Why travel to Iran??
That’s the first thing everyone asked when I mentioned my next destination, which I find a bit off because no one asks why travel to Egypt or Israel etc. Iran is an amazingly beautiful country, full with history, culture and a varied landscape.
I have to admit I was also a bit influenced by the way Western media portrays Iran: An oppressive regime, on the brink of war and women’s rights trampled all over.
I can assure you it’s nothing like that! All the Iranians I met were absolutely polite, helpful and hospital towards foreigners, yes even Americans. It seems Iranians are perfectly capable of distinguishing foreign politics from the actual citizens living in these countries. For example, they do not approve of Israel but have no problem whatsoever with Jewish people. As a matter of fact, the largest community of Jews in the Middle East is actually in Iran and they are all doing well and perfectly happy living there.
My reason for traveling there was a bit more personal though: I wanted to visit one of my best friends living there who I haven’t seen in ages. Since my hubby and me were planning to go on a second honeymoon in Egypt anyways we decided to combine our trip with the visit to Iran.
Don’t laugh but I honestly wasn’t aware that you need a visa to go to Iran. So when I found out the week before my scheduled flight I totally freaked out and left about a hundred messages for my friend in Iran cursing her out for not sharing that valuable piece of information with me.
Of course this worry was totally unfounded unless you are a UK or US citizen, which I am not. The Iranian government issued a statement that citizens of these countries can travel to Iran without a pre-approved visa and just get one at the airport.
Many people, including airport officials at the departure and transit airports, weren’t aware of this for some reason and made us a bit nervous by asking us for our visas. Just stay confident and explain to them that you don’t need one. You could also print out the website where it states that you don’t need a visa.
Once you get to the Iranian airport you need lots of patience and of course some cash to pay for the visa. First, go to the health insurance desk (yeah you read that right) and buy a health insurance, which was less than 20 US$ from what I remember. For some reason, one of the visa requirements is a valid health insurance. I actually have a travel insurance but of course Iran and Sudan had to be the only excluded countries from that policy.
After that, join the que at the visa desk where you will get a visa form to fill out. Be nice and polite to the officials working there; they have the power to annoy you if you aren’t nice as my tartar hubby experienced. Make sure you have a pen on you to fill that form out and then take it back again to the desk. After they checked everything such as person/hotel you are staying, why you are there, how long you are planning to stay they will send you to another desk to pay for it (about 40£ per person). Then you will go back again to the desk with your payment receipt and after a wait, the length will depend on how much they like you, you can finally pick up your visa.
I think the whole process took about an hour and the visa was valid for a month. Some handy things to have ready in case they ask or need proof of: name of person or hotel you are staying at, length of stay, reason for coming, where in Iran you will stay, a letter from person/hotel you are staying, ticket of return flight and of course cash and a pen.
Things to do in Iran (Tehran)
If you have the time, you must travel through the country and see different places such as Tehran, Isfahan and Kiish. Unfortunately we were there for only a few days and just stayed in Tehran.
Tehran is such a huge and crowded city (smaller than London but way more people), there is more than enough to do and see for a week.
There is one thing you have to know though: The infrastructure is not exactly keeping up with the 12 million people living there and traffic is therefore just crazy. It can take one or two hours to get from one part of Tehran to the other by car, so unfortunately you can’t do too many different things in one day.
Some of the things to do and see are the countless palaces, museums, the bazaar, the parks and definitely the nature bridge.
The palaces from the previous Shahs are on huge park like compounds, with plenty of little museums around them. You pay an entrance fee for each of the buildings you visit or you buy one ticket for the whole thing. Since the grounds are so big you can easily spend the whole day or afternoon there.
Also, Persian food is really nice so I recommend trying out the different local restaurants. It’s mainly rice with meat but the spices and flavouring is very unique.
Hafiz Poem Reading
On some street corners you will come across men with little birds and a box full of sealed Hafiz poems. For a few riyal you can let the bird pick a poem for you, which is a kind of custom made advice for you. Very fun! Oh and they are obviously in Farsi so you might need someone translating for you.
Yes, you have to wear something resembling a hijab on your head and wear long shirts over your jeans but I don’t find that very oppressive.
As a woman it was very easy to navigate the streets of Tehran without being harassed or stared at. Iranian women are very independent, they drive (even race illegally as we saw on the highway), smoke, go out to eat and meet friends, work and and and . I didn’t witness how being a female majorly disadvantaged you there anywhere, especially not as a tourist.
Also, the internationally acclaimed nature Bridge in Tehran was designed by an Iranian women!
Dos and Donts
- Be respectful and polite to the people and their culture
- As a female don’t expose any skin except for face and hands. Jeans, tunic and headscarf is a good idea.
- As male also don’t show off your goodies. Jeans and t-shirt are appropriate.
- Don’t take pictures of government buildings
- Don’t take pictures of people without asking
- Inform yourself about visa requirements beforehand
- No PDA