For those who are interested in travelling to Iran, below are some practical tips:
1. Itinerary: Iran is a HUGE country. We spent 2 weeks there, and only covered a few places in the central part of the country. We did not venture to the east, the west, the Caspian sea, or the Persian Gulf. It was just difficult with the limited time we had.
Here’s our itinerary FYI:
- Day 1: Arrive in Tehran, change money (Tehran has the best exchange rate), visit the National Jewel Museum (high recommend, their collections are just mind-blowing)
- Day 2: Tehran to Kashan. Visit Imam Khomeini Mausoleum and Qom on the way. Kashan Bazaar in the afternoon.
- Day 3: Kashan – visit Agha Bozogh Mosque, Sultan Amir Ahmad Bathhouse and traditional houses
- Day 4: Kashan – climb the rooftop of Kashan Bazaar in the morning, Desert and salt lake tour in the afternoon
- Day 5: Kashan to Isfahan. Visit Fin Garden and Sialk Hill before leaving Kashan. Stop over in Abyaneh village on the way
- Day 6: Isfahan – visit attractions around Naghsh-e-Jahan Square
- Day 7: Isfahan – visit the Jameh mosque and the Grand Bazaar of Isfahan in the morning. Have a quiet afternoon in the hotel in the afternoon.
- Day 8: Isfahan to Sheraz. Visit Vank Cathedral before leaving Isfahan. Visit Naqsh-e-Rustam and Persepolis on the way.
- Day 9: Shiraz. Visit Karim Khan Citadel, Pars Museum, Hafez tomb, and Bagh-e-Eram garden
- Day 10: Shiraz. Visit Nasir-al-Mulk Mosque early in the morning, then take a day tour to visit the nomads
- Day 11: Shiraz. Visit Shah-e-Cheragh and the Bazaar, then take the night train to Tehran
- Day 12: Golestan Palace and Tehran Bazaar
- Day 13: Depart
I understand that most people can get visa on arrival at Khomeini International Airport in Tehran, but the staff at the Iranian Embassy in Hanoi advised us to get the visa done in advance to be on the safe side. If you go for this option, you need ~5-10 days to get the visa authorization code from the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and ~3-5 days to get the visa stamped into your passport. In Hanoi, they can issue the visa within 1 or 2 days at a higher fee.
If you are female, you must submit a photo with your hair totally covered.
Also beware that once you have an Iranian visa in your passport, you cannot get into Israel. It’ll probably be more difficult to get a visa to US and some other countries later as well.
Many airlines in the Middle East fly to Iran. We took Emirates because it’s easy to arrange a stop-over in Dubai and UAE visa with them.
4. Dress code
Complying with the local dress code is very important when visiting Muslim countries, especially if you are female. While Iran is not Dubai, it’s not as strict as Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan.
We were there in Feb, it was cold, so it was easy to cover our whole body. Women should wear long jackets/coats/garments that cover their butts, and headscarves to cover their hair. The headscarf thing is not that bad at all, just draping something loosely over your hair will do in most places. Mosques and shrines provide chadors to female visitors, and it’s important that you completely cover your hair when visiting these holy places. Skinny jeans are completely OK in Iran, provided that your coats are long enough.
Most locals dress in mute colors, and black (a lot of black actually). We really stood out with our super colorful headscarves (I brought 2 – one pink, one orange :))
Don’t think the Middle East is hot all year around. We did not expect Iran to be that cold in Feb, but it was freezing. It even snowed when we visited Abyaneh village.
It’s super super dry in Iran. Bring your best moisturizer, hand cream, body lotion, and lip balm.
6. Getting around
Getting around Iran is SUPER easy. Their highway system is simply AMAZING. Main cities are also connected by very good railways. There are a few airports around the country. We did not try public buses, but heard they were very good too.
Most cities have a variety of accommodation options for tourists. Hotels in Tehran are obviously the most expensive, but the least interesting. We opted to stay in traditional houses in Kashan, Isfahan, and Shiraz, and could not get enough of them. They all have beautiful architecture and decorations, cozy ambiance, rich history, and excellent services. No matter how much you pay, all accommodations are very clean and come with very good breakfasts. If you go to a desert city like Kashan or Yazd, you can also choose to stay in a caravanserai. And of course, homestay is a great way to learn about local life.
I highly recommend:
- Manouchehri House in Kashan, it’s the best hotel in Iran at a very reasonable price (~$60-70/night/room).
- Bekhradi House in Isfahan is another architectural gem, but more expensive (~$95/night/room).
