Iran: Things I Learnt as A Female Solo Traveler

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Soaring mountain ranges, stunning mosques, palaces and ruins from different eras provide architectural wonder, while brilliant bazaars adds colours to shopping culture, making Iran an irresistible destination for travellers. Even before touching down, the view from the plane is just soooooo breathtaking…

Bird’s-eye view from the plane

When I told people about it, their reactions will be like: “Why do you choose such a dangerous place?!”, “Is it even safe?”, “What if you got kidnapped?!” and the funniest I got was “Does your boyfriend allow you to go there by yourself?!”

All I could reply was: “but Iran is considered as one of the safest place in the World!” Without a doubt, I followed my heart and made Iran a “must-go” destination.

I weren’t with any tour group or a tour guide, I don’t speak the local language, took public transport and taxis, wandered the streets on my own – basically everything you shouldn’t do if you’re in a dangerous country.

And guess what? I’m still alive and writing this post sharing my experience of this lovely country!

Random invitation from a hospitable Iranian family

Getting In

If you come by flight, Tehran would be the most obvious destination, as it has a large number of connections from Europe and Asia. I flew from Doha to Tehran via Air Arabia. Shiraz has an international airport too and there are daily cheap flights from Dubai. 

Getting Around

Bus

Buses are the cheapest and the preferred choice for locals to go around the country. I took a 13-hours night bus straight to Shiraz after touchdown where I would be kicking off the adventure. The VIP bus cost less than USD9 came with complimentary snacks and drinks! Regular buses are about 70% cheaper but you wouldn’t want to have a cramped seat on a long night journey.

Complimentary snacks

Night buses became my main mode of transport from city to city. Getting a bus ticket from the terminal can be intimidating if you can’t speak Farsi and every man comes close to you shouting random city’s names. Blessed as always, I got my tickets like a breeze with the help of my Couchsurfing hosts or random locals I met along the way.

Taxi

Any cars on the street can be a taxi and they are usually more flexible with their pricing compared to the official taxis. To make communication easier, you can either: 1) screenshot the photo of the attraction you would like to go, 2) have your hosts/hotel receptionist to write the destination/ address in Farsi (Persians) on paper and you just show to the driver. As all taxis don’t run on meters, a good rule of thumb is to haggle for 60-80% of the quoted price. Cost of taxi within the city should never be more than 100,000 IRR (USD3) or so.

Alternatively, there’s an app called Snapp which is similar to Uber. It has a cool feature whereby female rider can get choose to have female driver! The downside of this app is you cannot easily download it onto an iPhone, as Apple is an American company and does not support Iran. It doesn’t show up in the App Store.

Metro

Only big cities such as Tehran, Esfahan, Shiraz, and Mashhad have metro lines. They are cheap, fast and easy to get you around the city.

Train

Some cities, Tehran, Mashad, Kerman, Yazd, Kashan, Zahedan and Bandar Abbas, have train stations. They are old (since 1938) and run less frequently than buses.

Visa

There was little information online about Iran at the time of my trip. Since it was a less-travelled country, I assumed there would be tons of paperwork to be filled up and probably have to wait hours to process. To be on the safe side, I paid USD78 to apply for a 30-days visa online which took slightly more than a week to get approved.

Upon reaching the immigration counter, I was informed that with my Malaysian passport, I can easily get a 15-days visa-on-arrival for free! To further add salt to my wound, I can easily extend the visa to 20-days for only USD12!! I wondered why did they not inform me about it when I submitted my application to the embassy…..

I ended up with a visa without a photo even though I’ve submitted one

Anyhow, everybody, except for citizens of Canada, UK, US, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Colombia, Iraq, Jordan, Nepal, Pakistan, Somalia and Sri Lanka, can get a visa on arrival at any of Iran’s international airports. Overlanders, however, have to get a visa at an Iranian embassy or consulate ahead of time.

Due to recent changes in Iran’s travel policy, unfortunately for travelers from the US, UK, and Canada, you have to be on a guided tour to travel to Iran. 

