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.
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),
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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,
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!
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. Shiraz 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).
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 figure
(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:
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!
Qeshm: Mr Amini’s guesthouse. 300.000 Rial.
Shiraz: Niayesh hotel. 350.000 Rial. Very nice place.
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
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).
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.
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.