Iran itinerary, tips and tricks

You’re considering going to Iran?! Do it! I just came back from a 3 week trip and wrote my tips and tricks down, because it’s challenging to get a clear picture of what to expect. Hope this helps! First my itinerary, and after that tips and tricks.

 

ITINERARY

I spent the first few days of my trip in Tehran, which is an incredibly big city. Most guidebooks say it doesn’t have much to offer, but I liked to see this buzzing city that I found surprisingly Western. The only downside is the air pollution. I constantly had a soar throat and when you wash your hands at the end of the day, the water is dark brown (seriously, no exaggeration). It’s so bad that only on the third day, I saw that there’s a mountain not far from my hostel.

Things to do in Tehran: the bazaar (like in every Iranian city), the American embassy (watch the movie Argo before you go),

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The American Embassy in Tehran

Golestan palace, take the metro (sounds weird, but great fun. The place where business happens).

 

 

After Tehran, I took a 2 hour bus ride to Qom, sometimes called ‘chador city’. Qom itself doesn’t have much to offer, but Fatimeh’s holy shrine is absolutely amazing. A pilgrimage site for Shias. Be aware that they don’t always let tourists in. Qom can easily be done as a nice break on the way to Kashan.

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Qom, Fatimeh´s holy shrine.

Kashan is an old town and nice to stroll through for a day, but don´t expect to spend weeks here. Main sites: Agha Bozorg mosque, the bazaar (again) (there’s a lovely bathhouse in the bazaar, now transformed in a tea house. A nice place for a break after shopping. The owner is very friendly and will probably show you the old parts at the back of the tea house), traditional houses, Hammam-e Sultan Mir Ahmad (beautiful bathhouse. If you’ve seen enough bathhouses already, just climb up to the roof top for a spectacular view. You can haggle a good price).

From Kashan, you can take tours into the Maranjab desert and the nearby salt lake. I would definitely recommend doing this! We haggled quite hard and got a price for 25 euro for a taxi; so make friends and it’s super cheap.DSCN0940 Note: the salt lake still has tides. For us, this meant that the soil was still wet and brown in the morning. During the day it became white and shiny as you expect from a salt lake (but this is obviously dependent on the moon). Check this before you book a tour (though it’s likely they’ll tell you it’s white anyway).

 

From Kashan, the big and magical city Esfahan is only 3 hours by bus. Esfahan is like a fairy tale, it’s the Vienna of the Middle East. See for yourself, if the main square looks like this, it’s worth spending a few days here.

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If the main square of a city looks like this, the place is worth a visit!

Highlights in Esfahan: the bazaar. I spent 2 full days here! Mashed-e Shah on the main square is beautiful. Mashed-e Jameh is still used as a mosque and if you’re lucky they’ll let you sit in during the prayers. The palace Kakh-e Chehel Sotun is slightly overpriced (200.000 Rial), but it’s a lovely place and such a peaceful spot in a busy city.

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Esfahan and its bridges…

My absolute favorite spot is the bridges. Especially at night, the bridges come alive, people hang out here together (men ánd women together). It seems that where ever normal life is quite separated, under the bridges people hang out together and if you’re lucky, you’ll see a spontaneous singing session.

 

After the big cities before, it was refreshing to go to the sleepy desert town of Yazd. The narrow lanes between mud houses, spectacular sunsets and craftsmen who’ll invite you for tea make it the perfect place to relax a bit. Highlights: just walk through the narrow lanes, sunsets from a rooftop (art house has a spectacular view), visit the Mashed-e Jameh (like you should do in every city). Walk to the Amir Chakhmaq (also the place where exchange bureaus are). While here, just off the square is an old water reservoir in which men perform zoorkhaneh, a traditional way of working out.

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Zoorkhaneh in the old water reservoir

You can visit their sessions at 6pm (Lonely Planet says that only men are allowed to watch, but I was there together with 25 women, all watching the show). Just outside the city you’ll find the towers of silence, which are Zoroastrian fire temples, though I found them a little bit disappointing.

 

Most people go to Shiraz after visiting Yazd. I had a little bit more time and went to Kerman, 7 hours south east. I didn’t find the city very interesting, except a very nice bazaar. But Kerman has a spectacular desert (Kalut). I planned on just passing through, but my couchsurf host took me on a spontaneous trip to the desert. Eating dinner while watching the sunset is definitely one of my dearest memories of this trip.

