When Abdul Hadi and I first told people we were going to spend eighteen days travelling through Iran, we were met with curiosity, amazement and warnings. Some people were surprised at our enthusiasm and dedication to planning such a trip, as it doesn’t register as one of the top holidaying destinations for people. I believe this has a lot to do with the fact that Iran can often be viewed with a particular political lens in the Western mind, and also a sectarian lens from a lot of Sunni Muslims like myself. It’s also the case that many people are looking for a level of comfort, ease of access and familiarity when it comes to travel, that is perhaps more associated with countries like Malaysia, Turkey and Morocco as a Muslim travel destination. For the people I knew who had either already travelled to Iran, or were already quite interested in visiting the country, we were met with a lot of support and encouragement, and almost everyone we spoke to who had been there, assured us with a type of facially expressive certainty you don’t always see, that we were going to have an amazing time.
And we did. Iran was the highlight of our six week travels to five different countries, having allocated the most time to it. Our Iran journey is one which we will cherish. It was full of intrigue, chance happenings, lessons learnt and personal growth.
This series of articles aims to document our time in Iran, and also serve as somewhat of a guide for those interested in travelling to this beautiful place. My disclaimer is that I don’t claim to know everything about Iran, and I am happy for you to contribute your fact-checks and other information.
A little bit about Iran
Iran sits in-between Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Turkey and Azerbaijan in Asia, with a population of over 79 million people. It is the birthplace of one of the oldest civilisations in the world, reaching its height and expansion during the Achaemenid Empire. Upon the entrance of Islam to the region, Iran became the scene that cultivated some of the greatest artists, scholars and scientists of the Golden era of Islam. With the Safavid dynasty, Twelver Shia Islam was adopted as the official religion of the Kingdom, and remains till this day. As a result of growing public resistance to the corrupt and foreign influence rife during the reign of Shah Pahlavi, the Islamic Republic of Iran was born through the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Iran’s relationship with the West hasn’t exactly been rosy since, and the revolution has strongly shaped the structure of society as well as the lives led within it. Iran hosts one of the most celebrated and vibrant cultures of the world, boasting a rich cuisine, poetic language, an un-matched standard for hospitality and some of the most remarkable architectural delights you will set eyes upon.
How to get a tourist visa to Iran
Well where do I begin? I had no useful blog giving me definitive information to go by to start the visa process for Iran. I trawled through inconclusive trip advisor forum threads, appealed to my Iranian friends for assistance, and even tried engaging the assistance of local travel agents, to no avail! Nearing our travel dates, and having to send in our passport to another embassy for visa stamping, I started to panic. Eventually I decided to bite the bullet and follow some of the un-tested advice I had gathered from the trip-advisor forum. The basic process required for an Iranian tourist visa (as an Australian) is that you have some kind of link in Iran to sponsor you. If you intend to remain in the country for 15 days or less, then you may apply for a visa on arrival, as long as you have an invitation letter along with completed forms and required documentation for your stay.
If you intend to stay more than 15 days, you will not be eligible to obtain a visa on arrival, and will need to apply for the visa from the Iranian Embassy/Consulate closest to you, before you travel to the country. For the visa of more than 15 days, you will need to get your sponsor from Iran to apply for a Visa Reference Number in Iran, first, and once you obtain this, you can submit the number and full application to the Iranian embassy. If you have a close connection in Iran, they will be able to arrange this reference number for you fairly smoothly. If you don’t have a close connection in Iran, as we didn’t, you will need the assistance of a travel agency based in Iran itself.
It is not exactly a straightforward process to first find a travel agency in Iran that you trust, and then liaise with them and receive the visa reference number required. It is vital that you choose a reliable travel agency, and not just select any. According to various online forums and blogs, it’s a really easy way to get scammed and not get a visa on time. I can personally recommend two Iran-based travel agencies. They are Key2Persia, which I used for the visa reference number process, and Revealing Persia, which I used to book hotels and transport in Iran, but would also trust for the visa reference number/invitation letter application. Once you have the number, making the application to the embassy is pretty straightforward, and they will send you back your passport with stamped passport pretty quickly. I found the Iranian travel agencies I used to have the best communication and responsiveness of the agencies I made enquiries with.
Be aware that in order to use the services of these Iranian travel agencies, you will need to be prepared for some not-so common payment methods. Due to sanctions, you cannot make a card or paypal transactions to them. You will need to make a bank transfer to an account in a third country using the details they provide to you. Hope and pray that the payment goes through without a fuss from your bank. Thankfully, the payments went through for me, just make sure you follow all their instructions! For full information on the visa application process, visit the website for the Iranian Embassy or Consulate most local to you and prepare the documents and payment accordingly. Requirements for applications vary across the world, for example, American passport holders must be accompanied by a verified guide for visa to be approved.
Planning your trip
Unless you have a close connection in the country who is going to take care of everything for you, this is not going to be a walk in the park. You need to do thorough research to prepare for your trip to Iran if you want to make the most of your time there.
There are many things you will need to book in advance. Often bookings and tickets will come back to you through your agency in Farsi language and you will either need to have these documents translated for you, or try to decipher them yourself, which my husband and I managed to do since we can read Arabic and have a very basic introduction to the Farsi language.
