IRAN: THE HIDDEN PEARL OF MIDDLE EAST

Updated: May 27

Discovering the Persian culture in a last minute travel to one of the most welcoming places in Asia



"The less you plan, the more impressed you can be. It`s all about expectations."

Or the could be the motto of our least planned trip.

After booking the tickets only few days before the departure and finding out that a lot of the things we are used to are not working there we arrived in such an unique place and discovered how incredible Iran can be. It is really unfair how people generally see it through Western media.


Is it safe ?


I think this is generally the most asked question after we tell somebody that we went to Iran. And the answer is an ABSOLUTE YES! The country is really safe and I think there is even less pickpocketing than in Europe.

Honestly, we think that the image this country got has nothing to do with how it really is but mostly with the involvement of media, especially from the western countries.

On top of that, people are extremely fair and they want to give you the change until the last cent! They only take the tip if you really insist. This is actually something that you don`t see too often nowadays.



How to get there? What are the Covid restrictions?


There are plenty of airlines flying there, but I guess the price of the ticket depends on the time of the year. Usually we use Turkish Airlines for this kind of trips but now we found cheaper tickets with Pegasus Airlines, via Istanbul.


Regarding the Covid restrictions, as you know, these are constantly changing. At the time of our trip you only needed the proof of vaccination and a negative PCR taken with no more than 72 hrs before arrival. However, for us, they only checked the negative PCR and nothing else.


Visa


Basically, a limited number of countries are visa free, a number of countries have Visa On Arrival privilege, including Romania. For the rest, you need to apply for visa beforehand.

We suggest to consult your own country Ministry of Exterior information, in order to find out which one applies for you.


There are only 8 visa - free countries, these being: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bolivia, Georgia, Malaysia, Syria, Turkey, Venezuela


The majority of the countries, though, can apply for Visa On Arrival except: Canada, UK, US, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Colombia, Iraq, Jordan, Nepal, Pakistan, Somalia and Sri Lanka


🔴 Important!

Of course, Israeli citizens are not allowed to enter and if you have evidence on your passport that you visited Israel, it might be prudent to renew your passport.




◼️ VOA Requirements:

There are only few airports in Iran that are eligible for visa on arrival:

Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan, Tabriz, Mashhad, Qeshm, Kish



What you need for VOA:
1.Hotel Reservation or Host Contact - ask for hotel voucher - basically you need to have a place to stay in Iran, and whoever is hosting you will need to answer the phone when the immigration officers call and confirm that. usually they only check the first night. They don`t always call but if they do and your host is not answering, you might have to wait for a long time in the airport.
2. Cash, preferably Euros - as you will need to pay for the visa in the airport and as you could read before, Western cards don`t work there. The cost of the visa for the Europeans is approximately 70-80 Euros.
3.Travel Insurance - all travellers must have a valid travel insurance for Iran and the proof of it. Now, bear in mind that the majority of the companies don`t include Iran and the ones that mention only worldwide are not accepted. So you need a special insurance. If you don`t, they will make you buy it in the airport.
4.Proof of a return ticket - it is not mandatory but it is very useful

We strongly reccommend to have all these documents printed.


◼️ Insurance companies:


We used 1stquest.com, which is basically the most popular website for foreigners in Iran, where you can book most of things and you can pay with your western card. However, the insurance doesn`t have the best coverage but it`s enough to get you past through the visa process.


Other companies worth checking are: IATI, True Travellers, or alternatively check the insurance companies in your country.




◼️ Why get a visa in advance if you can get Visa On Arrival?


1.If you enter Iran overland via the neighbouring countries - VOA is only available at the selected airports mentioned above .


