Last month I finally visited a country that I had been wanting to see for a very very long time: Iran. I went there for a gig with a local agency based in Terhan, Surfiran, and they showed me around for 10 days.
There is a lot to say about Iran, so much to say that I don’t even really know where to begin to tell you what I saw, felt and lived on this trip. Let’s start by saying that Iran is, well, a complicated—yet incredible—country.
We all know what the media writes, says and shows about Iran and how biasedly it’s often portrayed; Many of you may imagine Iran as a land of American-hating-extremists, gun-toting men and burka-clad women. Just by doing a simple google image search, pictures of angry mobs burning American flags, armed militia and—of course—oil—always the oil—will pop up right away. I tend not to trust mainstream media, I prefer to go see things with my own eyes before having any opinion about a country and, now that i went there, I can tell you that even if yes, those things do exist to an extent, the Iran I saw had NOTHING to do with those images and the bigger picture is much more complex that what we see on the news.
To be fair to the people I worked with, this blog post will only focus on the more touristic side of Iran, I’ll talk about the good, leaving politics and social issues aside for another blog post I will write soon in my ‘Notes From The Road’ column.
Iran is changing over the years and the boundaries of what’s ok to do and what isn’t are constantly tested, but it’s truly important to understand one thing before I go on:
There’s a massive difference between Iran-the-government and Iran-the-country.
A country is not its government and a government does not make a country, people do. And the people I met on this trip have been among the kindest and most welcoming I ever met in my travels. That’s what matter.
A FEW THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
So, is Iran Safe? A million of you asked me this questions on instagram! The answer is YES, Iran is a super safe country if you are a tourist and all you want to do is to see it. The crime rate is low, people are incredibly respectful, I never felt unsafe neither as a traveler or as a woman. If you respect the law (including wearing the mandatory hijab if you are a woman, wether you agree with it or not, but we’ll talk about that another time) you won’t run into any problems with the authorities.
The only cases where Iran can be dangerous is if you are a journalist, a protester or if you show animosity towards the government. If this is not your case, you are good to go!
WHEN TO VISIT
The best time to go is when the weather is mild so early spring (March to May) or fall. I would avoid traveling there in the summer because it’s hotter than hell and also it’s not a good idea to visit during Navroz, the 2 weeks long Iranian New Year holiday, since everything is closed and you won’t be able to stay with local people since they travel to visit family around the country.
HOW TO DRESS
There are no set rules for how a man should dress but on the other side there are a lot of rules as far as women dress code goes. After the Islamic revolution in 1979 the hijab—a headscarf that covers head and neck— became mandatory by law. Wether you are a foreigner or an Iranian woman you have to wear it as soon as they get off the plane. Women also have to cover their arms and cleavage, wear long pants and a long—mid-tight is ok—loose shirt or tunic over them to hide their body curves. In the most traditional cities like Yazd and Isfahan you will see a lot of women wearing the chador—a black piece of cloth that covers the head and the whole body leaving only the face out—but you won’t see anyone wearing a Burka, it’s not an Iranian thing.
I’m an Italian citizen and for me and citizens of many countries is easy to get a visa as we are eligible for a visa on arrival for up to 30 days and it cost about $75 (with mandatory medical insurance included). For American, Canadian and British citizen it’s a bit different, they are not eligible for a visa on arrival and the visa is more expensive and it takes longer to get. You can find more info on visas here.
*sidenote: I was really pissed top find out that because of Mr Trump’s shenanigans now you don’t get an Iranian stamp on your passport when you arrive at the airport…thank you Trump, always a fucking pleasure! 🤬
INTERNET and SOCIAL MEDIA
You can find wifi pretty much anywhere in Iran (hotel, restaurants, cafès), it’s not the fastest wifi but good enough. Many websites and social media though are blocked by the government, Instagram works but to access Facebook, Twitter and Youtube you will need to download VPN before arriving to Iran (there’s many and they are quite cheap, about $10 for a month, I used CyberGhost)
LIFE COST & MONEY
Iran is quite cheap for travelers—not so cheap for Iranians with all the sanctions they get and the rocky economy who depends heavily from wester countries decisions— you can spend around €25 per day for food and accommodation, and €40/50 per day if you add transportation(even a driver) and entrance fees. I think that for a 10/15 days trip you can spend less than €1000, it depends how much shopping you want to do.
