Have you always wanted to visit Iran independently? In this post, we’ll give you our best tips on how to do it. Also, learn about Mondays in Iran, our initiative running until the end of the year to promote Iran as an amazing tourist destination!

Introducing #MondaysinIran

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Mondays in Iran. As some of you will know, Nick and I visited Iran at the beginning of the year, and it was one of our most memorable holidays to date – we just couldn’t wait to share it with you all, but as it often happens, other things got in the way and we never got a chance to publish a single article. Until now – eight months later.

So, we’ve decided to do something special for Iran, and started this series that will run until the end of the year – it will be called Mondays in Iran, after our successful Mondays in Milan series. This time, we won’t be publishing a post every single Monday – after all, we were in Iran for only two weeks. We’ll publish a post every other Monday, and promote other Iran posts written by our favourite blogger friends on the remaining Mondays.

We’ll be sharing posts and Iran pics on social media using the #MondaysinIran hashtag – help us out with some share love, and let’s spread the word about how amazing Iran is.

visit iran isfahan siosepol bridge

Siosepol Bridge in Isfahan. Amazing, right?

Here’s the first post – a guide on how to visit Iran independently. We do hope this inspires you to visit this amazing country!

Here’s a brief overview of contents

Sort out your Visa

When to Go

Dress Code for Women

Where to Stay

How to Get Around

Food & Drinks

Money & Costs

Internet

Security

Isfahan sheik lotfollah mosque

Inside Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan

Sort out your Visa

Navigating the confusing amount of information about how to get an Iranian visa is likely to be a formidable task – one that very nearly drove me insane. There are two ways to get an Iranian visa – in advance through a consulate or embassy, or on arrival.

British, American and Canadian citizens are subject to visa restrictions, meaning they can’t visit Iran independently. Please note that this info is updated to early 2015 – with the opening of a British embassy in Tehran in August 2015, things may change soon.

You can’t enter Iran with an Israeli passport, or any passport bearing an Israeli stamp.

Visa on Arrival

Let’s start with visa on arrival, because that’s what we used. Citizens of most countries (Canada, US and UK are excluded) can get a 15 day visa on arrival at Tehran’s Khomeini airport and many other international airports.

The process is relatively straightforward and hassle-free. You just need to show proof of your first night accommodation, travel insurance and a return flight. Make sure you have your hotel’s phone number handy as they often call to check.

Join the queue, give your documents to the officer and he’ll hand you a slip with the amount you have to pay – you do that at another window. Prices are quoted in euro or US dollars and they vary according to nationality – I paid €60 with an Italian passport, while Nick (Australian) paid €120. Pay your dues, then return to the first window with your receipt and you’ll get your visa. The whole process lasts about an hour.

Some visa agencies offer ‘authorisation codes’, saying that they’re essential to get a visa on arrival. We didn’t have an authorisation code and were granted a visa on arrival anyway. Admittedly, tourists with an authorisation code had their visas done quicker, but that’s about it.

Remember to book your first night ahead and get email confirmation from the hotel. Not all Tehran hotels will offer this service – Hotel Atlas and Gollestan Hotel do.

**UPDATE** Iran now offers 30 days Visas on Arrival. Yay!

Tourist Visa in Advance

If you’re planning to stay in Iran more than two weeks and don’t want to go through the hassle of extending your visa, you need to apply for a tourist visa at an Iranian embassy or consulate. The process takes two or three weeks and grants you a 30 day visa, extendable for up to 90.

However, the process is usually straightforward only if you apply in your home country, and if you’re flying in and out. Some consulates are more lenient than others, but if you’re travelling overland or applying in a country that is not your own, be prepared to produce mountains of additional paperwork – in this case, a visa agency will definitely help. You might also need a flight reservation for your visa application.

How to Extend your Visa

Extending your visa is possible – both tourist visas and visas on arrival. Some say that cities like Yazd or Shiraz are much better places to extend than Tehran.