2. If you want to be 100% sure you will receive your visa - although VOA usually works just fine, there is a slight probability that it could get rejected in the airport; we didn`t have any issues whatsoever but our back up plan was to buy a last minute flight to Kish or Queshm islands

( which are visa free )


3. To avoid waiting in the airport - we, personally, didn`t have any issues as we travelled during Ramadan and we were pretty much the only tourists requiring VOA on our flight ( in our case the whole process didn`t take more than 1 hour ) but we read about cases when people had to wait for up to 6 hrs ( the average waiting time being 2-3 hrs )


4. If you are from USA, UK or Canada - as mentioned above, these nationalities are not eligible for VOA


However, even if legally most of nationalities are entitled to VOA, the immigration officers, for some reason, prefer that tourists get registered before hand and they tend to ask you many questions regarding why didn`t you get registered on the website: just be nice and polite with them and they will leave you alone and give your visa 😊

If you want to get more information and/or register on their Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, here is the link.



Super important stuff to know before you go


◼️ Credit/ Debit cards


From outside Iran ( such as Visa and Master Card ) don`t work because of the US sanctions so you need to go there with cash at least to pay for your visa. We got cash with us for the whole stay but if you don`t feel comfortable with that you can pay for an Iran Card which is an Iranian prepaid debit card designed for tourists and temporary visitors.

You can find more information about the card here and here.

More info about the cards situation in Iran can be also found on 1stQuest.


◼️ Iranian currency - Rials and Tomans


One Toman is equivalent to ten Rials. Although the Rial is the official currency, Iranians use the Toman in everyday life.

Google doesn`t provide the real USD/ EUR - Rial rate so don`t count on that.

Just for you to have an idea, as this exchange can be really confusing, in April 2022 the approximate rate was 1euro = 280 000 Rials ( or 28 000 Tomans ).


◼️ Cash and money exchange


Better to bring euros rather than other currency. Change as little as 100 euros at a time. This is an advice that we also received.

You cannot purchase Iranian Rials outside Iran.


◼️ Hotel Reservation


The most common websites such as Booking.com and Airbnb.com don`t work so you will need to rely pretty much on trust when booking something. But don`t worry, people over there know this and they are super reliable.

The only ways that we found to book a hotel are, contacting the hotel directly, booking via 1stquest or using a travel agency. We opted for the first one and contacted some hotels via Whatsapp and got the reservation voucher needed for the visa; The one that we booked in Tehran wasn`t necessarily the best one but it was fairly decent; however, the one that be booked in Kashan was really nice and cheap ( about 35$ per night ) - it is called Negin Traditional Hotel

( phone/whatsapp: +989904252752 )


◼️ 1st Quest


This is a multi - purpose platform which works in Iran where you can actually pay with your Visa or Master Card and various things such as travel insurance, accommodation, tours etc.

1stQuest is a platform for travelling to lesser - known travel destinations. 1stQuest™ is owned by Silk Road Travel Solutions LTD, a limited company incorporated in the UK.

We only used it for buying travel insurance and it proved to be reliable.

https://iran.1stquest.com/


Dress code


Men

Iranian dress code for men is pretty simple; any type of clothing is allowed, except for sleeveless shirts and shorts.


Women

The sleeves must reach the elbows and the legs must be covered until right above the ankles. Wearing jeans, leggings, ripped jeans and loose skirts and dresses is allowed. Women also have to cover their hair using a headscarf, which can be purchased at any market or shopping centre in Iran.

The hair can be covered loosely, you can wear any blouse/ tunic which is covering your bum and elbows and you can wear any skirt/ dress/ trousers up to the ankle.

Whenever in doubt, do whatever the Iranian women are doing.

This dress code applies from the moment you land in Iran, so, just before exiting the aircraft, make sure you cover yourself up!

Not doing so may get your visa denied!


Social media/ internet


Facebook is officially banned and it only works occasionally, some websites are banned as well and on other websites you don`t always get all the information.

Instagram is working and is widely used.

WhatsApp is working and is widely used, as well.


Snapp


This is the Iranian Uber and it is super useful to have it downloaded in order to go around Tehran.

As a heads up, for us, it didn`t work on an Iphone but it worked on Android.

