(Persia Digest) - In Mai 2017, I went to discover Iran, alone, for 20 days. Before my departure, I searched the Internet for advice: how much money should I bring, how should I dress, how to go from one place to another…? Pieces of information that were not that easy to find in guidebooks. Bombarded with questions when I returned, I decided to gather all the useful tips and tricks my trip(s*) taught me.
Daisy writes in The Medium:
Since the rate of the Iranian currency has been fluctuating a lot lately, I choose to write most of the prices in rials, rather than euros or dollars.
1. Before the departure
There is no better way to prepare your trip, than asking your questions directly to Iranians! It’s possible and particularly easy: Couchsurfing and the Facebook page « See you in Iran » are a wealth of information.
Couchsurfing, Facebook, Messenger, and other mobile applications are filtered in Iran. To bypass this issue, download several VPNs prior to your departure: you only need to use one, but some apps might not be working properly once in Iran, and it can be more complicated to download them during your trip. The free versions of “Hotspot Shield” and “Psiphon” for Android, “TurboVPN”, and “VPN Master” for iOS are doing the job correctly.
2. My itinerary on the “classical path”
Here is the detail of my itinerary for twenty days in Iran. It’s mostly for information purpose, as my trip was improvised and changed according to my different encounters. As a result, I sometimes spent not enough time in one city, or on the opposite, way too much in another. I could also have saved time by traveling with night buses.
It’s easy and enjoyable to improvise in Iran, so I can’t insist enough on the importance of being flexible. Yet, here is the minimum amount of time I recommend for each place I visited:
05/09–05/11 Tehran → Two days. Three and even four if it’s not the beginning of your trip (the city is huge and the traffic is crazy, which is tiring)
05/11–05/13 Kashan [including 12/05 = Abyaneh]→ Two days
05/13–05/17 Isfahan [including 16/05 = Varzaneh desert] → Tree days
05/17–05/20 Yazd → Two days
05/20–05/23 Shiraz [including 22/05 = Persepolis and Necropolis]→ Three days
05/24–05/28 Rasht → The city is the starting point of many different places of the beautiful Gilan region, so it can be from two days to an unlimited amount of time!
3. At the airport
There are several international airports in the country, but the biggest, and the one where most tourists land is, of course, Imam Khomeini Airport (IKA) in Tehran.
There, as well as in six other Iranian airports, you can apply for a Visa on Arrival. You simply need an insurance notice mentioning Iran (I printed the insurance of my Visa card, and they barely looked at it). It is mandatory and if don’t have one, you can subscribe at the airport (the next counter roughly).
Then you will have to fill up a form, with your personal info, and, more important the address and phone number of your first night. As I was hosted by someone on Couchsurfing, I indicated a random hostel. Obviously, nobody checked, but be aware that in theory, they can give a call to the hotel.
Then, proceed to checkout! 75 euros for French passport holders, to be paid in euros or dollars. Wait for about half an hour: here it is, your beloved visa is ready!
Note that since the end of 2018, the Iranian authorities have stopped to stamp foreign passports. The visa is instead printed on a separate sheet, and your stay in Iran, thus invisible. This measure aims to facilitate some trips or flight connections (Hi there, United States).
Most flights arrive and leave in the middle of the night, so don’t worry if yours is expected at 3 A.M. At the airport, taxis are numerous. No regular bus as far as I know, but the possibility to take the subway. However, it only starts at 6:10 A.M. and trains are not that frequent (every 80 minutes).
The best option is to take a cab, which should cost about 15 dollars (it takes more than an hour to reach the city center, which is quite far away).
For your transportations inside the city, and once your Iranian SIM card is activated, the mobile application Snapp will be your best friend. This Uber-like is convenient, cheap and accessible 24 hours in all main cities.
4. The money
The lifeblood of war for many travelers… even more there. Indeed, because of US sanctions, Iran is not connected to the international banking system. Concretely, it means that you won’t be able to use your credit card during your trip.
You can change rials only in Iran. There is an exchange office at the airport (on the first floor), but the rate is not optimal (and it’s limited to 100 euros). Try as much as you can to bring fit notes: I’ve been refused a couple of times to change a stained note, as well as one slightly damaged (that I changed elsewhere eventually).
