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Iran

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Travel Guide Middle East Iran

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Introduction

Damavan Peak at sun set

Damavan Peak at sun set

© All Rights Reserved rezavos

Iran (Persian: ايران /irɑːn/), formerly Persia (until 1935), is an ancient nation whose past dates back well over two and a half milleniums. No number of monuments, museums or ancient mosques could truly indicate the depth of Persian history, but Iran makes a brave attempt. Tehran, the capital, would best be steered clear of if it were not for the excellent National Museum and a handful of other fascinating museums. The site of Persepolis, a palace complex built 500 years before Christ, is now a collection of ruins; while unable to regain the lustre it had in its early days, today's Persepolis is impressive nonetheless.

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Brief History

Dozens of pre-historic sites across the Iranian plateau point to the existence of ancient cultures and urban settlements in the fourth millennium BC, centuries before the earliest civilizations arose in nearby Mesopotamia. After a long and turbulent history with many rulers, in 632 AD raiders from the Arab peninsula began attacking the the ruling Sassanid Empire. Iran was defeated in the Battle of al-Qâdisiyah, paving way for the Islamic conquest of Persia.After the Islamic conquest of Persia, most of the urban lands of the Sassanid empire with the exception of Caspian provinces and Transoxiana came under Islamic rule. Many provinces in Iran defended themselves against the Arab invaders, although none in the end was able to repulse the invaders. However, when the Arabs had subdued the country, many of the cities rose in rebellions, killing Arab governors, although reinforcement by Arab armies succeeded in putting down the rebellions. By the 9th century, Islam became a dominant religion in Persia and the conversion of Iranians to Islam brought profound changes to their life and culture.

In 1218, the eastern Khwarazmid provinces of Transoxiana and Khorasan suffered a devastating invasion by Genghis Khan. During this period more than half of Iran's population was killed. Between 1220 and 1260, the total population of Iran had dropped from 2,500,000 to 250,000 as a result of mass extermination and famine. He was followed by yet another conqueror, Tamerlane, who established his capital in Samarkand. The waves of devastation prevented many cities such as Neishabur from reaching their pre-invasion population levels until the 20th century, eight centuries later. In 1387, Tamerlane avenged a revolt in Isfahan by massacring 70,000 people. The mid-14th-century Black Death killed about 30% of the country's population. Iran was gradually Islamized after the collapse of the Sassanid empire; however, it was not Arabized. Iranian culture re-emerged with a separate and distinctive character and made an immense contribution to the Islamic civilization. When Islam came through Iran, there developed Iranian Islam or Persian Islam rather than the original Arab Islam, and this new Islam is sometimes referred to by scholars as Islam-i Ajam (Persian Islam).

After hundreds of years of Persian dynasties, in 1941, Britain and the USSR invaded Iran to use Iranian railroad capacity during World War II. The Iranian Revolution, also known as the Islamic Revolution, began in January 1978 with the first major demonstrations against the Shah. After strikes and demonstrations paralysed the country and its economy, the Shah fled the country in January 1979 and Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile to Tehran. In December 1979, the country approved a theocratic constitution, whereby Khomeini became Supreme Leader of the country.

On 22 September 1980 the Iraqi army, under Saddam Hussein, invaded Iran at Khuzestan, precipitating the Iran–Iraq War, which ended only in 1988. In the 2005 presidential elections, Iran made yet another change in political direction, when conservative populist candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected over Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The election of Ahmadinejad again in 2009 was questioned by The European Union and several western countries which expressed concern over alleged irregularities during the vote, and some analysts and journalists from the United States and United Kingdom news media voiced doubts about the authenticity of the results. Since then, it has been restless during several occasions in Iran, with major riots in Tehran, and increasingly in other cities like Tabriz and Esfahan. These pro-Mousavi (the opposition) demonstrations have been met with extreme violence by Iranian government.

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Geography

Iran borders Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia to the northwest; the Caspian Sea to the north; Turkmenistan to the northeast; Afghanistan and Pakistan to the east; Iraq to the west; and finally the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman to the south. Iran is the 18th largest country in the world at 1,648,000 km2 and it lies between latitudes 24° and 40° N, and longitudes 44° and 64° E. Iran consists of the Iranian plateau with the exception of the coasts of the Caspian Sea and Khuzestan and much of the country is dominated by mountain ranges, especially in the west with ranges such as the Caucasus, Zagros and Alborz Mountains. In the latter you'll find Iran's highest point, Mount Damavand at 5,610 metres above sea level. The northern part of Iran is covered by forests and in the east there are desert basins like Dasht-e Kavir, Iran's largest desert, and Dasht-e Lut. Large plains are found along the coast of the Caspian Sea and at the northern end of the Persian Gulf.

