I thought I knew what good hospitality is like.. until I came to Iran.
"Why go to Iran?" This is a question people often asked when I tell them I was going there. I would have asked the same if it wasn't the words of mouth I heard over the years about how awesome Iran is, how incredibly friendly the people are, and how off the beaten path the whole country can be.
Iran is one of the most misunderstood countries among travelers and in this guide, I will tell you all about this country, what it's like to travel around, and hopefully shed lights on the side of Iran the media doesn't want you to know.
Things to Know (Important)
Iran is not the easiest country to travel to so it is important to know all the prerequisite before arriving. Here are a few things you need to know first hand:
- Iran is a strict Islamic country and so dressing appropriately is a must. Men must wear long trousers in public whereas women must wear a headscarf and cover their skins (legs and arms included) in public.
- Bring in enough US dollars to cover your entire trip. Due to international sanction, no foreign ATM, Debit or credit cards will work in Iran.
- It's not cheap to travel in Iran. A dorm room could cost around 15 USD per night so make sure you have enough cash and a few more hundreds USD tucked away for emergency.
- Iran is one of the safest countries I have been to and the locals were exceptionally friendly. Don't get scared when a local invited you for dinner out of the blue. They are genuinely curious about tourists since they rarely see one. Although do exercise a few cautions when dealing with taxi drivers.
Why go to Iran?
Iran has one of the oldest and richest histories in the world. Many of their attractions dated way back to the rise of the Persian empire over 2500 years ago. With those many years passed, it is surprising to see how well-kept the ruins are and how well their tradition has endured. You can see their history in every corner of the uniquely decorated and perfectly symmetrical architecture everywhere. They are really the masters of their crafts.
Not to mention the incredibly friendly locals that will leave you surprised at every turn. It is not uncommon to see locals casually striking up a conversation with travellers, inviting them in for dinners or into their homes or casually giving them free stuff just because they are guests. From my 3 years of travelling, I have never met a bunch of locals as friendly as in Iran. No country can compare to the hospitality of the Persians.
Iran is starting to open up to travelers now. As of now, almost every country in the world can get Visa on Arrival no problem, except Americans, British, Canadians and a few other countries that are required to be accompanied by a guide at all times. The policy changes often so do consult this page before you plan anything.
But if you are an American, Canadian, British or from a country that can not get Iran visa easily, you can apply for a visa through agencies like 1stQuest.com for only € 29 and they will manage everything for you. If you decided to go with 1stQuest, you can also use our special promo code, BLY_QST to get a 5% discount all services provided by 1stQuest.
Entering the Country
Entering the country is a long, tiresome process so be ready to spend at least an hour at the airport getting all the documents checked. Here are the things you need for the entry:
- A passport (of course)
- A travel insurance that covers the whole period of your travel. You can get this at the kiosk near the immigration or you can buy insurance online prior to travelling here. It cost me around 17 USD for a 20 days coverage.
- A valid booking of a hostel in Tehran (no need to show the bookings for elsewhere). The officer will call the hostel up to check so be sure you really do have a booking. Don't wing it when it comes to Iran. You can book the hostel through 1stQuest.com and get the booking detail before you arrive.
- 85 USD cash to pay for the visa and you will get 30 days.
Once you landed in Tehran international airport, walks toward the immigration. Right before the immigration, there should be a kiosk where you can buy the insurance. Once you get the insurance, turn back towards the wall at the counter and tell the officer you want a visa on arrival. He will give you a form to fill in. Once that is done, pay the officer and he/she will give you the documents you need to go through the immigration.
When to Go
The temperature varies a lot between summer and winter in Iran so timing your visit is important. The highest season is between March to May as the weather is most ideal whereas from June to October, the weather can be hot and November to February, extremely cold.
I went during the shoulder season (around July) and the weather was not too hot in Tehran but as I moved southward, the weather became hotter to almost 46°C at noon sometimes. That said, there were fewer tourists during this time and I don't mind the dry heat they have there. I only have to avoid doing outdoor activities in the afternoon when it was hottest.
How to get there
The cheapest option I found is to fly from Bangkok via a newly opened route by AirAsia. Although I heard rumors that the company might shut the route down if it doesn't gain much traffic. Other than that, AirFrance seems to have several flights from Paris to Tehran but it won't be cheap!
How to get around
In Tehran, the Metro is the perfect transportation that will take you close to where you want to go without dealing with traffic. Plus, it is also a good way to socialize with the locals.
Taxis are also plenty and cheap and take you right to where you want to go. In smaller cities, taxi is the only way to get around far and the price is negotiable. I do recommend you to negotiate with the taxi drivers because they tend to hike the price up if you are a foreigner, but they are not aggressive as all and they seem like they kinda enjoy the process of interaction.
For going from one city to another, buses are the way to go. Iran has a good bus system and comfortable buses. Overnight buses are priced reasonably and comfortable.
Apart from Tehran where you have to know which bus station you have to go to depending on the destination, most cities have a main bus station where you can go and buy the ticket from. They will be people trying to fill up the bus so you will have no problem finding one when you arrive.
