Iran is an amazing destination, but what you hear from the media about it can scare you not to visit it. Here are some practical information you’d better know before going.
Telephone & Internet
Food & Drink
Theoretically, it is possible to apply for a tourist visa upon arrival in Iran. It doesn’t seem 100% safe so it’s best to do it before leaving.
First of all, you need to buy a medical insurance valid for Iran (look carefully at the notes), a hotel reservation for the first night in Iran and two photos valid for the electronic passport. Again theoretically, you can apply for an online visa, specifying the place of withdrawal (in my case the consulate of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Milan). In fact, my request got stuck and I had to ask help to a specialized agency, which for 30 € provide me with a document to bring to the consulate (plus insurance, booking and photos). I brought to the counter my passport and documents and paid 50 € (they don’t accept cash) and after 10 days I collected the passport and the visa sheet. Important, the visa is not on the passport and no stamps are made on entering / leaving Iran (where, by the way, the border controls are very quick). This helps to avoid having problems visiting Iran’s “no-friend” countries afterwards.
Money is the most confusing thing in Iran.
- EXCHANGE RATE. Before arriving we believed that the exchange rate was 40,000 rials = € 1, the official data found on the internet (August 2019). But it is a “political” value for those who do business with the Iranian state. The real exchange rate was 130,000 rials = € 1, but it’s something you only find out there. In other words, Iran is extremely cheap
- EXCHANGE OFFICES. You can’t exchange money in banks but only in exchange offices. Officially you can change a maximum of € 50 per day per person. The reality is that in all the places we went to, they always made trouble at the beginning (as if they had no money or authorizations) but in the end they changed us as much as we wanted. They also accept € 10 tickets and usually have the change. A couple of times I changed in shops (one was a jewelry store) but only for an emergency and checking carefully the money. Upon arrival at Tehran airport change immediately some money at the office on the first floor.
- CURRENCY. This is the most complicated thing. The official currency is the Rial, however everyone commonly says the prices in tomans, which equal one tenth of the rials. For example 100.000 rials = 10.000 tomans. To complicate matters even further, in spoken language they often take three zeros off the tomans. So 100.000 rials = 10 tomans. After a while you get used to it, but to be safe always ask if the price is in tomans or rials. Bills are all in rials, even though I happened to see old 50,000 tomans banknotes. Banknotes have numbers both in Persian and Western digits.
- CASH vs CARDS. Despite my expectations, I found Iran ahead on electronic payments. Even at the bazaar or in small shops, everyone pays by card. The problem is that foreign credit cards do not work due to the international sanctions. So tourists have to pay cash! Or they need to make a local credit card. There are special services, such as this card that you can top up by paying in euros or dollars. The advantage is you won’t need not to carry rolls of money, but I’m not sure that the exchange rate is good and in case you lose it you lose the money. For two weeks we were fine with cash.
Knowing that you can’t use your credit card in Iran, we booked almost all accommodations before leaving. Most international websites (booking, airbnb etc.) don’t work. We used the Iranian website 1stQuest (with the BOA-QST code you will get a 10% discount). Actually their headquarters are in Europe, so they can skip the sanctions. In Tehran we stayed at the Heritage hostel (you book on their website) in a private room with bathroom. There are more central and cheaper hotels, but this one was rather new. Anyway, it was certainly the most peaceful hostel I have ever seen. This is a more central hostel in Tehran I’ve been recommended. Generally speaking, hotels & guesthouses we stayed in were more than acceptable, with working air conditioning (a must in August). For the equivalent of a mid-class hotel back in Italy we spent 20-30 € per night for a twin or double room.
Overall, getting around Iran is easy and cheap. Given the language barrier, it is better to book before leaving and use technology.
- BY PLANE. we took an internal flight from Tehran to Shiraz for around € 50, purchased online before leaving. Do not use sites like skyscanner (you won’t see all the flights) but sites specializing in internal flights in Iran (I used Apochi). There are various local airlines, some of which also fly to Europe. The Mahar Air flight was good (better standard than a European low cost). He left late due to tecnical problems, to tell the truth. But apparently we were just unlucky
- BY BUS. For long routes there are VIP buses and normal buses. The important difference is that normal ones have poor air conditioning (and in the summer it’s unpleasant). We booked before coming to Iran, but indeed it wasn’t necessary: just buy tickets at the bus station when leaving.
