As I mentioned in my “Overview” post on Iran, the dress code is one of the things that stress people out about visiting Iran, but it’s actually quite simple. All you have to wear is a headscarf (no need to worry about covering up all of your hair) and a top/jacket/coat that cover your butt and with sleeves past your elbows (the men have to wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants as well.) Other than that, it’s anything goes – skinny jeans (and other tight clothes), heels (or sandals in the summer), and bright colors are all allowed.
You may have heard of the “morals police” going about admonishing people for not sticking to the dress code, but I only witnessed one instance on Tabiat Bridge, in which a local girl was gently reminded by a security guard to fix her headscarf, which had fallen down. As long as you don’t walk around with your head bare, you’ll be fine. The ladies in Tehran are especially stylish; I felt a bit underdressed with my travel wardrobe!
Travling during the winter, like I did, definitely makes covering up easier, but I imagine that in the summer, the scarf and long shirts would actually be cooler than baring it all (as anyone who lives in a hot climate knows, you should cover up in the heat.) That being said, here is what I packed for my 10-day trip:
– Tops: 4 thermal tops (I get cold easily), 1 turtleneck top.
– Bottoms: 3 pairs of tights/leggings (for layering under my jeans), 2 pairs of jeans, 1 pair of fleece-lined pants.
– Outerwears: 2 turtleneck sweaters, 1 cardigan (these are all long enough in case I had to take off my coat), 1 waterproof coat.
– Shoes: 2 pairs of boots (one lightweight for city walks, the other for more vigorous hikes.)
– Acessories: 3 scarves (they are harder to keep on my head than I expected! Bring a hairclip to fix them to your hair if necessary.)
I did feel relieved to take off my headscarf upon boarding the flight home, but I never felt any pressure from having to dress a certain way while in Iran. Don’t let it deter you from visiting this wonderful country!
Shiraz is my favorite place in Iran for three reasons. One, the hotel, Niayesh, is easily the biggest and fanciest place I’ve stayed in during the whole trip. I booked a single room, but I was put in a huge room with a king-sized bed, and, get this, separate bathroom and toilet. If you’ve seen how tiny the bathrooms in Iranian hostels are, then you’ll appreciate the sheer joy of not having to put away the toilet paper every time you shower (to keep it from getting wet).
The hotel also has several restaurants, and it was here that I got to try dizi – a stew of mutton, beans, chickpeas, potatoes, and tomatoes. I wanted to try it not just because it’s traditional, but also because it’s so fun to eat. First, you pour the tomato sauce from the stew into your bowl and eat that with the flatbread. Then you mash up the stew itself and scoop it up with the rest of the bread. It’s good and very filling!
Two, I spent the longest time in Shiraz, so I actually got to know the city. Actually, I had just as long in Tehran, but in Shiraz, I wasn’t so exhausted that I couldn’t remember anything. Also, the sights in Shiraz are well incorporated into the “everyday” part of the city, so it feels harmonious and graceful.
I arrived in Shiraz late in the evening after my Persepolis tour, so I decided to take it easy. The next morning, I headed out early to beat the crowd to what is easily the second most famous attraction in Iran, after Persepolis – the Nasir-al-Mulk Mosque, aka the Pink Mosque, so named because of the pink roses on the tiles used to decorate it.
It’s best to visit the mosque from 8 to 11 AM, when the sun shines through its stained glass windows, so I was there at 7:30. Turned out I made the right decision – a Chinese couple was there before me, and another couple arrived just after me. Still, I managed to grab a couple of photos before the place filled up. It would’ve been nice to just sit there and watch the windows lit up, but alas, that’s the way it goes with popular destinations.
After a delicious breakfast at the hotel, I went to a couple of historical houses nearby – Naranjestan Qavam and Zinat-al-Mulk. They’re not as big as the ones in Kashan but better preserved, and surrounded by beautiful gardens. There are also museums attached to them, so you can learn more about the history of Shiraz.
