Few countries in the world are as full of color and life as Iran. If a rainbow sneezed and spewed perfectly-stenciled colored designs across a plethora of buildings, you’d probably find many of them in Iran. After spending two weeks in this beautiful country, I’d recommend traveling in Iran to anyone.
When I think back to my time traveling in Iran, I think of beautiful arches, colorful tile work, warm cups of tea, and the succulent scents of spices stinging my nose as I wandered through the chaos of the bazaars. Unlike some destinations that have become overridden with foreigners, Iran still seems relatively protected from overtourism. As travelers, we have a moral duty to experience places and share our stories. Given the current political climate surrounding Iran, especially from a Western perspective, I’d say now is a better time than any to see and understand this largely misunderstood nation.
My trip to Iran didn’t come without its mishaps and misadventures. I did a lot of research beforehand during my lengthy visa process, but even Google rendered confusing and downright misleading advice. So, I’ve done the hard work for you and wrote out everything I wish I’d known about Iran before I went there; hopefully some of these tips will help or surprise you!
To navigate around this whopper of a post, you can scroll down or use the table of contents below.
Iran in a Nutshell
If you’re planning on traveling in Iran, it’s important to understand some of the background on the place. Here are 8 facts about the country that might be helpful to know before traveling in Iran.
1. Iran is one of the oldest civilizations in the world
With loose definitions and inconclusive dates of origin for many places, historians constantly debate which civilization is truly the oldest. However, on any list of the oldest countries in the world, you’ll surely find Iran.
Iran, once known as Persia, originated with the Achaemenid Empire, which was once ruled by famous historic figures such as Cyrus the Great, Darius I, and Xerxes. This empire came in to power in the 500s BC and wasn’t overthrown until the 300s BC by Alexander the Great. Even today, Iranian people take great pride in their Persian heritage and have maintained many of the historic sites tied to the Persian empire.
2. There are 19 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Iran
Because of this deep pride and consciousness of their history, Iran has some pretty incredible landmarks that are protected under the UNESCO agreement – 19 to be exact. For comparison, there are just 23 UNESCO sites in the United States, a country that’s more than five times the size of Iran by land area.
These world heritage sites are scattered around the country, from central tourist areas like Tehran, Isfahan, and Shiraz, to more remote areas closer to the borders of Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Afghanistan. Some of the most famous UNESCO sites in Iran include Persepolis, Pasargade, the Naghsh-e-Jahan Square of Isfahan, and the Golestan Palace in Tehran.
3. In 1979, Iran became the Islamic Republic
While Islam has long been the central religion in Iran, it wasn’t always the central governing force. For centuries, Iran was a monarchy run by a single ruler who was most recently known as the Shah. In the 1970s, the Islamic Revolution occurred and Iran’s people overthrew the Shah and instated the new Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. For those of you who don’t know, an ayatollah is another word for a renowned religious scholar and cleric in Islam. Thus, the Islamic Republic of Iran was born.
I won’t go into the full history here, but it’s a fascinating and complex story. You can learn more about Iran’s political and governmental dynamics in this awesome book, Revolutionary Iran: A History of the Islamic Republic by Michael Axworthy.
4. The Supreme Leader is the main political and religious figure of Iran
While visiting Iran, you’ll likely see two well-known faces EVERYWHERE – hanging on posters, painted on buildings, and even on the currency bills you will use everywhere. These are the faces of Ayatollahs Khomeini (the original Supreme Leader) and Khameni (the current Supreme Leader).
In addition to the Supreme Leader, there is a democratically-elected president who helps to lead the country, but who also defers to the Supreme Leader for all major decisions and policy approvals.
5. Iranians generally consider themselves Persians
The vast majority of Iranians consider themselves of Persian descent, although you’ll see a wide variety of skin colors, hair colors, and facial structures within the country. It’s safe to use the word Iranians and Persians interchangeably, but to be safe I’d err on the side of using “Iranians.” In addition to Persians, there are a significant number of ethnic minorities in Iran, such as Arabs, Kurds, and Azerbaijanis.
6. Farsi is the official language of Iran
To the untrained eye, Iranian language may look similar to Arabic when written. Don’t make this mistake – it’s actually Farsi! Much like point #5, Iranians don’t speak Arabic like their neighbors. Farsi is a completely different language that utilizes a similar script to Arabic. There are very few similarities between Farsi and Arabic, although many of the letters in the script are the same, and Iranian Muslims do continue to pray in Arabic.