You can book domestic buses in Iran for any destination easily online here
If you are limited on time, you can opt for a domestic flight instead which can be booked online here prior to your travelling.
What happened if I run out of money?
Yes! I did run out of money and I was pulling my hair out trying to get money from my foreign bank account into the country. Nothing seems to work. The PayPal service provided by some hostel is not working at the moment and the fee is almost 50% which is ridiculous. Black market people is no way to be found and my money is dwindling by the day.
As in everything in life, I eventually found a way. A very family-style kinda solution that required trusts and the existence of the embassy of your origin in Iran. Thankfully there is a Thai embassy in Tehran and I went there asking for help. Here's the thing, the embassy is there to help you no matter what trouble you found yourself in and running out of money in Iran is a big trouble so I seek their help.
Here is how it works, I asked my friend in Thailand to transfer the money to one of the officer's bank account in Thailand and when the officer received the confirmation, she then gave me money in USD hand-to-hand, family-style. That is it! They even gave me a bunch of delicious Thai snacks they bought at home! Thai people are possibly one of the friendliest people in the world no matter where they are.
So if you run out of money in Iran, find the embassy and seek their help. They will eventually find a way to help you. Just be sure you have an embassy you can rely on in Tehran before you get yourself into trouble like I did.
Book your accommodation with 1stQuest, and you can use our special promo code, BLY_QST to get a 5% discount for all hotels.
Tehran - Seven Hostel (Budget) - 15 USD / night (They seems to be the main operator of hostels in Iran as they have all the connection you need for hostels in other cities. They also have all the information you need about everything Iran. "How do I get to here?", ask the reception. "Can you book this for me?", ask the reception. It is the best place to get yourself used to the drastically different culture they have here.) | Shemshak Resort Hotel (Mid-range) - 23 USD / night
Qazvin - Miremad Hotel (Mid-range) - 20 USD / night
Internet and VPN
Wifi is not as widely available yet in Iran and the speed is average at best so if you are looking for a reliable connection, I would suggest you buy the SIM card by Irancell available at the entrance of the Tehran International Airport. For more info about the sim card, click here.
Another thing to consider is the censorship. Iran has a tight censorship when it comes to the Internet so you will need a VPN to access websites like Facebook and Twitter. Here's what works for me:
- Android: Orbot (Free) - Works 100% of the time.
- iPhones: PureVPN iOS (11 USD / month) - works 80% of the time.
- PC/Mac: PureVPN (11 USD / month) - works 80% of the time.
This place is moderately priced with transportation, food and accommodation average around 35 - 55 USD per day per person. Not that cheap but not too expensive.
Keep in mind that this is just a suggested daily budget based on my style of traveling, which is leaning more toward the budget side of things. If you want to stick to this budget, expect to sleep in dorms, eat out only a few times, and be comfortable using the cheapest and most convenient way of transportation, which often times involves walking.
Two Weeks Itinerary
Tehran (2 days)
Tehran is a good place to get yourself used to the culture and hospitality in Iran. First, take a metro and start enjoying random conversation with the locals. First stop Golestan Palace, one of the most impressive palace I've seen so far with multiple sections converted into museum like rooms that allows you to appreciate the intricate beautiful of Iranian decoration.
After you are done with the palace, walk to the Grand Bazaar and hangout with the ever curious and delightful locals. If you are lucky, you might even get to try their delicious sweets for free. You might also stumble a bunch of kids eager to speak english with you, another way to smash the misconception of Iran.
Also drop by at the old US embassy and walk around the outside wall of the building. You will see a bunch of anti American graffiti , something you wouldn't see every day.
Last but not least, go to the Azadi tower during sunset and watch as the sun goes down and the artificial light lit the tower up.
Qazvin and Alamut (2 days)
From Tehran, go to the Tehran west terminal near the Azadi tower and hop on a bus to Qazvin. In Qazvin, first evening, go check out the city center and walk around their modern designed bazaar.
While you are in the city center, check out the Bist Sotoun and enjoy this architectural wonder in its full glory. Surrounding the building is a beautiful park you can rest from the heat and enjoy the solitude.
While walking back in the late evening, walk into one of the many flea market and socialize with the locals. I got invited by one of the shop owner and he gave me a bunch of fruits for free!
The next day, take a taxi out to the Minoudar square outside the city and from there, find a driver that will take you through the Alamut Valley for a day. Bargain hard! I paid almost 50 USD just for the taxi to the Alamut valley and other small attractions.
Hike up to the fortress and enjoy the view of the valleys. This is probably as off the beaten path as it gets since not even the locals come here often.
Shiraz (3 days)
After Qazvin, head back to Tehran and take a 14 hours overnight bus to Shiraz. Shiraz is where most of the cool things you have seen about Iran on the Internet are. From the ancient city of Persepolis to the colorful mosaic mosque are all here.
First day arriving in Shiraz, go walk around the city center, and check out the mosque in the area. The mosques I'd recommended are Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, Vakil Mosque and the Shah Cheragh.
The best time to visit the Nasir al-Mulk Mosque is in the morning around 9AM - 10Am where the sunlight shines briefly through the colorful glass windows creating a beautiful light work unlike anything you have seen before. The light is especially stunning in winter when the sun is more aligned to the window.