Later, I headed to Vakil Bazaar, the main bazaar of Shiraz. However, thanks to my genius sense of direction, I ended up lost. That’s when I got to experience the third reason I fell in love with Shiraz – the kindness of its people. As I was wandering up and down the main street looking for the bazaar’s entrance, I ran into an elderly gentleman who spoke English. I asked him for direction, and he not only showed me to the bazaar but also spent the rest of the afternoon taking me to other sights in Shiraz – the Ali Ibn Hamzeh Holy Shrine (which is not as famous as Shah Cheragh, but it allows photos while Shah Cheragh doesn’t), Hafez’s tomb, and the Citadel.
Oh, and he insisted on treating me to lunch as well. Having read about taroof, a complex form of Iranian etiquette in which people may offer to pay for you (but it’s just their way of being polite), I tried to refuse, but he kept insisting, so in the end, I accepted. At least he let me pay for tea and snacks afterward!
As we walked around the city, we talked about his family (he and his wife were both teachers, now retired), about Vietnam and Iran, and the culture and history of Shiraz. It was the best time I had in Iran. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have an email address or any kind of social media, so I don’t know how to stay in touch with him, but I’ll never forget him.
And that makes for the perfect ending for my trip, because that’s what Iran is all about. The sights may be marvelous, but what’s more wonderful is the kindness of its people. From little things like the family sitting next to me in a restaurant in Kashan who reminded the waiter to take my order and the old lady sharing her trail mix with me on the bus on Yazd, to the grand gestures like this gentleman I met in Shiraz, it is what stays with me and what will bring me back to Iran.
I took the bus from Isfahan to Yazd (170.000 rials for a 4-hour ride; the staff at Ragrug Hostel booked the ticket for me.) The view along the way was unremarkable as usual, and I dozed off a little, until I was woken by a drop in the temperature and realized we were driving through snow-covered mountains.
The joke was on me. I’d planned my North-South route to get away from the cold, yet so far Tehran had been the warmest. But a bigger joke was waiting in Yazd. See, Yazd is a desert town. It being winter, I didn’t expect scorching heat or anything like that, but what I definitely didn’t expect was a flood. That’s right, this desert city was flooded!
Thankfully, the old town was not flooded, but the rain was relentless and my mood was dampened considerably. So instead of staying a full day and leaving for Shiraz by bus the next afternoon like I had planned, I decided to take another transfer tour from Yazd to Shiraz via Persepolis the very next morning. I was going to Persepolis anyway, and as it lies between Yazd and Shiraz, this would save me a long bus ride (the transfer tour was 40 euros including a guide). My hostel, Tarooneh (a very nice, family-run place), organized the driver/guide for me, and since I had to leave quite early, the owner even brought breakfast to my room. So considerate!
That gave me just an evening in Yazd, and it was raining cats and dogs. No matter. I headed out anyway. Yazd’s old town is a bit like Kashan’s – all winding alleys and mud walls – but larger. And it was quiet, which was a nice change after the hubbub of Isfahan.
I went to all the usual sights – the Amir Chaghmaq square, the Jameh mosque, and the Atash Behram fire temple. I don’t know if it was the rain or not, but they didn’t leave much of an impression on me; mostly they were just shelters from the rain. It was pretty awe-inspiring to visit the fire temple, though, considering the fact that its sacred fire has been burning for over 1500 years.
Funnily enough, my fondest memory of Yazd is a little thing. As I trudged back to the hostel in the rain, I suddenly came upon the best smell in the world – bread baking. It was from a small bakery where a group of locals were waiting to buy the freshly made bread, and when I indicated with my camera, they all invited me inside to take photos and watched the bakers at work. How nice of them!
The next morning, I got picked up at 7 and driven through an imposing mountain range, all covered in the fluffiest, most pristine snow I’ve ever seen – it was gorgeous.
The tour includes three stops – Pasagardae, the Naqsh-e Rustam necropolis, and Persepolis. Pasagardae, frankly, can be skipped – it’s just a tomb and some ruins, nothing to write home about except it works as a built-up to Persepolis.
