Here is my experience of travelling to Iran with a friend. We have been there for 11 days and did the typical tourist route in central Iran from Tehran to Kaschan (including Abyaneh), Esfahan, Yazd (including Meybod, Chak Chak and Kharanaq) and Shiraz (including Persepolis).
Well we had the plan to fly to Shiraz and do it the other way round but there was no more flight so we did it that way. Also we returned to Esfahan from Yazd because a friend we wanted to visit did only have time on the weekend. So we went to Shiraz from Esfahan (normally you would go from Yazd to Shiraz).
Well weekend is Friday in Iran. Also you cannot book a flight from outside Iran easily, only through an agency. You would need an Iranian bank card. At the time of writing this article American card companies (Visa, etc.) are not working in Iran because of the sanctions. Also you cannot withdraw money in Iran, you have to bring cash.
Travel tips and the good and bad in Iran
I want to give some travel tips in this article. Where to go but also some general advice.
Where to go, what to see
If you ask two people usually you will hear two different opinions. Especially in the internet you will read many funny opinions. Take it with a grain of salt.
- Tehran: It is big and not always beautiful. I visited the Mausoleum of Khomeini, the cemetary which is nearby, the bazaar, the Golastan palace and the Azadi tower, the (former) US embassy and Milad tower. Unfortunately I did not have time to visit the mountains. Tehran has rich people in the north and poor people in the south. The mausoleum is near a metro stop in the south. I was really impressed. Also there are not many tourists at the cemetary and the mausoleum but it is very important for understanding the war between Iran and Iraq. One of my favorite places in Iran (thanks to the Iranian friends for showing it to me). BTW: In the mausoleum they did not allow my camera (it is small but has an interchangeable lens). I used my mobile phone instead.
In Iran it is no problem to go into a mosque but sometimes it is good to be with local people. The bazaar is impressive: so many people when not on the weekend. Golastan palace I think it is a little bit boring except for the mirror work in the ceilings and the walls. This works you will see in many places in Iran. Azadi tower is like a west door and the symbol of Tehran. Good for wide angle pictures.
The US embassy was closed for us but the walls have nice graffiti.
Milad tower is impressive. Very good views. It is one of the highest TV towers in the world. There are several floors you can go. If you do all floors it is a little bit expensive. You can go there with a bus from a nearby metro station but you need to ask and be brave… otherwise go with taxi.
- Kaschan: We staid in Ehsan guest house. It is like a caravanseray for tourists. We slept in the dormitory. It is separate beds, not like in a youth hostel (in Tehran for example).
This is typical for these kinds of acommodations but usually just tourists sleep there. It is cheap. The hotel is beautiful.
Kaschan is also beautiful. We went to a beautiful house in the old center and also to the main mosque (which is near the accomodation) and a smaller mosque. Then to the former bath house. You can go to the roof there and it is beautiful.
We booked a tour to Finn garden and Abyaneh in the nearby travel agency (at the beginning of the street of the main mosque). It was not so expensive and the taxi was waiting for us when we visited the sites. Abyaneh is beautiful.
- Esfahan: It is written that this is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Well I am not sure, but it was quite nice. We visited the huge main square with its mosques and the palace, the famous bazaar, the Si-o-Seh and other bridges, the armenian quarter, the Abazi hotel, the mountain in the south, the city center (shopping) and the swimming place. The bazaar is really big and like a maze. In Iran they usually sell one kind of good in one street (for example you have a street just for lamps).
The bridge is nice but we did not have water in the river so this was missing.
To the mountain you can go with a cable car. At the top you can even climb up to a rock (be careful). Great view.
The city center shopping place is interesting to see when all people try to go there with their cars… a big problem in Iran 😉 It seems they are (re)building a metro in Esfahan but it opened the day we had to leave… The swimming place was interesting, just men and you don’t sit down next to the pool, i.e. you leave your towel in the closet. Always interesting to go where no tourists go…
- Yazd: The desert city. Very nice streets and buildings. We stayed at Silk Road Hotel. Same style as in Kaschan, but it is good if you book in advance. You cannot reserve for the dormitory. This was bad for us because always when we went there it was booked out. But the food is good there, also vegetarian. The third try we were able to stay there.
We booked two tours at the nearby agency. One to a desert and another one to Meybod, Chaq Chaq and Karanaq. Highly recommended.
Before that we went to the zoroastrian fire temple and to the towers of silence. Especially the tower of silence was one of the highlights of the whole trip for me. The zoroastrian religion was in Iran before Islam. They used to put the bodys of the dead into towers on mountains so they are eaten by birds. BTW: In Chaq Chaq you can put down your scarf – funny 🙂
We went to the places with taxis. You can pay more so that they wait for you. I recommend to use more time on the tower of silence because there are two of them and if you have more time you can go up to the other one where no tourists go… we also visited the Amir Chakhmakh Complex. There is a special heroic performance near this complex, also for tourists. It is kind of a dance, similar to Capoeira in some way, but of course dancing is forbidden in Iran so it is just a “perfomance”.
- Shiraz: In Shiraz we visited Persepolis, a great archeological site.
We stayed in Golshan Traditional Hostel. We also went to Shah Cheragh mausoulem. At this time there was the Muharram “festival” in Iran and there was happening a lot at this place and in the streets (it is a sad event). It was amazing but at the same time frightening. The Mausoleum is simply amazing with all the colored lights and mirror works. We went there and some volunteering guides came to us. They were nice and patient and explained a lot to us. We made a lot of pictures and it was better to be with the guides so nobody took our camera away. (It is not allowed to take pictures of the grave itself.)