Exchange offices are legions in all the main cities. Just keep in mind that they will be closed during the weekend (Thursday and Friday).
Don’t change too much in advance, to avoid changing back to euros when you leave. You don’t want to end up like me, trying to change my rials two hours before the departure, and discovering there were no euros left in the exchange office. I had to change them in dollars, and later in euros, which was not the best financial operation...
When you feel cosmopolite
Be aware that in Iran everybody talks in tomans, not in rials. It’s not that complicated, as you simply have to remove one zero: 200.000 rials become 20.000 tomans. Not that crazy said like that, huh?
If you’re not confused yet, don’t worry, Iranians have another trick for you: they won’t actually say “twelve thousand tomans”. No. Instead, they will ask for “two tomans”. Yep: 200.000 rials become 20.000 tomans, which become 2 tomans. When speaking in tomans, people also get rid of the hundred (Because I know you’re confused, here is a reverse example: fifty tomans = fifty hundred tomans = five hundred thousand rials)
Still confused? Just start bargaining in the bazaars and you’ll figure this out (or not).
Time to decode the prices!
5. How to communicate?
Not everybody is speaking English in Iran, of course, but overall it’s not that bad in most touristic cities. And even when you don’t speak the same language (which will never prevent a taxi driver to chat with you), the kindness of Iranians does the rest.
You can buy an Iranian SIM card at the airport. For more than a fair price, you can peacefully call and have internet on your smartphone (you will also receive cryptic text messages in Farsi daily, but why not). I opted for a 3 GO SIM card, for one month, paid 310.000 rials and it was way too much. You can choose to buy a 1.5 GO card (for two weeks) for 160.000 rials or 5 GO for 460.000 rials.
Shiraz railway station
The best way to travel inside Iran is the bus. There is an extended network of “VIP” buses all over the country. Departures between major cities are frequent, up to every 30 minutes, that’s why it’s not always necessary to book your ticket in advance. As far as I was concerned, I simply showed up at the bus station when I wanted to leave and waited for the next departure in the hour.
For night buses, it’s advisable to book a few days in advance. No need to be worried regarding the safety and comfort (just avoid drinking too much tea, as there are no toilets on board — but frequent stops).
Regarding the price, the bus is unbeatable. It goes from less than 200.000 for a 2–3 hours trip to 500.000 for more than 10 hours, by night, in a comfortable bus.
Main cities can also be reached by trains, but there are often more expensive and slower. I still wanted to give it a try, so I took a night train to go from Shiraz to Tehran (720.000 rials for a bed, in a four-person cabin, for 15 hours. If I took the bus, it would have cost about half the price, for 12 hours). Trains are quite comfortable, you can lie down in a real bed, and I had the best experience while sharing the trip with three lovely Iranians ladies!
Airplanes are the fastest option, giving the size of the country. Once again, prices are quite low: For instance, a Tehran-Tabriz cost about 10 to 15 euros. However, regarding safety, it can be interesting to consider flying twice. The aviation industry in Iran also suffers from international sanctions, and the fleet is not exactly at its best…
In the cities, Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan, Tabriz, and Mashhad have a metro network. Tehran’s subway is modern and clean. It cost about 2.500 rials for a one-way ticket, which equals to approximately nothing in euros… Note that the first and last trains are for women only (it’s not mandatory either).
Finally, taxis is often the most convenient choice. I took all kind of taxis, most of the time non-official, without having any troubles. My trips inside the cities usually cost me between 50.000 and 100.000 rials, with negotiating skills close to zero. Note that there is two kind of taxis in Iran: shared and private. Those latter are called “Darbast” (literally “closed doors”), and you will often here drivers shouting that word at the sight of a tourist. It can be a lot of fun (and really cheaper) to take shared taxis, but it may require some Persian language skills. Thus, keep this option for the rides between and outside the cities.
You can save even more by taking the bus. A one-way trip cost about 10/15.000 rials, but good luck finding out which line goes in your direction!