Naqsh-e Rustam is much more impressive – four tombs cut high into a rock cliff, believed to belong to ancient Persian kings, Darius I, Xerxes I, Artaxerxes I, and Darius II. It blew my mind to think how long it must’ve taken to finish them.
Finally, after a quick lunch, we arrived at the climactic conclusion of the tour – Persepolis. From the entrance, you walk up to the terrace and climb the stairs to the Gate of All Nations, just as the delegates of ancient times would when they arrived in Persepolis to see the King (Persepolis, which existed from around 500 BC to 300 BC before it was destroyed by Alexander the Great, was more of an administrative/ceremonial complex rather than an actual city for people to live in.)
The place is absolutely huge, and a guide is highly recommended so you know where to go and understand the story behind the ruins. For me, the most remarkable thing about Persepolis is the patience and the precision it took to complete all those buildings (my guide, the aptly named Darius, said that people today lack patience to make such art, which I think is absolutely true). To touch the carvings really feels like you’re touching history.
Another thing is that all the buildings used to be painted brightly back in the day. It may look dignified now with the weathered stone, but what I wouldn’t give to see it in all of its original, colorful glory.
After my transfer tour from Kashan, I arrived in Isfahan (or Esfahan) early in the afternoon. Despite being a big tourist destination, the city has no affordable hotel/hostel within walking distance of the center. However, the hostel I stayed at, Ragrug, offers free transport to the center, so it’s perfect.
As usual, after checking in, I immediately headed out to see the sights. My destination was the Naqsh-e Jahan Square, one of the biggest squares in the world, and its surrounding buildings – the Shah Mosque, the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, and the Grand Bazaar (there is also the Ali Qapu Palace, which I didn’t check out.) The scales and the details of the mosques are just stupendous – I must’ve developed a crick in my neck because I couldn’t stop gawping up at their domes. It was like looking up at heaven.
The bazaar was good for souvenir shopping – I was especially impressed by the silver and copper shops!
Unfortunately, I arrived just a day before a big national holiday, so everywhere was insanely crowded. I wanted to stay until nightfall to see the square lit up, but the crowd became too much for me, so I pushed on to the Si-o-Se Pol Bridge, one of the 11 historical bridges in Isfahan. The walk took me through a pedestrian street lined with shops and hipster food and coffee trucks parked in the middle – I had dinner on the go from one of these trucks. The crowd was pretty thick here, too, but at least I could keep moving and people-watch.
Eventually, I emerged into a square thronged with traffic overlooking the Zayanderud River. Somehow, I managed to reach the bridge, which was super crowded as well. Though the bridge was lit up beautifully and I was happy to see water in the river – most of the recent photos of the bridge showed the river dried up – the crowd was stressing me out. So after snapping a few photos, I went back to the hostel and called it a night.
The next day, per the suggestion of the hostel staff, I avoided returning to the city center because a) it was going to be even more crowded, and b) everything was closed anyway. I briefly considered going to the Armenian Quarter to see the Vank Cathedral (Iran isn’t all about the mosques, you know), but after Tehran and Kashan, I was feeling a bit burned out on architecture, so I decided to have a “nature” day instead.
In the morning, I went for a walk on Sofeh, a mountain about 10 km outside the city (I wouldn’t call it hiking, because the paths up the mountain are paved). Although it was drizzling, it was great to get out of the city and away from the crowd.
Then, in the afternoon, I went on a desert tour organized by the hostel (15 euros/person). The sky was clear when we headed out, but as we approached the town of Varzaneh, it started pouring. Ironic, isn’t it? Here we were, hoping to see a scorching desert, and it rained!
We decided to press on anyway, and it turned out to be a really nice outing. We had some interesting discussion with our guide about life in Iran, about their frustrations in the present and their hopes for the future. It was a great way to get to know the country better.
And the scenery was pretty awesome too. First, we went to a salt lake – it must be really striking in the summer with all the salt crystals coming up, but even in the rain, it still looked impressive, in an alien kind of way.
