Iran (Persian: ايران) is a country in Asia. Located in the Middle East, between the Gulf of Oman, the Persian Gulf, and the Caspian Sea, it is surrounded by Iraq to the west, Turkey, Azerbaijan's Naxcivan enclave, Armenia, and Azerbaijan to the northwest, Turkmenistan to the northeast, Afghanistan and Pakistan to the east.
Known as Persia until 1935, Iran became an Islamic republic in 1979 after the ruling shah was forced into exile. Conservative clerical forces subsequently crushed westernizing liberal elements. Militant Iranian students seized the US Embassy in Tehran on 4 November 1979 and held it until 20 January 1981. During 1980-88, Iran fought a bloody, indecisive war with Iraq over disputed territory. Key current issues affecting the country include the pace of accepting outside modernizing influences and reconciliation between clerical control of the regime and popular government participation and widespread demands for reform.
A valid passport and visa are required for travel through Iran. While nationals of Slovenia and Turkey can get a three-month visa at the border, and Japanese citizens can obtain tourist visas with minimal hassle at Iranian embassies abroad, everyone else will have to jump through hoops to satisfy Iranian embassy officials. Although it has become remarkably easier to get a tourist visa in recent years, whether the process takes one day or one month depends largely on your nationality and the staff of the embassy you are applying to. Your best bet is to apply to the Iranian embassy in your own country at least three months before your departure, and women need to make sure they are veiled in their submitted passport-sized photos. Nationals of Israel are currently barred from entering Iran for any reason.
Chances are your bags won't be searched for salacious material, but if found, they will be confiscated and complicate your arrival. Don't try to bring in any magazines (including fashion magazines) or books that might offend strict Islamic sensibilities or criticise the government.
Most overseas travellers will arrive via Mehrabad airport in Tehran. By now several low-fare airlines operate to and from new Emam International Airport based on 37 Km southwest of Tehran. It is planned to move all the arrival and departure of international flights to this airport within few years. There are 70 smaller regional airports, for example those in Shiraz, Mashhad, and Isfahan have daily flights to many world cities.
What domestic transport in Iran lacks in speed it makes up for in affordability and ubiquity. There are few places dirt-cheap buses don't travel to, the train network is limited but comfortable and reasonably priced and travel by air is laughably cheap, especially by international standards.
For anyone on a tight deadline, affordable domestic air services are a blessing. The major national carrier Iran Air, and its private competitor Asseman Air link Tehran with most regional capitals offer inter-regional flights for no more than US $30. Their services are frequent, reliable and safe are definitely worth considering to skip the large, monotonous distances between east and west Iran. Regional airlines such as Caspian Air and Kish Air also operate short hops.
Tickets can be bought at airports or travel agents dotted through the most major cities. Book early during the summer months of August and September since finding seats at short notice is virtually impossible.
The Iranian domestic bus network is expansive and, thanks to the low cost of fuel, very cheap. In fact the only draw back is speed: the government has limited buses to 80 km/h to combat lead-footed bus drivers so long haul trips such as Shiraz to Mashhad can take up to 20 hours.
There is little difference between the various bus companies, and most offer two classes: 'lux' or 'Mercedes' (2nd class) and 'super' or 'Volvo' (1st class). First class buses are air-conditioned and you will be provided with a small snack during your trip, while second class services are more frequent. Given the affordability of first class tickets (for example IR 33,000 from Esfehan to Shiraz), there's little financial incentive to opt for the second class services, espcially in summer.
You can buy tickets from the bus terminals or ticket offices up to a week in advance, but you shouldn't have a problem finding a seat if you turn up to the terminal an hour or so before your intended departure time.
Most cities operate comprehensive local bus services, but given the low cost of taxis and the difficulties of making sense of Persian signs and route numbers, of little use to the casual traveller. If you're cash strapped and brave enough to try, however, remember that the buses are segregated. Men enter via the front or rear door and hand their ticket to the driver before taking a seat in the front half of the bus. Women and children should hand their ticket to the driver via the front doors (without actually getting on) before entering via the rear door to take a seat at the back. Tickets, usually around IR 200, are sold from booths near most bus stops.
Travelling by train through Iran is generally more comfortable and faster than speed-limited buses. Sleeper berths in overnight trains are especially good value as they allow you to get a good night's sleep while saving on a night's accommodation.
The rail network is comprised of three main trunks. The first stretches east to west across the north of the country linking the Turkish and Turkemenistan borders via Tabriz, Tehran and Mashhad. The second and third extend south of Tehran but split at Qom. One line connects to the Persian Gulf via Ahvaz and Arak, while the other traverses the country's centre linking Kashan, Yazd and Kerman.
