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On the heels of the historic nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1, you can expect a renewed interest in Iran as a travel destination. TPG Contributor Muhammad Lila shares nine things you may not have known about the country, from visas to Versace.
1. The Country’s (Finally) Getting New Aircraft
For frequent flyers, this is big news. Major carriers like Air France, Emirates and Etihad, and budget airlines like Fly Dubai and Gulf Air already fly into Tehran. But domestic travel has always been sketchy, with a safety record that’s far from perfect. The head of Iran’s civil aviation agency recently announced that once western sanctions are lifted, the country plans to buy 80-90 new planes per year, from both Boeing and Airbus. The move would completely overhaul Iran’s domestic fleet, which has an average age of 23 years, more than double the international average.
2. There are Incredible Historical Sites
Iran has 19 sites designated as World Heritage Sites by the UN (with another 49 listed as “tentative”). The list includes historical monuments like the Golestan Palace, situated right in the heart of Tehran, and the ancient Tabriz Bazaar, once a key trading stop on the Silk Road. Others include entire cities like Bam, which was decimated by an earthquake in 2003, and the well-preserved ruins of Persepolis, dating back all the way to 500 BC.
One of the most inconvenient things about traveling to Iran is the absence of international banking options. It’s a cash-based economy, and you’ll wind up carrying wads of Iranian toman to pay for stuff. That could change once Iran is allowed back into the SWIFT exchange system. SWIFT is what allows banks to transfer money internationally. (If you’ve ever made a wire transfer between countries, you probably used it.) Re-entry into the SWIFT system would make overseas money transfers as easy as clicking a button. It could also lead to foreign credit cards and ATMs being used once again.
4. It’s Not Straightforward, But It’s Possible to Get a Visa
To get a tourist visa, you’ll have to be sponsored by an approved individual, group or travel agency, who will take legal responsibility for your stay in the country. The most common way is to use a travel agency (based in UK, UAE, etc.). All they’ll need is for you to fill out a form and send them a scanned copy of your passport. The cost is usually around £25-35 ($39-54). Since there’s no Iranian embassy in the US, you’ll have to put down on the form where you intend to collect the visa once it’s approved.
Two of the most common visa pickup locations are Istanbul and Abu Dhabi, both of which have daily flights to Tehran. Be warned: Once the visa has been approved, it can be difficult to change the pickup location.
Another way is to find a trade or business convention you’d like to attend, and ask them to sponsor your travel. Americans can’t get individual visas, so (officially) you’ll have to be part of a tour or business group. The silver lining is that the group can consist of just two people. The application process is supposed to take five to 10 business days, and if you’re American, expect to wait even longer.
5. Yes, There’s Still a Dress Code
Like in many other Middle Eastern countries, women in Iran are still required to have their hair covered, and shorts/skirts are a no-no. Unofficially, I’ve never seen that policy so relaxed as it is today. Walking around North Tehran can feel like you’re in an upscale western neighborhood, complete with western-style cafes, restaurants, and boutiques selling Versace. In places like this, you’re unlikely to be stopped for showing too much hair as long as you have a flimsy headscarf on. But if you’re planning to visit a mosque or mausoleum, dress conservatively. Iran also has a harsh policy on drug trafficking (the penalty is death), so don’t even think about it.
6. They Still Chant Death to America
Following Friday prayers (where sermons are a mix of prayer and politics), crowds still chant “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.” For foreigners, it can be a jarring experience. During my last assignment to Iran, I covered an anti-America protest, where effigies of President Obama and American flags were being burned. I thought the protesters would be openly hostile to me. Instead, I found the opposite was true. When I told people I’d come from America, they responded with things like “Welcome to Iran” and “Thank you for visiting here.” There was never a time when I felt unsafe. Most took time to explain that their anti-American slogans referred only to American policy, and not the American people.
7. The UK Just Reopened Its Embassy
On August 23, the UK reopened its embassy in Tehran, four years after it was stormed by protesters. The British Foreign Minister attended the reopening ceremony himself, the highest level British diplomat to visit Iran in more than a decade. In response, Iran reopened its own embassy in London. It’s a symbolic step, but another sign of rapprochement between Iran and the western world.
8. Iran’s Culture Scene is Thriving
A couple of years ago, one of my producers put out word that we were looking for Iranian musicians to profile. My inbox was flooded with replies, everything from classical to western grunge musicians. We ended up finding a young Iranian woman, who dreamt of becoming the first woman to headline a major concert since the Islamic Republic was established in 1979.
Earlier this year, Tehran’s Symphony Orchestra was reborn, performing to a sellout crowd with ambassadors and ministers in attendance. A few months ago, the streets of Tehran turned into an urban art gallery, with advertising billboards replaced with replicas of famous paintings. Oh, and speaking of artwork: The City’s Museum of Contemporary Art is said to have one of the best collections of modern art outside of Europe, with works by Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol.
9. The Food Scene is Traditional — and Delicious
You won’t find any Michelin-starred restaurants or world-acclaimed chefs in Iran, but many kebab recipes are thousands of years old, and homemade specialties like ghormeh sabzi (a green vegetable stew with kidney beans and chunks of meat) and Āsh (a noodle soup with herbs, beans, and spinach) can’t be found anywhere else in the Middle East. (But if you’re desperate for Western fare, there’s always what the locals call “MashDonalds.”)
Have you visited Iran — or do you plan to visit in the near future? We’d love to hear about your plans in the comments below.
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