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Regions

Iran is made up of 30 provinces. Geographically, Iran can also be divided into the following regions.

  • Northwestern Iran, also known as Iranian Azerbaijan, borders Azerbaijan.
  • Northern Iran on the Caspian Sea
  • Northeastern Iran, bordering Turkmenistan, includes the holy city of Mashad
  • Western Iran, bordering Iraq
  • Central Iran, includes the cities Tehran, Isfahan and Qom
  • Eastern Iran, a desertous region bordering on Afghanistan.
  • Southwestern Iran includes a coastal region along the Persian gulf and the city of Ahvas.
  • Southern Iran, on the Persian Gulf, includes the city of Shiraz.
  • Southeastern Iran, on the Gulf of Oman, borders Pakistan and Afghanistan.

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Cities

  • Ahvas
  • Esfahan - Iran's 3rd largest city. The Naghsh-e Jahan Square in Esfahan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • Hamedan - one of the oldest cities in Iran
  • Karaj
  • Mashad - One of the holiest Shi'a cities in the world and home to the shrine of Imam Reza. It is Iran's second largest city.
  • Qazvin - A former capital of the Persian Empire under the Safavids and a strategic location throughout the ages.
  • Qom - A holy Shi'a city, it is home to the shrine of Fatema Mæ'sume, sister of Imam `Ali ibn Musa Rida.
  • Shiraz - A city along Alexanders path, Persepolis and the tomb of Hafez.
  • Susa - Also known as Shush or Shoush
  • Tabriz - The first or last big border city coming to or from Turkey.
  • Tehran - Iran's capital and largest city.
  • Yazd - A true ancient desert city with a wealth of things on offer.

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Sights and Activities

Esfahan

Moonlit Emam Mosque

Moonlit Emam Mosque

© All Rights Reserved ameurice

Esfahan probably is the most popular and one of the most impressive cities in Iran which is definitely worth a visit. The Meidan Emam or Naqsh-e Jahan Square is on the UNESCO World Heritage List and the site is known for the Royal Mosque, the Mosque of Sheykh Lotfollah, the magnificent Portico of Qaysariyyeh and the 15th-century Timurid palace. Meidan Emam itself dates back to the 17the century. The city is loaded with many more museums, mosques and even a cathedral and church. Spend at least 3 or 4 days here, not only to see the specific sight, but also to wander around, watch everyday local life and soak up the atmosphere.

Iranian Desert

The Iranian Desert actually contains two adjacent deserts, the Dasht-e Kavir and the Dasht-e Lut. The Dash-e Kavir ('Great Salt Desert') is the bigger one, located at the Iranian plateau in the central north of the country. This desert stretches from the Alborz mountain range in the northwest to the Dasht-e Lut desert in the southeast.

Dead Camel

Dead Camel

© All Rights Reserved Antonxiii


It covers parts of the the Iranian provinces of Khorasan, Semnan, Tehran, Isfahan and Yazd. It's almost rainless and the area contains of large salty areas and some marshes and lakes. Although it's a cold winter desert, that's mainly because nights can drop well below -10 °C. Days are actually not as cold, with still fine weather in January. The somewhat smaller Dasht-e Lut ('Emptiness Desert') is located in the central southeastern parts of the country and is a large salt desert. In fact it's a big basin and one of the hottest and driest places of Iran, where surface temperatures of more than 70 °C have been measured, the highest anywhere in the world. Still, also here nights in winter can drop way below zero though days are still pretty warm. Surprisingly, the southeastern portion of the Dasht-e Lut has large sand seas with dunes up to 300 metres high, competing with the ones in the Namib desert.

Persepolis

Persepolis is located about an hour from Shiraz in the Fars Province and was founded by Darius I in 518 BCE. It used to be the capital of the Achaemenid Empire. An impressive palace complex was built here inspired by Mesopotamian models. The importance and quality of the monumental ruins make it a unique archaeological site and therefore is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Qom

Qom is one of the most holiest cities in Iran and the middle East and has centuries of history for travellers. Sometimes called the Jewel of Iran, the most famous sight in Qom definitely is the Fatima È Massummeh Shrine which is a highly respected shrine and can only be visited if you are accompanied by a Muslim friend or a guide.

