8 Things You’d Wish You Knew Before Traveling to IRAN!

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a really long time now but I thought I needed to investigate things a little deeper before I list my facts. After I was destined to travel around Iran with a Spanish group I thought this was probably the best time. So I put everyone on a mission to tell me what they thought was annoying or simply what they would have improved in Iran in terms of tourism.

Most tourists that I’ve encountered come with such a negative background that when they arrive they are just too mesmerized and astonished to see anything but the contrast of what they were told. But now that Iran is quickly becoming a popular destination and tourists are flowing, there’s so many who have their eyes on investing in Iran’s tourism. So whether you’re traveling to Iran, thinking of investing here, or simply own a restaurant or have a particular position in Iran’s tourism industry this might come to your help.

I’ve written so much about the perks of traveling to Iran and I do my best to heal at least a portion of the damage that’s been done. I’ve always been very keen on keeping everything real and honest. I believe no rational mind skips a trip to Rome because chances of getting robbed is high. So why should they skip Iran for anything else?

These are a few things that you will definitely encounter on your trip to Iran. They might get on your nerves, they might be annoying, but they are small and will definitely change through time. But for now there’s only so much you can do, and I’m giving you my best tips. 😉

#1 The Menu

I think every tourist would agree that Iranian cuisine has a lot to offer. In fact they are all a bit disappointed why it hasn’t been introduced to the world that well. But everyone gets sick of a menu filled with the same dishes that all come with meat and by a big chance with rice! The thing is, there are a few dishes Iranians rarely cook at home. For instance meat or chicken Kebab. So when people eat out, these are usually what they ask for. But for a tourist who’s on the road for more than 7 days and is eating out twice a day, this can become really annoying. Not to mention vegetarian food is not very popular and is pretty hard to find on the menu.

Now if you’re traveling luxury this will hardly come as a problem. Luxury restaurants will have enough variety on their menu to keep everyone pleased but like many of us, you probably aren’t! So what can you do?

The Kebab will always look tempting on your first day. Many travelers will be ordering that first. I don’t! I know that whichever restaurant that I set foot in, even in the middle of the highway, there will always be Kebab on the menu. So whenever I see anything a bit more different, that’s what I go for.

If you’re not a big fan of meat like me, I suggest salad buffets for dinners. They usually come with soup, yogurt, pickles, sometimes food and a big variety of salads. It’s more than enough to make you full and gives you a chance to stock up on your veggies.

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After a week of too much meat, this sea food dish turned out to be a favourite! Of course they couldn’t skip on the rice!

#2 The knife situation

Iranians eat the majority of foods with fork and spoon. As weird as it might look to many of you to see an Iranian cutting his meat with a spoon, we find it odd to eat rice with a fork! So what’s the problem? To each their own right?

Well… it just happens that most of the time you won’t be finding a knife beside your plate on the table! If you own a restaurant, this is something you really need to change, even if it’s for that one foreigner that might accidentally pass by. If you’re stuck in the situation, don’t be shy and just ask the waiter to bring you one. It almost always solves the problem.

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#3 Craving for coffee

Too many of you who are detoxing from alcohol in Iran (due to it being illegal) you might find coffee to be your savior. Bad luck! Coffee in Iran is not popular and it’s not good. Some are happy to exchange for the delectable Iranian brewed tea, but from my experience the coffee craving never stops. You can find Nescafé in most places, but surely that’s not what you’re looking for. You want coffee, and you want it from the freakin’ coffee machine!

If you’re in Esfahan you’re in luck. Armenian coffee is famous and delightful and super easy to find in the array of coffee shops in the Armenian district. Sometimes the cafeteria of your hotel might offer an Espresso. Do ask and don’t skip the chance if you get one.

This does not by any chance mean that good coffee is impossible to find. There are quite a few places that will offer you a laté, but don’t come thinking you’ll find it everywhere you set foot in.

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One happy tourist who was head over heels to find the much needed Armenian coffee.

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Coffee vs tea!

