Backpacking in Iran: Travel Guide & Comprehensive Tips for Preparation

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Here you will find all the information and tips for backpacking in Iran – a comprehensive guide to prepare your own Iran trip, based on the experiences of my almost 4 weeks stay in the country. (Last update: April’2018)

During my Iran trip I organized everything individually on the spot, followed recommendations from locals, made many new friends and thus also got the opportunity to get to know the real Iran. In this extensive article I try to answer all the questions that I also asked myself before the first trip.

1) Why go to Iran?

Iran is the second largest country in the Middle East and has a rich history dating back to ancient times. Due to its location, you will find a wide range of landscapes in Iran: from high mountains & green forests in the north, the coasts of the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf to vast deserts in the east of the country. Architecturally, there is also a lot on offer: historical sites from the time of the Persian Empire, majestic palaces from the time of the Shahs and monumental mosques.

The largely stable security situation, the increasing opening of the country and the reasonable prices make Iran an extremely attractive travel destination in the region. Especially as a German citizen you can move around the country without a tour, unlike travelers from the USA/UK/Canada, and get a visa relatively easily.

The fact that the percentage of young people is very high and that they are very interested in cultural exchange, leads to very warm encounters when traveling through the country. Especially if you bring a little more time, are open and sometimes away from the tourist attractions on the road, you quickly get into conversation with young Iranians and is not infrequently invited to a tea, etc. The Iranian hospitality is unparalleled!

You will also be surprised how modern and open Iran is in many parts – even if the image of the country in the West and the local laws may suggest otherwise. For me, the trip through Iran is one of the best, most diverse trips I have taken in recent years!

2) Climate & Best time to travel

Due to its size you will find a wide range of climates: while the mountains in the north are very cool even in summer, it is hot and dry in the center at the same time (sometimes over 40°C!). Therefore, it is advisable to avoid the weather extremes in summer and winter and focus on spring and autumn.

Besides the weather, you should also consider local holidays and especially the fasting month Ramadan in your travel planning (you can find the dates here), as some restrictions are to be expected here (see below). You should also avoid the time around Nowruz (Iranian New Year, 20/21.03. and 1 week after), because it is almost impossible to book accommodation here.

Therefore, the best time for backpacking in Iran is from April to June (mind Ramadan!) and from September to November. I myself was on the road from April to May and had ideal weather at all stations of my trip.

3) Entry, Visa & Insurance

For your trip to Iran you need a visa in any case. In recent years, however, the entry as a tourist has become increasingly easier, so there is now, for example, the possibility for German citizens (also applies to Austria & Switzerland) to get a visa on arrival at the airport in Tehran (usually only for 14 days).

Nevertheless, I recommend to organize the visa already before the trip, because this way you have clarity about the visa issuance and you avoid the long waiting times at the airport (sometimes several hours). On my last trip, some of my fellow travelers were denied visas at the airport and had to return home.

You need the following

Here I explain everything step by step (pay urgent attention to the latest advice of the German Foreign Office!).

  • Valid passport: Must be valid for at least 6 months from the date of entry, have a free double page, if possible without an Israeli entry stamp (entry can be denied in individual cases)
  • Copy of the first page of the passport (scan) for reference number application
  • Travel health insurance valid in Iran (also for Visa on Arrival):
  • I used the insurance of HanseMerkur, which I use for most of my trips and can recommend in good conscience.
  • 1 biometric passport photo (scan)
  • Itinerary :
  • Day by day including activities and accommodation (for example: “Day 1, City: Tehran, Activity: Visit Golestan Palace, Hotel: Markazi Iran Hotel”) (was not necessary during my last stay, but can be prepared for safety).
  • Booking confirmation of the first accommodation (if you arrive late, I recommend the airport hotel in Tehran, see below).
  • Money for the fees:
  • 50-80€ for visa

Visa process

Usually the Iranian consulates require the submission of all documents at least 2 weeks before the start of your trip. Before that, however, you also need a reference number, so you should start about 1 month, at the latest 3 weeks before your trip:

  • Application for a reference number: This is now possible online, but you need a scan of your passport and your passport photo (requirements can be found on the website), about 3 working days after registration you can check if the reference number has been assigned (if not you should contact the responsible consulate)
  • Prepare the required documents (after receiving the reference number):
  • You can find them on the pages of the consulate responsible for your place of residence in Frankfurt, Hamburg, Munich or Berlin
  • Submit all documents (passport in original, possibly forms, reference number, insurance certificate) to the responsible consulate:
  • Either in person on site (payment of the visa fee on site) or by mail with a stamped envelope and proof of payment of the visa fee (payment of the fee in advance by bank transfer).
  • Receipt of the visa (Yay!)

4) Language & Getting Along

In Iran Farsi is spoken, English is understood only by a few. The language barrier is often the biggest challenge, but in many cases it can be made up for by charm and clever use of the international “hand and foot language” 😉

As a rule, in big cities, especially young, educated Iranians speak at least a little English. Nevertheless, during my time I also met some Iranians with whom I could talk well in English, mostly they were either motivated by themselves to learn the language or worked in tourism. It was not uncommon for me to be approached on the street and as a result I often had short but very nice conversations with locals.