 

After a while in the desert, I felt it was time for a tropical island. So I took the bus from Kerman to Bander Abbas (approximately 8 hours) and from there the ferry to Qeshm island. Highlights: watch dolphins, take a boat trip in the mangrove forest,

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Mangrove forest on Qeshm

visit star valley (the Cappadocia of Iran, but you won’t come across as many tourists as in Cappadocia). On Qeshm island, locals still live their normal life, not really bothered by a few tourists on the island. You’ll find women with beautiful masks and men in their traditional outfits on a motorbike. Throw your backpack in the back of a pick up truck and enjoy the island life! IMG_4940

The only downside of Qeshm is that there’s not public transport, so you’ll need to take taxis for everything, which makes it quite pricey (though I would’ve hitchhiked if I wouldn’t be a female travelling alone). From Qeshm you can take a ferry to Hormoz. I didn’t have enough time to do this, but I heard spectacular stories about it.

 

Last but not least, Shiraz! I have to admit, I was sick in Shiraz and therefore didn’t try very hard to see every site. The absolute highlight for me was the Masjed-e Nasir-al-Molk. The mosque has stained glass and if you go there before 8.30 you’ll probably have the mosque to yourself to enjoy a spectacular light show. IMG_5295 - CopyShiraz is the city of the poets, so a visit to either Sa’di or Havez’ tomb is a must. I went to Havez’ tomb (go here in the evening when the garden is beautifully lit up), and as always; the bazaar. And of course, the site that every tourists visits; Persepolis. One big advise for Persepolis: don’t do tour your hostel offers! It’s incredibly expensive and will save you a lot if you just arrange it yourself. We took a taxi for 14 euro (550.000 Rial) and entrance fees are €7 (200.000 Rial). Even if you do this trip alone (unlikely, since there are many people in Shiraz that go to Persepolis every day and are willing to share a taxi), it’s still cheaper than the $35 they’ll charge you in the hotel. A tour guide is likely to costs around €10 (I would recommend taking a guide).

 

CLOTHING

THE question for every female tourist in Iran is ‘what to wear?’ Basically, you need to cover arms, legs and hair and you shouldn’t show a figureIMG_4338

(though skinny jeans are ok as long as you have something wide covering your bum). It sounds really annoying, but you easily get used to the headscarf. And to be honest, I traveled in winter and was quite happy I could cover with a warm scarf. Even though many rules apply for locals, they’re pretty flexible with tourists. This is what I wore:

 

ACCOMMODATION

In a country where the tourist industry is still starting up, it’s not as easy to find accommodation as in other countries. The good thing about this though is that every major city generally has 1 budget hostel, which means it’s really easy to meet other travelers (seriously, I strongly feel I should start a hostel somewhere in Iran. Success guaranteed).

Couchsurfing is officially forbidden in the country, yet the website isn’t blocked (unlike many other websites). I found it complicated as a woman to find hosts. Partly because there are just fewer hosts, maybe also partly because men are not supposed to have unattended women in their house, and also just because internet access was limited, which made it difficult to arrange it. But it’s definitely worth the try, because once you have a good hosts, it all makes up for the struggles! Just one warning, make sure that you know a name of a hostel in the town, just choose the first one in the Lonely Planet. If the police finds out you’re couchsurfing, you could get in trouble. And probably not just you, you’re bringing your host in big trouble (also, if you’re going for a visa extension, you need a reservation at a hotel).  The great thing about couchsurfing in Iran: most young people live with their parents, which doesn’t only make it very safe, it also gives you a nice inside in family life in Iran.

 

Places I stayed at:

Tehran: Seven Hostels. $15. Slightly overpriced, but a great place to stay.

Kashan: couchsurfing (ask for ‘papa couchsurfing’. He hosted over 600 people!).

Esfahan: Amir Kabir hostel. 300.000 Rial. Not excellent, but ok.

Yazd: Silk road hotel. 200.000 Rial, but this price was negotiated. To be honest, this hostel is so nice that I felt guilty negotiating this price. The hostel is amazing and its breakfast is beyond anything you can wish for. Official price is $10 and definitely worth it!