Yazd

Yazd city view

Yazd city view

© All Rights Reserved TLWH

Yazd is an old desert city with many sights to explore, including a water reservoir with four badgirs (wind towers), mosques, ancient tombs, gardens and squares. It is a very pleasant and relatively low key city with almost no high rise buildings. It is also a very friendly city and walking around, relaxing at one of the many cafes is actually one of the highlights here. Its desert location only adds to the charm.

Others sights and activities

  • Skiing - Yes, Iran is a place where snow falls in wintertime and north of Tehran are some pistes. Dizin is one of the highest ski resorts in the world located just two hours north of Tehran. Great powder snow, cheap prices and few international visitors makes this is a great place for a ski holiday.
  • Kish Island - a free trade zone in the Persian Gulf, it is regarded as a consumer's 'paradise', with numerous malls, shopping centres, tourist attractions, and resort hotels.
  • Qeshm Island - in the Persian Gulf, famous for its eco destinations including Hara marine forests. Birds are abundant here.
Arg-e Bam

Arg-e Bam

© All Rights Reserved skatoozian

  • Bam - its cultural landscape is on the UNESCO list as well, but unfortunately it is in danger and the massive earthquake damaged a lot back in 2004.
  • Desert Oasis - it is best to rent a car and driver to explore some of the finest and remotest desert oasis in the world.
  • Susa - also called Shushu or Shoush. Located in the western side of the state of Khozestan and conected by rail to Tehran and Khoramshahr
  • Ancient capital Tomb of David
  • Zigurat Chogha Zanbil - 40 kilometres south of Susa
  • Pasargad - the first capital of the Achaemenid Empire, and home to the Tomb of Cyrus.

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Weather

Iran has a complex climate, ranging from subtropical to sub polar. In winter, a high-pressure belt, centered in Siberia, slashes west and south to the interior of the Iranian Plateau, while low pressure systems develop over the warm waters of the Caspian Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Mediterranean. In summer, one of the lowest pressure centers in the world prevails in the south. Iran also can have four seasons at the same time. While it is cold in the north of country like Ardebil and Tabriz, in the south the weather is spring-like in Bandar- e-Abbas and Boushehr.

Iran is divided climatically into three main regions:

  • 1. the extremely hot coast along the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman;
  • 2. the temperate but arid central highland;
  • 3. the tableland of the intensely cold Alborz Mountains.

The annual average precipitation for the country is about 305 mm, but there are huge variations. The desert regions receive only about 125 mm per year, however, and the plain along the Caspian Sea gets about 1,270 mm then Iran has four Seasons in all-over year. In the summer, temperatures vary from a high of 50 °C in Khouzestan at the head of the Persian Gulf to a low of 1 °C in Azerbaijan in the north-west. Precipitation also varies greatly, ranging from less than 50 mm in the south-east to about 2,000 mm in the Caspian region.

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Getting There

By Plane

International
Iran Air is the main national airline of Iran and is based at Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport (IKA) near Tehran. It flies to a significant number of cities in Europe, the Middle East and Asia and destinations include Bangkok, Rome, Amsterdam, Beijing, Istanbul, Paris, Moscow, London and Beirut. Dozens of other airlines serve the airport, for example with budget airline Air Arabia from Sharjah, Air Asia X from Kuala Lumpur, and Air France and KLM from Paris and Amsterdam. Most airines are within the region, serving cities like Damascus, Kuwait and Dubai and several cities in Central Asia.

Domestic
Iran Air and Aseman Air among a few other airlines have an extensive network of domestic flights. The main destinations from Tehran include Tabriz, Mashad, Esfahan, Shiraz, Kish and Zahedan, but there are several more options that might come in handy. Prices are very low compared to many other countries and a one hour flight generally won't cost much more than around 40 USD.

To/from the airport

  • Car: Imam Khomeini Airport is accessible from Tehran by using the Tehran-Qom Freeway. An airport access road connects the freeway to the airport terminal.
  • Rail: An extension to the southern part of Line 1 of Tehran Metro for IKA airport is currently under construction and scheduled to reach the airport in first quarter of 2011. There is also plan to have Line 3 of the Tehran Metro to reach it's southern terminus at IKA in future.

