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Iran is probably the Middle East’s friendliest, safest and most hospitable theocracy. Unfortunately it’s also got a rep for being the most confusing, frustrating and bureaucratic. Travellers touch down in Tehran with images of shimmering mosques and palm trees, only to be confronted with an on-arrival visa process that makes grown men weep. Currencies get so complex that buying a packet of chips is like playing high stakes on the FTSE 100. And there are a few dress code rules you’ll need to know before you travel.
None of this should stop you experiencing what is honestly one of our favourite places on earth. There’s a reason Iran tours have boomed in recent years. It’s stable and welcoming (don’t be surprised if old ladies invite you home for a hot chelow kebab). It’s got an incredible historical legacy (Esfahan’s Naqsh-e Jahan Square and Persepolis are personal favourites). And, more importantly, it’s not what you’ve come to expect from nightly news bulletins. Iran is a surprise, pure and simple, and there’s no bigger thrill for a traveller than that.
Here’s all the nitty gritty stuff you need to know before you go.
Most foreign visitors will need a visa to enter Iran. It’s best to go into this process with your eyes open. It will be long, and it can be frustrating. There’s no way of sugar coating it. The good news is, we’ve got a team of experts who can help walk you through the process.
Generally organising an Iran visa can take anywhere from 6-8 weeks, so plan accordingly. As if that wasn’t enough fun, the cost of a visa changes regularly, and can vary depending on where you’re from. This makes concrete advice a bit tricky, bit your booking agent will definitely be able to give you the most up-to-date info.
Getting an Iran visa is usually a 2-step process:
1. An authorisation code for your visa must be issued by the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
2. A visa for your passport must then be obtained at an Iranian Embassy once the authorisation code has been issued.
The process can vary in length of time, and documents required dependant on your nationality. If you’re from the UK, US or Canada you can expect the process to take longer and a little bit more complicated.
Fortunately for Australians, New Zealanders and most other nationalities, you can obtain a visa on arrival once you have your authorisation code, which is becoming a much simpler process.
Not the most glamorous side of travel, sure, but it’s important to set your expectations at the appropriate level. The plumbing in Iran (much like the rest of the Middle East ) is different to what we know back home. Most public restrooms will be traditional squat toilets, which can seem like a royal pain in the backside – tricky and inconvenient. Particularly for women who are already juggling to keep their headscarf from unravelling and falling onto the ground.
But you’ll be surprised at how quickly you master the art of the squat. Honestly, it’s a system used by nearly half the planet, and it serves them just fine. It’s a good idea to carry some pocket tissues/toiler paper and hand sanitiser, as many facilities won’t provide these. And even if you do have a ‘western’ style throne (hotel rooms ) DON’T flush your paper. Yes, that small wastepaper basket is there to dispose of your TP.
This takes some getting used to, but it’s better than the embarrassing problems that will eventuate if you attempt to flush it down. More than that, here at Intrepid Travel we’re all about travelling responsibly and it’s important to respect the local culture and environment.
A wet room or ‘open shower’ is exactly what it sounds like: a shower without the usual stall (walls) around it. They’re pretty common in Iran and you’ll probably encounter at least one during your stay. It’s not a sign of cheap accommodation (even some of the best hotels in the country use wet rooms). It’s just how things work here.
Often the shower head is located above or pretty close to the toilet. Be prepared for things to get wet. Use the slip-on shoes provided in your room. They’re there for a reason and could save you a nasty fall.(If you’re too grossed out by the thought of recycled Crocs, grab a cheap pair from the local market.) Above all, embrace the experience! It’s all about trying new things right? And I bet you’ve never been able to sit on the toilet and wash your hair at the same time…
A lot of travellers leave disappointed in Iran’s food scene, but the truth is, they’re not doing it right. Iran is a ‘home cooking culture’. Unlike western countries, where people usually go out for a good meal, in Iran it’s the opposite. You go out for a quick meal, convenience, or fast food.
But in the home, that’s where the real magic happens. Here you’ll uncover secret foods. Meals not found in restaurants, recipes passed down through generations and perfected over time. Traditional Iranian food is carefully prepared in the home and can take hours, even days to prepare. We always include home-cooked meals on our itineraries for this reason, and it’s hands down one of the highlights of my travels there. The hospitality was like nothing I’ve ever experienced anywhere else.