Before your trip to Iran, I recommend that you learn at least a few standard phrases, as well as the spelling of the numbers 1-10. As a traveler you are always a bit of an ambassador for your country, so a “salam” (hello) or “mersi”/”mamnun” (thank you) should at least be included as a nice gesture:

 

  • Hello – Salam
  • Yes – Bale
  • No – na
  • Please – lotfan
  • Thank you – mersi / mamnun
  • What is your name – Esm e shoma chist?
  • My name is *** – *** hastam.
  • How much is it? – Gheymatesh chand ast?
  • I am from Germany – Man az Alman hastam
  • Does anyone here speak English? – injâ kas-i Engelisi midânad?

 

  • 0 – ۰(sefr)
  • 1 – ١(yek)
  • 2 – ۲(do)
  • 3 – ۳(se)
  • 4 – ۴(cha)
  • 5 – ۵(panj)
  • 6 – ۶(shesh)
  • 7 – ۷(haft)
  • 8 – ۸(hasht)
  • 9 – ۹(noh)

It is also helpful if you know or get to know a few locals. For example, I often asked the staff in the hotel/guesthouse for help when it came to addresses, etc. I also often used Couchsurfing to meet with locals and thus learned to understand the country and its culture better.

5) Local Laws & Dress Code

Iran is an Islamic Republic – this means that Islamic law, the Sharia, applies locally and is sometimes enforced vigorously.

The most important laws, rules of conduct & peculiarities

Of course, rules and laws also apply to tourists, and those who do not abide by them must expect appropriate penalties.

  • Alcohol is prohibited: For most, this is probably the biggest restriction, however, you could use the trip so but also for a detox 😉
  • Drugs are strictly forbidden (long prison sentences!)
  • Homosexuality is forbidden in Iran
  • Women have to follow the Islamic dress code in public (see below)
  • Physical contact between man & woman in public is very restrained: i.e. no kissing or holding hands, but in liberal areas such as Tehran, a simple goodbye hug is widely accepted. In conservative areas, one should also not sit directly next to a woman with whom one is not related.
  • sexual relations between unmarried people are also illegal: i.e. if you are an unmarried couple, you should just fib a little when asked at the hotel check-in and state that you are married 😉
  • Dancing is forbidden in public: …however in the private circle no problem
  • During Ramadan there are stricter rules: Eating/drinking, smoking as well as use of perfume is strictly forbidden between sunrise and sunset in public
  • blowing your nose in public is frowned upon
  • avoid political or even religious discussions
  • no photography or filming of public buildings, industrial plants and military facilities (do not take a drone!)
  • Friday has the role of our Sunday in Iran: most stores, banks and exchange offices are closed on Friday – parks, sights and restaurants are well visited

Ok, although this sounds partly quite harsh, the reality looks more relaxed than you might think (especially since you also enjoy a little special status as a tourist). In general, especially the young, liberal generation in Iran is very Western-oriented and also disturbs many rules, privately it is then no different than with us. Also the dress code is often interpreted in a more daring way. Especially in Tehran, the street fashion surprised me quite pleasantly!

However, you should take the information about taking photos and filming seriously, as you can quickly come under suspicion of espionage and face severe penalties.

Dress code

For women, the following applies in public: in general, the head should be covered with a headscarf, and a loose top should be worn that covers the décolleté, arms, buttocks and at least half of the thighs. However, a veil (chador) is not necessary and is not worn in most cities, even by Iranian women.

As already mentioned, the interpretation of this rule is extremely liberal in Tehran, for example: a lot of makeup is used here, the headscarf usually only sits loosely on the back of the head, a fancy, loose-fitting coat is worn as a top, and the pants are also usually rather tight-fitting.

But men should also prefer long pants and shirts. T-shirts are OK in most cases, but shorts are rather unusual. In general, you should be careful to dress a little fancier, because clothing in Iran has a higher weighting than in our country.

Taarof

A, in my opinion, quite charming politeness ritual is the so-called Taarof. However, the same can, especially for the unsuspecting tourist, quickly become a faux pas.

Taarof is about showing appreciation to the other person, e.g. by giving up money for a service rendered or for the sale of goods, and then gladly accepting the money only after (often repeated) refusals. For you as a tourist, it is therefore important to insist on payment first, for example, if you get to hear after a cab ride “no problem, it’s free for you”. Only after 2-3 attempts to pay, you can really be sure that it is really meant that way.

In case of doubt you should say “Taarof Nakonid” (no Taarof please). However, I myself, as an obvious non-Iranian, have rarely had to deal with this ritual.

Hospitality

This word is not only written very big, but especially towards tourists very much lived. On my trip I was invited to many teas, dinners, barbecues and private parties and always had a great time. Even on the bus I was given snacks and even sandwiches.