It helps to have a few basic phrases of Farsi nailed down before heading to Iran. You can find some helpful websites that offer some short lists and lessons, or you can bring along a pocket-sized phrasebook.
7. Iran does have small religious minorities
Don’t be fooled by the overwhelming presence of Islam in Iran – there are still a handful of religious minorities. While in Tehran, you might stumble upon synagogues, Orthodox churches, or Zoroastrian temples. There are many examples of other religious institutions scattered around Iran’s other cities, as well.
One of the most fascinating of the religious minorities in Iran is Zoroastrians, which is one of the oldest monotheistic religions in the world. In a nutshell, Zoroastrians believe in one god and have a strong connection to the Earth and its four elements: earth, air, water, and fire. The central area for Zoroastrianism in Iran is in a city called Yazd, where there is a fire temple that has been burning continuously for over 1,500 years.
8. Having a basic understanding of Iran before visiting is critical
Before I left for Iran, I picked up a copy of Hooman Majd’s The Ayatollah Begs to Differ at a used bookstore near my house. It’s an eye-opening (albeit slightly dated) inside look at Iranian culture, history, and politics from the eyes of an Iranian-American. I highly recommend picking up a copy if you want to orient yourself with a compelling narrative that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
Other books, shows, and movies that come highly recommended by travelers to Iran include:
- Searching for Hassan by Terence Ward
- Argo by Antonio Mendez and Matt Baglio (and the associated movie)
- Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown – Season 4, Episode 6, “Iran” (currently available on Netflix)
Essential Tips for Traveling in Iran
Visas and Safety
9. Iran is a completely safe and hospitable country for tourists
Contrary to rumors and the media, Iran welcomes tourists with warmth and open arms. It is an incredibly safe and hospitable country to visit, regardless of your nationality. I’ve been all over North, Central, and South America, Europe, and Asia, and I’d say Iran is one of the safest countries I have ever traveled to.
Based on sound bites in the news or movies like Argo, you might get an impression of Iran that’s pretty far off from reality. Angry, hostile people and vicious protests might be what fill our screens, but it’s certainly not what you’ll find if you visit. As one Persian friend once told me, “don’t listen to fake news!”
10. Yes, even for American, Canadian, and British tourists
As a female American traveler, I was extremely apprehensive about visiting Iran, especially given the recent news about Trump backing out of the nuclear deal. However, traveling to Iran as an American felt totally normal and safe, even safer than traveling in places like Paris or NYC! In the rural areas as well as the large cities, I never experienced any harassment, scams, or danger. Even at immigration, it took almost the same amount of time to clear through as an American in Iran as it does in the United States.
While I was visiting Iran, I received nothing but kindness and hospitality from almost everyone I met on the streets. Shopkeepers and mosque receptionists invited us in for tea. Children offered us candies in the street. Onlookers gazed in wonder, a few uttering a kind, “welcome,” to our group of foreigners as we walked on the sidewalks.
11. The most dangerous thing you’ll do in Iran is cross the street
As kind as Iranians are face to face, don’t expect that kind of compassion behind the wheel. Crossing the street as a pedestrian in Iran is terrifying. Cars and motorcycles don’t typically adhere to lane markings, speed limits, or stop signs, so you’ll see vehicles whizzing around without any kind of predictability. Yes, even at crosswalks.
There’s a method to the madness, however. It’s pretty easy to pick up on once you’re there, but the basic premise is this: find a cross walk, make eye contact with a driver, and begin confidently walking across the street. If they slow down, continue walking at the same pace until you’ve reached the other side. If they don’t…RUN*.
*In all seriousness, walk with confidence and the cars will generally stop. However, do be defensive when you cross the street and don’t continue if someone looks reckless.
12. And whatever you do, don’t give a thumb’s up
You might think a thumb’s up is an innocuous way of saying, “cool,” or, “well done,” but in Iran, it actually means something along the lines of “up yours.” As you can imagine, that’s a huge insult.
Although many younger generations are familiar with the Western meaning of the “thumb’s up,” many older folks still may get offended at it. Save yourself the embarrassment of accidentally pissing someone off by staying away from sticking up your thumb, especially directly toward someone.
13. While visiting, you must observe all Muslim laws
All tourists in Iran are expected to abide by all of the Islamic rules set out by both the Koran and the government. These are enforced by a patrolling morality police that will dole out punishments and fines to those caught not abiding by the rules. Yes, these rules regulate things like dress codes, alcohol and pork, and eating, drinking, or smoking in public during Ramadan.