If you’re ever lucky enough to be invited into an Iranian home for a meal – don’t say no! Skip breakfast and lunch…and wear loose pants.
Keep an eye out though: there are still opportunities to get great local produce at street food stalls and markets. The selection of local nuts, fresh fruits (pomegranates, sour oranges), dates, fluffy Persian rice with Saffron, Felafel, Kashkeh bademjoon (an eggplant dish), Gaz (Iranian Nougat), and freshly baked flat bread that locals line up for are our top recommendations.
In Iran, money matters! It’s a cash economy, so forget about your credit cards and traveller cheques (if you still use them). You’ll need to carry enough cash for your entire trip. If in doubt, take a little extra for souvenirs or perhaps a Persian Carpet. If you have to bring some home, it’s not the end of the world.
If you’re getting your visa on arrival, you will need Euros. However USD is also pretty widely accepted in taxis, markets and restaurants etc. However be aware: smaller retailers and some services (the metro system in particular) will only accept local currency.
When I went, I took a mixture of USD, AUD and EUR. Once clearing customs in Tehran I headed upstairs to the 24hr exchange booth and exchanged about 100USD to get me through the first few days and get a feel for how much I’d be spending. It’s important to remember that everything shuts down by midday Thursday, and Friday is the Iranian weekend. You won’t be able to change money during this time, so plan ahead.
Iran’s official local currency is Rials, but as with most things in Iran, this is where it gets a little confusing… Locals will often quote services and products in Tomans not Rials (the Toman used to be an official unit of currency in Iran, and is now a superunit of the Rial). Basically 1 Toman = 10 Rials.
This takes some getting used to, but if a taxi driver quotes you “50”, they generally mean 50,000 Tomans (which equals 500,000 Rials – you follow?)
Confused yet? Here’s some tips:
-Always query the price. A simple “Tomans?” “Rials?” will do the trick.
-If they say Toman’s just add a zero and give them Rials!
Iran’s a bit of a weird on in that city maps are really hard to find. It’s not the sort of place where you’re handed a folding map at reception. You’re usually just left to figure this out for yourself. On an expert-led group tour this isn’t usually a problem (your leader knows where they’re going), but if you’re out by yourself, consider downloading an app like Maps.Me. Apps like this allow you to download city maps ahead of time and then access them offline. No wifi required!
Iran is a strict theocracy, and ever since the 1979 revolution it’s been law for women (including foreigners) to wear loose-fitting clothes to disguise their figures.
Dress code is by far the biggest concern for women travelling to Iran. We get asked about it all the time. The important thing is not to panic: Iran’s dress code is by no means as restrictive as you might have heard. I think for most women there’s a general fear of wearing the wrong thing, unintentionally disrespecting local custom, or worse, getting into ‘trouble’.
The dress code is certainly far less enforced for travellers, and the more you travel around the country, the more you’ll see very different interpretations of the dress code. You’ll see the super conservative, religious women dressed top to toe in the ‘Chador’ (meaning ‘tent’ in Farsi). On the other end of the spectrum, you have young crowds in big cities with head scarfs pushed back low on the head, bright coloured clothing (some of it figure-hugging), high heels, and more skin exposed on the forearms and neck.
Here are some tips to get you started:
Hijab – The headscarf. All women must wear a hijab everywhere: in public places, in hotels, cafés, in the metro, in buses and on airplanes. Don’t forget to pop one in your handbag or backpack because you will need to put it on once your plane lands in Iran. Have a practice at home in front of a mirror with what feels comfortable, but don’t worry – you’ll quickly learn what works for you and pick up some tips from the locals. You’ll find head scarfs in all shapes, colours and sizes at local markets, and they’re all relatively cheap.
Legs – Your legs should be covered at all times, and despite the original interpretation of Hejab being ‘loose fitted’ clothing, jeans are perfectly fine as well as pants, or trousers. Skirts and dresses are a no-no.
Manteau – The manteau (a long, loose fitted jacket, like a trenchcoat) is a staple piece for most Iranians. As a traveller though it’s not necessary to wear one, and you won’t want one in the dead of summer anyway. Instead go for long, loose shirts, blouses and cardigans. Just be sure your bottom is covered and most of the arm. A little bit of forearm is not an issue. If you’re travelling in the winter, a long coat is perfect.