Note: You’ll be turned down from entering Iran if you have any proof of travel to Israel. This includes passport stamps from Israel, stamps from neighboring countries’ land borders with Israel and Israeli passports.

Don’t Miss: Shiraz – Heartland of Persian Cultures

Weather

Iran is a massive country with many climatic zones, which range from the dry regions of the Persian Gulf to the wetlands of the north-western provinces. Generally the best time to visit Iran is during the spring and autumn. There are ideal temperatures across most of Iran from March until May and then again from late September to early November. Meanwhile, winter is best avoided because temperatures can become very cold.

I visited Iran in Summer. Being a shorts-and-sundress type of girl, it was utterly hot for me to be all covered up and with a headscarf.

Out in the desert on a sunny day

Internet and Mobile Data

SIM card can be bought once you exit the terminal. An Irancell SIM card is 200,000 rials (about USD6-7), and 1GB of data is 100,000 rials. Wi-fi is not common in Iran. Even if you stay in hostels where wi-fi is provided, the speed is intolerable slow. So, do consider getting a SIM card if you need regular internet access. You may check this out on different package of SIM card in Iran here.

Similar to China, Iran cannot access to popular social media such as Facebook, Google, Pinterest, Youtube, etc so you will need to download VPN app to bypass the network in order to use those apps. Make sure to download a few VPN apps before entering the country.

Money

As Iranian banking system is completely excluded from European and American ones, your Mastercard, VISA or American Express are kinda completely useless. You need to take enough cash with you for the entire travel to Iran. US Dollars, Euros and British Pounds are the common currency used for exchange to Iranian Rial (IRR).

Exchange offices give better rates than the government-controlled banks. If not labeled “Exchange”, look for small shops similar to jewelry stores that have foreign banknotes in the window. There is also the “black market”, which means that in any cities, you can always find random locals willing to buy your currency. It is fine to exchange with them but just make sure to count your money twice, as some of them may try to trick you.

Iranian Rial is the official currency, but in daily life, prices are quoted in toman (old currency unit). Confused? 1 toman = 10 rials, meaning you should just add one zero to the price to convert it to rials. This is to make things simpler, as there’s quite a lot of zeros in rial prices. However, some tourist restaurants and attractions do show their prices in rials to help out the gringos.

Thanks to the great hospitality of Iranians, I hardly spent money on food and accommodation over the 3-weeks in the country. The best part about travelling in Iran during Ramadan was that I am always invited to random locals’ house for their sumptuous dinner!

My budget of USD250 mainly spent on transport and entrance fees for attractions which is more than enough. Foreigner price for attractions is usually 6-8 times the local price (i.e. 200 000 Rials for foreigners vs 3000 Tomans for locals). You know, it’s pretty easy to disguise yourself as local if you are an Asian, especially for ladies! Of course, I usually went in with my CS hosts which make things easier. Otherwise, you may try going in with a local, and have them buy your tickets while you hide.

Accommodation

Couchsurfing is illegal but it is actively used by the locals throughout the country. Staying with locals allows you to truly experience the Persian’s culture and save you a lot of money as there isn’t much hostels around. During my 3-weeks stay, I had not eaten a meal with the same group of people even though I may stay with a host for 4-days. Can you imagine the number of people waiting to meet you when you are in a foreign country?

Anyways, you can’t say you have entirely traveled to Iran if you didn’t have a meal or stay at someone’s home.

So much love from Simin’s family

Hotels will ask to keep your passports during your stay. However, you’re required by law to always have your passport on you. Either carry around copies of your passport while outside or give the hotel copies and ask for your passport back.

Read More: Esfahan – The Hidden Jewel of Middle East

Culture

Iranians are ridiculously friendly; they are some of the most genuinely hospitable people I’ve ever met on my travels. You will be welcomed on every corner, people will want to take pictures with you, and it is very common you will be invited to a total stranger’s house. I think I’ve visited more homes in Iran than I did in my home country! However, don’t be surprised having to sit in a house for hours waiting as Iranians eat lunch around 14:00, and dinner can be anywhere between 21:00 and midnight!

