We’ve been all around the world, spent a lot of time in a lot of different countries, and if there’s one thing we can honestly tell you it’s that we’ve never felt as welcomed, fascinated and humbled as we did when we visited Iran.
Iran is such an incredible country to travel. The architecture will amaze you, the friendliness of the people will leave you speechless, the culture is fascinating and the landscapes are out of this world.
Iran is also very misunderstood, with many people believing whatever propaganda they hear on the media about how dangerous or difficult it is to travel there.
What To Know Before You Visit Iran
The truth is travelling in Iran definitely has its quirks, and being an Islamic country means there’s a few things you need to know about the religion and culture before you go so you can show absolute respect.
Luckily these are easy enough to know before you go if you do a bit of research. We spent one month travelling around Iran and learnt so much during our time there.
To help put your mind at ease about travelling in this incredible country, here’s our list of the most important things to know before you visit Iran.
1/ Iran Is Safe!
All of the mainstream media outlets portray Iran as an unsafe country, somewhere that you’ll be at risk if you visit.
The mainstream media is wrong.
We did not feel unsafe once through the whole 4 weeks of us backpacking independently in Iran. We weren’t with a tour group, had no tour guides, don’t speak the local language, took public transport and taxis, wandered the streets on our own – basically everything you shouldn’t do if you’re in a dangerous country.
And guess what? Nothing bad happened to us at all!
The Iranian people are so friendly and helpful. They want you to have a great time and tell your friends so more people will come and visit.
We were walking around one morning on a quiet street when a car passed us and turned around. A group of young people stopped the car, came up to us, and asked if we were ok or if we needed help.
Once we told them we were just looking for a coffee they pulled out their phones and started showing us where the cafes were on a map. They even offered us a ride, and said if the cafes were closed they had coffee at their home and would love to make us some.
This is just one example of dozens of interactions that happened to us when we were in Iran. Iranians love that tourists are coming to their country and travelling around.
The locals know what the media says about them and what a lot of the world thinks of their country, and the people just want to show that they are nice, generous people.
Theft against tourists is very rare and even the Religion Police (secret police) tend to leave tourists alone. Just be careful around the bazaars and crowed places for pickpocketing. We didn’t have any issue and didn’t hear of any other travellers having problems, but this is common sense in any busy place in the world.
With all that being said, there is a large military and police presence in Iran. Do not photograph any military areas or government buildings, and stay away from any protests if you see them.
Obviously there are some areas of Iran that are no-go zones, such as the borders of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, so do your research and talk to locals if you’re thinking about going anywhere near them.
2/ There’s A Lot Of Customs To Follow
When you travel somewhere you want to take in everything about the country and its people, and that includes the culture and customs.
Iran has quite a few local customs that may take some getting used to, so it’s important to learn about them before you go so you don’t accidentally offend or disrespect anyone.
Some of the most common ones that throw tourists off are:
- Women must wear hijabs (head scarves) at all times in public. They must also wear loose fitting clothes that don’t show their figure.
- Giving a thumbs up sign is considered rude, similar to giving the middle finger in Western society.
- Men can wear short-sleeved shirts, but long pants must be worn at all times.
- Men and women who aren’t related shouldn’t touch either. That means no shaking hands or hugging someone of the opposite sex.
- If you are travelling with your significant other, avoid any public displays of affection.
- Always bring a gift if you are invited to someone’s house. Candy, pastries or flowers is fine.
Now we want to give a special mention to ta’arof – This is a hospitality trait where it’s customary for someone to refuse payment for a service, and is probably the most confusing thing for any tourist to get their head around.
Basically what happens is if you make a purchase (a souvenir, taxi ride, etc), the person may refuse your payment out of politeness. It is then up to you to insist despite their refusals that you want to pay. After two or three times they’ll then accept your money.
If they still keep refusing then perhaps you have just experienced some amazing Iranian hospitality! But chances are they’ll accept the payment once the process has been completed. Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it.
The locals are so lovely, that if you do something wrong someone will approach you and nicely let you know. For example, if you are a lady and your head scarf falls off with out you knowing, a local will kindly let you know.
Don’t stress about getting your outfits beforehand as shopping in Iran is cheap. Just bring one head scarf and set of loose-fitting clothes, and buy more once you get there.
The culture is the best thing about visiting Iran, and after a few days you’ll start to understand and fall in love with it just like we did.
3/ You Need A Visa For Iran
In order to visit Iran, you’re going to need to get a tourist visa. This used to be a very difficult process, but luckily things have gotten easier with the introduction of visa on arrivals in 2016
On the 14th February 2016, the Ministry of Iran announced that citizens of 180 countries can now apply for VOA of 30-days at most international airports, including Tehran, Shiraz, Mashad, Tabriz and Isfahan.
There’s an exception to this rule though, and if you are from Canada, the UK or the USA, we have some bad news for you…You can only visit Iran if you join a guided tour, so no chance of getting a VOA and travelling independently.
Your tour company will help organise your visa for you.
4/ You Need To Dress Appropriately
This follows on from the customs section above, but in a bit more detail.
Iran is an Islamic country, and as such you need to follow the Islamic dress code. Here’s some things to keep in mind.
Women need to cover their arms, legs and head. This including a Hijab, loose long length shirt with long sleeves and pants.
Leggings or tight jeans are ok as long as your top is long and covers your bottom. When wearing pants, you need to be covered down to your ankles.