Tickets can be bought from train stations up to one month before the date of departure, and it is wise to book at least a couple of days in advance during the peak domestic holiday months. First class tickets cost roughly twice the comparable bus fare.
Low fuel costs have made inter-city travel by taxi a great value option in Iran. When travelling between cities up to 250 km apart, you may be able to hire one of the shared savāri taxis that loiter around bus terminals and train stations. Savari taxis are faster than buses and, unless you get stuck in the front seat in which two people are exepected to squeeze, are generally more comfortable. Taxis will only leave when five paying passengers have been found, so if you're in a hurry you can offer to pay for an extra seat.
Official shared local taxis, identifiable by some kind of orange paint marking, also ply the major roads of most cities. Their usually run straight lines between major sqaures and landmarks, and their set rates (between IR 1,000 and IR 5,000) are dictated by the local governments.
Hailing one of these taxis is an art you'll soon master. Stand on the side of the road with traffic flowing in your intended direction and flag down a passing cab. It will slow down fractionally, giving you about one second to shout your destination--pick a major nearby landmark instead of the full address--through the open passenger window. If the driver is intereseted, he'll slow down enough for you to negotiate the details.
If you're in a hurry, you can rent the taxi privately. Just shout the destination followed by the phrase dar bast (literally 'closed door') and the driver will almost be sure to stop. Negotiate the price before departure, but since you are paying for all the empty seats expect to pay five times the normal shared taxi fare.
You can also rent these taxis by the hour to visit a number of sites, but you can expect to pay from IR 10,000 to 20,000 per hour, depending on your bargaining skills.
A large road network and low fuel costs of historically made Iran an attractive country for exploring with your own car. However a recent government fuel tax on foreigners entering Iran by private car has somewhat dimmed the allure.
Foreigners arriving in Iran with their own car will need to have a carnet de passage and a valid international drivers' license. Petrol stations can be found on the outskirts of all cities and towns and in car-filled Iran, a mechanic is never far away.
Do not underestimate the sheer chaos of Iran's traffic, particularly in Tehran. The often ignored road rules state that you must drive on the right unless overtaking and give way to traffic coming on to a roundabout. Drivers frequently top 150 km / hour on intercity highways a new law requiring car occupants to wear seatbelts is laughed at more often than complied with.
Persian (called Fārsi in Persian, فارسی) is Iran's national and official language. Although written with a modified Arabic alphabet, the two languages are not related and share only a few (mainly religious) words. Persian which is an Indo-European language is related to English and other European languages. Many young Iranians, and almost certainly those working in international travel agents and high-end hotels will speak some English but some basic Persian phrases will come in handy in rural areas.
Road signs are often double signed in English, but few other signs are. As an extra challenge, most Persian signage uses an ornate calligraphic script that bears little resemblance to its typed form. This can make comparing typed words in phrase books--such as 'bank' and 'hotel'--to signs on buildings quite difficult. However it is still worth memorising the Persian script for a few key words such as restaurant, guesthouse, hotel and coffee net (see relevant sections below for the script).
The rial (ریال) is the official currency of Iran, however to save time in a high-inflation economy prices are sometimes quoted in tomans (تومان). One toman is equal to ten rials.
As a general guide, written prices are given in rials and prices quoted in conversation are in tomans. To confuse you even further, shopkeepers will often omit the denomination of high prices, so you may be told a jar of coffee costs 2 tomans (meaning 2,000 tomans or IR 20,000) and that a fine rug will cost 3 tomans (meaning 3,000,000 tomans or IR 30,000,000).
Most travellers spend the first few days of their trip coming to grips with this mind-boggling system, and money changers on the border will often exploit this confusion to rip you off. Be careful, and if in doubt, always ask a shopkeeper or moneychanger if they are quoting a price in rials or tomans.
Iran is still a cash economy, so bring enough hard currency for the duration of your stay. Trade embargoes mean that banks will not forward cash advances on your foreign credit cards and they are only accepted by select stores for large purchases, such as Persian rugs. Most will be happy to forward you some cash on your credit card at the same time as your purchase. If you are desperate for cash, you can also try asking these shops to extend you the same favour without buying a rug or souvenir, but expect to pay dearly for the luxury.
Travellers' cheques are equally useless in Iran. Although in theory central banks in provincial capitals are able to cash them, the paperwork and time involved make them impractical for tourist use.