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#4 Money

Since the sanctions were put on Iran a few years ago, Iranian Rial has lost its value immensely. The row of zeros on the notes don’t make things any easier. Once you exchange your dollars or Euros you’re going to feel like a millionaire. But then you’ll realize what you’re really in for!

So it’s no surprise that the Iranian alphabet is different and you probably can’t read a word. Well guess what? You can’t read numbers either!! Because they are also different and almost all shops will be writing their prices in Iranian numbers. So then you’ll have to ask them for the price and you’ll hear a number of different prices that you have no idea of.

Here’s why:

The actual currency in Iran is Rials. But in day-to-day life everyone uses Tomans. Every 10 rials equals 1 Toman. But since Rials are worthless you’ll be paying at least 300,000 Rials = 30,000 Tomans for a normal meal. What’s worse is that the we Iranians just call that 30 Tomans which is actually 30,000 Tomans!! Complicated enough??

I tried hard teaching how it works to my Spanish friends. There were too many exceptions and no one understood! I gave up and had a hard time converting myself to the Rial system.

Solution: Ask every shop owner to type the price on their calculator or write it on a piece of paper for you in Rials. Forget what they told you. It’s Rials you understand and it’s the only way you can count your money. Don’t panic! You’ll get the hang of things. Everyone does! 😉

Fact: International credits cards are not accepted and there are only a few shops that accept dollars or Euros, so be prepared!

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#5 Toilets

Almost all public toilets in Iran are squat toilets, unless they have a wheelchair section which is not common. So you’re in for some squatting here. Toilet papers are also found very rarely in public areas so arm yourself with a pack of tissues before you enter.

Fact: Most Iranian houses and all hotels come with a normal toilet and toilet paper.

#6 Customer service

Customer service is quite a new thing in Iran and doesn’t exist in most places. You need to be assertive. If you’re at a hotel and something is not to your liking, go and object about it. Don’t put it on the staff to bring or notice anything. Because they won’t!

#7 Traffic

You’ve probably heard by now that driving in Iran is chaotic and crazy. Don’t expect cars to stop for you even at zebra crossings most of the time! You need to make them stop and don’t worry about getting crashed. Iranian driver are used to hitting on the brake hard and quick enough!!

#8 Too much to see, not much to do!

If you’re taking the classic route of Iran which passes through cities like Esfahan, Yazd and Shiraz you’ll need to bare in mind that there will be a ton of historic places to visit. This can be overwhelming at times and you might need somewhere to relax. Unfortunately most hotels don’t have a swimming pool or massage to offer. If you’re traveling with an agency you can always mention this to them before arrival. There are a few places which offer cooking courses or a chilled day with an Iranian family and it’s a great option to escape the sightseeing while spending your time to good use.

But then there’s something better: You can just join our Persian Food Tour and spend a day with us shopping for ingredients and preparing a 5 course meal! Bingo! 🙂

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Just one square in Isfahan has two mosques, a palace, a Madrasa and a bazaar to visit!

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And then you’ll have to come back at night because the views are just not the same!

Tourism in Iran needs a lot more professional marketing and there’s certainly a lot more infrastructure required. But years of sanctions and isolation has left Iran untouched and extremely authentic and this is exactly why you need to come before everyone else does! 😉

If you’ve already travelled to Iran and have a few other notes for me to add, do let me know in the comment section or just pop me an email and I’ll be happy to update the post.

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  • This is great! I’ve dedicated myself to make it to Iran as my one big trip next year (have to save money for a tour since I’m American) and these are helpful to know. I guess I’ll have to start detoxing from coffee in addition to alcohol a few weeks before 😉

    Also, the knife thing is interesting. Even though many Americans set the table with a knife it’s rarely used and most people cut with the side of a fork. When I was living in England people thought I was barbaric for not cutting with a knife.

    • @farsickness:disqus haha! I imagine the British will probably think the same of us! 😛 Do make sure we meet up when you come. 😉 If you needed any help on your choice of tour, I’d be happy to help out. 🙂

    • Fabrice Moreau

      No knife either in India or South-East Asia. Logical, because local meals don’t need any knife. Meat and vegetables already chopped in small pieces before being served.