It seems that now a visa will only be extended when it’s about to expire. We tried to extend ours when we had about a week to go and were refused – ‘just come back the day before it runs out’ was the reply. We met a few tourists who did that and were able to extend their visa with no hassle for up to another 30 days. Just go to the visa office early and be prepared to wait a few hours, and you should get your visa extension on the same day.

In the end, we didn’t extend our visa, as we were told there are three days leeway after expiration – we had a 15 day visa on arrival and were able to exit Iran after 17 days from our entry, with no hassle whatsoever.

anti american graffiti tehran

Anti-American graffiti in Tehran.

When to Go

Spring and autumn are the best seasons to visit Iran. Winters can be bitterly cold, especially in the north of the country, and summer sees boiling temperatures everywhere, often in excess of 50°. The country is very big, and temperatures change a lot from north to south, with the southern coast being warm year round.

We visited in winter, between December and January, and temperatures were mild and pleasant – around 10° in Tehran and Isfahan and 20° in Yazd. But we were told it was an unusually mild winter.

If you want to ski (great fun!) the season in the Alborz mountains near Tehran runs from October to May.

Dress Code for Women

In Iran, women are expected to adhere to Islamic dress code. You need to wear a headscarf at ALL TIMES from the moment you step off the plane, everywhere except in private homes or your hotel room.

When I say ‘headscarf’, I don’t mean a full fledged affair – just something covering your hair. You can pin your headscarf to the back of your head, leaving your hairline exposed. If the scarf falls for a second, fear not – you won’t be arrested. Just put it back on.

visit iran isfahan friendly ladies

That’s how you wear a headscarf (check out the ladies, not me!)

Besides headscarf, women should wear long-sleeved, loose-fitting clothes. No low-cut tops, exposed shoulders or midriffs. We saw loads of women wearing leggings or tight jeans, especially in the least conservative areas of Tehran and Isfahan. Colourful clothes and headscarves seemed to be fine, same for make-up – most Iranian women are actually crazy about make-up.

Where to Stay

Hotels and Guesthouses

Iran is most definitely not on the beaten track. The country was subject to sanctions for 35 years, and for quite a while it was near impossible to visit. Accommodation is limited to budget/midrange hotels and some luxury affairs. When I say ‘luxury’, this needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, as many places were probably luxurious in the 1960s and have been poorly maintained ever since.

Smaller cities like Yazd also have traditional guesthouses, usually set around an internal courtyard with a fountain and divans to relax – Kohan Hotel in Yazd’s historical centre was a great example and a bargain at only $18.

tehran gollestan palace fountain

The courtyard of our guesthouse… not quite. Another shot of amazing Gollestan Palace!

Couchsurfing

Iranian hospitality is incredible. Everywhere you go you’ll be stopped by locals wanting to have a chat, which inevitably will end with an invitation for lunch, dinner or tea. The best way to experience this is Couchsurfing in Iran. We couchsurfed 9 out of 15 nights we spent in Iran, with two different families, and loved it.

First of all, you’ll get to try delicious cuisine. Home-cooked Iranian food and what you get at restaurants are quite different things – read the Food & Drinks section if you want to know more. Then, you’ll get access to insider’s tips and knowledge – from the right price to pay for taxis to when to visit the wonderful Pink Mosque in Shiraz (before 8.30 am, BTW).

It’s very easy to secure a CS host in Iran. Some will even invite you to ‘secret’ underground parties. Remember to be respectful around your hosts at all times, especially if elderly or conservative people live in the same house.

How to Get Around

In cities

In most cities, getting around means using buses or taxis.

Buses can be confusing due to the use of Farsi numbers, but locals are usually happy to help you out. More often than not they also ended up paying for our bus ticket! Just be aware that there are separate sections for men (at the front) and women (at the back) – if you’re a couple, just stay near the centre at either side of the bar separating the two sections.

Taxis are plentiful and easy to use, but (as always) many will try to overcharge you, especially in Tehran. Try to find out what the right fare is and don’t be afraid to bargain down – or walk. For instance, at Imam Khomeini Airport in Tehran rates to the city centre are set and displayed, but taxi drivers will still try to overcharge you.

In Tehran, there’s also an excellent subway system, easy to use and costing literally pennies.