Kerman: couchsurfing.

Qeshm: Mr Amini’s guesthouse. 300.000 Rial.

Shiraz: Niayesh hotel. 350.000 Rial. Very nice place.

 

MONEY

I don’t think I ever traveled to a country where I struggled so much with the money. I read many blogs about how honest Iranians are and that they won’t rip you off. Well, they will. Not as badly as in other countries, but with a growing tourist industry, people suddenly start charging 5 euro for a falafel sandwich, which is normally €0,80. But no worries, you’re not the only one that can’t make sense out of the money. I haven’t met a single traveler who didn’t struggle with converting their money. At the moment, €1 is 40.000 Rial, 4.000 Toman, though people will ask for ‘4’. Very confusing!

 

Due to the sanctions, it’s not possible to use your international bankcard (though this might change rather quickly). You can bring dollars or euros and exchange them basically anywhere. Everyone says you are likely to get a better exchange rate on the street than at the airport, but I found a quite good rate at the airport. I estimated 300 euros a week, yet only spent 450 for almost 3 weeks (including buying a domestic flight).

But, with so much money in your backpack, you literally become a walking cash machine. And even though Iran is super safe (I often wondered if locals are aware of the amounts

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Travel hacks: be creative when hiding money!

of cash every backpacker has with him), you better be creative hiding your money. The best place was in an empty lipstick. Though a good one was also to fold it in my socks, preferably dirty socks ;). For diehards: put it in your dirty underwear bag, though very risky when you do your laundry ;).

 

Iran is a super big country, so you might want to fly to certain places (most people fly from Shiraz back to Tehran). Because your bankcard doesn’t work, you won’t be able to book domestic flights. Just arrange this when you’re in Iran. Many travel agencies sell tickets and prices remain around 50 euros (even if you buy it a few days prior to the date).

 

INTERNET

Yup, facebook is blocked (and many other sites like youtube and some western news channels. It was only since this trip that I realized how hooked I was on following the news (Al Jazeera works and saved me). I would say: get over it and enjoy not having all the social media. Though there are occasionally places in the desert where the ban somehow doesn’t work and where you’ll be able to access these sites.

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Still figuring out what ‘friendly internet’ is

I still don’t understand how this works. Btw, every local has access to the blocked sites. It’s only tourists who aren’t able to access them. You can avoid this by downloading a VPN client before you enter the country, though I heard many people still struggling with it. I just enjoyed not having anything (the couchsurfing website still works).

 

There’s only 1 last thing remaining: safety! But at the same time, there isn’t much to say about it. Iran is safer than any country I’ve ever traveled in. Partly because social interaction is so strictly controlled, and partly because Iranians are really good and well-educated people.

 

 

The dress code is black and wide.

When you’ve been travelling for a while, even beautiful places become normal. I know I’m starting to become spoiled after travelling in the Middle East for 4 months, but I had this feeling at the first part of my Iran trip. Even though cities like Esfahan are like a fairy tale; I loved them, but missed the magic. Until I went to Yazd. 6 Hours east of Esfahan is the sleepy desert town Yazd. The place where backpackers are adopted as a part of the community. As you wander through the narrow lanes between the mud houses, you’ll be invited by craftsmen to watch them working. They obviously hope that you’ll buy their carpets, copper or pottery, but without pressuring you, it’s also fine to just enjoy their tea and sit down for a chat.

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Women knotting Persian rugs.

Spectacular in Yazd are the sunsets (as always in a desert). As the sun started to set, we headed towards one of the many rooftop terraces. For over half an hour, we all silently watched the sky colour, creating a beautiful view over the wind towers (kind of air conditioning they used back in the days) and mud houses.

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Badgirs are wind towers that are still being used to cool down the houses.

When the town fell dark and we made our way back to the hostel, we were passed by women in black flowing chadors rushing through the streets. Yazd gave me the feeling of being in a completely different world, a world that intrigues me.

The dress code is black and wide.
The dress code is black and wide.

