A trip to Iran is always an adventure, especially for first time visitors. And now that the nuclear deal has gone through, the number of foreigners holidaying in Iran is only set to increase.
Chances are if you’re planning a trip to Iran, you will do some reading and research of your own into the culture, the necessary safety precautions, dress codes and the major “dos” and “don’ts” to observe while in the country. But Iran never fails to offer its guests a surprise or two, so the more prepared and informed you are, the better. To help you on your way, here are 10 handy things that you should know before arriving in Iran.
1. Iran has…eclectic weather
When it comes to Iranian weather, there is no rhyme or reason. The weather varies massively from one side of the country to the other. Although most summers are hot and dry, it is possible for the northwest to experience a cool summer, while the south gets extremely hot and the north usually gets a lot of rain.
It is also worth noting that there are frequent heat warnings along the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman. It is only a small section along the Caspian Sea that sees a lot of rainfall, in particular during late summer and mid-winter. Unlike summers, which often reach over 100°F, spring and autumn are relatively mild in Iran.
However, winters are cold, with significant snowfall in many parts of Iran, except for places like Chabahar and Bandar Abbas in the south, which maintain temperatures as high as 82°F – this means it is warm enough to swim in the Persian Gulf at the height of winter. Tourists looking for the sun in the winter can turn to Iran for inspiration.
2. Iranians are among the most hospitable people in the world
Iranians are famous for their friendliness and hospitality. So if someone welcomes you to Iran or invites you over for dinner or to a party while you’re there, don’t be surprised — and say yes! Iranians are keen to know more about you and why you have chosen to come to their country. Some people will also try to practice their English with you, while others will want to show you how different Iran is to what you see in the Western media.
“Iranians are easily some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met,” said travellers posting on the Hungry Nomads blog. Previous to my travels to Iran, I’d often heard they’d treat guests like old friends. I began to see the warm hospitality immediately upon arriving. The locals want to take care of you, feed you and show you off proudly to their friends. We stayed with some lovely hosts that we contacted through Couchsurfing, and they made us feel like important guests the whole time.”
3. Beware of taarof
Taarof is a social principle in Iran, a concept that on its most basic level is a form of politeness or polite refusal. It characterizes exchanges among people in all aspects of daily life, whether in shops, on the street, in the workplace or at home.
According to the Iranian tourist website, “taarof is best described as a play of words between two people and is an Iranian cultural phenomenon whereby a person might refuse something they are offered out of politeness and so as to not come across as greedy.” The New York Times described it as when people are expected to give false praise and insincere promise or to tell you what you want to hear to avoid conflict, or to offer hope when there is none.” For example, if someone offers you something, it is polite to say “no, thanks” — even if you really want it. Don’t panic: They will offer again. However, confusion can arise if you don’t want what’s on offer, because the person may assume you are observing taarof. In this case, you may have to speak up and point out what you really want, or don’t want.
Regardless of one’s interpretation of it, it is good to be aware that it exists — though trying to know how to respond to it is another matter.
4. The food is delicious (though we’re biased)
Persian dishes are tasty and mouth-watering. Rice and fresh Persian bread make up the basis of all Iranian cuisine, both of which are served alongside a range of stews or kebabs. “Slow cooking” is the most popular way of preparing food. Iranians like to make tahdig, a crisp rice scraped from the bottom of the pot, adding yogurt, saffron, bread or potato. In Tehran’s bazaar and other popular marketplaces, street food is available, including falafel. But overall, Iranians prefer to eat in restuarants, and especially traditional restaurants called Sofreh Khaneh Sonati, where diners can enjoy the cosy atmosphere and traditional Iranian music and décor. Some of them even feature a takt, a traditional table that looks a little like a bed covered with a Persian carpet. Most Persian dishes contain meat, be it chicken, lamb or beef. Vegetarians should be aware — as their options might be limited.
“I’d heard that the food in Iran was good, but I didn’t expect it to be amazing”, a tourist visiting Iran posted in April 2015. “I think I became so much fatter in Iran,” said Silvia, a US-Norwegian tourist following her trip to Iran. “I especially loved doogh [Iranian traditional yogurt drink]. I would happily eat Iranian food everyday if I could.”
5. It’s all about the spoon and fork
In Iran, people use spoons and forks rather than knives and forks — so don’t be surprised if you go to a restaurant and they don’t give you a knife. Iranians use forks to push rice and meat onto spoons and then they cut the meat with a spoon. You might find this odd, but it’s standard practice in Iran, so give it a try while you’re there. And of course, Iranians find it very odd when somebody eats rice with a fork.
