Iran is my homeland, one I never lived in but always felt a warm feeling towards Kirk I knew it and finally I decided to stop giving a fudge about the visa issues and booked my flights and I just got back lost night but I can feel it running through my veins still.There is something about Iran that will make you fall in love hopelessly and I already cannot wait to go back. People, good, magnificent buildings, arts, cityscapes, deserts, mountains, beaches; there’s something for everyone and I was shocked to see how many misconceptions I have had about the country myself, I can only imagine what other folks must have in their heads. (Probably men with beards and turbans running around with atom bombs, swords and guns and women Vlad in long veils with mouths firmly shut).
There are so many things that are different and beautiful about this amazing country, I’ll include most of them in the tips section below so you’re a little equipped before getting there.
Tip: If you want to offend Iranians call them Arab, they were colonised by Arabs for 200 years and the wounds have been reopened with the tussle between Saudi and Iranian governments.
How Racist is Iran?
Iranians are some of the most hospitable people on the planet with open hearts and arms. They will look at you with inquisitiveness and curiosity especially in smaller cities but mostly you will get smiles, shy handshakes and nods.
The only people who aren’t very welcomed are arabs and when my friend was booking hotel for me they specifically told her, they don’t want Arab guests, be prepared.
Iran us a huge spectrum of people and races and some of hem are even persecuted but for visitors it is generally an extremely friendly country.
Tip: If an Iranian nods upwards it means NO, don’t stand there looking like an idiot because that’s the end of conversation even in bargaining.
Gay Life and Travel in Iran
This one is a no no and not because of the government persecuting people or religion but because of the gay culture. Yes the government persecuted people and yes you could be in big trouble at any sign you’re gay or lesbian but again pretty much everyone knows that and no one shows any signs of PDA.
I have heard many a stories about people especially foreigners being robbed or blackmailed. In one case the guy undressed and refused to wear clothes until he was given money. In other cases guys were abducted and robbed. I have also heard of secret police on grindr to catch people and also guys catfish (guys using fake pics). You have to be utmost careful especially in the south of Tehran and in smaller cities.
Tip: Grindr and other apps are blocked and you will need to use VPN to connect.
In terms of general population there are only a handful of guys on gay apps in most cities, only tehran has bigger population and pretty much everyone I talked to was nice but meeting up is still an issue in terms of trusting each other.
Tip: Always meet in public preferably in a park or cafe first. This is not a country where you invite people over to your hotel or house and most Iranian guys will never invite you to theirs.
The gay circle in most cities is quite small and there are underground gay parties that happen almost on monthly basis but you will need to check with the guys first but again there’s a big risk of being caught so I’d recommend avoiding them unless you trust the person you’re going with.
Fun Fact: in most hotels you can only bring same gender guests in to your room but I think they ask for their I.D cards.
Visa for Iran
If you are a British, American or Canadian citizen you are in some shit. You need to go with an agency and with a guide which doesn’t sound so bad especially in a country where pretty much no one speaks your language but the cost of going with an agency is ridiculously high compared to what you actually spend in the country and you are tied to a guide which is never fun.
For other countries things are more flexible and if you need to apply for a visa without the use of agency guide and services, you can use IranianVisa.com. They are a bit slow to respond and you have to chase them but they are friendly and don’t try to sell extra stuff.
Reception to English
Although English is a compulsory subject in schools most of the Iranians do not speak English and you will barely see any signs in English other than tourist attractions. Taxi drivers do not speak English mostly and this is a major issue because you cannot bargain and may end up paying a high price.
The most surprising fact about Iran for me was that most websites do not have english versions and again you will be dependent on Farsi speakers for translation.
Value for money
Iran is quite a cheap country where you can easily roam around in taxis and eat good food at the fraction of cost of UK or Europe. The food is cheap and great and an average taxi ride costs around £1. The public transport is even cheaper. The hotels on the other hand can be expensive especially for the price they charge but overall value for money is quite high for Iran.
Tip: if you are going with a local ask them to purchase your tickets because locals get the same tickets at 5 or 6 times cheaper.
Cash and Cards
The official currency of Iran is Rial and while it appears on all payments no one talk or quotes in Rials. (They do sometimes quote in Rials for foreigners which make is more confusing).
The normal day to day currency quotes are in Toman (1 Toman = 10 Rials) so multiply all Yomams with 10 and you will get Rials.
Now the issue with prices is more complicated than that because of the number of zeros. For example a taxi ride might cost you 5000 Toman which seems a lot but it is roughly 1 pound, in Rials it is 50,000 Rials. Sometime they call multiples of 1000 Tomans, Khomenei, fancy that!!!
Also a taxi driver quoting you 5 Toman doesn’t mean 5 Toman it means 5000 Tomans.
In short you need clarification and use the table below:
1 Toman = 10 Rials
1 Khomenei = 1000 Tomans or 10,000 Rials
Now we come to currency and Iranians haven’t made this easy either; you have currency notes issued by the central bank of Iran (Bank Milli Iran) and then there are bearer checks issued by other banks and you can imagine how many different types of notes you could have for same denomination ( it is not too bad with 4/5 type) so make sure you check the zeros before handing it out.
The biggest surprise in Iran for me was the number of banks in Iran and how frequent is the use of cards as a method of payment which eliminates the need to carry a lot of cash but there’s a cash; foreigners are not allowed to open accounts and have cards whether debit, credit or prepaid ones and your cards won’t work here because of sanctions so you will need to carry all that cash unless you have a trustworthy friend who can lend you their card like my friend did and it saved me a hell lot of trouble.