- Paharmi Traditional House in Shiraz is very conveniently located opposite the magnificent Pink Mosque, and has clean rooms at a much cheaper price ($40/night/room).
While you can spot an eatery every 3 steps in Southeast Asia, it’s a bit tricky to find restaurants in Iran. Better to ask your hosts where to eat, or you’ll end up spending hours wandering around with an empty stomach.
Iranian foods are quite simple and mild. There are around 10 dishes that are served in every restaurant, and that’s all (I count all types of kebabs as 1 dish, beef kebab is the best for me). Iranians eat a lot, and I really mean a lot, of rice and bread. We often order 1 portion of rice to share among 3 of us, and 3 main dishes :)) There are not many vegetable dishes, but anything with aubergine is super delicious. Stews are yummy too.
As a Muslim country, Iran bans alcohol. Don’t even try to ask around for alcohol, or you can be in trouble. They have non-alcoholic beers though 🙂 If you’re lucky, you may get a chance to try local wine in someone’s private place, but it tastes more like fermented fruit juice than wine.
You should try doogh. It’s a popular drink made of yogurt, water, and mint with a salty taste. Very refreshing and can aid digestion.
Iran is a heaven for souvenir shopping. Isfahan is their arts and crafts capital, so make sure that you get as much shopping done there as possible. Prices are not cheap, but you get what you pay for. Try to get handmade items from handcraft workshops (I mean real workshops with a master working inside). You can see how the masters create pieces of arts, learn how to differentiate between good and bad products (very tricky I can tell you), and get to talk to the locals. Avoid shopping in Tehran as most items are of lower quality but a lot more expensive.
11. Tours and guides
If you need inter-city transportation, tours, or guides in Iran, the following contacts can help:
- Sayed (Wseyed@gmail.com): This turbaned mullah is an authority on Muslim religion. He is fluent in English, very open-minded and attentive. He’s attending a religious school in Qom and volunteering to guide foreigners at the Holy Shrine of Fatima Masumeh.
- Mohammad Balakhanechi (firstname.lastname@example.org): he runs an agency in Isfahan, but also serves as Manouchehri House Tour Organizer. He is very knowledgeable and can speak very good English. He helped us arrange all transportation in Iran, and the Desert and Salt Lake Tour in Kashan. It’s best if you can get him as your driver-cum-tour guide.
- Hojat Sadeqzadeh (email@example.com): this guy is a Wikipedia of Isfahan and Iranian culture. He speaks perfect English, and can arrange tours to skiing resorts near Isfahan as well. His service is not cheap though, $10/hour (including driving around if needed). He’s on LinkedIn.
- Bahman Mardanloo (b_Mardanloo@yahoo.com): He is an expert in nomadic life and ecotourism tours in Shiraz. He can speak good English, Turkish, and some French too. You can read reviews about him on TripAdvisor.
We chose to have a very comfortable trip, travelling in private cars, having private guides, staying in decent places, and eating at good restaurants. I think we ended up spending a lot more than we expected, and realized that Iran is not that cheap at all. It’s not too bad though. Below is the list of my expenses:
- Air tickets: ~$1,300 return tickets with Emirates, with a 4-day stopover in Dubai
- Visa: $50 for visa authorization code, and EUR 38 for (urgent) visa fee (normal fee EUR 20 I think)
- Airport transfer service (both ways): ~$20/pax
- Inter-city transfer by private car: Tehran-Kashan $34/pax, Kashan-Isfahan ~30/pax, Isfahan-Shiraz ~$45/pax
- Overnight train from Shiraz to Tehran: ~$25/each
- Desert-salt lake tour in Kashan: ~$30/pax (cannot remember this)
- Private tour in Isfahan: $25/pax
- Nomad tour in Shiraz: $40/pax
- Accommodation: Golestan Hotel (Tehran, 2 nights) ~ $27/night/pax, Manouchehri House (Kashan, 3 nights) ~$35/night/pax, Bekhradi House (Isfahan, 3 nights) ~ $47/night/pax, Paharmi Traditional House (Shiraz, 3 nights) ~ $20/night/pax
- Food: ~$10-15/person/meal. 2 meals/day, 12 days
- Miscellaneous (taxi, snacks, ice cream, etc.) ~100
- Souvenirs: ~$250
–> TOTAL ~$2,700
Driving to Abyaneh village
Lunch at Abyaneh Hotel
Then it started to snow
It was so cold that all locals stay indoor. We only met this man who sold seed amulets on a side road…
…and this man who took his dog out for a walk.
Some beautiful doors in Abyaneh
Photos of martyrs from the village
A mud wall