After that, we headed to the sand dunes. The vastness and emptiness of the landscape is astounding and really makes you feel insignificant (in a good way).
On the way back, we stopped to see a “cow well”, which is a well where the water is drawn up by, you guess it, a cow (actually, it’s a bull), to irrigate the nearby fields. The really fun thing is that the trainer sings to the cow to get it to move – how sweet is that?
Our last stop was a roadside restaurant where we enjoyed some fresh fish – and I mean super fresh, as we watched the cook catch them from the pond where the fish were raised.
And that wrapped up a really fun day and also my time in Isfahan. There are still a lot of places I didn’t get to see in the city – it’s not called “half the world” for nothing! – but I hope to return one day.
I traveled from Tehran to Kashan on a VIP bus from the South Bus Terminal. There are buses leaving for Kashan every hour, so don’t worry about getting there on time. You just have to get your ticket (the ticket office is upstairs in the main building of the terminal; my ticket cost 200.000 rials, which included a light snack) and keep your ears out for people shouting out your destination.
The trip took 3 hours through the most depressing landscape I’ve ever seen – an endless stretch of brown wasteland, dotted here and there with soot-colored hills. It rained, too, which didn’t help. Thankfully, the rain stopped by the time we arrived; the sun came out, and things started looking up.
Here in Kashan, I’ve found the character that Tehran sorely lacks. Its Old Town is a maze of mud walls (my hostel, Sana Historical House, is located right in the middle of it) that threatens to swallow me up, but thanks to maps.me, I didn’t get lost – well, not too badly.
Most of the Old Town is concentrated around a handful of historical houses – 19th century mansions of wealthy merchants, now converted into museums. I bought a combined ticket for three main places, Tabatabaei House, Abbasi House, and the Sultan Amir Ahmad Bathhouse (350.000 rials).
The historical houses are just empty shells to showcase their architecture. I was slightly disappointed, for I’d hoped to see furnished rooms and learn how people used to live back then. Still, the architecture is gorgeous (and very symmetrical, which appeals to me), and it was oddly touching to walk around those empty houses with their faded grandeur.
After an early dinner at Abbasi (there is a restaurant attached to the house), I walked back to the hostel in the twilight and listened to the call to prayer echoing through the streets as a crescent moon appeared in the sky. This was more like it.
The next day, I took a “transfer tour” to Isfahan, with stops at Fin Garden, Abyaneh and Natanz (40 euros for the whole car; here was a disadvantage of traveling alone in the low season – there was no other tourist to share your rides!) Fin Garden and Natanz can be skipped – Fin Garden is nice in the sense that you get to see some green trees after days in the desert, but it’s not worth the admission price of 200.000 rials. The mosque at Natanz is at least free.
The highlight of the tour, of course, is Abyaneh. The view (if you can call it that) along the way is largely the same at first – brown desert flanked by menacing mountains – but when the car started driving toward those mountains and climbing up, I could see that they have a kind of terrible beauty about them. They’re scary, but you can’t look away.
Abyaneh is nestled among these silent giants, a stepped village of distinctive red clay houses. It was deserted, though – aside from a few tourists, the only locals I saw were some old women (in their trademark floral scarves) selling souvenirs. I only encountered one family with children on the outskirt of the village. It was as if the entire place was frozen in the past.
I spent nearly two hours wandering up and down the alleys without seeing a soul, until the weather turned nasty – it was actually hailing – so I had to return to the car.
It was nice visiting Abyaneh, but I wouldn’t want to live there. And I got the feeling that not many young people would, either.
My plane landed in Tehran at the ungodly hour of 3 AM. I got picked up by a taxi and taken to my hostel, Seven Hostel (I also pre-booked the taxi with them). It’s a tiny building on an unassuming street, surrounded by shops selling auto parts, but it is within walking distance of most of the attractions in Tehran, which is why I picked it.