You can pay both in cash or by Iranian card.

https://snapp.ir/


Kish and Queshm islands


These are actually 2 visa free islands belonging to Iran and in case you don`t get you Iranian visa, you can still visit these. The visa you get here is valid for 14 days or so.

There are many daily flights from Tehran to these islands and the flights are affordable. This was our back up plan in case our visas would get denied.


No outdoor swimming pools in hotels


Ok, this is not so important but in case you were thinking about sun tanning or swimming outdoors, forget about it. Even in the hotels! There are only indoor pools and, of course, men and women have different times when they can go.



Getting around


The most common way to go around Iran is by bus. And it is also the cheapest.

They have the VIP buses which apparently have very good standards and are super cheap as well, approximately 5-10 euros for about 400 km.

Alternatively, you can take the train.

It is advisable to book before hand and we advise to ask your hotel to assist you with the booking.


However, since our trip was short and not very well planned, we realized that the bus schedule didn`t suit us and we opted to take taxis or drivers book through the hotels.

It might sound crazy but a taxi from Tehran to Isfahan ( around 400 km ) would cost us 50 euros!

Yes, Iran is one of the cheapest countries we`ve ever been to!


Of course, car rental is available as well, but why complicate your life with deposits in a country where normal cards don`t work when you can take a taxi for few hundred kilometres? 😀


Actually, while booking the transport from Isfahan to Kashan via Negin House we met this lovely driver ( in the picture below ) that we TOTALLY recommend! Apart from the fact that he drove us everywhere we wanted around Kashan and then back to Tehran for a super decent price, he went the extra mile for everything! ( Yes, people in Iran are extremely hospitable!! )

He was always stopping the car for tea and biscuits break, he bought watermelon for us, he drove us to the best ice cream place in Kashan and he bought ice cream for us and he even invited us over for Iftar ( the traditional dinner after fasting during Ramadan ) with his family! And we could see that everything he did was really genuine and he was not looking for money or anything like this!


If you ever need a driver in Iran ( he lives in Kashan ) please contact him! His phone number is + 98 913 061 5929!

We were idiots enough not to take his name, but I think if you mention about the couple from Romania staying in Negin House, he will remember us.

Don`t text him as has a really old Nokia phone, call him, he speaks English quite ok.



Where to go

The most popular places to visit are Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz, Tabriz, Yazd, Mashhad, Kish, Kashan, but the list is very long. Iran is a really big country full of amazing places.

In general, southern Iran is more beautiful than the north, but Tehran is also a must see, at least for a day.

Also, we read on different blogs about the possibility of flying to Iran and then travelling the country in a southerly direction and then leaving by ferry to Dubai/ UAE. We don`t know more details about this but it is worth researching.

However, we won`t be mentioning all the possible itineraries but only our experience.


Our itinerary


We only had 5 days so we had to make the most of it.

We flew into Tehran where we spent 2 days: one day when we arrived and another day before we left.

From Tehran we took a taxi for 400 km to reach Isfahan, where we had about half day. Not ideal but we did the most of it.

From Isfahan, the driver mentioned above, drove us to Kashan, where we spent 2 nights.

In Kashan, we visited the town, the desert around - Maranjab desert, and the amazing Namak Salt Lake.

Before heading back to Tehran, we stopped in Abyaneh, the red village.


Tehran


Generally, the north of Tehran is more modern while the south is more traditional.

You can go almost everywhere by metro and alternatively you can use Snapp app mentioned above.

Main points of attraction: Tabiat Bridge ( from where you can see the almost 4000 m high Tochal mountain ), Azadi Tower, Grand Bazar, Golestan Palace, Milad Tower.

But we suggest to just explore the city and feel its amazing vibe.


View from Tabiat Bridge in Tehran

Azadi Tower


Tehran old city by night

◼ Isfahan


This is a definitely MUST SEE place. We initially thought that we don`t have enough time to get there but the roads are pretty good ( actually there is a high-way ) and it only takes about 04:30 hours to get there from Tehran by taxi.