Home-cooked food by locals

Nevertheless, do not take Iranian’s hospitality for granted. Do prepare some small gifts from your country if you are planning to meet some people there. Simple things like postcards or small denomination bills of your home country are good enough. For me, I had brought over a Polaroid camera and gave them the films of them to keep for memories.

Families from Kerman

Iranians are not Arabs. As gracious as an Iranian can be, call them Arab and they will get offended. Iranians are Persians and is totally different ethnicity from the Arabs.

Everything closes between 13:00 and 16:30. During this time people go home to lunch with the family, nap, and avoid the heat.

Friday is the holy day of the week, and many stores are closed for the whole day. For restaurants and tourists attractions, they will only be opened after 16:00 on Fridays. Mosques are close to non-Muslims as well on Fridays.

Qur’an reading during Ramadan

The workweek is from Saturday to Thursday in almost all public and governmental offices, and the weekend is Friday. Banks and other governmental offices are generally open on Thursdays, from 07:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., and in larger cities, shopping malls and department stores are open on Thursdays and Fridays.

When drinking tea, put a sugar cube in your mouth, then take a sip. This is the Iranian way of drinking tea. I enjoyed having a cube for every 2 sips, imagine the amount of sugar intake I had in Iran!

Water is free! Tap water is safe to drink unless stated otherwise. There are plenty of water fountains on the streets in cities, so you can actually save money from buying bottled drinks. (and save the Earth too!)

Being an Islamic country, it is a common knowledge that man and woman do not touch, not even a handshake. So, for a lady to greet the man, just place your right hand over left chest and do a small bow. For lady to lady, you can do handshake, or even hug and give pecks on both cheeks.

Dancing is not allowed in public. Although dancing has been considered as an inseparable element of Persian history and tradition, Islamic law has announced public dancing illegal in Iran. Furthermore, the strict dance laws are based on an individual’s gender and women are not allowed to dance in the presence of men not being their immediate family members. Having said that, Zumba classes have been banned in any shape in Iran since 2017. The government’s authorities declared Zumba classes are contrary to Islamic ideology.

Women are not allowed to ride bicycles. And can only ride motorcycle as a pillion. The official reason for the ban is to further minimize the exposure of women’s bodies as if the hijabs and chadors weren’t already doing a pretty good job.

Helmet is not mandatory as long as you not riding out to the city

Dress Code

Dress modestly in public is mandatory. Ladies travelling in Iran need to dress according to the rules of hijab:

  • A headscarf to cover your head. Big cities like Tehran and Esfahan can show your hair, whereas places like Kerman and Hamadan it’s better to cover your head completely. 
  • Long-sleeved loose fitting top that covers the butt. Cardigan and 3/4 length sleeved shirts are fine. Colorful clothing is definitely allowed!
  • Pants or dress that go down to your ankle. Skinny jeans and thighs are fine as long as your top covers the bottom.
  • Sandals are allowed.

It is perfectly fine to take off Hijab at people’s house. You can always follow the women in the house if unsure. 

Most of the time, it is okay to remove your headscarf at people’s house
3/4 length sleeved tops are perfectly fine

Is Iran Safe?

Iran is a very misunderstood country, with many people believing whatever propaganda they hear on the media about how dangerous or difficult it is to travel there.

To be fair, like many other countries, solo female travelers attract a fair amount of attention in Iran too! Throughout my three weeks in Iran, I mostly saw tour groups in tourist attractions. Nevertheless, Iranians are well known for their incredible hospitality so you are never really alone! The locals are helpful and eager to help whenever I’m appeared to look lost. Even when walking around the bazaars, the vendors treated me with respect and I’ve never felt pressurized to buy anything.

Iran is perfectly safe to travel, even as a solo female traveler! Get ready to immerse yourself in this exotic country.

My Iranian family!
A day dreamer who has a passion in roaming around the world getting lost, experiencing new cultures and meeting the locals. I enjoy staying with a local home (i.e couchsurfing) and work with them (i.e workaway)!

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