      This is that easy.

      Fabrice

  • Charlie Pritchett

    Iran is my #1 favorite country to visit!!!! I’ve been traveling to Iran from the U.S.A. since I married my beautiful Persian wife 25 years ago, and I can relate to everything you mentioned. I can only add a few of my own observations to supplement your excellent advice.

    Fortunately I’m not a vegetarian, and I’ve grown to love the menu & always look forward to it on my trips to Iran. Incidentally, Iranians love their fresh greens, and serve them with virtually every dish. Don’t miss the ‘ab-goosht’ or ‘dizzi’ stew served at traditional ‘Ghahveh Khaneh’s (Coffee Houses), followed by a smoke on the ghalyon (waterpipe). These places are very popular among locals, and offer foreigners a unique glimpse into Iranian culture. If you are feeling especially adventurous, look for a place serving ‘Kaleh Pacheh’ for breakfast…

    Regarding the lack of alcohol, I can’t emphasize enough how surprisingly delicious the local non-alcoholic malt beverages are in Iran! They have everything from regular beer flavor to all sorts of fruit flavors. Lemon is my favorite. Beware, as these things will send you to the toilet just as fast and often as regular alcoholic beer!

    Among other things, I’ve learned from Iranians to embrace the spoon, and I only require a knife when eating steak (and they do serve knives with steak in Iran). Eating with hands is also very common in Iran, particularly with foods served with bread (and bread is as popular and important to the national diet as rice). There are 4 main local flat-breads or ‘naan’ in Iran, listed in my order of favorites: Sangak, Barbari, Lavash and Taftoon. You can also find baguettes and other breads at bakeries and grocery stores.

    When I visit Iran, I always bring my own favorite coffee, along with a French press (but like you said, good coffee can be found if you know where to look). At the same time, I love drinking hot black tea through a sugar cube with feta cheese on fresh naan for breakfast…..

    As for the public toilets…. well, let’s just mention how impressively they have improved over the years 🙂

    • Thanks @charliepritchett:disqus for the very detailed information. It seems you’re quite a pro when it comes to Iran already. 😉
      Your comment gave me an idea of writing post about some authentic experiences in Iran. Like the bread and cheese or smoking Ghelyun. I’ve taken some notes and I’ll try to add a few more to write a post about it later on. 🙂

  • Terry Dehdashty

    Your comments all ring true.

    I was in Iran a couple of weeks ago and traveled to Tabriz and Urmia for 4 days. The only coffee available was Nescafe!! 🙁 I don’t drink instant so had to manage without my morning coffee. In 4 days I found one place that had Turkish coffee. In Tehran, there are loads of cafes and the lattes and cappuccinos are pretty decent. Better than Starbucks!

    As an Iranian, I agree with you that when we do go out to eat, we generally order kebabs since we don’t get that at home. But 4 days in NW Iran, eating kebab for lunch and dinner got old very fast.

    In Tehran you have lots of options, but once you venture out to the provinces and other cities, your choice is quite limited. Hotels really need to bump up their food and beverage offerings.

    One thing that needs to be done for tourists to better understand the culture and history of Iran, is to ensure the English used in museums and historical places is correct English. In many museums and historical sites, I noticed the English used to explain specific artefacts is absolutely terrible. As an Iranian who left when I was very young and my reading and writing of Farsi is not very fluent, I am naturally drawn to the English. Unfortunately, the English descriptions were below average and not good English at all. I noticed this at the tomb of Darius, the museum in Urmia, and many other historical sites in Iran. It’s a shame!

    How is the tourism board upgrading the tourism infrastructure?