If you are invited to backpacking in Iran, the host Iranians always insist that they bear the costs, this is only in very rare cases Taarof. At parties, however, it is common to bring something or contribute to the buffet (but even here the tourist often enjoys puppy protection). On a return visit, however, you should be just as hospitable.

6) Finance & Budget

The local currency in Iran is called Rial and has a quite inflationary past. So I was already a real millionaire after exchanging 25€! Nevertheless, the topic money is a bit more complex – here I go into the most important and tell you how expensive Iran is.

Rial and Toman – the confusion with the missing ‘0’.

Even though the official currency is Rial, in daily use we always talk about “Toman”. This is a kind of pseudo-currency in which a 0 is simply deleted from the amount (10,000 Toman = 100,000 Rial).

Practical example: if, for example, the cost of a cab ride is given as “40,000 Toman”, you will end up paying 400,000 Rial.

Withdrawal & Credit Cards? Not in Iran!

“Only cash is real” is the slogan of any trip to Iran. Due to the sanctions of the past years, Iran is still not connected to the Western financial system. This circumstance makes money transfers, cash withdrawals or payments by credit/EC card impossible, you have to take everything in cash (preferably 50€ bills, coins are rather more difficult to exchange).

For my trip I used a money belt that I wore under my clothes to keep my cash safe.

Exchange office or bank?

The exchange rate in banks is usually much worse than in exchange offices. Therefore, inquire about a trustworthy exchange office and exchange there. Avoid exchanging on the street!

How expensive is Iran?

A definite answer to this question is naturally difficult, but in general Iran is an extremely cheap travel destination. Therefore, during my trip I was able to sleep mostly in mid-range hotels, often took cabs, ate almost exclusively in restaurants, and spent only 400-500€ per week in combination with entrance fees and tours.

Especially classic backpacking in Iran is feasible for much less, especially with the accommodation you can save a lot of money (see below). As an orientation for your calculation I will list a few prices in €:

  • Overnight stay: double room for 40-50€ (hotel, incl. breakfast), double room for 20-25€ (trad. guesthouse), 8-12€ (hostel, dorm)
  • Long distance bus ride (VIP): 9€ for Tehran – Isfahan (7h) incl. snack
  • Night train (sleeping compartment): 10€ for Yazd – Tehran (8h) incl. snack
  • Meal: 5€ incl. drinks (Kabap grill / local restaurant), 10€ incl. drinks (upscale restaurant), 1-2€ for snack (falafel, sambose)
  • Entrance fee: 5€ (single attractions like special mosques), 10€ (palace complexes like Golestan Palace)
  • Cab: 3-4€ (ride in the center e.g. bus terminal-hotel)
  • Day tour: 25€ p.p. for desert tour in Yazd (transfer, guide, food, on site activities)

7) Food & Drink – Persian Cuisine

At first glance, Iranian cuisine seems dominated by the national dish Kabab, but it is much more diverse. In the course of my tour I got to know new, delicious regional dishes and was amazed by the variety. However, you should inform yourself in advance about good, recommendable restaurants (e.g. in the hotel, locals). In my city guides and videos, I therefore explicitly point out worthwhile restaurants.

My absolute favorite dishes

The sweet and sour “Fesendschan” (chicken in a brown sauce of ground walnuts, pomegranate and spices), Tahchin (baked saffron rice with pomegranate, eggs, yogurt and usually with chicken or vegetarian with vegetables), Ghormeh Sabzi (“green stew” – braised dish with herb sauce and lamb/beef), Dizi (thick soup of vegetables and meat) and of course Chello Kabab (spit-roasted lamb with steamed rice).

If you are invited to a private dinner, be sure to accept – the dishes mentioned are much better homemade (especially tahchin!). Actually, pita bread is always served with every meal; the better the restaurant, the tastier the bread often is.

Vegetarian dishes in Iran

Sometimes it takes some research, but there are some very tasty vegetarian dishes in Persian cuisine: Kookoo Sabzi (herb fritatta, usually served with yogurt), Mirza Ghasemi (delicious mousse of eggplant, tomato, garlic, eggs, oil and spices), Budemjan (different variations – thick stew with eggplant and vegetables, served with rice) or Shirazi Salad (tomato, onion, cucumber and parsley). As for snacks, you can often find falafel street food stores, in fast food places you can go for a vegetarian pizza (“Pizza Sabzi”), also the many hipster cafes in the country are a good place to go for vegetarians.

Drinks & Ice

Nothing beats a good cup of tea in Iran! If you are in the mood for cold drinks, grab water or doogh (Iranian Ayran variant) while eating. Otherwise you should definitely order a freshly mixed juice in one of the many juice stores (costs no more than 1€). If you can’t do without a beer, you have to resort to non-alcoholic beer, since alcohol is forbidden – but I rather recommend malt beer (I found the “Istak” very tasty).

As for deserts, Iranians are crazy about ice cream – both saffron ice cream and faloodeh, their own lemon flavored spaghetti ice cream variant, can be found on every street corner.


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