The Vakil Mosque contains a whooping 48 monolithic pillars carved in spiral all line up in the hall. It is the perfect place to get a nice symmetrical photo of the intricate detail of the Persian architectural wonder.
The Shah Cheragh is another stunning mosque with the most elegant interior ever. The most attractive part about this mosque is its wall-to-wall mosaic of mirror glass covering all sides of the interior. It was quite a sight to behold.
The next day, joined up with other people and go on an organized tour or a private taxi to check out the Necropolis and the Persepolis. You can easily spend a whole day just walking around these areas. The Necropolis is a series of stunning monuments carved on the side of a mountain. This is where the tomb of Xerxes, the Great lies.
The Persepolis is a site of once the most powerful Achaemenid capital city in the region. Walking around the ruin is like traveling back in time, through the rich history of the ancient Persian empire. The statues and wall carvings are very well-preserved and as stunning as a ruin can be. Be sure to explore the monuments in the mountain behind the Persepolis main site if you can handle the heat. The view from up there is quite something.
Yazd (2 nights)
A few hours bus from Shiraz will take you to Yazd. Another wonderful city located in the middle of the desert. The cool things about Yazd is how it resemble the Persian town you saw in Aladdin. The houses built out of dried mud with an open roof tops where one can run around and pretend that they are in Aladdin.
First evening, find a nice quiet roof top and enjoy the sunset as the sky turned purple and the whole city turned gold.
The next day, go on a full day tour that will take you through a harder-to-get-to places like the Kharanaq abandoned mud village, the Chak Chak village and the Water museum.
The Kharanaq abandoned village is a ruin of crumbling houses where you can walk around and pretend like you are Indiana Jones. It's beautiful, stunning, and eerily at the same time. I am not sure why they let us climb up these crumbling piece of history. The erosion and the damage tourists like us to do this place will wipe this place out in no time!
The Chak Chak village is located up on a mountain in between the sandy valleys around Yazd. The city itself is not that impressive for me so I decided to climb up a bunch of big rocks further above the village to get a nice view point. It was worth it.
As one of my friend said, higher is always better.
After Chak Chak, the tour should take you to the last destination, the Maybod castle, a giant fortress all built from sand and mud. An impressive look at the elaborately complex way they craft their surroundings.
Before the sunset, grab a bunch of people and get a taxi to the Tower of Silence. Climb the highest mountain on the left and wait for mother nature to give you the wonderful light show above this hollowing burial place of the Zoroastrians.
The last day in Yazd, take time and spend a few hours walking around the city and be sure to check out the Jame mosque and the Cistern.
Esfahan (2 nights)
Esfahan is the most friendly city I've been to. The moment I arrived, I went to the Imam Square and one family invited us for dinner. We joined them and sat with them in the park while answering their never ending curiosity about the where we came from. That is when I fall in love with Esfahan.
First evening, head over to Imam Square and walk around until you get invited by someone to join their dinner and socialize with the wonderful Iranians. I have been to many places in the world and I have never seen such hospitality before. It restored my faith in humanity!
At night, walk along the river and drop by at the Si o Seh Pol Bridge to catch a bunch of street performers singing and playing instruments under the bridge. Apparently it is illegal in Iran to perform anything in public without permission.
The next day, go back to the Imam Square and explore the mosques and the palace around the area. Go up to the Ali Qapu terrace to get a stunning view of the square from above.
Also, be sure to go inside the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque as it has one of the most intricate and detail ceiling I have ever seen. See for yourself in the photo above!
Kashan (3 nights)
Kashan is the last stop in this trip and for good reason. From Kashan, you can take a direct bus to the international airport in Tehran without any hassle so it made this place the ultimate final stop for Iran.
Spend your first full day going to a pre-islamic village of Abyaneh. The village is dated back to the 7th century and while people have converted to Islam, the tradition still lives on through their way of living and their outfit.
As you can see above, their outfits resembled the gypsies in Eastern Europe.
Be sure to walk outside the town into the hill in front so you can get to an abandoned fortress and a view point like this.
After a hot day outside, visit the water temple and cooled down a little. Walking around the water temple is quite peaceful and a good break from being outside all day.
The next day, check out the city center of Kashan and explore all the amazing traditional houses that give you a glimpse of the Persian traditional residential architecture.
Historic home of the Abbasid, Sultan Amir Ahmad Bathhouse, Tabatabaei House, and the Borujerdi Historical House are a must visit when you are in the city.
Last but not least, check out the Agha Bozorg Mosque that kinda reminded me to the Taj Mahal for some reason.
And there you have it, a 2 weeks hassle-free adventure in Iran that will take you through one of the most stunning sites in Iran.
What do you think about the itinerary? Did I miss something from the list? If so, pleases let me know in the comments below.
Updated on 10th Dec 2018: Update hotel pricing and add discount code for those who book their services through BucketListly.Blog.
The Solo Traveler’s Journal is a series of posts by BucketListly where we will follow our founder, Pete Rojwongsuriya around the world as he singlehandedly travel alone and experience different cultures, people, and historical locations one country at a time.
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