If you are unwilling or unable to do heavy prep work for your Iran trip such as this, I suggest you book a tour with a reliable company. This will take many a headache away from you, but you may wish to allocate some tour-free time in your trip if you can arrange it easily enough. Many people do backpack through Iran and happen to do OK, but I don’t have much experience in this area and therefore cannot provide too much advice.
If you decide to travel independently, I highly recommend that you travel with a companion, and not completely alone. If you don’t know too many people in Iran, make the most of Iranian Couchsurfers. Although Couchsurfing isn’t officially recommended there, Iranian CSers are the absolute best! We met three sets of CSers there and had the times of our lives with them. They were very gracious when hosting us, and greatly assisted us practically as well. When you’re travelling in a place that seems very foreign to you, it makes things so much nicer to get a local’s guidance and assistance with things like giving you comprehensive directions, lifts to places, recommendations for almost anything, holding luggage for you while you’re in-between accommodation and further journeys, all the little things you take for granted.
I also suggest having maps with you in Iran. Try to find an app that has the location and street names in English script, but we used the maps.me app, which can work offline but does require Persian script to search for some locations. If staying at hotels, the staff there will usually be quite helpful (we have a story about hotel staff in Isfahan that really proves this point, lol) and direct you to central attractions and amenities. We also downloaded the Bradt Iran travel guide onto our Kindle, and that was absolutely excellent. It worked offline (we found 3G is incredibly hard to get in Iran) and had really useful information on hotels, restaurants, backgrounds on places and attractions, transport and heaps of great tips and maps for getting around in Iran.
The places I would prioritise visiting, according to what I enjoyed, are:
- Shiraz (with Persepolis)
- Gilan province (Rasht, Masouleh, other towns & villages)
Places I haven’t been, but am interested in:
- Tabriz I will go into more detail about these places in each post in this series.
Other practical information
Money – The Iranian Rial is the official currency in Iran and, personally, was the currency I found most difficult to get a functional understanding during all my travels. One metro train ride is roughly 3,500 rials if that helps at all. Abdul Hadi is the more mathematically inclined out of the two of us, and was happy to organise most of our transactions, thankfully. My job was to take care of the notes in my purse and hand him the right type of note upon every exit from a taxi and every meal purchased. Cash is going to be your main form payments in Iran. Once again, because of sanctions, you will not be able to use an international bank card in the country and your best bet is to bring your own currency with you into the country (AUD 2000 was more than enough for us for 18 days, excluding hotel and main transport fees) and then have the money exchanged at the airport when you arrive or a local exchange vendor. We found that we could exchange at jewellery stores as well, for a good exchange rate. Watch out for dodgy exchange people, and get hotel staff or local friends to point you in the right direction. You can bargain in Iran, and I did this especially in the bazaars.
Best times to visit - I would say early Autumn or early-mid Spring. Iranian summers and winters are beautiful but also more on the extreme side. We were there in late Autumn and it was very cold, but bearable and varying across different cities.
Clothing – Subject to the weather of course. You will probably know that for women, Iranian law requires that you cover everything except face, hands and feet. Scarfs can be loosely tied. The most common items of clothing for women is a manteau or tunic (long sleeve) over trousers, sneakers, and a headscarf. More traditionally dressed women will wear an iconic Iranian black Chador, which I found pretty cool when I went to Iran. Iranian women know their style. Wearing maxi skirts and dresses, I found was very uncommon and I felt like I stood out a little bit wearing them, but not in a nasty way. They must have just thought I could be Arab.
Food – A lot of Iranian restaurants have Farsi only menus with non-English speaking staff so it’s a good idea to learn some of the most common dishes served in each region you visit. You can also decipher some of the menus using apps and guides, like we did. Like in some other surrounding countries, Westerners may find it most safe to avoid ice and tap water, as well as uncooked vegetables. I often have a very sensitive stomach when travelling and found that I didn’t get ill in Iran, alhamdulilah, except mildly towards the end of my stay.
Safety – Although I highly recommend not travelling alone in Iran, especially if you are a first time traveller there, I did find it very safe and comfortable. Do what you can not to attract the attention of their police, follow the rules as best you can, respect the culture, and you will be fine. Note that most hotels will hold your passport while you stay with them. In terms of getting around, you will notice many, what seemed to me, makeshift taxis. Ordinary Iranians may offer you taxi rides in unmarked cars. If you are afraid to take a chance with these people, stick to the marked taxis. Iran is full of friendly strangers. We were often offered help by people in the streets, and especially after travelling with people on planes, trains and buses. We felt safe to engage with these people and accept their help, but as in all situations like this, a healthy dose of caution and traveller’s intuition never go astray.
Prayer and wudu – Prayer was relatively easy to arrange in Iran, it being a Muslim country. As Sunnis, however, we found that some of the mosques were closed during Asr time due to difference in prayer times in Shia practice. We did get in a little bit of trouble once when Abdul Hadi prayed in a women’s “Namaz Khaneh” because the men’s one was closed for some reason. You will probably mostly find prayer rooms, or Namaz Khaneh’s as opposed to open mosques. We only prayed in a few mosques in Iran. As a tourist, you often have to pay an entry fee to enter one of the more famous or historical mosques (a practice I find uncommon in the Muslim world) and the carpets may be removed out of prayer times for easier passage through mosques, which may make it more difficult to pray in them.
So now that I’ve outlined some of the context for this trip, as well as the practical advice I have to offer as an introduction, I will now prompt you to stay tuned for the next entry in my Iran series, the first stop on our journey, Tehran…