Other international airports are located in Shiraz, Isfahan and Mashad and mostly serve neighbouring countries and countries in the region.

By Train

The Trans-Asia Express travels on a weekly schedule between the gateway to Asia, Istanbul, and the capital of Iran, Tehran. Trains leave Istanbul Wednesdays at around 11:00pm and arrives in Tehran about 70 hours later. In the opposite directions, trains leave Tehran Thurdays around 6:30pm and take about the same time. The trainride is divided into two parts, one from Istanbul to Lake Van and one from Lake Van to Tehran and only one carriage actually is moved over the lake to make the entire journey.

There is a weekly train travelling from Damascus to Tehran, stopping in Aleppo in Syria and Tabriz in Iran along the way. Like the train from Istanbul to Tehran, the journey contains two stages, one to Lake Van and one from Lake Van onwards.

By Car

It's fairly easy to cross borders to and from Iran, especially with Turkey and Pakistan along the overland route to South Asia. Have your carnet de passage (permit) and insurance, car papers and all other necessary documents (visa) in order. You can use most crossings mentioned below.

By Bus

To Azerbaijan, it's best to do the trip in stages, via the border town of Astara. Direct buses go between Tehran and Baku, but not many and it takes a long time at the border, better to walk across. Crossing into Iraq would be stupid, except maybe in the north towards Iraqi Kurdistan near Piranshahr, which more and more travellers manage to do so.
With Pakistan, the only possible crossing for foreigners is between Mirjaveh (Iran) and Taftan (Pakistan).
The main road crossing to/from Turkey is at Gürbulak (Turkey) and Bazargan (Iran). Direct buses go from a number of Turkish cities, like Istanbul, Ankara or Erzurum (east) towards Tabriz or Tehran.
Main crossing to Ashgabat in Turkmenistan is en route from Mashad.

By Boat

Several ferries and fast catamarans travel between Iran and a number of other Gulf states. Destinations include Bandar Lengeh to Dubai, Bandar Abbas to Dubai and Sharjah, Khoramshahr and Bushehr to Kuwait and Bushehr to Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Dammam in Saudi Arabia. Check the Iran Traveling Center for more details about schedules and prices.
Theoretically, there are also ferries across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan, but don't hold your breath.

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Getting Around

By Plane

Iran Air and Aseman Air among a few other airlines have an extensive network of domestic flights. The main destinations include Tehran, Tabriz, Mashad, Esfahan, Shiraz, Kish and Zahedan, but there are several more options that might come in handy. Prices are very low compared to many other countries and a one hour flight generally won't cost much more than around US$40.

By Train

Raja Trains offers a number of comfortable, reliable and cheap rail links across the country, some of which are really spectactular like the Tehran to Mashad overnight train. The main routes include Tehran - Jolfa, Tehran - Gorgan, Tehran - Bandar-e-Abbas, Tehran - Mashhad and Tehran - Khorramshahr. Notable stops on the routes are Qom, Kashan, Shiraz, Esfahan and Yazd, which are all reachable by train.

By Car

Renting a car is possible but traffic in and around the bigger cities is chaotic to say the least. Roads are ok though, except for some rougher roads into the central deserts and mountains in the east and north.
Agencies are represented in the bigger cities and airports, or you can rent one with a driver for a day or even a week. A good way to cover a lot and economical when travelling with 2 or 3 persons. A national driver's licence is required and an international permit recommended. Insurance is required as well and if you bring your own car you'll need a carnet de passage and international certificate of proof of ownership of the car.

By Bus

There are many buses on most major routes and transport is generally comfortable, reliable and cheap. Note that the newer buses (usually Volvo, Scania or other Scandinavian stuff) are much better (airco actually works) than the old and rusty Mercedes buses, which are cheaper as well. On most routes, you won't have to wait much longer than a few hours before you are on your way again.

By Boat

There are some ferries operating to and from the islands in the Persian Gulf and the mainland. Islands include Kish and Hormuz and ferries leave from places like Bandar-e-Abbas.

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Red Tape

Note: Entry will be refused to citizens of Israel and foreign travellers with any evidence of visiting Israel — not just Israeli entry stamps, but Egyptian/Jordanian neighbouring land borders with Israel — except that if you had an Israeli visa that expired more than a year before you apply for an Iranian visa, you may be allowed entry into Iran. Egyptian and Jordanian visas have no effect on applications for Iranian visas.