    • @terrydehdashty:disqus You’re absolutely right about the English descriptions. It’s a shame! And there’s so many English speakers in Iran so there’s not much excuse. The infrastructure is definitely way better than before. Let’s hope for the sanctions to be lifted and hopefully some foreign investment to enter the country. The future seems a lot brighter than before. 😉

  • debbie Prosser

    This information is spot on! I am a British native living in Shiraz and these are some of the things I have to get used to. I’m not worried to much about knives, but I use a fork with my rice and I get alot of strange looks and laughs.
    The coffee I’ve found is generally weak and the only “decent” coffee I get is nescafe classic, at home, where I can make a strong frappe!
    The food available in restaurants is repetitive, kebab and chicken. Its worth trying to get invited to a home,thats where some of the most delicious food can be found. One of the most favourite snack foods is falafel served in baguettes in many fast food shops, very good and vegetarian.
    It is true that many things need to be improved for tourists, but as a well seasoned traveller I prefer cultures to remain unspoilt and true! and it doesn’t come any truer than in Iran.

    • @debbieprosser:disqus I’m sure every tourist will prefer Iran all to themselves but until there’s no guarantee on incoming tourists there won’t be a lot of investments either. Iran has too much to offer. But as for you, you’ll always have Shiraz to yourself in the low season anyway. 😉

  • Husain

    You nailed it man, couldn’t agree any more than this.I went to Iran for the first time earlier this year for religious purpose ( Mashhad and Qom mainly) but i have to say you’re absolutely correct with each of your point. Luckily i have a friend staying there so he helped me with everything and that money issue,it took me entire one day to get it into my mind.

  • sedicieundici

    Hi there! Thank you for your precious advice! I’m expected to go to Mashaad in Octobe to study farsi. Whenever possible I also would like to travel around on my own, probably up north, and visit the Caspian coast.
    Firstly, how do you cope without credit cards and ATMs? Is there any alternative to bring only cash? There is no equivalent of Western Union, I guess…
    Secondly, what about the quality of both mobile and landline broadband in big Iranian cities?
    Finally, is it easy to book hotels on the internet?
    Thank you and my sincere compliments for your site. Keep up your nice work

    • @sedicieundici:disqus Hi there! Unfortunately there’s really no other option but to carry cash around. I know how inefficient that is and I honestly hope things change really fast. Once you’re in Mashhad you won’t have a problem to book hotels online but the thing is you’ll need an Iranian debit card to do so. I suggest choosing you hotel online and then giving them a call. You can book and pay once you arrive. It’s a very common thing. Also october is low season so you won’t have any problem just popping up at a hotel and asking for a room.
      Mobile and landlines work perfectly and you’ll have wifi in a lot of places. You can also get 3G or 4G internet from your operator of choice.
      I wouldn’t worry much since you’re going to be staying with people in Mashhad. You’ll make ton of friends and realized how willingly Iranians will help you. If you ever needed anything to be bought online, ask an Iranian to pay for you and pay them back in cash. 😉

      • sedicieundici

        An Iranian debit card! This is an interesting option. Thank you again, you have been really helpful!

        • Nina

          If you manage to open an account, I’m not sure you can as a foreigner, you will be amazed by all the ways Iranian banks have created their own system. I’ve paid catering bills through the ATM, and received money transfer via codes by SMS. A couple of years ago you could barely do anything and cash was king, but last time we went we had to ask friends to pay by card and give them our cash…

          • sedicieundici

            Hi Nina,

            thanks a lot. I’ve decided to postpone my trip to next March, hoping that the new, improved political climate could stir things up a bit, and it seems that this is the case, after all.

            http://realiran.org/iran-to-unveil-new-tourist-credit-card-sim-card/

            This seems extremely good news and if implemented next year, could simplify things a lot for me and all the tourists willing to travel on their own. Anyway, thank you again for your help

    • Pazpeaceman

      I am planning a visit and I second all the questions asked by the above poster.