This is another tricky area with lots of tourist traps. If you go to South of Tehran or in Saadi street the foreign exchange shops will give you a much worse rate, go to the north of Iran instead. You need to carry Euros, Dollars or Pounds to get good rate with ease. Another big issue is the currency notes; you need to carry big denominations to get the rate offered on the boards, most of the currency exchanges will apply a worse rate for smaller notes.
Tip: if you need to get money from abroad the easiest way is Western Union. Bank transfers or cash withdrawals are not possible.
Phone and Internet
Phone and Internet in Iran is frankly a pain. Yes it is dead cheap but at the cost of service. Phone service is not too bad but internet is super slow be it phone data or broadband. The internet reception on the go is very poor and you’ll be lucky to get much reception especially in smaller towns.
Tip: Avoid buying SIM card at the airport because the same SIM card that will cost you 700,000 Rials is easily available for 40,000 Rials and you need to wait a day for activation whereas the SIM cards outside are pre activated. Don’t forget to take your password with you.
The best coverage is by IranCell and the best way is to download My Irancell app which lets you manage your usage and purchase data bundles.
The biggest frustration for me was finding decent hotels or places in Iran because there is no one central website like trivago or booking.com that covers a lot of options and Airbnb doesn’t work in Iran so I had to rely on my local friend to book hotels for me and in most cases the hotels don’t take reservations and you have to go through agencies and most people there don’t speak English.
Accommodation was the most expensive part of trip especially if you want to stay in nicer, central hotels and while the hotels are not expensive based on European standards the quality is rather poor and you can’t secure a booking unless you pay by a local banks credit or debit card.
There are some hostels that take direct bookings to be paid on arrival but they are few and hostels aren’t really my thing.
The other thing you can do is to call the hotels and try to get an idea on arrival but because there are very few hotels in even in big cities you have to call up a few of them.
In order to get an idea of location you can use the few website recommended by a local friend.
Another alternative is Couchsurfing which has a lot of active members in Iran and most of them are very hospitable. They will not only accommodate you but also show you around and life is always easier with a local around.
Food is Iran is ridiculously delicious, it is not spicy and it is not Turkish or Arabic because Iran has a very rich cuisine full of exotic ingredients and the most favourite for me are saffron, nuts and pomegranate paste which they use to flavour meat.
If you are a meat eater you will be in heaven with all sorts of grilled meat flavoured in different regional styles but being a vegetarian is relatively hard with fewer options and you will need to control your cravings for pork because that is seriously forbidden but you will get everything like sausages, salami and pepperoni but again that’s not the food and why bother!
Iranian people are really chilled out and you will find them picnicking on the road sides and in the gardens and I’d highly recommend trying it as well, it’s a lot of fun especially in the evenings and most of them will offer you food.
Public transport in Iran is good but you will need to rely on taxis quite heavily. In bigger cities you have some public transport especially in tehran but there are limits and especially buses are a nightmare.
Taxis are frequent and easy to get but like taxi drivers everywhere in the world, they are quite assholish (that’s one of the universal truths). They will try to extort as much money as possible and you should always bargain.
Taxis are not metered and you should always fix the price before and pay them at the beginning of the ride because some of them ask for more at the end. In those cases just give them money and walk away and don’t listen to them. Also don’t get off unless you are sure you have arrived at destination. This was the only aspect of Iran I didn’t like.
Driving here is a bit of challenge especially if you are used to European traffic where everyone abides by the law and people are courteous by choice or by law. In bigger cities traffic can be very overwhelming and you should be extremely careful.
The best website to check flights in Iran is the Iranian WeGo. You will still need to call the agency and book or ask the help of a local. The flights sold at airport counters are especially a lot more expensive.
There are certain social restrictions you should keep in mind when travelling in Iran and while the western media has hyped up a lot of stuff, people are very courteous, hospitable and nice. Most of them will go out of their way to help you.
1- Alcohol is not allowed although you can get some from underground sources mostly through hotels but I’d advise against it. Consider it a detox holiday.
2- There is no public display of affection anywhere and it is considered a major taboo especially kissing and getting too close.
3- Women in Iran are fairly liberal and they go around quite comfortably in jeans and t shirts but they expect you not to bare you arms, legs and wear a lose headscarf. The full veil or burqa is not mandatory and it is only worn traditionally by women.
- Social media websites are blocked in Iran and you need to download the VPN apps to get passed the restriction. Download a couple before landing, I used Hotspot VPN. (Funny enough most of the political figures including the religious ones have facebook and twitter accounts).
- Take a gift with you for locals because in most cases they will not accept cash especially when you’re couchsurfing.
- Make sure you carry your passport with you because you will need it for a lot of things including entry to a few places.
- If you’re going around with a local, let them buy your tickets because tickets for locals are cheaper than for foreigners.
- If someone offers food take it because saying no to a gift is considered very rude.
- In most cases avoid presenting your hand for a handshake or a hug for women, it is not considered polite.
- Avoid discussing politics in public especially against the regime, it could get you in trouble even if the other person seems to be on the same page.
- Iran is very safe when it comes to crime, mobile phone snatching or pickpocketing.
- Always bargain the price you’re told and if you have a local with you, let them do the talking.