A Practical Guide to Iran
Iran has acquired many global misconceptions over the years. Painted in the western press as some kind of imminent threat to all things freedom, Persia is far more complex than the despotic monster some have reduced it to. Home to more than 80,000,000 people, they, shockingly, aren’t all crazed lunatics hell bent on destroying the west.
Home to some of the warmest and most hospitable people you will ever meet, any weary traveller is at home at a Persian dinner table. Not to mention, that dinner will probably be one of the best and biggest feasts you’ve ever laid eyes on.
Islamic art and ancient relics are some of the simplest attractions in Iran. The legacy of the Persian Empire, the hub of medieval science and learning, the home to many of the most important sites in Middle Eastern, and global, history. You’ll never run out of things to do, people to meet, food to eat, or culture to discover.
Leave the preconceptions at home, and embrace Iran with a fresh perspective.
These are my tips for the boring & practical parts of travelling in Iran.
By far the most difficult obstacle a lot of travellers face in Iran is actually gaining entry to the country. After western sanctions almost crippled the country, they grew less fond of certain kinds of visitors.
On an Irish passport, I could pick up visa on entry for around €30. I asked for 2 weeks and was told I was welcome for 3 months, and then went straight through. Some of my family members travel on British passports, and they didn’t have quite such an easy ride. After through months of processes, including trips to the Iranian embassy in London, written letters from an Iranian resident (if you book through a tour company they can help out with this), and far higher expenses than I had to deal with, they eventually got pre-approval for their visas. A bit more admin than just rocking up and hoping for the best.
Do extensive research into the visa requirements for your country before you even start thinking about a trip to Iran, particularly if you’re planning a visit from the west.
If you have previously been to Israel on the same passport that you intend to visit Iran on, you will not be granted entry. Israel will also likely deny you a visa if you’ve been to Iran. It can also be significantly more difficult to get approval for a US visa after visiting Iran.
Language & Communication
Iranians speak Persian, also known as Farsi, and there's no one super common second language. I found that spoken Arabic was useless unless you’re speaking to an Imam, but is helpful enough for reading some signs and the numbers on the buses. You can try Russian, English, French, or, the route I’d recommend, get a guide or a friend that speaks Farsi and can help you out.
Travel & Transport
Iran is a very big country. It's not that simple to get around, particularly if you have a strict time limit. We took a couple of domestic flights (Tehran to Mashhad and back, and Shiraz to Tehran), but otherwise we drove between cities.
The drives are long and desertous, but there's plenty to stop and see along the way. Stop at caravan sarays, relics of the silk route, at Zoroastrian temples of silence, or at ancient cities of the Persian empires, lost to the sand over time.
There are also trains that run between major cities.
Safety & Security
You're in far, far more danger from the drivers in Iran than you are from any kind of terror threat.
Dress properly, follow the rules, don't antagonise people for the sake of it, you'll be fine. There are occasional protests and riots, so pay attention to the news, but even these are no more dangerous than protests in most other parts of the world.
One of the most damaging misconceptions about Iran is that it’s too dangerous for Westerners to travel in. Though I visited before the USA decided to ban all Iranians from travelling or living in the States, when I was there there was very little of the anti-American sentiments that the Western press presents as rampant here.
Although, when I visited the country was just getting back on its feet, after rampant unemployment and crime under western sanctions. With the recent revocation of the Iran deal, sentiments may have soured.
Though the young people of Iran are far more lax in their approach to religion, the law is still dictated by religious law. Homosexuality is illegal here, so please take very extreme precaution if travelling as a same sex couple. It is illegal for women to not wear the hijab, though in some cities, like Tehran, it is acceptable for some hair to be showing. If you’re travelling in the countryside, away from any police or soldiers, or if you’re at a non-religious persons house, nobody cares if you aren’t wearing your hijab. Drinking alcohol is illegal, though pretty easy to obtain on the black market if you want to try and source some. Be smart, be respectful, and take care of yourself, and you shouldn't run into any problems.
Iran is home to some of the most beautiful Islamic sites in the world, and the histories of Shi'ism and Zoroastrianism in Persia are incredibly interesting and unique.
Iran has jungles, ski slopes, forested canyons, beaches. It’s not a strictly desertous country. That being said, there’s a lot of desert, and it’s pretty damn hot. In accordance with the law, you have to have your body covered at all times, with even men having to keep their legs covered. I thought the locals were pretty crazy for wandering around in jeans, I just about survived the weather in the ‘stereotypical traveller’ elephant pants. Any light weight trousers, light long sleeved tops, and hijabs made a breathable fabrics work well. You can wear anything you like on your feet, so at least they won’t be too hot.
Adopt a fresh perspective and you’ll realise just how much this wonderful country has to offer.