  • Donya

    Hi everyone
    I just read this fine article about my county . Many of your problems are not only your problems but also ours . And there are quite a few ways to solve them .
    First : the food problem
    before u start your trip spend some time on exploring the restaurants , menus and foods .As u can’t probably read Persian write it with English letters and show it to the waiters . They can read it . There are always some less meaty choices available in all restaurants such as : Ghormeh Sabzi , Fesenjoon , Gheymeh (All served with a plate of rice ) . And if u don’t totally want meat try MirzaGhasemi and Kashk-e-bademjoon ( u can find them in most coffee shops and they don’t come with rice ) .Food courts are also a fine choice with a variety of international ( Russian , Italian , Mongol ,French , Mexican and Indian) and native (such as Gilaki ) restaurants . one of the best food courts is Rah-e-choobi in Tehran with tens of restaurants .Another good choice are the home made food stores . Most of them are not easy to find because they aren’t usually in main streets , so ask a local to introduce one to u. most of them offer free shipping .There are also some vegi restaurants in most cities .Find them before u start your trip ( Or find a local in Facebook to do it for u ) . Another point to know is that expensive restaurants(with interesting international menus) in Iran are still quite cheap for foreigners . Lobster in quite luxurious and expensive restaurants won’t cost u more than 60 dollars(including tip and etc ). So my best advice is to go for them.
    The last but not the least thing to point out is u can’t find delight in 90% of restaurants . The best place to find them are coffee shops and confectioneries . And don’t try every confectionery u see .Only some of them are good . If u r in Tehran go for these : BiBi , Poopak , CookBox , Lord and Lanjin o ask a local to introduce a good one
    Second : Toilets
    my best advice is : Don’t leave the hotel before u poop ! If u have to use toilet when u are out , look for luxurious places and ask for the term ” Tovalet farangi ” and u have a good chance to find one .
    And the last thing to point out is that taxi is not expensive but ” Ajans ” is even cheaper , safer and gives u better service . Ask the hotel crew to call one for u .

    • @disqus_JIQL74OEir:disqus Thank you Donya, for the additional info. 😉

  • John

    we find it odd to eat rice with a fork!

    No one eats rice with a fork. We eat it with a spoon…

    Also mistake here: What’s worse is that the WE Iranians just call that

    • John, I don’t know where you’re from but from my experience living a great part of my life abroad and in different countries there are in fact many nations who eat rice with a fork. Not to mention my own Spanish friends who were traveling with me this time used a fork. By scrolling down the comment section, you could also see a few other people mentioning the same thing. So while you eat your rice with a spoon, you might want to do your research before generalizing anything.
      Cheers!

  • Bruno

    Hi there. I’ve been to Iran last year and absolutely loved it. Everything you said is true and the “knife situation” is funny though. I’m Brazilian and rice and beans is our national food combination. And we find it very odd to eat rice (or any food, except finger food) without a knife. We even eat pizza with fork and knife. Our tour guide in Iran is a funny fella and he told us a story about this time when he asked for knives for the people travelling with him. The waiter guy looked a bit confused and came back, earnestly, with a kitchen/cooking knife trying to figure out what they were about to do with it. The traffic situation is another story. They will stop for you but you will doubt it. So the result is this sort of a battle between guts and hesitation. Just try to cross the road with full traffic from Behesht-e Zahra cemetery to Imam Khomeini tomb/shrine area. :0 And one thing I had a bit of a hard time to deal with in Iran is also about food. The amount of food served in some places is absurd. I mean, I could share it with 4 people easily. Here in Brazil we have this big problem about kids and families living on the streets and starving, so I hate to waste food. But in Iran sometimes (mainly in those buffet-like restaurants where they serve the food for you) I felt like I was wasting food that could feed an entire family. I talked about it with our tour guide in Tehran and she was sweet enough to apologize for that. But it wasn’t a critique towards the country. I was just trying to say that it would be better if we don’t waste so many food. I was really concerned about it. So during the trip, I decided to look for places serving a fair amount of food or when our tour guide would take us to a place for lunch, I would always ask them for a fair amount of food to serve 1 person, they understood my request and it worked for me.

    • Bruno

      I forgot to mention about the alcohol detox. The alcohol ban in Iran is interesting. The nightlife without alcohol is much more relaxed and family oriented. I liked it. People go out at night to play ball, they have picnics, they talk to each other (not to a bright cell phone screen), they read poetry, they laugh… I didn’t see any person vomiting on the street or acting drunk crazy or having a bar fight. I didn’t see any of the the egoistic attitude usually seen in men and women trying to be better than others with their VIP areas and bottles of alcohol, velvet ropes in front of “trendy” nightclubs or taking stupid selfies with cigarettes and drinks. At night, women won’t try to seduce you only to make you pay for their drinks and then walk away. I mean, I’m not saying that we all should ban alcohol (I drink) but nightlife without alcohol in Iran is very different and sometimes better.