The next day, we headed to a traditional ‘gym’, which is called ´zoorkhaneh´. In a former water reservoir, men do traditional work outs, a combination of dance and cardio. The workout was assisted by a man playing the drum while reciting poems, which is to stimulate discipline.  The woman next to me proudly told me this was the first gym in the world. I’m not sure if this is true, since Persians are proud and claim that everything is the first or the best in the world (best carpet, best pistachios, first water reservoirs in the desert, biggest ancient trading centers…), but I recognized quite a few things I did in the gym! Being able to watch sport as a woman is quite a thing in Iran. Only recently they allowed women to watch volleyball matches. Football is the #1 sport here, but women are not allowed to go to a match. So watching them work out in a stinky and warm water reservoir was a thing!

Men performing the Zoorkhaneh rituals.
Men performing the Zoorkhaneh rituals.

After Yazd, I moved 7 hours south east to Kerman. As soon as I got off the bus, I clearly saw the difference with other cities; people look differently here. They look somewhat tougher, which isn’t surprising, considering we’re in the middle of the desert. This is the hottest place of Iran, with temperatures in the summer over 50C, I’m so happy again that I’m travelling in the winter. I planned on just passing through Kerman, but when my couchsurf host suggested we could go into the desert, I already knew it would be better than just passing through. I clearly developed a weak spot for deserts during this trip. We drove for a few hours through the mountains, and ended up in a moon-landscape. And you know what the best part was? We ate dinner in the desert between spectacular rock formations while watching a breathtaking sunset. And again, I realize why I love couchsurfing so much: because people take you to places where you would otherwise never go to.

Eating dinner in the Khalut desert.
Eating dinner in the Khalut desert.

I’m more and more aware that the end of my trip is approaching, but moments like this make it really difficult to not keep travelling (don’t worry, after a failed attempt, this time I’m really coming home).

The further south I go, the warmer and dryer it gets. We head towards the most southern point of Iran, Bandar Abbas, from which we take the boat to Qeshm island. Just because the best place to finish a trip is on a tropical island in the Persian Gulf.

But, prepared as always, just before we board the boat, I realise that I don’t have any money anymore. Due to the sanctions on Iran, banks don’t accept western cards. So on Friday afternoon around 4pm (which is weekend here) we need to find an exchange bureau; impossible. We ask some people on the street and become slightly worried, because there is no place to change money and people are not as tourist-friendly as in the rest of Iran. Until a lifesaver appears and offers to change my money. They always warn you to never ever exchange money with people on the street, but this man looked decent and to be honest, we didn’t really have a choice. He exchanges my 50 euros for an exchange rate that’s so good, no one else would ever give. And not just that, he pays for the boat to the island and our food (travel hack #1, if you’re in a difficult situation and don’t know what to do, go and get some food. After that solutions appear). What a hero! He makes sure that we understand that he does this because Allah expects him to be good to others, like so many people told me on this trip. Yet, he also makes sure that we know that he’s single and looking for a foreign girlfriend. ‘Ok, thanks for everything and byeee!’ We board the boat just on time before a proposal follows.

Qeshm can best be described as the deserted version of Cappadocia, Turkey. It has spectacular rock formations, yet also a mangrove forest and dolphins!

'Star valley' on Qeshm.
‘Star valley’ on Qeshm.
Mangrove forest.
Mangrove forest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The perfect place to relax, make fun and get some vitamin D (while Europe is covered under snow and ice, I’m enjoying 28C, sorry, don’t want to make you jealous). It’s the first time that I’m actually getting sweaty under my scarf and wonder how to cool down while still covering everything. The solution: drink a lot of water, straight from the well!

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Qeshm is the place where locals don’t seem to care much about tourists and just live their own life. It can best be described in pictures.

Not only locals don't care too much about tourists. The camels can't care less and don't feel the urge to leave the road
Not only locals don’t care too much about tourists. The camels can’t care less and don’t feel the urge to leave the road.
Local boatmen.
Local boatmen.

There are only a few days left before I’m coming back to the Netherlands, which is scary, but also exciting. See you soon!

Fishermen checking their nets. Spotted when we took the ferry back to the main land. Only a 13 hour bus ride to go...
Fishermen checking their nets. Spotted when we took the ferry back to the main land. Only a 13 hour bus ride to go…

Iran, the country that challenges every idea you had.