- TAXI. In Iran there is a widely used app, the local uber, called Snapp! Fares are lower than a taxi (even half): a short ride can cost you only half a euro and we paid only 7 from Tehran airport to the city (50 km).
I highly recommend you to use it, for two reasons. First: it is also in English. Second: since you select starting point and destination you won’t have to bother about explaining to the driver (who only speaks Farsi) where you want to go or negotiate the price. You pay cash at the end of the ride. Just pay attention that numbers and letters on license are non-western ones; learn to recognize numbers, it’s easy and it will make your life easier. You can’t find it on appstore and google play (due to the sanctions against Iran), but you can download it here.
Taxis are also the best solution for day trips. For example, for 8 hours from Shiraz to Persepolis we negotiated 1 million rials (8 €).
- BY SUBWAY. Tehran has a modern underground trasport with 6 lines. It is worth taking it even just out of curiosity. A ticket costs around 30 euro cents. Stations names are written in the Persian alphabet and in Latin letters, so you can travel easily. At peak times Tehran has congested traffic so it is a very good alternative.
- BY CAR: we have not driven, also considering how cheap taxis are, and I do not recommend it. The roads are in good condition and the directions are always written also in English. Cars are mostly of iranian production.
TELEPHONE & INTERNET
As with almost all non-western countries, in Iran too it’s better to buy a local SIM. Upon arrival at the airport in Tehran, there are two kiosks on the ground floor.
It’s cheap, 700,000 rials (€ 6) with 10 GB and a sufficient number of minutes for some internal calls. Initially I was unable to call, and I did not understand the operator’s messages (in Farsi, of course). An SMS contained a code to activate calls. If you think you don’t need a local number, read the transport section.
Internet is censored in Iran, but most news websites were visible and even Instagram has no problems. To see Facebook, you need a VPN (check that it works in Iran, I used this one). The VPN work around the block by making the server believe that you are in the country you have chosen (Italy for example). A good reason for having a VPN is to be able to make payments with your credit card.
Iran’s official language, Farsi or Persian, has nothing to do with Arabic, though it has a similar alphabeth. However, there are other regional languages. English is spoken by educated people in the cities (German is also common) and in tourist areas but you shouldn’t count too much on it. Google translate helps a lot as well as making yourself understood by gestures (yes, I’m Italian). Useful tip: memorize the numbers, it will help you to recognize the license plate of your Snapp car. In tourist areas they also have English menus in restaurants.
A wise rule to follow is “never talk about local politics in a foreign country“. This is also true in Iran, a country that cannot be considered a “democracy” by our standards – even if regular elections are held -. In general, better not to tackle issue and never criticize the country leaders (the first Ayatollah Khomeini and the current Khamenei and President Rhuani). It may strike you to see almost everywhere portraits of the ayatollahs and the president – a bit like Fidel and Che in Cuba – but you won’t have the perception of being in a dictatorship. The biggest complaint I heard was the lack of work and access to study for young people.
Iran is perhaps the safest country I’ve ever been! “The guards of the revolution must be everywhere” you may think. Not at all! Not only have I seen very few “pasdarans”, but also almost no policemen and only a few soldiers (not on patrol). There were no riots on the street burning American flags, no one infact causing any kind of mess. Now, to think badly, people behave because everyone is afraid of “the dictators”. I don’t know, but in any case the effect is that we never saw any thief or criminal. The only “hot” moment was when we drove past a nuclear site, protected by anti-aircraft guns. The authorities are inflexible, if you take pictures of military areas you will be sent to jail; the driver did not want to take any risks, and neither did we.
Foreign women not accompanied by men can travel without problems; a woman alone would cause some curiosity (everyone will ask “where is your husband?”).
