Ladies and gentlemen, as we start our descent into the Axis of Evil, please ensure your seat backs and tray tables are in their fully upright position.
Okay, just to clarify, that wasn’t what the airline cabin crew announced as we approached Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport (IKA). Half expecting weapons galore and an oppressive atmosphere, I was both relieved and disappointed with the lack of drama entering Iran. If it wasn’t for the pictures of the Ayatollahs hanging over each luggage carousel in the reclaim area, I could have been landing anywhere.
WHY IRAN? WHY, WHY, WHY!
Yes, why travel to a country that is consistently on the receiving end of negative news coverage for a multitude of reasons. Iran was one of George W. Bush’s original Axis of Evil states (Iraq and North Korea were the others). Solo female travel in Iran is not a popular search phrase in Google so what possessed me to take on such a travel challenge? And was I mad to do so?
I met two separate Kerry people who had already visited Iran (solo male, female with her husband) and all gave a positive review of the country. But it was Levison Wood’s From Russia to Iran television documentary that planted the idea in my head and prompted me to begin research in earnest.
Solo female travel in Iran is not an insane undertaking. In fact, it’s quite do-able and here are my tips and advice for ladies pondering a visit to this vast and varied country alone. But much of the advice here is applicable to all tourists visiting Iran.
Safety: This was the most obvious prior concern for tourists I met there which transpired to be the least concerning issue of all. Family and friends had visions of me being robbed, kidnapped, or wrongly detained by the authorities for a variety of reasons including spying. Thankfully they were all wrong and I returned home to spread the message that I felt completely safe in Iran.
I didn’t see a significant police presence in Iran but, when I did, I noticed a respectful attitude in the body language of individuals dealing with them. I saw no instances of public disorder nor any unsavoury characters. ISIS/ISIL is not active in Iran. In fact, the Iranian people and government want to rid the world of this terrorist organisation as much as other countries do.
My own government’s travel advisory designated Iran as requiring a High Degree of Caution, the same level as France. At the time, it advised against travel to specific areas near the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq borders. Follow the advice that your own government’s foreign office/department provides and register your travel plans with them prior to visiting Iran. At the time of my visit, US citizens were advised not to travel to Iran.
Dress Code: Iran is an Islamic country so certain dress codes apply the minute you land on Iranian soil. For women, the only exposed body areas allowed are the face, feet and hands. Hair must be covered with a headscarf or hijab. I recommend bringing clips to attach the headscarf to your hair. Facial make-up is very much a thing. Glamorous is the default look.
Tops must be long enough to cover your buttocks and not be tight-fitting. A baggy shirt, long cardigan, knee-length jacket and tunic are fine. Some say that sleeves must be wrist-length but I got away with sleeves rolled up to below my elbows. Chadors must be worn in certain places of worship but will be provided at the entrance.
The overwhelming majority of women I saw in Iran wore trousers with skinny jeans the most popular of styles. Sandals are acceptable as is toe nail varnish. There is no obligation to dress in black. In fact, the clothing industry appears to be inspired by the vivid colours of the Persian Empire era. And despite the sartorial limitations, I found Iranian women to be classy and elegant with their style.
For men, it’s much simpler. Trousers and shirt/t-shirt are the norm. Sandals are acceptable but shorts are not.
Cultural issues/sensitivity: One would think that solo female travel in Iran is challenging/impossible due to the strict Islamic culture in the country. With the exception of sacred sites, public transport, and the dress code the cultural barrier was minimal.
On the Tehran metro, there were separate carriages for men and women. In certain places of worship there were separate entrances and prayer areas for the genders. Sometimes the cultural barrier was the butt of their jokes. Combine this sense of humour with copious amounts of tea and it felt just like Ireland…with better weather.
On the whole, I found people to be friendly, educated, well-informed, and tolerant. Everybody welcomed my probing questions and nobody I spoke to had extreme views on any topic discussed. In fact, their views on Middle East matters were in sync with many Western commentators and governments.
While Iran’s rich history dates back thousands of years, events in 1953 (CIA-backed coup) and 1979 (overthrow of the Shah, a US-backed dictator; hostage crisis) should be familiar to all travellers prior to travelling to Iran. I would also recommend watching the films of Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi.
Tourist Visa: Although I was entitled to a Visa on Arrival, I chose to get an e-Visa in advance via the Iranian Embassy in Dublin. The majority of independent travellers whom I met also arranged their e-Visa in advance from their home countries.
Tourist visa requirements vary according to your nationality. Citizens from a number of countries, including most EU and ASEAN countries, are entitled to a Visa on Arrival. Citizens of a handful of countries, most notably the US, the UK and Canada, must apply for a visa in advance at the Iranian Embassy/Consulate in their own countries.
US, UK and Canadian citizens must remain with a government approved guide during their stay in Iran. Israeli citizens are not permitted to enter Iran.
Internet access: Download a VPN if you don’t want a social media hiatus. I didn’t download a VPN so was unable to access the following sites: Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, YouTube, Airbnb, homestay.com, Hostelworld, BBC, Boston Globe.
However, along with this blog, the following sites were available: Google Search, Google Maps, Gmail, Lonely Planet, Tripadvisor, WhatsApp, Pinterest, Instagram, AccuWeather, Skyscanner, CNN, New York Times, Time, Newsweek, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, Le Figaro, The Guardian, The Independent (UK), Al-Jazeera, Sky News, France 24.
The Washington Post was available occasionally. For Irish folks, the Irish Times, Irish Independent, Irish Examiner, eircom email and local radio such as Radio Kerry were not blocked. However, RTE was blocked, which leads me to believe that the Irish national broadcaster is using a US server to host its online content.
