Iran Holiday Planning Guide
Known as Persia for most of its long history, Iran once represented a mighty empire that encompassed everything from modern Turkey in the west to India in the east. Today, visitors on a tour of Iran discover a country of numerous ethnic groups and a culture revealing traces of Arab, Greek, Mongol, and Turkish influences. Sightseeing in Iran allows you to follow in the ancient footsteps of a former world power, nowhere more apparent than at Persepolis, an old Persian capital established long before the birth of Christ and burned down by Alexander of Macedonia. Other highlights on an Iranian itinerary may include visits to cozy teahouses, busy open-air markets, vast deserts dotted with otherworldly oases, and rugged mountains presiding over plains, forests, and meandering rivers.
Places to Visit in Iran
Regions of IranFars Province
: Visitors find two of the most popular attractions in Iran--the ancient city of Persepolis and the beautifully maintained Shiraz--in this southwestern region.Isfahan Province
: Home to Iran's most aesthetically pleasing city, Isfahan, this central province extends towards the desert area of Yazd but still maintains a relatively pleasant climate throughout the year. Yazd Province
: Baking in the desert heat, Yazd Province is dotted with small, sandy villages surrounding the picturesque main city.East Azerbaijan Province
: The homeland of Iran's large Azeri minority, East Azerbaijan Province is known as much for the Neolithic cave village of Kandovan as for its capital, the bustling metropolis of Tabriz.
Cities in IranTehran
: Iran's capital and largest city assaults the senses with noise, pollution, and some of the worst traffic jams on the globe; but hidden oases in the form of royal palaces and manicured parks offer respite from the chaos.Esfahan
: With its expansive, mesmerizing central square, iconic arched bridges, and enticing bazaar, Esfahan lives up to its reputation as the country's most beautiful city, and rightfully takes its place as a highlight of most tours of Iran.Shiraz
: During spring, the scent of orange blossoms fills the air in Shiraz, a former dynastic capital filled with colorful mosques and impeccable gardens.Yazd
: Picture a mystical Middle Eastern desert city--the image in your mind's eye is probably akin to Yazd, a former Zoroastrian stronghold of narrow sandstone alleys, secluded courtyards, and shaded bazaars.
Popular Iran Tourist AttractionsPersepolis
: The crowning jewel of any Iran itinerary, this ancient city near Shiraz dates back more than 2,500 years, its majestic ruins still evoking the power of the once-mighty Persian empire.Naqshe Jahan Square(Shah Square)
: This expansive plaza is Esfahan's most iconic attraction, with beautifully manicured gardens, mirror-like reflecting pools, and some of Iran's most picturesque architecture.Golestan Palace
: Once home to the royal family, Tehran's most distinctive palace is also one of its oldest buildings, featuring an abundance of colorful decorations and romantic gardens.The National Jewelry Treasury
: Persia's renowned crown jewels still sparkle at this museum housed within the Central Bank, representing one of the last bastions of the empire's former wealth. Tehran Bazaar
: No Iran vacation is complete without a visit to Tehran's massive bazaar, boasting passages more than 10 km (6.2 mi) in length.Milad Tower
: Soaring to a height of 435 m (1,427 ft), this space-age building features an orb-like viewing area, a prominent spire, and serves as one of the world's tallest telecommunications towers.Tomb of Hafez
: Persia's most famous poet remains one of the most prominent figures in Eastern literary history, and a visit to his tomb--surrounded by a lush garden--is a highlight of any Iran holiday.Siosepol Bridge
: With its elegant arches lit up in colorful hues after dark, Esfahan's longest traditional bridge serves as the ideal spot for a romantic stroll, day or night.Darband
: Translated literally from Farsi as the "Gateway," this popular walking path serves as the entrance to the mountains north of Tehran; it also offers access to souvenir stalls, cafes, and restaurants with scenic views.Khajou Bridge
: Esfahan's oldest bridge can be crossed from above or below, with a series of stepping stones serving as links between the iconic arches.
Dining and Shopping on Holiday in Iran
Cuisine of Iran
While not overly spicy, Iranian cuisine bursts with flavor.
During a tour of Iran, the aroma of the most ubiquitous dish--the humble kebab--can be smelled in every city, with skewered meat hovering over hot charcoal in upscale restaurants and takeaway stalls alike.
You'll also find plenty of delicious "khoresh" (stews), saffron-infused rice, and a range of delicious dishes inspired by eggplant or pomegranate. Sample some of these dishes as you walk up the restaurant-lined path at Darband
Freshly baked Persian flatbreads accompany almost every meal, which usually comes with a selection of grilled vegetables and salads. Beware of anyone offering you "kale pache" for breakfast during your Iran vacation--you'll find yourself eye-to-eye with a boiled sheep's head.
Shopping in Iran
Wandering through a market like Tehran Bazaar
, filled with colorful fabrics and the aroma of spices, is one of the great pleasures of a holiday in Iran.
You'll notice dazzling scarves and shawls, handmade jewelry, and exquisite ornaments made of camel bone offered by most bazaars and souvenir shops.
A trip to Iran serves as a great opportunity to stock up on one of the world's most expensive spices: saffron. You can find dedicated stalls in bazaars and supermarkets selling the prized red spice for a significantly lower cost than you'd see in most other countries.
Despite saffron's popularity, hand-woven carpets stand out as the country's most famous export. Head to traditional cultural centers, such as Tabriz
, to find some of the country's most highly sought-after carpets.
