A visit to Iran? Why would you go to Iran? Isn’t Iran Dangerous? These are just some of the questions I am asked about my trip to Iran back in 2012. I figured it was time to write a post about that trip, and why you should put Iran high on your list of countries to visit. Now is especially a great time to go there. Lets answer one question first;
Is Iran safe to visit?
This is a common question, and if you want the quick answer, then yes Iran is safe to visit, in parts. I say in parts as there are some areas, especially around the Afghanistan and Pakistan border areas, that can be dangerous.
However the vast majority of Iran is perfectly safe, and I have felt very welcomed wherever I went. Considering that my government (U.K.) are one of the leading countries putting sanctions on Iran, I was somewhat cautious when being asked where I was from. I always got the same response: U.K. great country! Welcome to my country!
Of course the situation can change in the future, but as of now it is fine to go to Iran.
Iranians are very hospitable people.
Never judge a book by its cover. Never could that be more true than with Iran. When you hear the word Iran you could automatically think of nuclear weapons and axis of evil etc, but the opposite is true. Of course Iran has its assholes, like every country, and I am certainly not very fond of their government, but my experience, as well as friends who have been there, is that the people you will meet are overwhelmingly friendly.
Upon arrival at Tehran airport a man offered to help get me get into Tehran, after seeing me look rather lost! He came on the bus for twenty minutes or so, before transferring to the subway. After another twenty minutes he walked with me too find the hotel I was staying at. He then said goodbye and please enjoy my country. On top of all that he payed for my transport, and it turned out he was going in the opposite direction. Welcome to Iran indeed.
I met military officers in Esfahan who hanged out and had a laugh. Off all the people who would be pissed off about where I was from, I figured it would be them, but they were very friendly, and was the same almost everywhere.
The cities and scenery are beautiful.
Iran has an amazing ancient history. The persian empire was once vast, leaving behind archaeological wonders. The cities are full of old buildings, especially eye catching mosques and old residences. The scenery goes from big city to desert, then mountainous terrain in a heartbeat. Inside the cities are huge bazaars selling everything you could envision, the most impressive of which I found in Esfahan, the cultural capital. Wandering around the huge complex, getting lost in the maze of lanes and shops, is a great way to spend a few hours.
Taking a taxi into the desert and hiking through the dunes is very peaceful. Going into the mountains and visiting old towns filled with smiling locals, while shopping for traditional crafts. Exploring the old residences of exquisitely designed buildings, filled with grandeur in Kashan. Visiting the grand old ruins of Persepolis and other ancient sites. There are many, many other such good things to see and do.
If you never visit Iran, then at least try to find a local Persian restaurant near you too sample the delicious cuisine. Aside from the usual tasting kebabs found throughout the region, there are many other delights to discover. Sitting on the floor in an old restaurant, you can savour the taste of a camel steak with rice spiced in all kinds of flavours.
Staying at a home-stay in a desert oasis as an old grandmother cooks up eggplant in an old earthen oven, covered in fermented cheese and spices, was the best eggplant I have ever eaten. Tasty soups and stews, sweetly spiced pilaf rice, traditional Iranian ice cream. Your taste buds will not be upset!
Iran is cheap to travel.
As a budget traveller (backpacking specifically), Iran is excellent value for money. When I visited two years ago the official bank rate was one euro to 12500 Iranian rial. But on the black market, where almost everyone changes, the rate was $1 to 19000 Iranian rial. Great! A few months after my visit, some friends got a black market rate of around $1 to 30000 rial.
You can get in cheap overland from Turkey easily, or through more hassle countries bordering Iran. I got a cheap flight to Amsterdam from Tehran on Pegasus airlines, and a cheap flight into Tehran on Tajikistan airlines from Dushanbe.
Picking up a Persian carpet while there could be a good thing, as they are very cheap to buy at the moment.
There is some strict dress codes in Iran, being a predominantly muslim country. If you are a female visiting Iran, then you will have to wear a head scarf and a jacket that covers your butt. This is not the kind of head scarf that covers your face, but over the hair. The headscarf is a law in Iran and must be worn. As bad as that may sound, many female friends visited Iran and had no problems. It certainly is not ideal, but it has to be done.
Men must wear trousers in Iran, no shorts are allowed. Alcohol is illegal, so don’t expect crazy parties! However if you really want a drink, you could find some underground places to do that.
Getting an Iranian visa.
Now you have a decent enough reason to visit Iran, lets get onto the hard part, getting an Iranian visa. This is the real bitch of a visit to Iran, the visa. All off this information is valid as of February 2014. Things can obviously change in the future.
If you are from the U.S.A. then there is some bad news, you cannot get an independent visa to visit Iran. This is all political of course, with huge distrust between the two governments. The only way US citizens can visit Iran is on an organised tour. (UPDATE: As of March 2014 British and Canadians also need to be on an organised tour, but the method of using an agency for a visa is still valid for other nationalities). Also some travellers I met have reported that it is quite easy to get an Iranian visa in Trabzon, Turkey, although I cannot independently verify this.
For the rest of the world it depends on your country as to how much a visa costs. As it would be very impractical to list all countries requirements, do a web search for your own specific one. The visa cost for me as a UK citizen back in 2011 was a whopping $250! But then again our governments don’t exactly get along.
Having said that, friends from other countries who get cheaper visas, such as The Netherlands, got denied a visa all together, while others from The Netherlands did get a visa. Fellow citizens from my country got denied a visa, while I got one. It seems to be a lottery on who gets a visa or not. It is a rather strange system.
The way I got my visa was to use a travel agency based in Tehran, in my case key2persia. For a fee (check their website), they will apply in Tehran for you and hopefully get a visa clearance number. They will email this to you, where you will then take it to the Iranian embassy or consulate you chose to get the visa from. This whole process can take up to a month, not easy or convenient.
Go to Iran.
Despite the hassles of getting a visa, a visit to Iran should leave you very happy. If anything go there to meet the diverse and friendly people. Ignore the bad press and go and pay a visit, you will most likely be glad you did.