ATMs exist in major cities, and there are point-of-sale devices in some larger stores, but only local bank cards are accepted. Bank Tejarat is now providing a prepaid smart-card service for foriegn tourists travelling to Iran. Using this service, you can buy a prepaid smart-card with foreign currency which can be used on the domestic ATM and point-of-sale network for withdrawing rials. You can apply for this service at some travel agents, if they support the service, or by visiting the special Tejarat Bank kiosk in Tehran's Mehrabad international airport. Before your departure, the remaining credit on the card can be changed back to foreign currency. Since the domestic ATM network is prone to malfunctions, and point-of-sale devices aren't common in stores, having a cash reserve (either rials or foreign currency) is still recommended.
Money and daily life
There is little point in risking the black market moneychangers who loiter outside of major banks and only offer marginally better rates than the banks. Central banks in most cities will change money for you, but the process can be a drawn out affair requiring signatures from countless officials and a fair deal of running around.
A better compromise are the private exchange offices (sarāfi) scattered around most large cities and major tourist centres. Although their rates are comparable to those of the banks, they are far quicker and, unlike their black market colleagues, they can be traced later on if something goes wrong.
The most widely-accepted currency is the US dollar, but euros and UK pound sterling can also be changed. $100 notes attract the highest prices, and you will be quoted lower rates for any old or ripped notes.
Bargain ruthlessly when buying handcrafts, rugs or big ticket items and modestly when hailing private taxis. In most other aspects of life prices are fixed. Tipping is generally not expected, but locals will generally round up the bill in taxis and add around 10% in classy restaurants. Porters and bellboys will expect IR 2,000 - 3,000. A discreet gift of a few thousand tomāns may help grease the wheels of Iranian society and serve to thank an extraordinarily helpful local, but bakhsheeh and bribing are not a major part of Iranian life.
You won't be able to escape the government-sanctioned dual pricing system that applies to accommodation and some tourist attactions in Iran; foreigners often pay up to ten times the price quoted to locals. However thanks to the government's recent commendable efforts to eliminate 'foreigner' prices from many tourist attractions, most notably Persepolis, low food and transport costs make Iran a cheap travel destination.
If you are prepared to stay in the cheapest guesthouses, travel only by bus and eat only at fast food outlets or kabābis, you can get by in Iran on a minimum of around IR 100,000 per day. If you want to eat a decent restaurant meal every now and then and stay in mid-range accommodation, a more realistic budget is around IR 250,000. If you want to eat and sleep in luxury and fly between major sights, you can easily chew through IR 700,000 per day.
The good news for travellers is that Iranian cuisine is superb. A wide range of influences from Asia, Russia and the Middle East have created a diverse, relatively healthy range of dishes that focus on fresh produce and aromatic herbs. The bad news, however, is that Iranians prefer to eat at home than in restaurants, so decent eateries are scarce and stick to a repetitive selection of dishes (mainly kebabs). An invitation to an Iranian home for dinner will be a definite highlight of your stay.
Fragrant rice (برنج, berenj) is the staple of Iranian food. Boiled and then steamed, it is often coloured with saffron or flavoured with a variety of spices. When served plain as an accompaniment it is known as chelo (چلو). The two most common meat / chelo combinations are kebab variations (chelo kabāb, چلو کباب) or rotisserie chicken (chelo morgh, چلو مرغ). Flavoured rice, known as polo, is often served as a main course or as an accompaniment to a meat dish. Examples include shirin polo falvoured with orange zest, young cherries and honey glazed carrots, the broad-bean and herb heavy bāghli polo and sabzi polo laced with parsley, dill and mint.
You'll be sick of the rice and kebab dish chelo kabāb (چلو کباب) by the end of your stay. The dish and its half-dozen variations are the most common (and often the only) items on Iranian restaurant menus. A grilled skewer of meat is served on a bed of fluffy rice, and accompanied by an array of condiments. You can add butter, grilled tomatoes and a sour spice known as somāgh to your rice, while some restaurants also provide a raw egg yolk. Raw onion and fresh basil are used to clear your palate between mouthfuls. Variations in kabāb dishes come from the meats they are served with. You will commonly see:
At home people most often eat rice with a thick stew (khoresht, خورشت) containing a modest amount of meat. There are dozens of khoresht variations such as the sweet and sour fessenjān made from ground walnuts and pomegranate syrup, ghormeh-sabzi based on fresh herbs, dired limes and kidney beans, gheimeh flavoured with split-peas and often garnished with French fries, and the sweet sib-āloo which uses apples and plums.
Hearty Iranian soups (āsh, آش) are meals in themselves. The most popular is the vegetarian āsh reshteh (آش رشته) made from herbs, chickpeas and thick noodles, and garnished with yoghurt and fried onions.
