Iran (formerly known as Persia) was once the center of a powerful empire -- and you’ll find today’s Iran is a country of equal parts beauty and mystery. Many of Iran’s ancient palaces, mosques, and traditional bazaars still stand today as they did hundreds of years ago.
The Iranian people themselves are friendly, welcoming, and hospitable. Don’t be surprised if a smiling local invites you for tea or wants to chat with you about your impressions of Iran so they can practice English.
As an Islamic state, alcohol and pork are illegal in Iran and the way women dress is strictly regulated. There are restrictions on independent travel too, so visiting Iran on a group or a private tour is often the easiest way for you to travel the country.
Foreigners have only begun to scratch the surface of this isolated culture. Travel to Iran places you among the lucky few to admire the stunning architecture, lush gardens, and grand palaces of one of the greatest ancient civilizations in the world.
History & Archaeology Tours
The most famous of Iran’s 22 UNESCO World Heritage sites is the ancient Persian capital of Persepolis. Over the centuries, the kings of the ancient city constructed massive terraces and added grand palaces and halls to the capital. The oldest remains date all the way back to 515 B.C.
As the capital of the Persian empire, Persepolis was a tempting target for rivals. In 330 B.C., Alexander the Great destroyed Persepolis and stole many of the city’s treasures in revenge for the Persians sacking Greek cities.
Some of the most impressive ruins in the complex include the Gate of All Nations, the enormous Apadana Palace, and the Throne Hall (also known as the Hall of 100 Columns).
Isfahan is the most popular tourist destination in the country, and it isn’t difficult to see why this city inspired the Persian proverb “Isfahan is half the world." The city is a living showcase of Persian-Islamic architecture, famous for its colorful tiling, bridges, minarets, gardens, and palaces.
Stroll through Naqsh-e Jahan Square -- also known as Imam square -- admiring its tiled portals, minarets, and fountains. Or join the families relaxing and picnicking on the grass in one of the world’s largest public squares (also a UNESCO World Heritage site).
Shopping & Culture Tours
An Iranian bazaar is an exciting place to shop for authentic souvenirs while observing the energy that sustains daily life in Iran. That is, if you can tear your eyes away from the decorated stuccos, detailed architecture, and an astonishing number of shops stacked with colorful goods.
Daily life unfolds at the bazaar where merchants and window-shoppers crowd the small alleys. Others push past on their way to the bazaar’s public baths, schools, and mosques. Be careful not to get lost making your way through the bustling tea houses, rug shops, and jewelry stalls.
The rule in the bazaar is to bargain -- hard. Get ready to hold your ground against the experienced Iranian shopkeepers, but do maintain a smile as you play along. Winning a battle of persistence, patience, and good humor makes your hard-won purchases that much more meaningful.
Two of the most important bazaars in Iran are the Tehran Grand Bazaar in the Old Tehran district and the Tabriz Bazaar in Tabriz. The enormous Tehran bazaar takes up an entire city block, while the Tabriz Bazaar (also a UNESCO site) is one of the oldest in the Middle East.
From their towering domed ceilings to intricate tile designs, Iranian mosques are a testament to impressive Iranian craftsmanship.
In Isfahan, you’ll find the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque (also known as the Ladies mosque) with an elaborate entrance, as well as the Shah’s Mosque (also known as Imam Mosque or Royal Mosque) with pristine examples of Persian architecture.
The Pink Mosque in Shiraz may look traditional from the outside, but when the early-morning light shines in through its stained-glass windows, it creates a kaleidoscope of colors.
Some mosques allow photos, others don’t. Ask your guide what the rules are before you enter. If you’re a woman, remember to cover your head when you visit a mosque.
Planning Your Trip
Joining a group tour makes it easy to plan a trip to Iran. For more freedom with your itinerary (and if you can afford it), a private tour is the way to go.
Best Time to Visit Iran
With sweltering summers and frigid winters, the shoulder seasons are the best times to visit Iran. Spring is peak travel season and prices are higher. Visit in the fall for lower temperatures and lower prices.
Iran is Islamic, so before booking your trip check to see when Ramadan falls -- that’s when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. During Ramadan, you might find restaurants willing to cater to travelers, but it’s best to avoid this time.