You know that feeling when you’re getting a crazy idea in your head and you know it won’t go unless you do it? My most recent crazy thought was making a trip to Iran. I always assumed that it was impossible to travel to Iran, and certainly as a woman travelling alone. But I’m really here! It took me a few days to realize that I’m in Iran, but I’m really here and I love it!

Iran is probably the only country I’ve ever visited of which I had absolutely no clue what it would be like. Yet I think this is exactly why I like it so much here: I’m suddenly in a world that’s so different than what I’ve ever experienced. After travelling for a while, I love being in a place that’s so significantly different than anything else. Yet, it makes it really hard to write down everything.

The question that keeps everyone busy before coming to Iran is whether it’s safe to travel here. It is! Life between men and women are kept separate here as much as possible. For example, in a bus or metro, I’ll have to sit in the ‘women’s wagon’. It sounds weird, but to be honest, it gives a very safe feeling. And also at the airport, the women’s section for security is a cosy section where women chat and laugh. Nothing intimidating or scary. Moreover, in other countries you’ll get a lot of unwanted attention from men. But in Iran, unmarried men and women are not allowed to hang out, so you won’t be harassed on the street (Morocco can learn from this!).

The ‘women’s wagon’ in the metro in Tehran. The place where business happens. I now have ‘metro socks’!

Of course, you need to follow certain rules. For example, you need to cover yourself. Yup, you get arrested if you’re not covering your hair. But it’s not as bad as it sounds, and because it’s quite cold, I’m happy to put that scarf around my head (I don’t even want to think about coming here in the summer, must be awfully hot!).

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I have to admit that I still don’t understand the country. For example, I’m sleeping in mixed dorms, men and women together, which seems perfectly fine (ok, maybe not perfectly fine, since dorm rooms are officially not allowed). But as soon as you leave the room, you need to cover everything again. Weird!
I’ve been here for a week now and keep being amazed by everything. The architecture is stunning, nature is beautiful and people are friendly (and everyone speaks English! It’s heaven, much easier than the struggles I had in Turkey).

Like I said, stunning architecture.
Like I said, stunning architecture.

I wrote this blog in the bus from Kashan to Esfahan, while I was wondering how to process everything. Iran is so different and therefore so interesting. Snow-covered mountain peaks are passing, yet this morning I was still at a salt lake in the desert near Kashan. It was a 2 hour drive into the desert, but then suddenly at the horizon you see a white glow appearing. Amazing! Iran has so much to offer.

Road through the salt lake.
Road through the salt lake.

 

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A highlight last week was my visit to Qom, which is sometimes called the ‘chador city’. You’ll understand this as soon as you get off the bus. Almost everyone wears a black chador (literally: tent). And in general, not just in Qom, most women wear a chador in Iran, even though it isn’t obliged. Qom doesn’t have many sights and most people skip it, but Fatimeh’s holy shrine is worth the stop. Iran has many beautiful mosques and shrines, but what made this visit so special was the woman who showed us around. Tourists are often not let in, but we got a full tour from a lovely woman who spoke perfect English and patiently explained everything to us.

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You’re not allowed to visit holy places in normal clothes, so we had to dress up in a chador. I’d never realised that this is actually super difficult! With one hand you hold your chador closed, with the other you hold your handbag and camera. But as you walk, your chador catches wind and slides back. So unless your headscarf is super tight, you’ll be struggling to keep your head covered.

Trying our chadors on.
Trying our chadors on.

Another absolute highlight is all the bazaars. You thought the bazaar in Turkey is big? That’s nothing compared to the bazaars here. And I found my travelling buddy who likes buying fabrics as much as I do. This resulted in 2 full days in the bazaar in Esfahan with lots of haggling and laughing!

My absolute favorite so far is Yazd, a desert town in central Iran. Here, craftsmen still work in their workshops. We watched an amazing sunset over the city, while the call to prayer sounded through the narrow lanes of the city.
On our way back, we saw many women covered in flowing chadors rushing through the dark narrow lanes. It gave me the feeling that I was in a village where they are still living 500 years ago. The perfect place to really relax and reflect on all the crazy and amazing adventures I’ve had here in the Middle East.

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I think if I need to summarize my first week in Iran, it can best be described by amazement. I’m amazed by how clean it is, how well-educated people are and how safe it is. I’m curious about the rest of the country!

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Esfahan. The city where everything happens under the bridges.