6. Bring your own toilet paper
The majority of public toilets in Iran are simple holes in the ground, and no toilet paper is provided. If you think you are likely to use one, make sure you bring your own paper. Many public toilets provide a hose in the toile cubicle, so you can of course use that.
According to the Lonely Planet guide to Iran, “most Iranians have squat toilets at home, but the majority of better hotels have thrones or a choice of loos.” The guidebook says hygiene varies in public toilets, but reassures readers that they should be able to find somewhere to go: “There are usually enough options that you won’t have to enter anywhere too stinky. Mosques, petrol stations, bus and train stations and airport terminals always have toilets, sans toilet paper.”
Small grocery stores stock toilet paper or tissues, and most guesthhouses provide toilet paper as well. Tour guides point out that a lot of Iranian plumbing is not used to handling large amounts of tissue, so it is a good idea to place your toilet paper in the bin instead of in the toilet itself.
It’s worth noting that hotels and some Iranian homes have “regular” toilets. So planning your visits wisely is recommended…
7. Make sure you carry cash
Although there are ATMs in Iran, they only accept Iranian bankcards. So be sure to bring cash with you when you travel in Iran. Money exchange kiosks in airports or on the streets offer customers good rates for US dollars, euros and British sterling.
The Guardian blogger of the week advised travelers to Iran to carry “as much as cash as you can safely carry,” reminding visitors that credit and debit cards are not as widely used as they are in other countries, mainly because of sanctions. “The prices only seem high,” the blogger wrote. “A loaf of bread will probably cost you about 6,000 rials, which may sound insane until you realise that is 20 cents in US dollars.”
The gap year blog advises: “ When haggling, stay friendly! Buying a carpet, vase, teapot or tablecloth is as much about social interaction and your memory of the event as it is about the thing itself. If you are happy with the price you are paying, that's what matters; don't worry about whether you could have got it cheaper.”
8. Currency: Which is it, the rial or the toman?
This can be one of the most confusing things about Iran. Technically, the rial replaced the toman over 80 years ago — but Iranians still talk in terms of tomans. These days, one toman is worth 10 rials, which means if you’re paying for something in a shop or taxi, just ignore the last zero on the sum they’ve asked you for.
“Take US Dollars or euros with you to Iran and change them up into Iranian rials at the local exchange offices (not the dodgy guys on the street or at the hotels which have the lower government exchange rate),” advises one British tourist writing on his blog. “Before you know it, you have millions of rials and it all looks easy.”
The tourist explains an important aspect of understanding Iranian currency: the toman. “While all notes state ‘rial’ there is another ‘currency’ or ‘super unit’ that is used – toman – which is not listed on any note or coin,” he explains.
“The toman is simply one-tenth of the rial price, so when the day came that I was presented with my dinner bill of 37,000, I was quietly chuffed that my food had cost the equivalent of $1.5, but this was, in fact, the price in toman. To covert to rial, you simply add a zero – therefore my dinner was actually 370,000 rials.”
“In the majority of cases, unless stated clearly, all prices are in toman and not in rials,” the British traveler explains. “The basic equation anywhere in Iran is to add a zero onto printed prices, or ask market vendors and others which ‘currency’ they are operating in to save the confusion.”
9. If you want to save money on taxi fares, be prepared to wait
If you’re looking for a taxi in Iran, you can choose between official ones — they are either orange, green or white and have a taxi logo etched across their sides. There are also taxis that look like normal cars.
Regardless of whether they are official or not, some of these taxis only follow specific routes. In other words, they have a start and ending point, and they only begin their journeys when they have a full car, unless someone is willing to pay for empty seats. The price per passenger is fixed and non-negotiable.
Alternatively, you can stop a taxi on the street and tell the driver where you want to go. For these journeys, the price is negotiable before setting off.
So far, Uber does not operate in Iran. For now.
10. Iran is a haggling culture
Haggling over prices is commonplace in Iran, especially in the bazaars, whether it’s over the price of clothes, handcrafts, artwork, carpets or smaller objects. Make sure to not show too much enthusiasm for an item — otherwise you’ll end up overpaying. It's important to know that taarof (see number 3) has a limited role in this process. When you ask a vendor how much something is, he will usually say, "ghabel nadare", or "it's nothing". But that's the end of that part of game. Once you get the seller to tell you the price, that's when the real haggling fun begins.
This article was originally published in November 2015.