Foreign visitors require a visa to travel in Iran. Nationals of the following countries do not require a visa to enter Iran: Turkey, Malaysia, Syria, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador.

All other foreigners will need to aplly for a tourist visa. These visas are valid for a maximum stay of 30 day and can be extended in Iran.

Some foreign visitors can obtain a visa, valid for 17 days, upon arrival at certain Iranian airports, including the two airports in Tehran and the airports in Mashad, Isfahan, Shiraz and Tabriz. Please note that this is only possible when you need a tourist visa, all other sorts like transitvisas, business visas etc. need to be obtained before arrival in Iran.

Also note that citizens from the United Kingdom, Ireland, the United States and Australia can not get a visa upon arrival at one of the airport mentioned above.

Citizens of the following countries can get a tourist visa upon arrival at the airport, valid for 17 days:

Albania, Armenia, Austria. Bahrain, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Brunei, Bulgaria, China, Colombia, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Luxemburg, Malaysia, Mongolia, Montenegro, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, North Korea, Norway, Oman, Palestine, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Syria, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Venezuela and Vietnam.

Although frequently mentioned that the 15 day visa on arrival is not extendable, it seems that many travellers actually did extend the visa, up to maximum for 30 days. Still, it is advised to apply for a visia before you leave if you want to travel for more than 2 weeks. If you want to travel for a longer period of time than 15 days, it is possible to obtain a visa at the nearest Iranian embassy or consulate. Usually it takes much shorter to obtain one at neighbouring countries than trying to get one in your home country which can take more than a month in certain occasions.

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Money

See also Money Matters

Iranian Rial (IRR; symbol Rs) = 100 dinars.
Notes are in denominations of Rs 100,000, 50,000, 20,000, 10,000, 5,000, 2,000, 1,000, 500, 200 and 100.
Coins are in denominations of Rs 1,000, 500, 250, 100 and 50.

ATMs and merchants in Iran generally do not accept foreign (non-Iranian) cards due to the sanctions, so bring all the money you might need in cash, preferably in US dollars or Euros.

Bills in good condition as well as large bills ($100 or €100) tend to be preferred at currency exchange offices. Small denominations can be useful for small purchases before you get to an exchange office, although many exchange shops will not exchange small bills. On arrival at Tehran International Airport, the maximum amount that may be exchanged at night is limited to €50 per person.

The best places to exchange money are the private exchange offices (sarāfi) scattered around most large cities and major tourist centres. Their rates are usually 20% better than the official rate offered by the banks, they are far quicker and don't require any paperwork, and unlike their black market colleagues, they can be traced later on if something goes wrong. Exchange offices can be found in major cities, their opening times are usually Sunday to Thursday from 8:00am to 4:00pm. Note that most are closed on Fridays and on holidays. There is little point in risking the use of black market moneychangers who loiter outside of major banks and only offer marginally better rates than the banks.

The most widely-accepted currencies are US dollar ($) and euros (€). Other major currencies such as the Australian Dollar and Japanese Yen are accepted at many - but not all - money changers. Non-major currencies usually cannot be exchanged. US$100 and large euro unfolded notes tend to attract the best exchange rate, and you may be quoted lower rates or turned down for any old or ripped notes or small denomination notes.

Foreign credit cards are only accepted by select stores with foreign bank accounts such as Persian rugs stores but they will almost always charge an additional fee for paying by credit card rather than with cash. Most of these stores will be happy to forward you some cash on your credit card at the same time as your purchase. If you are desperate for cash, you can also try asking these shops to extend you the same favour without buying a rug or souvenir, but expect to pay a fee of around 10%.

Travellers' cheques: Cashing travelers cheques can be hit-or-miss and it is advised not to rely on travelers cheques issued by American or European companies.

Prepaid debit cards can be bought at Iranian banks and serve as a good alternative to carrying a large wad of cash around the country. Make sure that the card you buy has ATM withdrawal privileges and be aware of the daily withdrawal limit. The ATM network in Iran is subject to outages so make sure that you withdraw the entire balance well before you leave the country.

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Work

Foreigners with special expertise and skills have little difficulty in obtaining permits. Work permits are issued, extended or renewed for a period of one year. In special cases, temporary work permits valid for a maximum period of three months may be issued. An exit permit must be obtained for a stay longer than three months.