Flat bread (nān, نان) is another pillar of Iranian food. It is served at breakfast with herbs, feta cheese and a variety of jams, or as an accompaniment to meals. Sangak (سنگك) is a dimpled variety cooked on a pebbled oven while lavāsh (لواش) is a thin and bland staple.
Fast food and snacks
In the absence of restaurants, most food outlets in Iran are either kabābis or fast food outlets serving a standard fare of hamburgers, sandwiches, felafels or pizza (پیتزا). A hamburger and a soft drink at a snack shop will fill you up at lunchtime for around IR 10,000, while pizzas start at IR 15,000.
Many teahouses (see Drink below) also serve traditional snacks and light meals. The most common of these is ābgusht (آبگوشت) a hot pot made from lamb, chickpeas and dried limes that is also known as dizi, also the name of the dish in which its served. You will be given a bowl (the dizi) containing the ābgusht and another, smaller one. Drain the broth into the smaller bowl and eat it like a soup with the bread provided. Then pound the remaining meat and vegetables into a paste with the pestle provided and eat with even more bread, pieces raw onion and wads of fresh herbs.
Sweets and desserts
The neverending demand for dentists in Iran lies testament to the country's obssession with sweets and pastries, known collectively as shirini (شیرینی).
Iranian baghlava tends to be harder and more crystalline than its Turkish equivalent while the pistachio noughat called gaz (گز) is an Esfahan speciality. Sohan is an rich pistachio brittle popular in Qom, and freshly-baked pastries are often taken as gifts to people's houses. Lavāshak fruit leathers are delicious fruit leathers made from dried plums.
Honey-saffron and pistachio are just two local flavours of ice cream, while fāloodeh (فالوده) is a deliciously refreshing sorbet made from rosewater and vermicelli noodles served with lashings of lemon juice.
Given that most travellers are stuck eating kebabs for much of their trip, vegetarians will have a particularly difficult time in Iran. Most snack shops sell felafels (فلافل) and garden salads (sālād-e-fassl, سالاد فصل) and greegrocers are common. Most ash varieties are meat-free and filling, as are most variations of kookoo (کوکو), the Iranian take on the frittata. The phrases man giah-khor hastam (I am vegetarian) and bedoon-e goosht (without meat) will come in handy.
It's a safe bet that all food in Muslim Iran is halal, but those seeking a kosher or other diet may have some trouble. If in doubt, stick to vegetables.
Black tea (chāi, چای) is the national drink of alcohol-free Iran. It is served strong and with crystallised or cubed sugar (ghand, قند) which is held artfully between the teeth while tea is sipped through. You can try asking for milk in your tea, but expect nothing but strange looks in return.
Tea houses (chāi khāneh, چای خانه) are favourite local haunt for men (and less commonly families) to drink tea and puff away on a water pipe.
Lovers of coffee (ghahveh, قهوه) have little to cheer in Iran. Where available it is served Turkish style or rarely as espresso. In either form it is bitter and largely unpalatable. Imported instant coffee (nescāffe, نسكافه) is expensive but also your best bet.
A wide variety of fruit juices (āb miveh, آب ميوه) and drinks are available from shops and street vendors including cherry cordial (sharbat ālbāloo, شربت آلبالو) and banana milkshakes (shir moz, شير موز).
Doogh (دوق) is a sour drink made from yoghurt, salt, and gaseous water and often flavoured with mint. It takes some getting used to, but will rehydrate you quickly in the heat of Iran's summer.
Accommodation in Iran ranges from luxurious, if a little weary, five star hotels (هتل) in major cities to the small, cheap mosāferkhuneh (مسافرخانه) and mehmānpazir (مهماﻧپذیر) guesthouses that are littered about most centres.
Iran is still a relatively low crime country, although thefts and muggings have been on the increase in recent years. Keep your wits about you, and take the usual precautions against pickpockets in crowded bazaars and buses.
In particular, the tourist centre of Esfehan has had problems with muggings of foreigners in unlicensed taxis, and fake police making random checks of tourists' passports. Only use official taxis, and never allow 'officials' to make impromptu searches of your belongings.
Women travellers should not encounter any major problems when visiting Iran, but will undoubtedly be the subject of at least some unwanted attention. Perceptions of Western women among local men, fuelled largely by satellite television and Baywatch reruns, have led to the assumption that all foreign women like to dress and act like Pamela Anderson. A stern look should be enough to detour the approaches of amorous locals.
Watch out for joobs (جوب), the open storm water drains that shoulder every road and are easy to miss when walking in the dark.
