Iran is one of the world’s best-kept travel secrets. A large and diverse country, Iran has rugged mountains, secretive forests, salt-plains, arid deserts, mysterious steppes and sleepy beaches.
The man-made attractions can be equally magnificent, with stunningly beautiful Isfahan way up any list of travel highlights, while Persepolis is one of the world’s greatest ancient sites.
But it’s the Iranian people who are the real surprise to the unsuspecting visitor; most Iranians are friendly and approachable, with many curious about the outside world. Add to this, Iran’s fascinating history, its rich culture, its many contradictions, and you have a heady mix. Iran has suffered from an image problem; be prepared to have any preconceptions overturned.
Iran is probably the safest country in the world for women. But you do need to observe the hejab dress code. Cover your head at all times – a headscarf is fine. You can show a fringe but nothing more. You are expected to have no flesh showing except hands and face. The ideal is baggy clothing; loose trousers with a modest long-sleeved tunic or baggy shirt is fine. Or top it with a thin cotton coat (a roupush) as many of the locals do.
Men should not wear shorts or reveal too much flesh. Don’t take magazines that include photographs of scantily clad women. Remove shoes if entering a house or mosque.
Even if you’re not into football, gen up on Manchester United and some of the world’s top footballers! Iranians are passionate about football, and it makes a great ice-breaker if you can name a dozen or so footballers.
Spring and autumn are the ideal times to go, with temperatures at their best for sightseeing and activities. Summer is blazingly hot, winters are searingly cold except in the south.
Imam Khomeini International Airport (IKA), 30 kilometres southwest of Tehran
This is a big country so distances are large (eg Tehran to Shiraz is 900km) but it has a good transport network. Domestic flights run between the major centres. Public transport, such as buses and mini-buses, is cheap and frequent. Note that women have to sit at the back on buses. Car rental is almost non-existent. However, you can hire cars with driver easily. Note that the standard of driving is atrocious!
There is a wide range of hotels but the budget ones often don’t take foreigners. Hotels are graded but don’t expect the equivalent to a European rating. Most hotels expect payment in dollars.
Persian food is one of the most ancient cuisines of the world, and is rich in spices, herbs and fruit. Sadly, you won’t find much sign of it outside private homes. In restaurants the most common meal is lamb kebabs with rice, or chicken. The rice is superb, and may be cooked with saffron, or with dill, berries or orange peel. Nuts, fruits and cakes are found everywhere. The yoghurt and ice cream are delicious.
Vegetarians will survive on rice, yoghurt and salad but may struggle to get much else. Falafels are widely available from snack bars.
Alcohol is banned. A very malty non-alcoholic “beer” is available. Tea (chai) is the most common drink and is served without milk. Doogh is a rather sour but refreshing drink of yoghurt, water, salt and mint that is widely served. Soft drinks and fruit juices are widely available.
There are no particular health risks. Violence towards tourists is rare. Muggings and pick-pocketing incidents have increased over the past few years so do take the usual common-sense precautions.
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