Know Before You Go on a Trip to Iran
Interesting Facts About Iran
● Iran uses a completely different calendar from the Western world--to find the corresponding year in the Gregorian calendar (used around the world), you'll have to add 621 or 622 to Iran's official Solar Hijri Calendar
● The Iranian weekend takes place on Thursdays and Fridays, with almost all shops closed every Friday
● Women make up more than 60 percent of university students in Iran, one of the highest rates in the world
● Throughout its history, Iran has fluctuated wildly between strongly pro- and strongly anti-Western stances, with two revolutions in the 20th century dramatically affecting the political landscape
Things You Should NOT Do in Iran
Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iranians have lived under strict religious laws that aim to preserve modesty and uphold traditional values.
While many citizens disagree with these rules and live Western lives in private, it's important that you respect the laws when you're out and about on your Iran tour.
Although women must wear full-length, non-figure-hugging clothing and a "hijab" (headscarf) in public, the interpretation of this dress code is looser and more colorful than you might imagine.
Men have more freedom when it comes to clothing, but should always wear long trousers and avoid any provocative shirt slogans.
Serious breaches of these dress codes could incur the ire of the "modesty police," who enforce religious laws on the street.
Public displays of affection between men and women are frowned upon, though holding hands is generally seen as acceptable.
Homosexuality is illegal and is a topic best avoided altogether when talking with locals.
While many Iranians manage to acquire beer and spirits on the black market and even throw parties, alcohol and drugs remain illegal and should be avoided by tourists.
Despite all these rules, you'll find that the welcoming attitude of Iranians toward foreign visitors more than makes up for any inconvenience you might feel on your Iran holiday.
Holidays & Festivals in Iran
Beginning on March 20, Nowruz (Iranian New Year) is the most significant festival on the Iranian calendar. During this time, families spend quality time together, clean the house, and reflect on the events of the previous year.
If you visit Iran during Nowruz, you'll find the largest celebrations in Tehran
, although almost every town, city, and region celebrates the festival in its own right.
During Mehregan in early October, Iranians express the love and friendship they feel toward those close to them, while also marking the arrival of spring. The mid-winter festival of Sadeh takes place in late January, and has links back to the ancient Persian Empire.
Useful Iran Travel Tips
Common Greetings in Iran
With its right-to-left script and complicated pronunciation, Farsi (also known as Persian) can seem an intimidating, almost unintelligible language when you first arrive on your Iran vacation. However, if you can learn a few simple words and phrases, you'll delight your Iranian hosts.
Greet those you meet with a friendly "salam" (hello), followed by "chetori" (how are you), and reply with "heili mamnoun, mersi" (very well, thanks) when asked the same question in response.
On first meeting, men and women should not shake hands unless the woman offers her hand first. Placing your right hand over your heart is a respectful way to acknowledge a new acquaintance that may not be comfortable with a more intimate expression of friendship.
Avoid using the "thumbs up" gesture when communicating on your trip to Iran--while many Iranians understand its Western meaning, the gesture is considered extremely offensive in traditional Persian culture (much like the middle finger gesture in Western culture).
Although not a greeting as such, the oft-spoken word "mashallah" (roughly translated as "beauty by the grace of God") is a great way to show your appreciation for something in a respectful manner.
Climate of Iran
It's no surprise that as one of the largest countries in the Middle East, and the 18th-largest nation in the world by area, Iran has several climate zones, with weather varying significantly from place to place and season to season.
Much of central and southern Iran consists of desert areas, which experience mild winters and scorching, rainless summers, during which temperatures can soar well above 40 C (104 F). In fact, the Lut Desert near Kerman
holds the title as the hottest place on Earth, according to some researchers.
The mountainous regions in the northwest and northeast of the country endure cold, snowy winters and relatively mild summers. The Caspian Sea coast offers perhaps the nicest balance, with an almost Mediterranean climate of warm, humid summers and mild winters.
For a comprehensive Iran itinerary, the period between March and May offers the nicest weather, when temperatures in Tehran
hover around comfortable 22 C (72 F).
Transportation in Iran
You'll be pleasantly surprised by how comfortable, affordable, and convenient transportation can be during a holiday in Iran.
Government subsidies on fuel keep bus and taxi prices low, which is great for the wallet but can create chaotic traffic jams and pollution, especially in Tehran
During the middle of the day and at night, the capital's modern metro system provides efficient and easy-to-use transport, with signs and announcements in both Farsi and English, and carriages segregated by gender.
Try catching the metro during peak times (6-9 am and 4-7 pm on weekdays) and you'll be squashed by unimaginable crowds getting to and from work. Understandably, getting out of Tehran comes as a welcome relief to most travelers, and the array of onward options gives you plenty of choices.
For a small price, you can get an XL seat on an intercity bus--the fare includes tea, coffee, and snacks served throughout the journey. Pay a little bit more to take one of the country's high-speed trains, which vary from company to company but typically offer comfortable bedding and cabin options.
The speediest way to get from city to city on a hurried Iran itinerary is, of course, to fly with one of the country's many well-priced airlines. These companies are not approved by global regulation bodies, and safety remains a concern.
Remember that your credit card doesn't work in Iran, so you can only purchase tickets through travel agents, at bus or train stations, or with the help of a local.
Tipping in Iran
Tipping is not expected during an Iran holiday, so much so that many waiters and taxi drivers will react with confusion if you attempt to leave them with gratuity and will even try to return your change. Nevertheless, if you explain the situation, most people will gladly accept your generosity.