The most common way to cover your head is with a scarf. The local women wear bright colours and are very stylish with the clothing, so don’t think you need to wear all black.
Black is still worn a lot but not so much among the younger generation.
You can wear sandals. Some guesthouses and hostels will allow you to take your head scarf off on their premises, but do check first.
Men aren’t allowed to wear shorts in public, so bring long, lightweight pants as the best option. T-shirts are fine to wear in public. Men can wear sandals too.
If you do wear in appropriate clothing it’s not the end of the world, and besides some angry looks from some of the older generation, you’ll probably just end up having a friendly local let you know what’s best to wear.
In Tehran the locals push the limits in terms of what they wear in public. At the end of 2017 an uprising occurred and supposedly women were no longer required to wear the Hijab in public in Tehran, but wait until you are in the country to find out for certain.
5/ Have A Head Scarf In Your Carry-On Luggage Before Arrival
When you land at the airport, it is respectful to put a scarf straight on your head ladies. This will cause no trouble for you by locals or the officials at the airport.
Once you’re in the air on an international flight you’ll see most young ladies take their hijab as soon as the plane leaves the ground. Just follow what the locals do.
6/ Bring A Phrase Book Or Have Google Translate On Your Phone
We were quite surprised to discover that a lot of Iranians could speak a little bit of English, but that wasn’t always the case, so do yourself a favour and bring along something that can help translate English to Persian.
We always travel with Google Translate and offline languages saved on our phones, but at times having a phrase book is the best (and most social) way to interact with people who don’t speak any English.
Remember, you are in a country that doesn’t have English as an official language, so don’t be that rude tourists that gets upset if people aren’t understanding you.
Persian (Farsi) is difficult, and no locals expect you to learn much beyond hello and thank you while you are there, but do your best anyway as a few extra words will go a long way in showing respect.
Also don’t be surprised if you are constantly invited out for tea with people so they can practice their English. If the opportunity comes up, make time for it, as it’s an amazing experience for both the local and yourself.
7/ Bring A Lot Of Cash
Don’t forget your cash when visiting Iran, as none of the ATMs in the country accept foreign credit or debit cards thanks to the embargo. So if you forget to bring all of your cash for your entire trip, you’re out of luck.
Figure out what your usual budget is for a trip ($50 a day, $100 a day, etc), then bring a bit extra just in case. USD is best for all around the country but Euros and British Pounds are also accepted in Tehran.
There’s two exchange rates in the country – official rate and black market rate – and black market rate is of course much better.
We actually found an exchange booth at Tehran airport that gave pretty close to the black market rate, so we traded some cash there.
As a tip don’t exchange all of your foreign cash into Rials at once, because you’ll either get ripped off on the exchange rate back if you have any left over, or you’ll be unable to trade it outside of the country.
Also don’t be too concerned about travelling around with thousands of dollars in your backpacks. As we mentioned earlier theft is rare. Do keep your money stashed in different spots though just in case.
8/ The Currency Has Two Names
“Toman or Rial?” Get used to asking that question, because if you don’t it could end up being a costly mistake.
The currency in Iran is officially known as the Rial, and is valued at roughly 30’000 IRL to USD$1. That’s a lot of zeros, so what the locals have started doing is dropping a zero and calling the new value a Toman.
1 Toman = 10 Rial
When you hear prices quoted in Tomans you need to add a zero on the end and pay the amount in Rials. It sounds confusing, but you’ll pick it up pretty quickly.
That’s why it’s important to always ask Toman or Rial, so you don’t accidentally pay too much on an item. Most vendors quote in Tomans anyway, so chances are if the price seems too good to be true, you need to multiply it by 10.
Rumour has it that Iran will officially introduce Toman as a currency in the coming years, but that hasn’t come into effect yet.
You are going to do a lot of walking in Iran, so bring comfortable footwear. The towns here are so amazing that you’ll probably end up walking at least 10km every day, so look after your feet.
These don’t necessarily have to be hiking boots (unless you’re planning on doing some treks). Just make sure you have some flat shoes that you can wear all day without a problem.
Don’t bring heels. You don’t need them, and you won’t wear them. We had a pair of hiking shoes each and a pair of sandals. That was perfect.
10/ Research The Food And Don’t Just Eat Kebabs
Persian food is varied and delicious, and there’s plenty of different styles to try, so be adventurous!
Most people travelling on a budget will end up eating falafel sandwiches when they’re in Iran because they are cheap ($1 !), filling and delicious, but there’s plenty more to Iranian cuisine then just kebabs.
We don’t consider ourselves to be foodies, but luckily we were travelling with our good friends Dan and John and they are all about culinary travel, so they had a huge list of food they wanted to try. And boy were we thankful they did!
They had looked up the different types of food they wanted to try, so we basically followed their advice and tried it all. Of course it was super delicious too.
One particular dish we all loved was dizi. It’s quite confusing how to eat the first time, so we had the restaurant owner show us how to mix and grind all the ingredients. If she didn’t show us, we wouldn’t had a clue how to eat it.
If you are a vegetarian, there are food options but they can be limited. There is a lot of eggplant, lentil and chickpea dishes. There are simple salads and rice also.
Try to get away from the popular tourist areas as well, as the prices are going to be a lot higher than the average place.
Move away and you will be surprised how much the price drops, and the portions are larger. It you are passing a local restaurant and it is packed with locals, that is going to be a winner.