Between cities

We found Iranian buses to be excellent. We simply turned up at the bus station and within an hour or so, found a bus to our destination. You can also book buses in advance – sites are usually in Farsi, but your hotel or CS host will gladly help you. Buses cost €8-10 for a 5-6 hour trip like Tehran-Isfahan. Try to book ‘VIP’ seats, offering reclining business class-style seats and free drinks and snacks for a couple of extra euro more than ‘normal’ buses.

There’s also a good train system in Iran, ideal if you’re planning to travel at night (from Yazd to Tehran for example). the only issue is that trains need to be booked a few days in advance as they tend to sell out. Again, ask your hotel or CS host for help.

tehran gollestan palace outside cat

One of Tehran’s many beautiful cats

Food & Drinks

Finding a restaurant in Iran can be hard. On our first night in Tehran we walked around for two hours in search of a restaurant, and ended up having a limp kebab in a shisha joint. Why? Strangely, many restaurants are either on the first floor or basement of buildings, and signs are (yes, you guessed it) only in Farsi. If you see an open door with a staircase either going up or down, chances are it will lead to a restaurant.

Food in restaurants and home cooked food are two entirely different things. Whsn I asked my CS host why, he said ‘why would I want to eat in a restaurant what I can have at home?’ In restaurants, kebabs reign supreme – a grilled skewer of beef, chicken or both on a bed of rice. That’s pretty much it – delicious indeed, but gets old.

Outside Tehran, vegetarians might have a hard time. In restaurants there are very few dishes prepared with no meat or fish at all – just a few aubergine-based dishes. Ordering a series of starters will be your safest bet, and maybe ask your hotel or CS host to write down in Farsi a list of what you can or cannot eat to show your waiter.

At home, food is an entirely different story. We had stews, chicken casseroles, and lots of ‘sabzi’ dishes, meaning vegetables. A really good dish you might also find in some small restaurants is ‘dizi’, a lamb stew with meat/veg and stock served separately then mashed together. We also ate veg fritters, meatballs and mixed salads, everything accompanied by mugs of sweet tea and mountains of fresh herbs. Everything was delicious and a lot healthier than restaurant kebabs!

vegetarian meal family iran

Eating with our CS hosts

Also, remember that alcohol is illegal in Iran. You won’t find it anywhere, not even in the most expensive restaurants and hotels – what Iranians call ‘beer’ is fruit-flavoured and non-alcoholic. You might be offered home made wine or brandy in private homes but trust me – it will probably be disgusting. Just give your liver a break and enjoy delicious freshly-squeezed juices instead!

Money & Costs

Currency

You won’t be able to withdraw money in Iran, as no Western cards are accepted. So, make sure you bring plenty of dollars or euros and exchange them at official exchange offices, which offer better exchange rates than hotels.

Iran’s official currency is the Rial. When we visited, one euro was equal to 45,000 Rial, but rampant inflation means exchange rates are anything but stable.

You’ll find that prices are always quoted in ‘toman’ instead of rial. The toman price is one tenth of the price in rial – for instance, for the taxi ride from Khomeini airport to central Tehran we were quoted 45,000 toman, equal to 450,000 rial. This can be very confusing, making things sound much cheaper (or much more expensive) than they actually are.

So, always make sure that you understand what currency is being referred to – and 99% of the times, it will be toman. Just add one 0 and you’re ready to go.

tehran bazaar inside

If you can’t find souvenirs, there’s a problem.

Taarof

Another strange Iranian custom is taarof. Picture this – you have just bought something at a shop and wish to pay. The shopkeeper basically says ‘no worries, you honour me with your presence’. What do you do? Think ‘quids in’ and run away?

This is taarof, an ancient form of Persian etiquette. The shopkeeper does want you to pay, but he’ll refuse your money three times before finally taking it. Just keep insisting and eventually he’ll take it, and you’ll make him happy for having understood his country’s etiquette and customs.

