I harboured a dream of travelling to Iran for a long time, but when it came down to finally planning a month-long trip in the country earlier this year, I had no clue where to begin. Iran recently started offering e-visa for Indian passport holders – but ours got rejected. I typically look at websites like Expedia, Skyscanner, Kayak and Goibibo to book flights – but none of these aggregate flights to/from Iran. I use Airbnb and Booking.com to find experiential accommodations around the world – but none of these work in Iran. I use Visa or Mastercard to pay or withdraw money from ATMs abroad – but neither of them work in Iran; to complicate matters, there are two exchange rates and two currencies in Iran. I buy travel insurance from World Nomads or Indian companies – but none of these cover travel in Iran. Hell, even Facebook, Twitter and BBC don’t work in Iran!
Slowly, we made our way through these challenges, discovering new sites and travel hacks, with a lingering concern over whether Iran was worth the trouble. Turns out, if there’s one country in the world that’s worth the pre-trip hassle, it’s Iran.
So I decided to write this detailed Iran travel blog, with all my tips on how to plan your first independent trip to Iran:
Why Iran travel should be on bucket list in 2020
While many popular cities around the world are suffering from too many tourists, Iran is the polar opposite. Tourism is so low that you can have mind-blowing experiences across the country – from the exquisite Nasir-ol-molk in Shiraz to the Kaluts Desert near Kerman – pretty much all to yourself. On offer are bazaars dating back a thousand years, architectural marvels from ancient empires, geographically unique (and often bizarre) islands and deserts, unexpectedly well-developed infrastructure, stunning gardens and cypress groves that inspired generations of poets, and above all, local friendships that’ll help you find a lost part of your soul.
Is Iran safe to visit
I remember sitting in a basement resto in Shiraz, watching the local news on television. The screen was split in two: on one side, Trump was raving about how Iranians were going through complete hell because of his sanctions on the country. On the other side, streamed a live feed from Esfahan’s tree-lined boulevards, with locals casually walking and eating roasted chestnuts – just a regular day in the country.
I’ve repeatedly been asked: Is Iran safe to travel? The country’s political regime is oppressive, and its relations with the US have been deteriorating, yet life in Iran isn’t what it’s often depicted to be in Western media. I actually felt safer there than many popular tourist destinations. As with anywhere else, stay aware of the on-going political situation and speak to a local tour operator in Iran to gauge how things really are.
Iran tourist visa on an Indian passport
Indian passport holders visiting Iran can now avail of a 30-day Iran e-visa – but like many others, ours got rejected without an explanation. We took the long-winded route of applying for an Iran tourist visa at the Iran consulate in Mumbai. The process is as follows:
- Get in touch with an Iranian travel company and ask them to apply for a visa code on your behalf. Send them your passport copy, tentative trip itinerary and a form. We applied through Uppersia; they process visa codes if you book a trip through them.
- Once you receive a visa code (takes upto 10 days), submit your documents at the embassy. The submission rules are still archaic; in addition to our travel documents, we had to submit medical tests for TB and HIV! To know the latest list of documents, call the Iranian consulate in the city you plan to apply, since they differed between Mumbai and Delhi.
- We paid extra to expedite our Iran tourist visa, which then took 2-3 days since submission.
Entering the US after travelling to Iran
The good news is that the Iran tourist visa is not stamped on your passport. It is a separate physical document, and even at immigration in Iran, only the document is stamped at entry and exit. So in theory, there’s no proof on your passport that you’ve been to Iran. I haven’t travelled to the US after Iran, but I still expect to be interrogated if and when I do.
If you plan to travel to the US in the near future, I highly recommend that you apply for a US tourist visa before visiting Iran – since in the US visa application, you need to disclose all countries you’ve ever set foot in. Chances are, in a post-Trump US, this won’t be an issue.
Booking flights to Iran from India
International websites like Expedia, Skyscanner, Goibibo etc don’t aggregate flights to / from Iran. So we individually looked at airline websites like Emirates, Mahan Air (an Iranian carrier), Iranian Airlines – and found a sweet deal from Mumbai to Shiraz! To get the best deal, check not only flights to Tehran but also Shiraz and other cities.