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Study

Iran has a large network of private, public, and state affiliated universities offering degrees in higher education. State-run universities of Iran are under the direct supervision of Iran's Ministry of Science, Research and Technology (for non-medical universities) and Ministry of Health and Medical Education (for medical schools).

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Language

Persian (called fārsi in Persian, فارسی), an Indo-European language, is Iran's national and official language. Although Persian is written with a modified Arabic alphabet, the two languages are not related but Persian does contain a very large number of Arabic loanwords but maybe with a different meaning, many of which form part of basic Persian vocabulary (See "Iranian Nationality" under "Respect" ).

Many young Iranians in major cities, and almost certainly those working in international travel agents and high-end hotels will speak conversational English but basic Persian phrases will definitely come in handy, particularly in rural areas.

Road signs are often double signed in English, but few other signs are. As an extra challenge, most Persian signage uses an ornate calligraphic script that bears little resemblance to its typed form. This can make comparing typed words in phrase books--such as 'bank' and 'hotel'--to signs on buildings quite difficult. However it is still worth memorising the Persian script for a few key words such as restaurant, guesthouse, and hotel (see relevant sections below for the script).

Be aware that Kurdish and Azeri languages are also spoken in areas of large Kurdish and Azeri populations.

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Eat

General

Meal times in Iran vary considerably from those in Europe and the US. Lunch can be served from 12:00pm-3:00pm. and dinner is often eaten after 8:00pm. These and other social occasions in Iran are often long, drawn-out affairs conducted in a relatively relaxed tempo, often involving pastries, fruit and possibly nuts. As it is considered rude to refuse what is served, visitors should accept the items offered, even if they do not intend to consume them.

The importation and consumption of alcohol is strictly banned throughout the majority of Iran, but is tolerated in a few rural and poorly regulated areas. Penalties are severe. Registered religious minorities, however, are allowed to manufacture and consume small quantities of alcohol, but not to sell, export or import it. Pork and pork products are forbidden and, like alcohol, their import is illegal, though in practice shops serving the Christian community are allowed to sell pork with no major issues.

The good news for travellers is that Iranian cuisine is superb. A wide range of influences from Central Asia, the Caucasus, Russia, Europe and the Middle East have created a diverse, relatively healthy range of dishes that focus on fresh produce and aromatic herbs. The bad news, however, is that Iranians prefer to eat at home, rather than in restaurants, so decent eateries are scarce and stick to a repetitive selection of dishes (mainly kebabs). An invitation to an Iranian home for dinner will be a definite highlight of your stay. When visiting an Iranian household for the first time or on a special occasion it is customary for Iranians to bring a small gift. Flowers, sweets or pastries are popular gift choices.

Main Cuisine

Fragrant rice (برنج, berenj) is the staple of Iranian food. Boiled and then steamed, it is often coloured with saffron or flavoured with a variety of spices. When served plain as an accompaniment it is known as chelo (چلو). The two most common meat / chelo combinations are kebab variations (chelo kabāb, چلو کباب) or rotisserie chicken (chelo morgh, چلو مرغ). Flavoured rice, known as polo, is often served as a main course or as an accompaniment to a meat dish. Examples include shirin polo flavoured with orange zest, young cherries and honey glazed carrots, the broad-bean and herb heavy bāghli polo and sabzi polo laced with parsley, dill and mint.

The ubiquitous Persian Kabab is often served with both plain rice and a special (yellow cake) rice called tah-chin.
The rice and kebab dish chelo kabāb (چلو کباب) and its half-dozen variations are the most common (and often the only) items on Iranian restaurant menus. A grilled skewer of meat is served on a bed of fluffy rice, and accompanied by an array of condiments. You can add butter, grilled tomatoes and a sour spice known as somāgh to your rice, while some restaurants also provide a raw egg yolk. Raw onion and fresh basil are used to clear your palate between mouthfuls. Variations in kabāb dishes come from the meats they are served with.

Sweets/Desserts

The never-ending demand for dentists in Iran lies testament to the country's obsession with sweets and pastries, known collectively as shirini (شیرینی).

Iranian baghlava tends to be harder and more crystalline than its Turkish equivalent while the pistachio noughat called gaz (گز) is an Isfahan speciality. Sohan is a rich pistachio brittle popular in Qom, and freshly-baked pastries are often taken as gifts to people's houses. Lavāshak fruit leathers are delicious fruit leathers made from dried plums.