Ignore the media hype, your chances of facing anti-West sentiment as a traveller are slim. Iranians make a clear distinction between the Western governments they distrust and individual travellers who visit their country. Americans may receive the odd jibe about their government's policies, but nothing more serious than that.
Iranian traffic is horrendous. Drivers attack their art with an equal mix of homicidal aggressiveness and suicidal incompetence and view road rules as mere guidelines. Take care when crossing the roads, and even greater care when driving on them.
Anyone crazy enough to venture within firing distance of the trouble-plagued borders of Iraq and Afghanistan is asking for trouble.
Apart from being up to date with your usual travel vaccinations (tetanus, polio, etc) no speical preparation is needed for travel to Iran.
Tap water is safe to drink in most of the country (and especially the cities), although you may find the chalkiness and taste off-putting in some areas. Bottled mineral water (āb madani) is available everywhere.
Despite progress in recent years, the pace of liberalisation in Iran remains slow and its legally-enforced Islamic codes of conduct dictate many aspects of public life. Respecting the dozens of unspoken rules and regulations of Iranian life can be a daunting prospect for travellers, but don't be intimidated. As a foreigner you will be given leeway and it doesn't take long to acclimatise yourself.
Perhaps the most visible mark of Iran's Islamic leanings is the conservative dress expected of its citizens. Although normal, Western style clothing is acceptable in private homes, when in public women are required to cover everything but their face, hands and feet.
The most common uniform consists of a head scarf (roo-sari, روسری) to conceal the head and neck, a formless, knee-length coat known as a roo-poosh (روپوش) and a long dress or pair of pants. In and around holy sites, you will be expected to dress even more modestly in a chādor, a full-length swathe of black cloth designed to cloak everything but your face from view.
The dress code can be daunting during your preparation, but roo-saris, roo-pooshes and chādors can be bought cheaply in Iran. Watch or ask friendly Iranian women for guidance and marvel at how young women are pushing the boundaries of modesty with colourful head scarves that cover only a fraction of their hair and figure-hugging roo-pooshes that reveal every curve of their bodies.
Men have a slightly easier time of things. Short-sleeved shirts and t-shirts are acceptable for daily wear, but long sleeved shirts are still required for holy sites and formal occasions. Shorts and three-quarter length pants are only acceptable on the beach.
Iran is a publicly segregated society. Many facilities such as transport and mosques are segregatated and extended social interaction between men and women who are not related or married is eyed with suspicion.
Greet people of the same sex with a handshake, three kisses or both, but avoid physical contact with unrelated people of the opposite sex. Place your hand over your heart and bow slighlty to greet them instead.
You will struggle to find Iranians happy with the current regime, but be careful of initiating political discussions. Although political freedom has increased in recent years, vocal opposition can be more trouble than its worth.
Visiting holy sites
Although no trip to Iran would be complete without a glimpse at the stunning architecture and sombre environments of its mosques or holy shrines, many travellers are daunted by the prospect of walking into the foreign world of a mosque. Don't let these fears stop you; Iranians are welcoming and will understand any unintended breach of protocol.
Some mosques, and most holy shrines, require women to be wearing a chādor before entering the complex. If you don't have one, there are sometimes kiosks by the door that lend or hire chādors. It is better for men to wear long-sleeved shirts inside a mosque or shrine, though this is not mandatory.
Shoes are not worn within prayer areas of a mosque or shrine. Busier mosques have free shoe repositories where you trade your shoes for a token. Also try to avoid mosques on the holy day of Friday and don't photograph a mosque while prayers are taking place.
Holy shrines, like those in Mashad, Qom and Shiraz, are usually off limits to non-Muslims, although the surrounding complexes are usually OK. Always ask first before you enter a room you are unsure of.
Conservative forces within the Iranian government have been wary connecting their country to the adult content and politically dissident views of the Internet. After a clampdown on unlicensed internet cafes a few years ago, coffee net (کافی نت) facilities are popping across all major cities and tourist centres. Some (but not all) are double-signed in English, so you may want to memorise the Persian script. If in doubt, any young Iranian should be able to point you in the direction of the nearest coffee net.
Some websites are blocked based on words appearing in their URL, although savvy coffee net users may be able to show you how to circumvent these restrictions. It also may not be wise to send lengthy anti-regime tirades via insecure email accounts. You can expect to pay between IR 4,000 - IR 9,000 per hour and speeds range from acceptable in major cities, to the infuriatingly slow in small towns and rural areas. More recently, some facilities in major cities use broadband wireless or DSL connections. Most coffee net places will also have a CD burner for downloading photos from digital cameras.
You may also find the Internet connection in most of middle-class Iranian homes.