Tehran is usually the first destination for travelers and it is the biggest city in Iran in Iran, yet most of them never stay for longer than two days. I soon found out why: it has no character. The attractions are nice, but I can’t tell you what Tehran is like as a whole. It has no clear “downtown” or central area; the architecture is a depressing concrete jungle, and the traffic is, frankly, menacing. Thankfully, I’m used to the wild traffic of Vietnam so it wasn’t so bad for me, but still, it was a bit of a challenge crossing the road for the first time.
After a nap and a quick breakfast, I headed out to Golestan Palace. In a way, it reflects Tehran – each building is gorgeous, but the grounds are rather uninspired, just a square park surrounded by 1970’s-style office buildings. Not the setting I imagined for an 18th-century royal complex.
There are many buildings, and you have to buy individual tickets for each, on top of a general admission ticket, which I think is bullshit, but that’s how it is. Following the receptionist’s suggestion, I bought tickets to three buildings – the Reception Hall, the Marble Throne, and the Hall of Brilliance.
My irritation with the admission prices was forgotten as soon as I stepped inside. Here are the finest examples of Persian craftsmanship, rooms after rooms of the most exquisite mirror tiles and colorful porcelain mosaics. The lack of tourists (I only saw one Chinese tour group and a handful of Iranians) was nice too.
Another plus: there are many stray cats around and they’re all very friendly!
Afterward, I wandered to the Grand Bazaar. This being Friday, it was closed, but there were still shops opened on the street, so I bought some lunch and went to a nearby park to escape the crowd of shoppers. In the afternoon, I went to the National Museum, but at this point, I was deranged from lack of sleep (I hadn’t had any proper sleep in about 20 hours). All I remember is dragging myself back to the hostel and collapsing into bed. Tehran would have to wait.
I returned for one more day at the end of my trip, and this time, with the sun shining and the sky cleared, Tehran was decidedly improved. Not nicer, exactly, but brighter and neater.
My first order of business was to go to the Grand Bazaar for some shopping. Unfortunately, the Persian New Year is coming up, so it seemed everybody was out shopping. It was so crowded that I couldn’t really take photos.
I ended up doing my shopping at a street market near my hostel (it is right next to the Imam Khomeini metro station), which was much cheaper. The market also has food trucks and ice cream stands, making it a great place to hang out.
Next, I went to see some sights outside the city – Azadi Tower and Tabiat Bridge. These have two things to recommend them – one, they’re free, and two, they’re quiet. Also, you have to take the subway, which is an experience in itself. It’s very cheap (only 10.000 rials/ticket) and easy (the signs are both in Farsi and English), and there is the fun of watching hawkers selling all sorts of things from socks and scarves to make-ups and phone accessories on the train. There’s no other subway like it in the world, I guarantee it!
Azadi Tower is impressive, but it doesn’t require a lot of time. Tabiat Bridge, on the other hand, is a really nice outing. After getting out of the Shahid Haghani subway station, you walk through the Museum of Revolution and Holy Defense with its display of tanks and planes, up a tree-filled park, and end up at a lovely bridge overlooking the city and the snowy peaks in the distance. If I didn’t have packing to do, I would’ve stayed until sunset.
In the end, Tehran wasn’t a total bust like I’d originally thought. It may not have been my favorite place in Iran, but it has its beauty if you know where to look.
When I first announced my intention of traveling to Iran – alone, no less (my friend from the Cuba trip last year couldn’t accompany me), I was met with a lot of concern – “Is it safe?” was the question most frequently asked, even though Iran doesn’t have a particularly bad rep in Vietnam as it does in Western countries. But I had read that it’s actually very safe – certainly the safest in the Middle East – and my dad, who has been there a few times for work, raved about it. Plus, any country that has a visa-on-arrival policy can’t be that bad in my book, so I was determined to go.
And I’m glad that I went. Iran is completely different from any place I’ve been to, yet there is something familiar about its busy cities, its mixture of modern and traditional architecture, the wild beauty of its landscape, and most of all, its friendly people. Don’t believe the media; go now if you have a chance!