Honey-saffron and pistachio are just two local flavours of ice cream, while fāloodeh (فالوده) is a deliciously refreshing sorbet made from rosewater and vermicelli noodles made from starch, served with lashings of lemon juice.

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Sleep

Accommodations in Iran range from luxurious, if a little weary, five star hotels (هتل) in major cities to the small, cheap mosāferkhuneh (مسافرخانه) and mehmānpazir (مهماﻧپذیر) guesthouses that are littered about most centres. Moreover, staff in mosāferkhuneh often are so happy to provide room for non-Iranians, as these facilities have a recommendation from local governments to serve all tourists. For longer stays, villas with all facilities (including central air conditioning, pool and Internet connection) can be rented in Tehran and all other major cities at reasonable prices. Note that a man and woman cannot share the same hotel room unless they can prove their relationship (as a married couple or siblings). Foreign tourists are usually excepted from this law. also you can find traditional hotels in central Iran includes Esfahan, Shiraz and in particular Yazd.

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Drink

Black Tea (chāi, چای) is the national drink of Iran. It is served strong and with crystallised or cubed sugar (ghand, قند) which is held artfully between the teeth while tea is sipped through. You can try asking for milk in your tea, but expect nothing but strange looks or a big delay in return. Tea houses (chāi khāneh, چای خانه) are a favourite local haunt for men (and less commonly families) to drink tea and puff away on a water pipe.

Coffee (ghahveh, قهوه) is not as popular as tea. Where available, it is served Turkish style, French coffee or espresso. Imported instant coffee (nescāffe, نسكافه) and instant Cappuccino are available also. Coffee shops (called "coffeeshop" in Persian, versus "ghaveh-khane" (literally, coffee house) which instead means a tea house) are more popular in affluent and young areas.

Fruit juices (āb miveh, آب ميوه) are available from shops and street vendors. Also available are cherry cordial (sharbat ālbāloo, شربت آلبالو) and banana milkshakes (shir moz, شير موز).

Soft drinks are widely available. International products such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi, and their brand names including 7up, Sprite and Fanta have sold alongside local brands such as Zam Zam Cola ( زم زم كولا , Zam Zam Kola). The local cola has a taste not unlike "Coca-Cola Original" or "Pepsi Original". Both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo's concentrates entered Iran via Irish subsidiaries and circumvented the US trade embargoes. Ironically ZamZam was originally launched in 1954 as a subsidiary of the Pepsi Cola company. As an intriguing outcome of the Iranian cola wars the real coke was generally sold in plastic bottles and the non-genuine coke, using a substitute syrup devised to overcome earlier Clinton era US imposed embargoes, was distributed in the real thing bottles that the then syrup-less bottler was left stuck with at the time.

Doogh (دوغ) is a sour drink made from yoghurt, salt, and water (sometimes gaseous) and sometimes flavoured with mint or other plants. It takes some getting used to, but will rehydrate you quickly in the heat of Iran's summer. It is the same as Turkish Ayran. It can be purchased at almost any establishment and is often consumed in the afternoon while eating kababs. It comes in two main varieties fizzy (gaz-daar) and non-fizzy (bigaz).

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Health

See also Travel Health

There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Iran. There is one exception though. You need a yellow fever vaccination if you have travelled to a country (7 days or less before entering Iran) where that disease is widely prevalent.

It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Iran. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and when travelling longer than 2 weeks also typhoid. Vaccination rabies is also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.

Malaria is prevalent in the country, but only in rural areas of Sistan-Baluchestan, southern parts of the province of Kerman and and in the province Hormozgan. Finally, there is a higher risk from March to November in the eastern provinces north of the Zagros mountains. It is recommend to take malaria pills when going to these regions, and take other general precautions as well, including sleeping under a mosquito net and using repellant (50% DEET).

Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.

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Safety

See also Travel Safety

In general, Iran is much safer than Westerners might expect. Most people are genuinely friendly and interested to know about you and your country, so leave aside your preconceptions and come with an open mind. Iran is still a relatively low-crime country, although thefts and muggings have been on the increase in recent years. Keep your wits about you, and take the usual precautions against pickpockets in crowded bazaars and buses.

Iran treats drug offences extremely severely. The death penalty is mandatory for those convicted of trafficking or manufacturing of any drug, and third conviction for drug possession, distribution or sales.

