bus also trains, tend to fill up quickly in Teheran, Kashan, Esfahan, Yazd & Shiraz.
- Travel more by train – very efficient and very comfortable. But you have to book a few days ahead if you want to secure a ticket.
- Take enough cash to buy one or two carpets. They are simply special. A great place to do so is Na’In. But there are many other cities where you can find unique carpets…
Is It Safe & Is It Morally Justifiable To Travel To Iran?
Like so often when I talk about my 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.
It proved to be one of the safest countries I have traveled so far. Like always, our minds are manipulated by our daily diet of western media.
Besides, several times I was confronted with the question whether it is morally justifiable to travel to “such countries”. Do not be mistaken – my enthusiasm for Iran does not mean I support (in any way) a brutal and suppressive regime. Human Rights abuses are widespread in Iran, corruption also. 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 my 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.
Communication (Language Barrier?)
Communication in Iran was extremely easy in major cities. Little surprising, in a country with such a high level of education! 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.
In more remote places, even if people don’t speak English, they will go out of their way to welcome you and help you.
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 but tickets are no longer that easy to get. Try to book a few days in advance…
- There are different categories of busses and even the cheaper classes are do-able. VIP Busses are quite comfortable, usually on time and fast.
- Chartering a cab, even for longer distances, is also a very good and not so expensive alternative. This truly enhanced my flexibility during both trips, without impacting my budget too heavily…
For more detailed information, check the part “Transport” of my “Budget Guide To Iran”.
Please check “Challenges In Organizing The Trip” above.
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…
- Key Factors For Taking Great Pictures?
- Wide Angle Lens – I have never used my EF 16-35 mm L 4.0 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, I 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 – I 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: I was 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. Another way is to underexpose by 1.5 (if you have an APS-C camera) to 3 stops (if you have a full frame camera) to have a reasonable shutter speed and increase the exposure while editing your pictures in Lightroom (or any other program).
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
Seldom have I taken that many great pictures… Iran as a whole is a photographers’ dream!
Best & Most Inspiring Travel Blogs For Iran
True, Iran has turned increasingly popular amongst independent travelers, and hence amongst travel bloggers over the last few years, and you now find quite a few good blogs on the country… There are nonetheless very few bloggers who left the “Tourist Trail”! Here are the 4 blogs I used most for more remote places…
Conclusion About Iran…
During these two trips, I 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.
Iran is no longer Off The Beaten Track as it used to be, and the route Teheran – Kashan – Esfahan – Yazd – Shiraz is now a quite established “Tourist Trail”. But the good news is: as soon as you leave this part of the country, you will be one of very few foreign tourists…
My advice? Go NOW! Before tourism really takes its toll and the whole country is overrun…