14. Both men and women must observe Islamic dress codes in public
As stated above, while traveling in Iran, all men and women must dress a certain way in public that abides by the rules set forth by the government and the Koran. In short, this means men should wear long pants and women should cover their hair with a hijab and wear clothing that covers their arms, butt, and legs. Women must wear a chador (a long piece of fabric wrapped around the body) inside of all mosques and religious sites. Before entering a mosque or a residence, everyone must remove their shoes.
I won’t go into too many more details here, but you can learn more about what to wear in Iran here.
15. However, you can wear what you’d like in private spaces
These dress codes apply to public presentations, but if your tour includes a foray into a local’s home, you may be able to remove your headscarf there. The same rule applies for your personal hotel room. Typically, the dress codes do not apply to private spaces such as residences, hotel rooms, and other non-public areas. Always be sure to watch what others do first and then follow, as some homes and guesthouses may be more conservative than others.
16. When in doubt, remove your shoes
During any trip to Iran, there will be several instances where you’ll need to remove your shoes. The most obvious of these is when you enter a mosque or a private home. However, some restaurants and shisha cafes have certain kinds of tables that require you to remove your shoes. Additionally, some smaller guesthouses will require you to remove your shoes upon entering. If you aren’t sure whether to take your shoes off or not, just do it and have someone correct you if you’re allowed to keep them on.
Currency and Exchange
17. You must bring all the money you need with you in USD or EUR
Because of the sanctions against Iran, ATM and bank use is not available to foreigners. Therefore, you must bring ALL of the money you think you’ll need in cash, and exchange it for Iranian Rials (IRL). Inside of Iran, you can exchange your money at the airport, at banks, at your hotel, or at official money exchange centers. The rates will vary so make sure you know the official exchange for your currency so you can compare. Regardless of whether you are staying in luxury properties or hostels, you will need to pay for everything in cash.
As of June 2018, it was nearly impossible to exchange currencies other than USD or EUR in Iran. I brought Euros and had no trouble exchanging them at my hotel or at exchange centers. The Australian member of our tour group struggled a lot trying to find somewhere to exchange his Australian dollars. Things can change at any time, but just to be safe, I recommend bringing only USD or EUR for your trip.
18. Iran is relatively inexpensive
The good news about bringing all your cash with you is that, in general, traveling in Iran is fairly cheap. For non-Americans/British/Canadians, you can likely slide by spending less than $30 a day, including your hostel. Unfortunately, Americans, British, and Canadians need to be part of a tour in order to travel to Iran, so it will be significantly more expensive.
Meals at an average restaurant range from $3-8 per person. Entry into historic attractions is typically $2-6 per person. Taxi rides within a city can cost anywhere from $2-8. Souvenirs range greatly in price, but start as low as $2 a person for a small handbag.
19. When looking at prices, the Toman rules all
Here comes the confusing part: most shopkeepers in Iran quote their prices in Toman, not rials. The good news is that the Toman is just the Rial reduced by a factor of 10. So, if something costs 100,000 rials, it will be quoted as 10,000 Toman. Sounds easy enough, right?
However, to make matters even MORE confusing, many shopkeepers will quote their prices in thousands of Toman. In this case, 100,000 rials = 10,000 Toman = “10” on the price tag. Most Persians know that this system confuses foreigners, so many will try to be as helpful as possible. However, do the math in your head (or on your phone) to make sure the price you’re being quoted makes sense, and isn’t ten times higher than you expected!
In markets and bazaars, it’s normal and expected to bargain, especially if you are buying more than one item. However, always keep in mind that these are local vendors supporting their families with their shops, so be kind and bargain ethically.
One last thing to note is that the Farsi script has different numbers than the Roman alphabet. Therefore, in smaller towns, you may need to have an idea of what the corresponding numbers are in Farsi. This site is a great resource that can help you out with Farsi numerals.
Culture and Society
20. Get ready to squat
While much of Iran has adapted to Western standards, many of the bathrooms have not. In my experience, about 50% of the restrooms (including some private hotel rooms) have only squat toilets. This may come as a shock to travelers who have never visited Asia before; however, using these squat toilets is pretty self-explanatory. Be sure to carry toilet paper with you wherever you go (it’s pretty hit or miss whether it’s provided), and throw it away in the trash bin, NOT the toilet.
21. No, the last guest didn’t forget their slippers
You might find some athletic-looking slippers in your hotel room that look like they belong to a viking. It might catch you by surprise, especially because the shoes almost never match the decor of the hotel. I’m sorry to say it but no, a large man didn’t forget his slip-on Adidas shoes in your room. These slippers are for wearing in the restroom. Don’t be alarmed by this; it’s normal for the hotel to provide fabric slippers for inside the room and rubber slippers for the bathroom. Most Iranians do not wear their shoes indoors, so these foot coverings are provided by the hotel. If you are a clean freak, I recommend bringing your own set of rubber bathroom slippers for use in your hotel rooms.