BRING CASH! Your card won’t work in Iran so make sure you have enough cash to exchange with you. It’s best to have Euros then Dollars. The exchange rate changes every day, you can exchange through official offices or through the black market in local shops (which give you a much better rate).
The official currency is the RIAL but people price everything in TOMAN
1 toman = 10 rials
It’s quite confusing: if a vendor tells you the price it’s 10 what they mean is 100 rials, but sometime it means 10.000, I still didn’t figure it out, you’ll see what I mean when you get there!😅
Like in many other islamic countries, alcohol is forbidden by law, so there are no bars around but on the other hand there’s a really good coffee shop scene in many of the bigger cities.
IRANIAN ARE NOT ARABS
Iranians are—proudly—Persian. They speak Farsi and other local dialects.
ALONE OR WITH A TOUR?
You know my style, when I’m not working I like to go off the grid, get lost, travel as local as possible and in Iran that’s totally possible, there’s a lot of people who travel Iran backpacking and staying with locals(many people will invite you to stay at their home, I can stress this enough, people are really really nice here!).
For the less adventurous though there are plenty of local tour agencies that will give you an amazing experience (Surfiran, the agency I was working for, is a very good option, their guides Medhi and Bahar—who were amazing with us and incredibly knowledgable— gave me a lot of info about the country, the culture and society that I wouldn’t have been able to find on my own).
Food in this country is IN-fucking-CREDIBLE! I didn’t have one bad meal the whole trip everything was amazing.
CAN’T MISS: Chelo-kabab—meat on a stick served with rice—everpresent and oh-so-good! Tahchin, persian baked saffron rice cake with a layer of chicken in it and topped with dried cranberries; Dizi, a soup made of potatoes, chickpeas, tomato and lamb; Ash, another soup made of vegetables and noodles, as close as you get to streetfood and very very cheap; and so much more, just-try-EVERYTHING!
PLACES I SAW
Theran is the capital, counting about 8 million people, it’s a big city that looks like many other big cities in the world: the traffic is BAD, pollution too, the streets are crowded, the culture is multi-layered, a mix of western, iraninan and islamic shades with a strange almost soviet vibe. There’s a massive difference in look between the southern part of the city (poorer, messier, older, and home of the biggest tourist attraction) and the northern part (newer and more modern, richer, fancier). Mountains surround the skyline of the city and you can find even a little bit of green if you go up north.
THINGS YOU CAN’T MISS: The Gollestan Palace (the Shah’s former home full of beautiful mosaics), the Gran Bazaar (not the nicest one in Iran but definitely worth seeing. There’s an awesome local restaurant at the main entrance of the Bazaar, YOU HAVE TO EAT THERE! I don’t remember the name but you’ll see it right away because the line starts in the street); Darband, a little peaceful corner at the bottom of the mountains full of nice restaurants and cafés tangled uphill, where Iranians go to take a break from the heat and the pollution.
Second biggest city in Iran, full of young students and home to some of the most beautiful gardens in the country and heart of the Persian culture, some of the best Persian poets come from here.
THINGS YOU CAN’T MISS: The Nasir-al-Molk Mosque (also called the Pink mosque, you’ve seen it many times, it’s the most used image to represent Iran, though I have to admit I was a bit disappointed, it was much smaller than what I had imagined and overcrowded as it usually is in those damn instagram spots 😜); the Bazaar (i bought soooo much stuff for my new home in this place!); the Arg-e Karim Khan Fort ; Persepoli (if you are into history a stop here is worth it).
This was my favorite city as it looked older than the others. Wrapped among two deserts, It’s thought to be one of the oldest cities in the world. There was a more ‘1001 Nighty’ atmosphere here, I got lost in the tangled alleys of ocher clay in the old city for hours at sunrise like I always do…and it felt magical.
THINGS YOU CAN’T MISS: The Masjed-e-Jameh Mosque, the shops (they make the prettiest tiles and pottery here), the desert (if you have enough time) and please, please, please, get lost in the alleys!