There are a lot of military and other sensitive facilities in Iran. Photography near military and other government installations is strictly prohibited. Any transgression may result in detention and serious criminal charges, including espionage, which can carry the death penalty. Do not photograph any military object, jails, harbours, or telecommunication devices, airports or other objects and facilities which you suspect are military in nature. Be aware that this rule is taken very seriously in Iran.

Travellers should avoid the southeastern area of Iran, particularly the province of Sistan va Baluchistan. The drug trade thrives based on smuggling heroin from Afghanistan. There is plenty of associated robbery, kidnapping and murder. Some cities, such as Zahedan, Zabol and Mirjaveh are particularly dangerous, although not every place in this region is dangerous. Chahbahar, which is close to the Pakistani border, is a very calm and friendly city.

Alcohol is illegal to drink for Muslims only, and if seen by police may be met with punishment. Therefore, you will rarely find places in Iran that openly sells alcohol. However it is legal for Non-Muslims to produce alcohol for their consumption. Drinking is, however, common among some people, especially during parties and weddings, and is officially tolerated for use among the small Christian and Jewish communities but only for religious purposes (e.g., wine for holy communion). There is no set legal drinking/purchasing age for Non-Muslims. The Iranian Government allows Non-Muslims to bring alcoholic beverages into the country.

Iranian traffic is congested and chaotic. Guidelines are lax and rarely followed. Pedestrians are advised to exercise caution when crossing the roads, and even greater care when driving on them - Iranian drivers tend to overtake along pavements and any section of the road where there is space. In general, it is not recommended for inexperienced foreigners to drive in Iran. Watch out for joobs (جوب), the open storm water drains that shoulder every road and are easy to miss when walking in the dark.

In public gay and lesbian travellers should also not engage in any homosexual activities in Iran at all. Under Iranian law, sodomy is punishable by death and sex by lesbians is punishable with lashes. This law, however, is rarely enforced and only applies to those who engage in such activities with Iranian citizens. While public displays of platonic affection between members of the same sex -- such as holding hands, arms draped over shoulders and kissing on the cheek -- are very common in Iranian culture, foreign visitors who are gay or lesbian probably should be very discreet about overtly romantic displays of affections considering the possibility of harassment by security forces. Many Iranians still have unfavorable views of same-sex relationships, but personal, violent attacks against homosexuals or homosexual couples are very rare.

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Keep Connected

Internet

You'll find internet cafes in most cities and even smaller towns now have access to the world wide web. Like other countries with a very strict censorship, the country has strict rules about using the internet and also has a very restricted domestic version, highly unlikely to be used by travellers. Connections are generally good and it's cheap to use as well.

Phone

See also International Telephone Calls

The international country calling code of Iran is +98. Special numbers include 110 for the Police, 115 for Ambulance, 125 for the Fire Department and 112 for calls from mobile phones. Iran Telecom is the main telecommunication company in the country and provides, together with Irancell, almost all mobile services as well. You can find a complete list of telephone codes at Farsinet.com.

Irancell (MTN), MCI, Iran Taliya and Rightel offer pre-paid SIM cards for international travelers starting at IRR60,000. It is possible to buy recharge cards from all newsstands and supermarkets for IRR20,000. GPRS, MMS, and 3G services are also available at very low prices, specially at night, for surfing the web or checking your email.

Post

The I.R. Iran Post Service is the national postal service in Iran. Services are fairly reliable and cheap, but rather slow. It usually takes at least several weeks for your letter or postcard to arrive in European countries, longer for other Western areas. Post officies generally are open from around 7:30am to 3:00pm Saturday to Thursday, so the main offices in big cities tend to have somewhat longer hours. Your best bet is to visit in the morning if you need to use their services. Stamps can usually be bought at small shops and kiosks as well. Sending parcels is more expensive but also quicker and more reliable with international companies like FedEx, DHL, TNT and UPS.

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Quick Facts

Iran flag

Map of Iran

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Capital
Tehran
Government
Theocratic Republic
Nationality
Iranian
Population
76,000,000+
Languages
Persian, Turkish, Kurdish, Gilak
Religions
Islam (Shi'a, Sunni), Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism
Currency
Iranian Rial (IRR)
Calling Code
+98
Time Zone
IRST (UTC+3:30)
Daylight Saving Time
IRDT (UTC+4:30)

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