Money/Currency: The official currency is the Rial but everyone talks in Toman. One Toman is equal to 10 Rial. You may be asked for 5,000 Toman (or simply 5) which is actually 50,000 Rial. My advice is to always clarify if the price quoted is in Rial or Toman.
Prices are not displayed anywhere so there is ample opportunity to be ripped off. Only change currency at official exchange offices. At IKA, exit the arrivals hall, pass the taxi exit and continue straight ahead down the corridor. Change as little money as possible at the airport in Tehran as the exchange offices in Ferdowsi Square will give you a better rate.
Language: Iranian people are Persians, not Arabs, so Farsi is the language used. Although many people in Tehran and in hotels elsewhere were able to speak English, it still pays to learn the basics. I didn’t get as far as learning the Persian alphabet but I would highly recommend learning the numbers in Persian script.
Phones: Apart from being blocked on the above listed sites, my Irish mobile phone had no problem receiving and making calls/texts. I purchased an IranCell SIM card for €5 at my hostel in Tehran which provided me with data on the go as well as calls/texts.
Best time to visit Iran: Given Iran’s size and geography, the weather will vary significantly but, if you do not wish to melt, avoid the late May – September period. I visited during mid-April and the coolest temperatures were in Tehran (20°C) with the hottest in Yazd (28°C).
Iranians advised against visiting during Nowruz (Persian New Year) which begins at the Spring Equinox in March and continues until the first week of April. Muslim people around the world have always advised me to avoid travelling to a Muslim country during the month of Ramadan. Ramadan dates vary from year to year.
Health: I found Iran to be an exceptionally clean country with high standards of hygiene. Apart from the bug that bit my face on my second-last night and the low humidity in Yazd, I encountered no problems. However, the re-imposed US sanctions hampered medical supplies so I would strongly advise to bring extra amounts of your medication plus personal quantities of general remedies.
Electrical Plugs: The standard continental European type which is the two round pin plug/socket of 220V-240V.
Western-style hotels in Iran are expensive but there are excellent alternatives. Here is where I stayed:
Tehran: Iran’s capital city was by far my favourite part of the trip, loving the city’s vibe. I stayed in the excellent See You in Iran hostel which I discovered through The Guardian newspaper. SYI Iran serves a limited but tasty selection of evening meals and has a Cultural House where you can meet locals.
Esfahan: I stayed in a homestay from homestay.com which was an amazing experience.
Yazd: I stayed in Sunny Land Guest House via the Hostelworld website. This traditional guesthouse was a relaxing experience with friendly and efficient staff. The breakfast was also very good. The staff arranged a private transfer (€30 for one person or €15 for two people) to Shiraz via the UNESCO sites of Pasargadae, the Naqsh e Rustam necropolis, and Persepolis. The transfer excluded food and entry to the sites.
Shiraz: I stayed in the popular Niayesh Hotel. My initial hotel said my room was unavailable due to plumbing issues and offered another room at half price. I suspected that I had been bumped out and my suspicions were confirmed when I arrived the hotel. The newly-assigned room was uninhabitable and other guests who heard the conversation confirmed that the hotel was completely booked out. I left and re-traced the private transfer’s journey back to the Niayesh area where the taxi had previously dropped the other two travellers.
Iranian ensuite showers have no curtain/dividing panel so water will splash everywhere.
Getting to Iran: I travelled with Turkish Airlines via Istanbul. I flew into Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport (IKA) for the inbound leg. For the return leg I departed from Shiraz Airport (SYZ) using Turkish Airlines multi-city booking mechanism. This saved on a day’s travel back to Tehran.
At the time of my visit, the only airlines with direct flights from Western Europe to Tehran were Lufthansa from Germany and Austrian Airlines from Vienna.
Getting around Iran: l used a combination of methods. For onward transport from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport check out the IKA website. Only take the yellow (or sometimes white) taxis waiting immediately to the left of the international arrival exit. They will have their company’s website URL written on the car. Taxis are available 24 hours.
Line 1 of Tehran’s metro goes as far as IKA but has limited hours. With 8 million people, Tehran is a very large city and I found the metro an excellent way of traversing the Iranian capital. I walked around Esfahan, Yazd and Shiraz.
I found taxis a rip off unless booked by my accommodation provider. Instead I used Snapp, Iran’s answer to Uber, downloadable through Google Play. The Snapp drivers’ English skills were on par with my Farsi efforts (i.e. not good) but I found them to be honest, courteous and delivered an excellent service.
For inter-city bus journeys I recommend the VIP option. These buses only cost 100K Rial extra but have comfortable reclining seats. Some bus companies have free snacks on board and all stopped for a toilet break.
FINAL WORDS OF ADVICE FOR TRAVELLING IN IRAN
Iran is a country with a rich history and culture so there is much to see including 22 UNESCO World Heritage sites. The country’s relatively isolated status for many years means the locals will use your visit to share their stories and opinions. Talking to people and drinking their offers of tea was my favourite activity of the trip.
The route I took is the typical tourist route and I would recommend it to those on pre-paid guided tours for one reason: You will not have to endure the rip-off mentality of service providers, taxi drivers in particular, on a guided tour.
Independent travellers I met who travelled outside of the typical tourist areas had a much better experience with taxis and other services. However, if you’re confident in fighting your corner then you’ll be okay. Yes, they are trying to make a living in a country which is experiencing sanctions but there is such a thing as fairness. My Snapp drivers all got tips for their excellent service. One good turn deserves another.
So, to answer my initial question, was I mad to go to Iran alone? No.
Do I recommend visiting Iran? Absolutely yes.