Daily crazy traffic
To go out of town for a half-day visit, for example, you need to hire a taxi, which will accompany you and wait on the site. If you stay in a hostel, you can easily find other tourists willing to share the cost of the trip with you.
Hitchhiking is not that common but still feasible. Just be aware that our thumb up sign is the equivalent of a middle finger in the Iranian culture…
7. Sleeping and hanging out
In the Islamic Republic of Iran, the most practiced religion among young people is definitely Couchsurfing! Although forbidden, authorities turn a blind eye on it, and hosts are numerous all over the country. I highly recommend to travel this way: it gave me the opportunities to make unforgettable encounters and friendships, to talk all night long about life in Iran, taste wonderful homemade cooking, have valuable insights into Persian traditions, and gather useful language tricks… Most of the time I followed my host’s advice to visit the surroundings, and they also helped me a lot to buy bus tickets, find a taxi, etc.
For those who are new on Couchsurfing, here are some pieces of advice. First, write a public trip (all the country or several specific cities): This way, potential hosts can get in touch with you (expect ten messages a day — not a joke), as you can send a limited amount of requests.
Chat a bit together to evaluate how’s the chemistry: Trust your instinct! And give a scrupulous look at the reviews written by the previous guests.
As a woman traveling alone, I’ve always stayed with people having several positive reviews. I tried to favor families, even if I’ve sometimes been hosted by men alone. I keep precious memories of these encounters, and I think it’s often safe, but I would recommend to always remain on alert. Check the reviews: if the man has hosted other solo female travelers, it’s usually a good sign. But more than ever, intuition is what matters the most here.
It’s easy to find a last minute couch/carpet/bed on Couchsurfing, and if you plan your trip in advance, just make sure your host is still available a few days prior to your arrival. And keep some hostels addresses with you, just in case.
If you don’t feel like being hosted, don’t worry: You can find many guesthouses and hostels in all touristic cities. A bed in a dormitory cost about 15 dollars a night (breakfast included). Outside of the classic path, it can be more complicated to find such nice hostels but there are cheap hotels everywhere.
Here is a list of recommended hostels for backpackers (I haven’t tried them all myself):
Tehran : Kojeen Hostel (tested and approved), Seven Hostel
Isfahan : Amir Kabir Hostel
Shiraz: Taha Traditional Hostel (also tested and highly approved), Cyrus Culture House
Kashan: Green House Hostel (tested and loved!), Noghli Hostel
Yazd: Hostel RestUp, Niayesh Boutique Hotel
8. Respecting the dress code
Clothing requirements are more than flexible for men (just forget about shorts, that’s almost it), it’s for women that it gets more complicated. However, Iranians show special benevolence toward foreigners and will often close their eyes on your questionable clothing choices! It doesn’t mean that you should take advantage of it, and forget about respect. Here are some simple rules to follow in the public space:
Hijab is mandatory. But you can wear it the Iranian way, which means, as far as you can to show as much hair as possible! If you have a fringe, it’s absolutely not a problem. If your hijab suddenly fell off your head, put it back gently: there is no need to panic, as nobody will be offended.
Your arms must be covered, preferably over 3/4, but over the elbow is fine too.
Favor loose clothes as your forms must be hidden. A long shirt or tunic over whichever pant you want (contrary to a common myth, jeans are as frequent as in Europe) is good enough, as long as it covers your bottom and doesn’t have a low neckline.
Legs must also be covered, but you can let your ankles breath!
Open-toed sandals are totally fine.
Feel free to wear as much color as you feel like it (false myth #2: women only wear black in Iran. Couldn’t be more false!). Iranian women have a real talent to dress up elegantly despite all these norms.
Mastering the style
It’s only during a few visits (Jameh Mosque in Isfahan, Holy Shrine in Shiraz) that I had to wear a chador. You can borrow one, for free, at the entrance (false myth n#3: it won’t be black, but most likely white with plenty of small colored flowers. Perfect to complete your style.)
As for many other things in Iran, most of those rules don’t exist anymore behind closed doors. Even if I always asked for permission before removing my hijab at someone’s place, Iranian women don’t bother themselves with hijab at home, and wear short sleeves as well as low neckline… Last details, but not the least: always remove your shoes before entering a house.