The two-week long Persian New Year celebration is a busy time in Iran, usually taking place near the end of March. Prices go up, businesses close, and just about everyone is traveling, making it difficult for visitors to get anywhere. Unless you’re there to join the celebrations, it’s best to avoid this holiday.
What to Look for in a Tour to Iran
f you’re a U.S., U.K., or Canadian citizen, you’re unfortunately not allowed to travel independently. You need to pre-book a tour and stick to the itinerary. It might seem restrictive, but you are allowed free time as long as it is in your schedule. You can’t change the dates you plan to enter and exit the country, though, or extend your stay in a city on a whim.
If you're looking to save some money, you can hire an independent guide and arrange your own itinerary. That way you can tailor your tour for minimal guide services and choose to avoid sites with an expensive entry fee. Connect with guides online or ask on forums for recommendations.
Package tours all include a taste of Iran’s history, but you can experience the country on a specialized tour, too. Foodies, cyclists, and skiers can all find tours that cater to them.
Breakfast is typically provided on a group tour with lunch and dinner up to you. Make sure you know which meals are included before booking your tour.
Typical Tour Cost
Most tours to Iran take you through the country, visiting important historical places and staying in hotels. For group tours to Iran, a typical nine-day tour costs around $3,000 while a 14-day tour costs around $5,000. Check the tour details -- private transportation between cities, rather than taking the bus or the train, will cost more.
Group tours usually include all accommodation, breakfasts, in-country transportation, and local guides. You’ll be on your own for most meals and extra add-ons (such as additional city tours, or entrance fees).
If you don’t find a group tour that appeals to you, you can arrange for a private tour. Of course, this costs more, especially if you’ll be the only person on tour. Plan for around $6,000 for a 14-day tour, and $5,000 for a nine-day tour.
On its own, a day-tour in Tehran, Isfahan, or Shiraz costs around $100-150. Expect similar pricing for other day-tours like a food tasting, cooking classes, or a visit with a local family.
Tipping in Iran isn’t expected, and the custom is to refuse a tip three times before accepting. Your guide can help with tipping practices in different cities and situations.
Packing Tips & Gear Rental
Women need to conform to the Islamic dress code. Although regulations for tourists are slightly relaxed, fitting in makes for smooth travels in Iran. Pack a headscarf and put it on before you exit the plane in Iran.
Men and women should both pack loose, baggy clothes that cover arms and legs. Ladies, leave the miniskirt at home (there aren’t any clubs to wear it at anyway!).
When it comes to gear rental, skiers will find it easy to rent what they need. Bicycle rentals are available in Isfahan, but the traffic in Iran’s major cities means bicycling isn’t recommended. (See the Health & Safety section to learn more about Iran’s awful reputation when it comes to traffic accidents.)
Other Tips for Travel in Iran
As an Islamic state, there’s no alcohol available in Iran and pork is forbidden. You won’t find many strictly vegetarian options, and vegetable dishes are often made with animal products.
Iranian ATMs do NOT work with foreign cards -- bring U.S. Dollars or Euros to change at independent money changers when you arrive. Avoid changing money on the black market.
Pay careful attention to the prices in Iran -- the local currency is rial, with a toman equal to ten rials. Make sure you know which one is on your bill or you could end up grossly overpaying!
Health & Safety
There are no required vaccines for travel to Iran. As a traveler, you should always be up to date with the usual suspects -- hepatitis A and B, typhoid, tetanus, and polio.
The tap water is safe to drink in Iran, but you can drink bottled water when in doubt. Food safety is an issue no matter where you travel, so take it easy on the street food and keep an eye out for cleanliness in restaurants.
Iranians get free healthcare, but you don’t. If you get sick while traveling in Iran you’ll have to pay for your service. Hospitals in Tehran and other major cities meet the same standards as western hospitals and have knowledgeable staff and English-speaking doctors.
Travel to Iran might strike fear into the heart of some, but Iran is a very safe place to visit. Contrary to what the media might have you believe, not all Iranians hate westerners. You won’t feel unsafe just because you’re a westerner in Iran.
What should scare you is Iran’s abysmal record for traffic accidents. The most dangerous activity in Iran is crossing the street! It’s good practice to do what the locals do, and cross the street when an Iranian person does.
In Iran’s bazaars, as with most crowded places, be careful of light-fingered pickpockets. Always keep your passport with you, and keep photocopies that you can show in case someone asks to see your passport.