We only had about 8 hrs to go around the city but we made the most of it.

Main places to visit: Abassi Great Mosque, Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Jame'a Mosque, Si O Se Pol Bridge, Ferdowsi Bridge and in general the main city centre. Most of these places are close to each other.

It is a nice city with plenty of green areas, despite its dessert location.


Abassi Great Mosque ( left ) and Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque ( right )

Ferdowsi Bridge

Backpacking in Isfahan 😅

◼ Kashan


Somewhere in between Tehran and Isfahan lies the city of Kashan. Or better said: town. Althogh relatively small, it is really picturesque and gives a really nice insight into Iranian life, far away from the tourists.


Main points of interest are: the city centre, Agha Bozorg Mosque, Bazar of Kashan , historical houses and Imamzadeh Mohammad Helal.

However, the real nice part is outside Kashan, further to the east: Namak Salt Lake and the Maranjab Desert.


Agha Bozorg Mosque

Streets of Kashan

Namak Salt Lake

Maranjab Desert

◼ Abyaneh


One of the most picturesque villages of Iran, called also the red village, is definitely a MUST SEE in Iran. Abyaneh is among the oldest villages in Iran and has unique characteristics which turns it to a great tourist destination in the centre of Iran. It is relatively close to Kashan and Isfahan cities

(2 of the most - visited cities in Iran) and should be included on every traveler’s itinerary in Iran.


Abyaneh

When to go


Best times to visit Iran are during spring and autumn: March to May and September to November, when the temperatures are nice and mild. Summers can be quite hot, with a dry heat of above 30°C and winters can be quite cold, mostly in the North.

We went there in April and the temperatures were getting close to 30°C already.


Accommodation


As mentioned before, a lot of popular websites don`t work and at a first sight it may seem complicated, but it is actually not. Just follow our advice posted above.

We only had 2 hotels, one in Tehran for 4 nights and another one in Kashan for 2 nights. But it should have been the other way around as we didn`t like too much the one in Tehran. However, we will post both of them, just in case you need it.


Our hotel in Kashan: Negin Traditional Hotel ( Tripadvisor here ) - at that time costed about 35 euro including breakfast and we were super super happy with it.

Contact them on WhatsApp: +989904252752


Our hotel in Tehran: Razzaz Boutique Hotel ( website here ) - it costed almost double, around 55 euros per night including breakfast, but the conditions were half. The breakfast is quite poor and although they are located in the middle of the city, the area is a bit dodgy. However, it is pretty clean and has a nice interior garden.


Summary


Although it was our least planned trip and we didn`t set our expectations very high, Iran totally impressed both of us. It is a truly AMAZING country with very nice and warm people and it SHOULD BE ON EVERYONE`S LIST.


If we should describe it in just one paragraph, we must say that it is a safe country ( as opposed to people see in the media ), it is super super cheap ( like, 1L of gasoline is 0,025 euro 😱 ), the people are super fair ( they give you the change to the last cent ) and very friendly, nature is amazing and varies from 5000 m peaks to desert and to sea, has one of the best architectural sites, has a great cultural heritage and overall is very authentic. And there are no tourists!! 🤩

Or at least at the time of our visit, but we found this super cool.


Next, our photo gallery, all taken with Sony A7III camera using Zeiss 55 mm, Tamron 17-28mm and Sony 135mm GM.


Abassi Great Mosque, Isfahan

Azadi Tower, Tehran

Tochal mountain ( 3,963 metres ) and Tehran

Kashan

Agha Bozorg Mosque, Kashan

Maranjab desert

Namak Salt Lake

Kashan and Namak Salt Lake

Maranjab desert

Nice desert light for portraits and the Sony 135 mm GM lense

Maranjab desert

Abyaneh

Maranjab desert

Agha Bozorg Mosque, Kashan

Children of Kashan

Downtown Tehran

Sunset in Tehran

The famous dung beetle

Maranjab sunset and Zagros mountains

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