      • @b@disqus_RenchDCwbI:disqus Thank you for taking the time to post your comment Bruno. You’re totally right. I myself have an issue with the excessive amount of food. As for me I usually take the rest home but I understand that it wouldn’t be an option for tourists.
        Everyone seems to have a knife story as far as I see 😉 We ask for a knife in a restaurant when I was traveling with a Spanish group and there seemed to be only one available for 12 people! We were in the middle of nowhere though. 😛
        It’s good you put the alcohol ban to good use and got to see another lifestyle. Some people can’t imagine life without it.
        Glad you enjoyed your stay in Iran. I’d love to make it to Brazil one day. 😉

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  • Nina

    Just found your amazing blog! (I was googling inspiration for winter clothes as I have only been in Iran during spring and summer months). I have one reflection, which I didn’t really find in your description which otherwise was very detailed and absolutely true. Will never forget the first time I asked for a knife! On the other hand, I did the same mistake when being served tuna pasta in Italy 😉
    Anyway, one of my biggest issues is the eating hours. They drive me crazy! First you have breakfast, fine, most people do. But it’s very sweet and with fast carbs, so you don’t really last for long. Then at lunch time, there is no lunch. You start asking about the plans, and people are not hungry. Finally around 15 (which sometimes with the Iranian planning culture happens to become 16 ;-)) you have lunch. Then when it’s dinner time (I have learnt to compromise and don’t start asking until around 19, which is quite late for a Swede) no one is hungry (of course not since you had two portions of kebab 3h ago…). Finally, the dinner is to be planned, and cooked (there is no such thing as Iranian fast food (if you don’t order pizza or something)) and you start eating around 22-24. It might be that this only applies to my family and friends as I know others eat at more “normal” hours. But I have simply surrendered and now always carry around some snack in my purse. It feels a bit rude to start eating alone (especially since this is a big no-no for all Iranians I know) but I can assure you that I’m more rude when my blood sugar is at an all-time low. At the beginning of our relationship, when I had more strict working hours, I simply went to bed around 22, and then my husband woke me up when dinner was ready 🙂

    Other tourists always talk about how much they ate on their trips to Iran and that there was always sweets and tea being served. And that’s true, but when I’m starving at 14, tea and gaz doesn’t really do the trick 😉

    I also have a question, which I don’t seem to get my head around (I have googled it :-)), but since you mentioned the squat toilets I figured you or someone else might have the answer. I’m not too familiar with them as I only find them on travels, and only use them if there is absolutely no other option. I have learnt that it’s easier to take the pants of (at least from one leg) to avoid making a mess or accidentally drop something (this was originally a tip from Google, what did we do before we could google things?). However, now we’re planning a ski trip, and I cannot imagine taking of ski boot, ski pants and leggings while balancing on one foot at a freezing cold public toilet. How do people (ladies) do this?!

    • Nina, I had a good laugh reading your comment! :))
      The thing is your condition is not normal at all! While I have to agree that we spent hours cooking and very little is spent to eat, the eating hours really depend on each family. Dinners are normally eaten around 8-9 which I assume is late for a Swede. My own family eats earlier than that but it’s not the norm. Lunch for most people is between 1-2 but like I said it depends on the family but I must tell you dinners at midnight are definitely not common!! :))
      Now the lovely issue of squat toilets!! We actually never take off the whole trousers. I mean that’s extremely time consuming and definitely not efficient. We just take them down to our knees. If things are getting dirty then you’re doing something wrong because I can’t imagine how it would happen. Definitely not for me. 😉

      • Nina

        Haha! Now I had a laugh!
        Thanks for your answers 🙂

  • Ali

    Absolutely amazing post. Thanks a lot for the detailed list.
    You can make this already-awesome article even more awesome by changing a certain “bare” into “bear”.
    Again, good job.

  • Nice article

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