22. Alcohol and drugs are strictly forbidden
This one should be pretty easy to understand, but due to the restrictions set forth by the Islamic Republic, alcohol and drugs are not allowed in Iran. Nope, no drop of Shiraz wine in Shiraz. If you like to sip with your dinner, consider replacing your recreational drinking with a cup of tea (VERY popular in Iran), a “mocktail,” or an Iranian traditional drink like rosewater or a chia beverage.
23. You can get some interesting non-alcoholic beers, though
Or, if you’re craving beer that badly, you can try one of Iran’s own (legal) varieties. To solve Iran’s thirst for malty beer despite the ban on alcohol, Persian companies have started to create non-alcoholic beer in many flavors. While there are regular malt beverages available, I actually found the “special” kinds to be much more entertaining. During my trip, I sampled pineapple, apple, peach, and “tropical” flavors of Iranian non-alcoholic beer. As someone who doesn’t love beer myself, I actually really liked these strange, cider-like malt concoctions, especially in the hot summer sun.
However, I’ll leave it to you to decide if you enjoy it…
24. Food is available during Ramadan (if you know where to look)
Ramadan is Islam’s holy month, where devout Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset every day. If you’re like me (AKA food-obsessed and hangry AF in its absence), you might be worried about traveling in Iran during the holy month of Ramadan. Perhaps you fearfully read online that you can be punished for eating or drinking in public during this time. However, food is actually easily available during Ramadan, and travelers are exempt from the fasting rule (with a few small caveats).
During Ramadan, food is only available during the day at specific travel hubs: think hotels, rest stops, airports, and certain designated tourist areas. Some restaurants will cover their windows with thick curtains or newspapers to be able to serve food during the day. Most restaurants are open after iftar, or sundown, so be sure to save the bulk of your appetite for then.
25. Dancing and certain music is illegal in public
Leave your dancing shoes and jazz hands at home for this trip because dancing in public is forbidden in Iran. No, you won’t find any sober dance clubs or street tangos here. If you’re lucky, you might find people clapping or nodding their heads to music being played live or off a speaker, but that’s about it.
In fact, even live music is somewhat sparse, and when you find it, it’s often traditional Iranian folk music and not modern-day Persian pop. Why? Because a lot of Persian pop music is also outlawed, especially if it was written and created outside of Iran. Luckily, Iranian traditional music is incredibly beautiful and unique, so you won’t regret it if you seek out some live music during your trip. Haft Khan Restaurant Complex in Shiraz is a great place to find live musicians playing different genres of Iranian music.
26. Shisha and tobacco are abundant
As the vices of choice in Iran, shisha and cigarettes are available everywhere… in restaurants, at rest stops, and even in certain hotels. While smoking during the day is prohibited during Ramadan, during the rest of the year, it seems like there are few restrictions on tobacco use. Shisha is really cheap in Iran and smells great, but be careful – that stuff is potent.
27. Tipping isn’t required, but it is appreciated
Typically, restaurants will include service charges as part of your bill. Therefore, you aren’t required to tip on top of that. However, if you have received exemplary service from an individual or tour guide, a small tip is welcomed and appreciated. During my time in Iran, I left tips for my guide and driver and a few waiters who were especially helpful or kind.
28. Ta’rof is a common gesture of etiquette
Iranian people operate under a system of politeness called ta’rof. Basically, this means you are expected to refuse something you actually want, before “giving in” and accepting it. For example, when you are asking about a price in the bazaar, a shopkeeper may not give you the price right away. You may need to ask a couple of times before they give you the price. Additionally, if you are at someone’s house and they offer you seconds, your refusal may be seen as a sign that you actually want more. It’s confusing, it’s complicated, but it’s something you may notice while traveling in Iran, especially if you spend a lot of time with locals.
There’s more on ta’rof here, but in short, it’s the universal code of etiquette that everyone in Iran abides by.
29. Internet is everywhere, but it is limited
From the crowded streets of Tehran to the silence of the desert, we didn’t stay at a single hotel that didn’t have Internet during my time in Iran. The quality varied from super-fast to basically nonexistent. Regardless, without a functioning VPN, you won’t be able to log into sites like Facebook, Twitter, Tinder/Bumble, and most Western news publishers. If you are going to go the VPN route, I recommend downloading a few of them as they go active and inactive regularly due to access blockages.