We also went to Arg of Karim Khan (unfortunately it is not possible to go up the towers), the tomb of Hafez (important poet in Iran) and to the Qor’an Gate. The gate is nice but especially you can go to small hills nearby which are nice. It is the northern entrance to the city.
General Travel tips
- Well you will read it in any guidebook about Iran. You have to bring cash money as of now. Euros or Dollars are fine. There is big deflation in Iran so you will be millionair in Iranian money. They rarely use coins and they are almost worthless. They mostly say the amount in Tomans, and one Toman is ten Reals. This can be confusing at first. (Toman does not physically exist, although there have been attempts to simplify the currency.)
- Visa: This process is kind of annoying and it changes a lot. Usually it is getting more relaxed. But in the Iranian embassy in Vienna they told me that also for Visa on Arrival I need kind of a reference number from a travel agency in Iran. More or less this means that they send your information and passport copy to the ministery and you will get a number if you are not rejected. So it is kind of a way that you know for sure that you will not have problems. Best thing of course is to get the Visa before, but this works only if you have enough time for this process. On the arrival they really checked if I already have an accomodation. I.e. they called the place (the hostel) in Tehran if I have a booking.
- For western people everything is cheap in Iran. But be aware that there are extra tickets for non-Iranian tourists and also with Taxis you can pay 10 times what local people pay. You can try to negotiate but it can be difficult.
- Well I said it can be difficult to negotiate. Note that if you have light skin and an europian look you will be easily recognised as a foreigner. So be careful how much you pay. Some Iranian people will just see the money in you and it will happen that they trick you. For example when arriving we paid a lot for a coke. It is good to ask for the price first. Especially when you want to go with a Taxi. It can be difficult with a Taxi because of the language barrier, but write it down or ask someone to translate. Or ask a local to negotiate for you. It is not good if people see that they can trick tourists because they will think they are stupid and do it with every tourist in the future.
- Cars are the means of transport in Iran. Gas is very cheap. So going with a taxi is usually more or less cheap (see last point). But note that going with a car is very dangerous in Iran (many people die on the road). You will notice that when you try to cross a street. Usually there are no traffic lights for pedestrians, so you have to walk a little bit and then wait while cars pass by behind and in front of you. Don’t run, because then you loose control and the cars have no time to react, better try to get eye contact with drivers.
- In Tehran there is a very good metro. You can save a lot of time because traffic is chaotic. There is also a good system of fast buses (going from north to south for example) and local buses. There is like a chip card which you can reload. You can also use it on the buses, but don’t forget to check-in on the machines inside the bus. With metro and fast buses there is usually a gate where you check-in
- Between cities it is also best to use the buses which leave from bus terminals. They are very cheap. Some cities have several terminals for different directions. There are also trains but we never used them. But it can be comfortable for example when you take a night train.
- Going with the bus can be difficult, because everything is just written in Farsi so also the numbers are different. But you can ask people for help.
- About asking people: Iranian people are very hospital. This is an important tradition in Iran. But be aware that this can also become problematic. For example when we went to Shiraz we wanted to leave the bus earlier to go to Persepolis (maybe the most important archeological place in Iran) so we asked some people for help. Some spoke english and they told us that there are two people in the bus who also would leave the bus earlier and could help us. So we went with the guy who barely knew english. He was with his wife but we went just with him with a Taxi (Iranian women are not allowed to sit next to other men, at least in buses). He wanted to invite us to his place which was near for sleeping. Also it was already late so he suggested that we visit Persepolis on the next day. Well we knew that we still have time so we told him that we still want to go. Also for us it was good because soon it was golden hour which was very good for making a picture of the sunset in the ruins. He seemed to be very nervous, but he joined us. We paid the taxi (I think we paid a tourist price). He joined us in the ruins. He did not pay because he was a local. But he was still very nervous and wanted us to go through Persepolis very quickly. But we knew we had 90 minutes so why hurry? We tried to get rid of him several times but it did not work. Only the last time, I told him maybe his wife is waiting for him and we will call him. I said very direct that he should leave so he left. So I think this is how hospitality works: You have to find out if people really want to help you or are just doing it because of tradition or politeness. If it is the latter it can ruin your experience so be careful when you say yes to an invitation. If it interferes with your plans better say no (you may have to say it five times). Also be aware that if you accept an invitation you will give up some of your control. For me most of the times it is better to get to places on my own (using GPS or asking people for directions) and by that I will learn more about a place. Other times it can be good if you have a person who explains things to you. Just check if it is a patient person (we had people like that also). PS.: We did not call the guy.
- Mobile phones: Best you get a phone card on the airport. You can get it at many places also in the city but it can happen that after a few days it just stops working. This is because it is necessary that the card is somehow registered and usually only at the airport this is done properly. Well a work-around is just to buy a new card when one card stops working. But it is annoying if you don’t understand the automatic voice that tells you something in persian which you don’t understand when you try to make a call. At first I thought I do not have any more credit… but I had, the card was just cancelled.
- Facebook is not working in Iran. If you want to use it you would have to use some VPN service so that the connection goes over some other country.
I think Iran is a great place to travel to with very friendly people. People have suffered and are still suffering from some problems but there is big potential that it can develop into a modern society, especially now that the sanctions are raised.