Regarding tattoos, young Iranians appreciate them and will probably compliment yours. The other one simply won’t care. Piercings are probably more intriguing for Iranian (especially non-usual piercings, such as tongue piercing), but once again, it’s never an issue.
9. Budget planning
During my twenty days in Iran, I spent about 27 euros daily. Of course, it highly depends on your style of traveling and can easily cost more than the double. Here are some prices for the current expenditures, besides housing and transportations:
Falafel sandwich: about 50.000 rials
Restaurant: from 180.000 to 350.000 rials
Ice cream: from 20.000 to 80.000 rials
Take away drink in the street: 30/50.000 rials
50cl water bottle: 10.000 rials (you can drink tap water in most places)
A tea in a touristic teahouse: 90.000 rials
Entrance fee for parks and monuments: de 80.000 à 200.000 rials
10. Some vocabulary
Like everywhere in the world, knowing some words in the local language will be much appreciated and draw (lots of) sympathy. Here are some words gleaned over the road:
Chetori: How are you?
Sobh be kheyr (“Kh” is pronounced like a French “r”): Good morning
Shab be kheyr: Good night
Khoda Hafez: Goodbye
Mersi: The most common way to say thank you
Kheili mamnoon: Another way to thanks
Khahesh mikonam: You’re welcome
Khosh mazeh: delicious (highly appreciated comment, which can only be true!)
Nooshe jan: Bon appetit
Man /first name/ hastam: My name is
Bebakhshid: Excuse me
Befarmaid: probably the word you will hear the most, thanks to taarof. It could be translated by “please”, when inviting someone to do something
Bezan Berim!: Let’s go! (because it’s nice to be able to share your enthusiasm!)
If you offer your hosts to split the bill, you will have to face “taarof”: maybe they will insist that it is “no taarof”, or shyly reply “Well, according to Taarof I should refuse…”
“Taarof” is a kind of extreme courtesy behavior. To make it simple, just remember this rule: always refuse three times what is offered to you, to make sure it’s not taarof (this rule has many exceptions…). Iranians don’t expect tourists to understand all the subtilities of this custom, so take it easy. But keep in mind that it’s not because they offer you something, that it is right for you to accept it. Always make sure the person won’t be embarrassed or in trouble if you accept.
I must confess that several times, I felt uncomfortable afterward when I realized that I walk in recklessly when someone held me the door, or that I accepted dates and other delights as soon as they were put under my nose… However, the offer is most of the time genuine, and nobody will be offended if you don’t return the courtesy as well as an Iranian (you can’t win at this game).
In Iran, the weekend happens on Thursdays and Fridays. Fridays are the equivalent of our Sunday, so expect most shops to be closed. Double check if the place you want to visit is open during those days, and favored nature and countryside to avoid such surprise.
It’s a detail, but yes, squat toilets are the norm in Iran (really convenient for women who are supposed to cover themselves with so many clothes!). However, at your host’s or in most hostels you will generally find both squat and our usual toilets.
14. Women and men relationships
Men and women can be seen in public without any problem (false myth #326). Physical contacts are however prescribed between members of the opposite gender if they are not married or from the same family. To greet each other, people shake hands or slightly nod while placing their hand over their heart. Iranians also kiss on the cheek, but neither in public nor with the opposite gender.
Note that from a European perspective, men are quite tactile and demonstrative between each other: Iran is definitely a “bromance” country!
15. Being alone as a woman in Iran
Every solo female traveler has to be vigilant regarding safety issues. According to my experience, Iran is the safest country I have visited so far. Because of some stereotypes, often related to the hijab, some may think this is not a safe country to travel for women, but it has nothing to do with the reality. During my trip, I constantly received help from perfect strangers, encounter nothing but kindness from Iranians, and most men behave more than correctly toward me.
… Actually, this is precisely this kindness that made me come back for another trip seven months later, and move in Tehran, a bit more than a year after this first trip, so… believe me when I say that Iranians are probably the warmest and friendliest people in the world ❤
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