The best time to visit Iran
All locals unanimously agreed that spring (late March – early May) and autumn (late September – early November) are the best times to visit most parts of Iran, except the mountainous northern regions. We factored the weather into our travel plans in Feb/March, and ended up exploring the southern islands of Qeshm and Hormuz, and the Kaluts desert – too hot to visit at other times of the year.
Also read: Why You Shouldn’t Put Off Your Travel Dreams
The official and unofficial exchange rates in Iran
Since Mastercard and Visa debit / credit cards don’t work in Iran, not even in ATMs, carrying cash (US$) into Iran is the only option. Upon landing in Iran, we exchanged 50 USD at the airport’s money exchange counter, and were surprised to receive a HUGE wad of local currency – 3 times the exchange rate. That’s when we learnt that there are two exchange rates in Iran.
The unofficial exchange rate is 3 times the official one; it currently ranges from 11000-14000 rial to a dollar. This made our trip to Iran 3 times cheaper than we had originally budgeted for! It’s possible to exchange USD pretty much anywhere in Iran – at a hotel, money exchange, a random shop on the street, even with a taxi driver. Just make sure you get the unofficial rate.
Iran’s two currencies
Currency in Iran is super confusing, for there are two legal currencies – Toman and Rial; 1 toman=10 rial. Most prices are quoted in toman, but it’s always good to ask. We gradually found our bearings and also felt grateful that except for one unsuspecting encounter, no one tried to rip us off.
Finding unique accommodations in Iran
Since Airbnb and booking.com don’t work in Iran, we relied largely on TripAdvisor and Instagram to figure out our accommodations. Homestays, guesthouses and hotels all need to be emailed individually and paid either through bank transfer (a complicated process from India) or in cash. Thanks to a collaboration with Uppersia – a local travel company managed by an Iranian, all-women team – almost all our accommodations were arranged through them. They recommended some local guesthouses that only Farsi speakers can find, and also conveyed my vegan dietary requirements to all accommodations.
Travel insurance for Iran
Most travel insurance companies -World Nomads, HDFC Ergo, Bajaj Allianz etc, don’t cover travel in Iran. We ultimately found IATI, a Spanish company that offers travel insurance in Iran. Luckily, we didn’t need to use our travel insurance, but it’s always reassuring to have one no matter where you go.
Learning conversational Farsi to travel in Iran
Although it’s possible to get by with English in the cities, most people on the countryside only speak Farsi. We ended up learning a bit of conversational Farsi through the brilliant podcast Chai and Conversation – and practicing it with locals throughout Iran. Some basic phrases you should know:
- Salam: Hello
- Sobh bekher: Good morning
- Chitori: How are you?
- Befarmah: Welcome (you’ll hear it very often)
- Merci: Thank you (like in French)
- Nushe jahan: roughly translates to ‘my pleasure’
Also read: How to Earn Money While Travelling
Accessing social networks in Iran
While Instagram and Gmail can be legally accessed in Iran, you need VPN for everything else.
We ended up using Express VPN all month – safe, fast and allowed us to access everything we would in our lives outside of Iran. Make sure you download the Express VPN app and pay for a subscription before you enter Iran. One subscription allows upto 3 devices to be connected.
I also tried Nord VPN and some free VPNs, but Express VPN was by far the fastest and most reliable. Wifi is readily available at homestays, and a local SIM card is cheap and useful.
Getting ready for Iran travel: What to pack for Iran / What to wear in Iran
Unfortunately it’s true that women need to wear a hijab (headscarf), and cover their arms, butts and legs while in public spaces in Iran. Within your accommodation, it’s usually okay to let your hair loose. It’s rather fascinating to see how Iranian women transition from their often footloose, fashionable lifestyle at home to being fully covered while stepping out.
My relationship with the hijab quickly changed from nonchalance to annoyance to resentment, and finally to empathy for the women who don’t have a choice. Having said that, I must emphasize that we cannot judge Iranian women by the hijab. I met so many free-spirited, independent, badass, inspiring women across the country.