Iran is an “Islamic republic” in which sharia – the Islamic law – is in force, but it is in many ways a secular country. To my surprise, I saw around only a few “religious” men, imams (with a black turban) and mullah (with a white turban). Westerners can enter all mosques (with appropriate clothing, of course), only in the holy city of Qom we found limitations. Muezzins are less noisy than in Turkey (another “secular” country) and in fact they never woke me up at 6 in the morning! Unlike neighbor countries the West consider “friends” (for interest) such as Saudi Arabia, women can drive and don’t have to cover their faces, even if socially they are still less important than men.
In Iran, “chaste” clothing is required for men and women.
WOMEN: The veil on the head (hidjab) in public is mandatory. However, it doesn’t have to completely cover their hair, so younger Iranians find a way to make a bun that actually covers only one piece of hair. The face is never covered. The women in the city tend to wear throusers and a blouse that reaches up to the knees (see picture). In mosques they are required to wear a chador, which is a sheet that completely covers from head to toe, but in “museum” mosques, such as the pink mosque in Shiraz, it is often not necessary. You can buy a chador at any bazaar for a few euros.
MEN: they only wear long trousers, shorts are allowed only for swimming in the sea. Tank tops in public are not allowed.
Officially, only married couples can stay together in the same hotel room. We are not married, however, nobody at the border or in the hotels asked us questions or asked to prove it. I believe that for tourists it is not an issue. To avoid misunderstandings, it is better (as we always do in Islamic countries) to refer to each other as “my wife” and “my husband”. Don’t kiss or hug in public and keep in mind physical contact is allowed only between people of the same gender.
Iran is a large country (5 times Italy) with 4 main climatic areas: mild on the coast of the Caspian Sea to the north (the only humid area), dry continental on the vast central plateau (therefore very hot in summer and very cold in winter), cold in mountainous areas and hot and desert in the south. We made the so-called “classic tour” in the north / center of the city and on the edge of the Dasht-e Kavir desert in mid-August. Now if you can choose go rather in October or May because it will be cooler. In August the daytime temperature often reached 36 degrees celsius (in July it exceeds 40!). However, being extremely dry (about 10% humidity) the heat was bearable, if you mange to avoid being under the sun for too long.
If you want to go partying, Iran is the wrong place. Unfortunately, there is no night life. For decency dancing in public is not allowed and there are no live music venues. The closest thing to “nightlife” that I saw were the Si-Tir street food stalls in Tehran and the area along Isfahan bridges where people gathered for night picnics and chats, but it’s a small thing for us Westerners. And in any case, you can’t drink alcohol! I have witnessed dances and music in my guesthouse in Varzaneh (I will talk about it in a future post). However, Iranians like to stay outdoor on Summer evenings, especially to enjoy coolness in the city gardens that they take care of with great pride.
A great entertainment for Iranians is surely Cinema, which offers a rich choice of national films, which over the years have won several awards at Venice and Cannes festivals.
In Tehran we were told that if you want to send mail abroad, you have to go to the post because in addition to the stamp you have to pay a kind of commission. The postcards we had sent before we found out, however, arrived at their destination in Europe after about a month and a half.
FOOD & DRINK
Iran is a country rich in agriculture production, so you can find a bit of everything. For example, it is the first date producer in the world and Iranian saffron and pistachio are world famous. The cuisine is tasty, different from the ones of other Middle Eastern countries. Read my post about food, but you should know that you can’t find pork meat nor alcohol.
You probably won’t notice it but in Iran they are in a different year. For them, 2019 was 1398! This is because they follow the Islamic calendar that starts from the birth of Muhammad. The year begins on the Spring equinox on March 21st, which is their “new year”.
The hygiene standard is very good. Iran is a modern country in this respect. You sholdn’t run particular risks.
Iran is a very cheap country for us. Here are some examples
- Full meal: from 1-2 € to max 20 € (fancy place) per person
- Smoothie (carrot, melon, orange etc.): 40,000 rial (€ 0.40)
- Taxi ride: 2-3 € (1-2 € with Snapp!)
- Metro ticket: 40,000 rial (€ 0.30)
- VIP bus ticket: approximately 1.5 € per hour of travel
- Flight ticket (one way): about 50 €
- Double room in a hotel: 20-30 € in a 3-star Italian standard hotel
- Saffron blister (5 grams): 3 €
If you have other questions about Iran, read the next posts or ask in the comments!