Iran is growing in popularity as a travel destination, but people still know quite little about it, so I’m going to share with you some practical tips that I’ve learned from my trip.
If you are a US, British, or Canadian citizen, you have to join a tour and apply for a visa through that. Most other countries, including Vietnam, are eligible to apply for a visa-on-arrival in Iran, meaning you can get a visa at the airport. To save money and waiting time, though, I applied for an electronic visa and picked it up from the embassy in Hanoi. It was very simple.
The money in Iran is called the rial, but everybody uses the old name, “toman”, instead. 1 toman = 10 rials, meaning when something costs 17.000 toman, it actually costs 170.000 rials. More confusingly, since there are so many zeros, people may leave out the “thousand” part altogether and just say “17”. When you’re not sure, always ask if the price is in toman or rial.
The inflation in Iran is quite bad, so the exchange rate changes every day. The “official” rate when I went there was about 40.000 rials = $1, but the actual rate was closer to 100.000 rials = $1. So definitely ask around first before you exchange any money. Most hostels/hotels and taxi drivers (especially for long trips) do accept euros/dollars.
Alternatively, you can also get a Mah Card, which is like a debit card that you can top up. Everywhere in Iran takes card – even street vendors! – so it can save you from carrying around wads and wads of cash. I didn’t, but some travelers I met had the card and said it was very useful.
Iran isn’t expensive, but it isn’t cheap either, especially when you count all the admission/entrance fees, which add up very quickly. My budget came out to about $50/day, but if I was traveling with a friend, I could’ve easily gotten away with $30 or even $25/day.
There are plenty of hostels and hotels in any of the main tourist destinations in Iran – in the individual post about each city, I will talk more about the hostel I stayed in. Since they can’t accept international credit cards, the easiest way to reserve a room is to email the hostel itself (which is what I did). Of course, it means you will have to carry extra money with you to pay them once you get there. There are some websites that allow you to book a room beforehand (1st Quest, Apochi), and some hostels can even be found on hostelworld.com.
As for prices, it depends on the kind of room you want. I stayed in private rooms in hostels (I’m at that age now where I can’t handle dorm rooms anymore), which average at about $20/night, with breakfast included.
– Getting around:
Iran has a pretty good public transport system. During my 10 days there, I used a combination of public buses and private taxis to get between the cities (Tehran – Kashan – Isfahan – Yazd – Shiraz), plus one domestic flight (Shiraz – Tehran). The flight I booked beforehand via 1st Quest, while the bus tickets could be bought at the station. In each city, I mostly walked, except for Tehran, where I used the subway, and in Isfahan, where I used Snapp (an app similar to Uber/Grab/Lyft), both of which are very cheap and easy to use. Again, more details will come in the individual posts.
Iranian food is good and cheap and the portion is huge – seriously, look at this kebab sandwich (with my sunglasses for scale). It’s as big as my head! The breakfasts at hostels are also huge, with bread, butter, jam, soft cheese, tea, and sometimes bean porridge and other traditional Persian food as well.
Also, get ready to drink a lot of tea – Iranians love their tea, and there are usually sticks of crystallized sugar to stir in it. Just don’t forget and leave it in too long, or you’ll end up with more sugar than tea!
Certain websites are blocked in Iran (Facebook, most social media sites except for Instagram, international new sites, etc.) but you can easily get around it by using a VPN. Being cheap, I used a free one (Hotspot Shield), which works fine for browsing Facebook and Tumblr, but if you want more security, you can pay for a premium one.
– Dress code:
This is one of the things that put people off visiting Iran, but I think that’s just silly. It’s no big deal to put on a scarf to cover your head and wear a longer shirt – because that’s all there is, really: no short sleeves, no short pants (this goes for guys as well), a headscarf, and shirts that cover your butt. I will also talk more about it in my packing post.
– Other tidbits:
You can find English speakers, but it can be difficult. I mostly relied on body language and Google Translate to communicate. I did learn the Farsi numbers, though, so I could read the prices of things.
Much more to come in the individual posts, so stay tuned!