Whether you’re visiting Tehran or paying homage to the great poets in Shiraz, here are the things to keep in mind.
Iran is a beautiful and welcoming country. With the lifting of U.S. and European sanctions earlier this year, and with major airlines reopening routes to Tehran, hopefully more people will travel to Iran and learn this for themselves.
I’d been planning my trip to Tehran for most of my adult life. My father left his birth country in the late 1970s, and while my siblings and I were born and raised in the United States, the rest of the family remained in Tehran. Last spring, when I finally arrived in the city, I was thankful for the greatest tour guides I could wish for: my cousins.
But if that’s not the case for you—or even if it is—here are a few things to know that could make all the difference for your trip to Iran.
1. Get to know your history
Iran has a long and rich history, and no matter where you go, every step will remind you of this. Almost every city in the country is famous for something of historical and/or cultural note. Shiraz, for example, is the epicenter of poetry and literature, and people travel from all over the world to pay homage to the tombs of the famous Persian poets Hafiz and Saadi. The remote desert city of Yazd, in the center of Iran, is the spiritual heart of Zoroastrianism.
You don’t have to be a history buff to enjoy your trip, but you should at least aim to understand the basics of the 1979 Islamic Revolution—why it happened, and what came after. Plus, a little cultural and historical knowledge is especially helpful if you are visiting museums and other sights where translations are not always provided.
2. Social media is the best guide
When I began planning my trip to Tehran, social media was one of my best tools. The people of Iran have used sites like Instagram and Tumblr to bridge the visual gap between everyday life in Iran and the rest of the world—and disrupted the stereotypes of Iran and the Iranian people presented by mainstream Western media. (Check out the Humans of Tehran project that launched a few years back, for starters.)
The Tehran Times Tumblr and Instagram accounts @seeyouiniran, @everydayiran, and, a personal favorite, @figandquince, give a great sense of Tehran’s city streets, fashion, food, and art scene. I made lists of places to go—from cafes and historical sights to specific city blocks with inspiring street art.
On a side note, apps that might be useful include: WhatsApp and Telegram Messenger to keep in touch; iFarsi to practice your Persian; and iNumbers for the currency, to help you translate your rials to tomans and back again.
3. Dress to impress
One of the most common questions on travel to Iran is about dress, and, in particular, the head scarf. Yes, there are laws governing public dress and behavior in the country, and many are specifically for women. Simply stated: A woman’s body must be covered, and this includes her hair and the back of her neck. Note that you won’t see men in shorts, either.
However, these conservative rules don’t mean you need to dress in a sack. When it comes to fashion, Iranians are just as creative and diverse in their everyday wear as are people in other parts of the world, and today’s women are pushing the boundaries of the restrictions and slowly changing the way the dress code is approached.
I spent more time than needed on planning what to wear in Tehran—and here, again, social media was a big help. In the end I wore the same things every day: skinny jeans, sneakers, a T-shirt, a light trench coat that came to my knees, and a scarf.
4. Say yes, be flexible, and bring a gift
I’ve not met a single person who came back from Iran and did not comment on the hospitality of the Iranian people. As a guest in the country, you will likely be invited into people’s homes for a meal. If you can, say yes. Cooking Persian food is an involved process, and the best dishes are the ones made in the home—not to mention the company is better. The only danger is that you may book up your entire trip with invitations in a matter of minutes. Stay flexible in your plans, and understand that Iranian time works to its own schedule.
When you do go to someone’s home, bring a gift—chocolates or other sweets are always appreciated. And be prepared for a little tarof, a form of Iranian etiquette that revolves around hospitality, generosity, and politeness. This is a complex, often beautiful, and sometimes very frustrating custom. It’s too involved to discuss here, but for a decent general overview, check out “Oh You Shouldn’t Have” on This American Life.
5. Take public transportation
Traffic, especially in the big cities, is no joke. You can spend hours sitting in your car for what should have been a 15-minute drive. If you are in an area that has good public transportation, like Tehran, take it. Tehranis are very proud of the new metro system, and it works very well—as do the public buses. Sharing a jam-packed metro car is a good way to meet people, but be conscious that each end of the train and bus is for women only (women can ride in the men’s section, but not vice versa).
6. Talk to people
Iran is not a place where you can arrange everything online and expect it to go as planned—you’re going to have to talk directly to people. This is a good thing, because the people of Iran are interesting and engaging conversationalists, and a lot of Iranians want to talk with tourists (especially Americans) about how misunderstood their country is. In Tehran, for example, there are a few murals with slogans like “Death to America” and depictions of bombs dropping on the U.S. flag. These are images from a time past, and today are a source of great embarrassment for many Iranians. Within a few days of my trip, I had lost count of how many times a stranger reminded me of the drastic difference between the Iranian government and the Iranian people.
7. Get outside
Nature is very important to Iranians, and the entire country is full of public parks, gardens, and mountain hiking trails. On Fridays (the weekend in Iran), people pack up a picnic and head to their favorite outdoor spots. Even after 30 years away, my father’s favorite memories are of days spent picnicking outside with friends and family in his home country.
When your Friday in Iran comes, put together a picnic or eat dizi (a kind of mutton soup) in the mountains. See for yourself the lands that have captured the hearts of many a traveler and inspired the works of some of the world’s greatest poets.