Isfahan friendly local man

It’s easy to make friends in Iran! (PS This guy just taarofed me)

Travel Costs

Overall, Iran is not an expensive country to travel. Couchsurfing and eating in with our hosts most of the time helped us keep prices low. Here’s a recap of what we spent:

  • Midrange hotel in Tehran: €40 per night
  • Budget guesthouse: €15 per night
  • Dinner for two (kebab, rice, salad and a soft drink): €10
  • VIP Bus Tehran-Isfahan / Isfahan-Shiraz: €8
  • Regular bus Shiraz-Yazd: €5
  • Entrance to sights: usually between €2 and €5
  • One day desert tour from Yazd: €40
  • A day skiing in Tochal, near Tehran (skipass & ski rental): €20

All in all, we spent about €700 for both of us, for a two-week trip. Not bad!

Internet

Say goodbye to social media while in Iran! Not only is internet painfully slow in the country – Facebook and Twitter and many news sites are also blocked. A menacing-looking page in Farsi will pop up if you try to access them.

Instagram, Buffer, Whatsapp and Viber (HUGE in Iran!) can be accessed no problem, and you’ll pick up loads of Insta followers and even a dinner invitation or two when posting from Iran!

You can use a VPN to access ‘blocked’ sites. We had hit-and-miss success with Tunnelbear, Surfeasy and Hotspot VPN.

tehran iran girls street

You won’t miss internet. Just make friends!

Security

Western media reports of Iran as a hotbed for terrorists and extremists couldn’t be further from the true. Iran is a country of wonderful, welcoming and generous people, whose primary concern with tourists is making sure they have a good time. 99% of invitation to dinner and tea are honest ones. This is a place where you can trust strangers – accept invitations, and be ready to have a wonderful time.

Having said that, Iran is not a crime-free haven. Exercise the usual amount of caution on public transport and crowded streets and bazaars, especially in Tehran where motorbikes run on the pavement and bag-snatching is common.

A few taxi drivers are tricksters, but usually the worse they can do is overcharge you or short-change you. That’s about it.

Is there anything else you’d like to know on how to visit Iran independently? Let us know in the comments!

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35 Responses

  1. Rachael@safari254

    Thanks for all the helpful info. I have never thought of visiting Iran, it is just one of those countries that you hear about a lot but none of it is ever anything good. It is nice to have someone share the positive side of things.

    • Margherita

      That’s why I was so eager to write this post! Iran doesn’t deserve the bad press, which is due to history and past politicians rather than current affairs. It’s an amazing country filled with beautiful, hospitable people. Try to visit if you can!

  2. Shobha

    Really informative! I’d ove to visit Iran with my family next year. It’s on our to-do list and this has been really helpful in getting me to think about the logistics. I doubt if we’ll couch surf so we’ll be staying at whatever hotels there are. We’re Anglo-American so we’ll have to take one of the organised tours.

    • Margherita

      You’ll have a great experience no matter what! Hotels are not that bad, just not much character at least from what I’ve seen. Thanks for stopping by!

    • Griff

      Thanks for this post! And great pics!!! I’ve been in Iran now for 6 weeks on a collaborative research project. I haven’t had any problem traveling as an American. For the first two weeks I traveled with my (German) partner, but I’ve mostly been on my own since. Of course, I’ve had loads of support from my research buddy in Iran, other friends (and friends of friends), as well as the Facebook group “See You In Iran”. Getting the visa is the hard part, but if you can get one, I say ditch the organized tours – or at least strike out on your own a bit. Except for Persepolis. Take a tour there. You won’t regret it.

      Apart from the murals on the walls of the former US embassy, I haven’t encountered any anti-American sentiment whatsoever. If anything, people viewed me and my (German) partner more like celebrities! Everyone wanted to talk to us and take pictures with us. And Persian hospitality is amazing. Seriously.