Third biggest city in Iran and definitely the most touristy one, a mandatory stop for its insanely beautiful architecture.
THINGS YOU CAN’T MISS: Naqsh-e Jahan (Imam Square), the second biggest square in the world (the first on is in China) where you can also see the Shah Mosque (known as the blue mosque) and the Imam Mosque (Masjed-e Jameh) . Again, the Baazar, get lost, eat everything you see! (There’s a nice restaurants in the Bazaar called Azadegan Cafe where they make an awesome beryani.)
THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS ON IRAN AND IRANIANS
This trip left me amazed, confused, hopeful and heartbroken all at the same time.
You know, having a camera in my hands (and many questions to ask) always gives me access to a deeper layer of a country’s soul, I can see things not everyone sees, and on this trip I saw a lot of indescribable beauty and a lot of—almost—incomprehensible contrasts.
I saw things that can be hard to swallow. I saw how much the decisions of a few can affect the many. I saw how every small change in policies of Western countries can deeply affect the lives of ordinary Iranians; I saw first hand how dangerous it is to ask too many questions, or the wrong ones, to the wrong people (there was a little Mullah-accident, but we’ll talk about it another time😅😬); I saw people that are incredibly curious about what’s outside their country and eager to share their views, their worries, their hopes and their dreams freely with me but too scared of being heard by the wrong ears. I saw people dreaming of leaving Iran to chase a freer life with more opportunities elsewhere and I saw new generations pushing the boundaries of what’s possible to transform their lives in their own country. I saw how different any life can be based on wether you were born a male or a female and how much a passport can dictate your faith.
Because I had a camera in my hands I was let in into many kitchens, bakery-backs, workshops, homes, and there I saw the look people had in their eyes while showing me what they were making. I saw beautiful people, kind people, welcoming people, curious people, proud people. Proud of what they do, proud of their culture, proud of their country and open to tell you all about it.
I saw all the good, which makes it harder to swallow the bad.
I came home with mixed emotions, more questions in my mind than I had when I left, and a deeper understanding of what the word Freedom means, and how often we give it for granted.
Iran is a land with an ancient soul, beautiful architecture, amazing food, and with many contradictions yes, but surly made of people with the kindest eyes and the most sincere smiles. And, i say it once again, that’s what matter.
So how does one sum up Iran? you can’t! Not in a blog post, not in words, you have to go there, see it with your own eyes and live it on your own skin. I hope you’ll make it there soon!
A huge Thank You to Surfiran and my guides Bahar and Medhi for showing me around this beautiful beautiful country! As usual all opinions are my own.
A SUPER BRIEF HISTORY OF IRAN
You absolutely can’t—and never will—understand Iran without knowing a little bit about its history and current events. So let me sum it up for you in a very simplified and fast way.
Iran was once part of the Persian Empire, an empire of tollerance, diplomacy, poetry, gardens and flowers. The Persian Empire fell and rose 3 times, there was an Arabic invasion in between (where islam religion and rules where introduced), after that there were many different dynasties. In 1908 oil was discovered—we know what that means—a new Shah took power and started modernizing Iran, the Brits and the Russian occupied it—because of the oil—the Shah abdicates and his son takes power. The parliament nationalize the oil, the Brits and the Americans—who are firends of the Shah—are not happy and help kicking out the prime minister. People in Iran don’t like the new Shah because he spends a lot of money for his own purposes while poverty spreads across the country, he uses violence against his opposers ,and he is also not the biggest fan of islam (and he’s too friendly with the Brits and the Americans too). In 1979 people are fed up with him and his shenanigans, there’s the islamic revolution, the Shah is kicked out, the Islamic Republic of Iran—officially ruled by islamic law—is declared and Ayatollah Khomeini becomes the supreme leader of the country and sets harsh religious based restrictions of speech, behaviour and dress code (that’s when women were forced to wear the hijab…by law). After that there’s the Iran Hostage Crisis, the Iraq-Iran war, the sanctions imposed by the US, the nuclear deal, the continuous shifts in the economy and a lot of other complicated stuff that lead to today’s situation in Iran.