30. You can get an Iranian SIM card for your unlocked phone
Your best bet for staying connected while on the road in Iran is to use an Iranian SIM. To do this, you’ll need a phone that is already unlocked before you arrive in Iran. Then, you can visit any mobile store or kiosk (including in the airport) and get a SIM. I recommend getting an Irancell SIM card – it’s 500,000 rials for the card, plus however much you want to load onto it. During the week that I used a SIM, I put 400,000 rials (~$9) on it and had some left over when I departed Iran.
Couples, Romance, and Male/Female Interactions
31. Shaking hands is…complicated
Much like in the West, when meeting people in Iran, you might be tempted to greet someone by extending out your hand to shake theirs. However, in certain circumstances, this can cause a few issues, as men and women who aren’t well-acquainted generally do not touch. Women are actually expected to make the first move here – if a woman extends her hand to a man to shake, the man can reciprocate without problems. However, men shouldn’t extend their hand first unless it is to another man.
If you’re unsure whether shaking hands is appropriate in a particular instance, a friendly wave and a smile will do just fine. However, if you are greeting someone you know well, 2-3 kisses on the cheek are welcomed.
32. PDA is strictly frowned upon
Don’t even think about kissing, touching, or lovey-dovey affection with your opposite-sex significant other in public – it’s deeply frowned upon. Iran is generally more conservative, especially in the older generations, so save your displays of affection for behind closed doors. However, if you are hanging out with friends of the same gender, close greetings, holding hands, and touching in public is acceptable.
33. Unmarried foreign couples can stay in the same hotel room
Despite the outward conservatism required in public, there are no restrictions on unmarried foreign couples staying in the same hotel room together. You shouldn’t have any issues checking in or getting a room if you’re traveling as a couple. However, you may be given a room with two single beds unless you explicitly ask for a double.
34. Iran’s bazaars are most famous for their Persian carpets
Even if you knew nothing about Iran before reading this post, you probably have heard of the ancient art of Persian carpet making. If you’re looking for the most “Iranian” souvenir out there, this is it. Persian carpets range in price from less than $100 to over $10,000, depending on the material, the number of knots, the colors, and the style in which the carpet was made. I bought a Persian carpet made of wool in a nomadic design that fits perfectly in my bedroom at home for just over $500 USD.
35. But there are many other amazing souvenirs you can buy in Iran
If you don’t have the money to fork out for a handmade Persian carpet, don’t fret! Iran sells a variety of wonderful homewares, clothing items, and souvenirs. Here are a few examples: Dried roses, rose water, and rose essential oil are popular gifts from Kashan. Saffron is a common gift to bring home as well. Gaz sweets and tiles are the perfect present from Isfahan. And of course, Shiraz has all kinds of beautiful designs and clothing items for sale.
36. You can have things shipped around the world from Iran
This one actually surprised me. When I bought my Persian carpet, I thought I’d have to lug it back to the United States with me because of the sanctions. Not so! For an additional fee, the carpet shop was able to ship the carpet via Iranian National Post to me at my home address in the United States. It arrived, as promised, just over a month after I bought it.
The #1 Best Thing About Traveling in Iran
37. Iranians are the kindest and most hospitable people
You may have gathered this from the first 36 points of this article (or my past posts on the subject), but the thing I fell most in love with in Iran was the caring, hardworking, warm people there. Whether they smiled and said “hello” on the street to practice their English, or offered to sing to us to demonstrate the acoustics of a room, or taught me (unsuccessfully) how to play the tambor, or simply struck up a conversation with us over a cup of tea, getting to know some of Iran’s lovely people was the best part of my trip.
If you’re planning on traveling to Iran to experience the history and culture, don’t forget to strike up conversations with the locals, too. You might just come away from your trip to Iran with a few new Instagram followers, Whatsapp contacts, or lifelong friends.
While traveling in Iran or anywhere in the world, it’s important to keep yourself protected with travel insurance. Since my go-to travel insurance does not cover travelers in Iran, I used AIG Travel Guard and recommend it. Affordable, comprehensive, and easy to purchase, I’d recommend Travel Guard to anyone looking for a travel insurance package that covers Iran.
- How to Travel to Iran as an American Citizen
- What It’s REALLY Like to Travel in Iran
- The Ultimate Iran Packing List
- How to Choose, Buy, and Use Travel Insurance
If you have more questions or want real-time advice on traveling to Iran and more, head to our Jetfarer Facebook group and post your question!
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