      A few things to remember:
      First, regarding the dress code: Men should not wear shorts. For women, the headscarf rules are fairly lax in Tehran and other bigger cities, but in more conservative places like Qom, Qazvin, and maybe Yazd you should tuck your hair in and keep your ears and neck covered. People are very forgiving of tourists’ fashion faux pas, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. You should also try to keep wrists, ankles, and feet covered in those places. In Tehran, though, you can have 3/4-length sleeves and wear sandals, but I’d make sure your trousers go down to your ankles. Hardly anyone wears long skirts or dresses, so stick to shirts and trousers. Skinny jeans are totally legit. The other super important thing is that any top you wear must cover your “lady parts” in both front and back. (This is true most everywhere.) Buy some tunics from H&M and/or wear a light, longer jacket (manteau) as the locals do. I ended up buying a bunch of stylish manteaus here, which I just wore over a tshirt when I had to teach. If you go to a shrine or other very holy place, you might have to wear a chador, but there are loads of what appear to be old bedsheets at the entrances, and the ladies will show you how to wear it. DO go to these holy places – and go inside! Avoid too much picture taking, but experience how religion operates on the ground here. People are happy you are there, so long as you’re acting reverently.
      Second, what I call “Persian time” is a lot different than German or American time. 😀 Iranians are super laid back, but this also often results in a lack of organization and/or punctuality. With everything from issuing/extending visas to meeting you somewhere for dinner, do NOT expect anything to happen on time. Still, things have a strange way of working out here. Just don’t lose your cool. (I’ve lost it a few times over the past 6 weeks. LOL)
      Third, I recommend learning a few phrases, plus your Persian numbers. Knowing how to read and say 1-20 was a big help. “Merci” usually suffices for “thank you”, and “Salam” for “hello”. But folks get really pumped when you can say things like “Xeyli Mamnun” (“thank you very much”) or “xoda hafez” (goobye). Made my life a lot easier.
      Finally, TALK TO PEOPLE. Learn how to bargain with the taxi driver. Laugh a lot. Approach people and ask. Young people will often stop and ask if you need help, but even older people who can’t speak any English are very happy to help you if you ask. (I get by in sign language half the time. It’s fun.) Oh – and load up on nuts and sweets. If you don’t come back from Iran with Type-2 diabetes, you’re doing something wrong. 🙂

      Hotels: I highly recommend Hotel Mashad in Tehran. Right across from the Former US Embassy and a metro station. Super central. Also Hotel Abbasi in Isfahan and Hotel Dad in Yazd, though these two are a bit more upscale and cost more.

  3. Bianca @itsallbee

    Great timing! I saw a ticket to Iran for under £200 today but will probably wait it out. I would love to visit next year though. Do you think you would have been able to travel there solo?

    • Margherita

      I’m pretty sure you’ll be alright traveling there solo. The Iranian men I met were all respectful and polite, interested in honestly getting to know me and didn’t hassle me at all. Maybe try Couchsurfing with some Iranian ladies to have a local guide you around!

  4. Bethaney - Flashpacker Family

    Awesome post! Iran is right at the top of the list of places I most want to visit. How do you think it would be travelling with kids there? I’ve never couchsurfed with children. Do you think it would be possible? What do you do to contribute towards meals when you are couchsurfing in Iran? Normally, if I were visiting someone hosting me for dinner, I would bring wine but obviously in Iran you don’t do that. What do you pitch up with if you’re invited to a home for dinner?

    • Margherita

      Hey Bethaney! I’m pretty sure it would be ok to CS with kids in Iran, we actually stayed with a family that had a little boy and they said they LOVE hosting families. I can give you their contact if you like! In terms of presents for your CS hosts, I’m sure something from your home country or a souvenir from wherever else you’re travelling would be much appreciated! We bought sweets in Iran for our CS hosts. Hope you do get to go! The locals are the best people we’ve ever met on our travels!

  5. Amanda | Chasing My Sunshine

    Wow, wow, wow. Some of those pictures made my mouth drop straight open. I have never entertained the thought of visiting Iran. I think you are doing such a great thing with your Mondays in Iran series. I will definitely be around to follow along. I can’t wait to hear more about it! Well worth the wait. 🙂

  6. Hooman

    Hi all friends. I am Iranian and want to say most of people will be glad to see you in my country. it will be a pleasure to host you there. wait for you dear all !