I didn’t buy any new clothes for Iran, except for a light long sleeve cardigan that covered both my arms and butt. I paired that with t-shirts, tops, even dresses while wearing leggings below. Note that Iran has a dress code for men too – shirts with sleeves (no sleeveless) and long pants. If only they’d cover their head in solidarity!
Vegan and vegetarian food in Iran
I was quite worried about being vegan in a meat-loving country like Iran, but relieved to stumbled upon Iran Vegan Travel – a small company that aggregates vegan hosts across Iran. We ended up staying at an all vegan guesthouse in Isfahan (which has changed hands since, sigh) and with a lovely vegan Iranian family in Tabriz. That meant incredible vegan Iranian food (including vegan kebabs) and veganised traditional Iranian dishes like kuku sabzi and ghormet sabzi.
During the rest of our trip across Iran, I relied heavily on the HappyCow App to find vegan-friendly restaurants and cafes. Many of our homestay hosts were accommodating enough to customise local dishes without animal products.
“Tarof” and how to accept Iranian hospitality
Tarof is Persian etiquette that puts the guest first: taxi drivers refuse to accept money for a ride, homestay owners refuse to let you pay for your stay, hosts stuff you with food, strangers offer to pay for your meals or entrance to an attraction, even fresh juice shops refuse to take your money. This kindness towards strangers is deeply rooted in Persian culture (much like in Indian hospitality) – but please, don’t take advantage of it to score a free meal or stay.
The rule of thumb is that if someone refuses your money or offers to pay for you 3 times, they genuinely mean it. Otherwise it’s tarof – it’s in their culture to offer, and we should reciprocate the gesture with gratitude but insist on paying our fair share. I’ve read accounts of travellers who ended up getting their accommodation, food, even transport free – which sucks, because the Iranian economy is doing terribly, tourism is one of the few avenues to make money, and as travellers, we should really know better than to take advantage of a local’s warm-hearted hospitality. Almost everything that you would pay for abroad, insist on paying for in Iran.
Solo travel Iran
Although I didn’t travel solo on this trip, I can totally imagine doing it. The locals are hospitable and always up for a conversation, hardly anyone will try to tout you, there is much to keep you occupied, it feels safe enough and it’s one of the most affordable countries to solo travel in.
Where to go in Iran
Even as someone who doesn’t like spending too long in cities, I absolutely fell in love with Shiraz and Isfahan. The old gardens, stunning architecture, small-town vibe, tree-lined streets, old bazaars, nearby villages, there’s so much to love. Among other highlights of our trip were the islands of Qeshm and Hormuz, the Kaluts Desert and the cities of Kerman and Tabriz. Look out for my travel recommendations for Iran, coming soon.
Travelling around Iran by public transport
VIP buses are surprisingly amazing in Iran, and can comfortably ferry you across long distances. Infact, ours turned into a land journey from the Persian Gulf, via the south of Iran, to Yerevan in Armenia! It’s best to ask your host to book your bus ticket online, since websites are only in Farsi. Trains only ply a few routes in Iran.
Within cities and for short excursions nearby, we used local taxis – either booked through our accommodation or hailed directly on the street. In smaller places, many people will stop their cars to give you a taxi ride for a quick buck – which is totally safe. A little bit of haggling is common, but don’t go overboard considering the state of the economy.
Getting over Iran!
For a couple of months after I left Iran, my world felt bland, soulless. I threw myself into Iranian films, Persian music, books by Saadi and other Persian poets, and began learning the Urdu script so I could slowly make my way to Farsi. Yeah, withdrawal symptoms of Iran seem to be common among travellers. The only solution is to go back, again and again 😉
Also read: How Travelling is Breaking My Heart
Helpful Iran travel blogs
Against the compass: Offers a wealth of information about independent travel in Iran – and other countries under the tourist radar.
Books, music and movies about Iran
A small selection of Iranian books, music and movies I love:
Music: Blue Flowers (album) by Marjan Farsad.
Movies: Taxi by Jafar Panahi; A Separation and About Elly by Asghar Farhadi.
What else would you like to know about Iran travel?
*Note: I travelled to Iran in collaboration with Uppersia. Opinions on this blog, as you can tell, are always mine!
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