  7. Alirastafa

    700Euro for two persons in 2 week trip? bullshit! I just arrived from 2 week trip with my friend and we spent 900$ per person. 50$ cost one night in good hotel.

    • Margherita

      Why bullshit? Not everyone travels on the same budget as you, and as you would have seen reading the post, i did a lot of couchsurfing. That’s what I spent, believe it or not.

  8. Karianne

    Thank you so much for all of the information and advice. Iran is somewhere that I’ve always wanted to go and I’m hoping that sometime in the next couple of years, I will finally make it!

    I have a good Iranian friend who has offered to let us stay with her family and show us around so hopefully, that’ll make our travels easier and cheap – and we’ll be able to eat vegetarian food! But these tips will really help when we venture off on our own!

    Your photos are absolutely stunning – make me want to book my flight straight away!

  9. Nimfri

    Beautiful article! Unfortunately, as an Israeli it’s impossible for me to visit Iran. Hopefully one day Israelies can go there and Iranians come here for sightseeing. The good people on both sides deserve that freedom. It’s ashame that due to senseless politics no one cares about, this is now only a wishful thinking

  10. Javi

    Hell, I am Iranian. Thank you for the pictures. I can help people who need any help about Iran.

  11. Nicole

    Thanks so much for the post and information, everything helps when travelling to a place with different culture and language.
    How did you contact hosts for couchsurfing? via couchsurfing app or a different way? I read that couchsurfing was ilegal in Iran, is this so?

    • Margherita

      Hi Nicole! I contacted people via the Couchsurfing site, and never had issues finding people to host us. I was unaware CS was illegal, it seemed to be quite popular in Iran. I also recommend joining the ‘See you in Iran’ group on FB – lots of interesting info there and it’s a great way to meet people!

  12. Kerry Song

    Great post and pics. Iran has always been on my bucket list of places to travel to. I want to travel independently as my partner detest organised tours but is amenable to local travel agents for part of the journey. Would you recommend using local agents. We’re not one of the restricted nationalities.

    • Margherita

      Dear Kerry
      To be honest, Iran is perfectly fine to visit independently. A guide would help, but Iranians are so friendly that you’ll definitely find someone happy to ‘play guide’ for you!

  13. Filipe Morato Gomes

    I’ve been to Iran 16 times now and i can assure that Iranians are the most hospitable, friendly people i’ve ever met on all my travels. If you’re reading this posts thinking about going or not going… just go, you won’t regret it.
    P.S. VOA is now valid for up to 30 days.

    • Margherita

      Thanks for adding that Filipe! Will edit the post right now… and you’re totally right, Iranian hospitality is second to none.

  14. Laily

    I love your article. Great info!
    I’m going to Tehran in November and looking forward for an adventurous trip my brother. I never tried couchsurfing before and we would like to try in Iran. I was wondering if you could share your CS hosts contact in Iran? That will be grateful. Thank you 🙂

    • Margherita

      Hey Laily! Thanks for your message. I’m not really comfortable naming them here but feel free to email me and I’ll let you know. Thanks!

  15. nahal ebrahim

    hi there,im nahal ebrahim from iran..live in tehran..im 37 years old and a translator..i would like to be your tour guide here..and invite you in my home..i have a car and can be your taxi too…cook for you the best kind of iranian traditional food…please text me … its possible to visit other cities too
    nahalebrahim@gmail.com
    skype: nahal ebrahim

    • Margherita

      Hey Nahal! I was offline for a couple of days, it happens sometimes 😉 in any case, thanks for your comment! Will let you know if I get back to Iran

  16. kamyar

    hi my name is kamyar.I’m 24 years old.i am from iran and living in west azerbaijanBut now I stay in Bandar Abbas Because I’m a student.If you want to let the two cities in Iran i can help you.
    I’m reception of hotel in Bandar Abbas.
    (kamyartix@yahoo.com)

    • Margherita

      Thanks Kamyar! If I come to Iran again I will write. Thanks for your wonderful hospitality!

  17. Ilya Honarvar

    as an iranian people , I should tell : for more information about my country
    realiran.org
    thank you for your useful and true stories about my country