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|Introduction to Iran
Visitors will find it hard to reconcile their own experiences with the pronouncements that Iran is part of an 'axis of evil'. For culture seekers, Iran has magnificent ruins of ancient cities, glorious mosques and mausoleums, and museums so interesting they're bound to leave your feet sore.
The more adventurous can enjoy trekking, budget-priced skiing, or swooping off cliffs strapped to a hang-glider. For the traveller who doesn't mind covering up (preferably not in a stars and stripes poncho) and eschewing ale and heartfelt feminist discourse, Iran has a vast amount to offer.
Iran is considered safe and secure for travellers, though travellers are warned to avoid political demonstrations and gatherings wherever possible.
Visitors wishing to travel to Bam and Kerman are advised to travel with tour groups organised by travel agencies approved by the Iranian government. Potentially perilous areas in Iran include the western border with Iraq and the eastern borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Overland travel to Pakistan is not recommended.
Full country name: Islamic Republic of Iran
Area: 1.64 million sq km
Population: 68.27 million
Capital City: Tehran
People: Persian (Farsis), Azari, Arab, Lors, Turkmen, Kurdish, Armenian, Jewish
Language: Kurdish, Persian
Religion: 89% Shi'ite Muslim, 10% Sunni Muslim, 1%Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, Baha'i
Government: Islamic republic
GDP: US$340 billion
GDP per capita: US$5,000
Annual Growth: 4.2%
Major Industries: Oil, gas, agriculture, carpets, armaments
Major Trading Partners: Japan, Germany, France, Italy, United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates, Belgium
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Visas: Everyone needs a visa to visit Iran. Unless you're from Slovenia, Macedonia, Turkey or Japan, this is going to be a hassle. The regulations are baffling, the costs often high. The best advice is to apply for a visa before you leave home. However, once you're in you're in - getting an extension inside Iran is often easier than getting any sort of visa outside the country. Admission is refused to holders of passports containing a visa (valid or expired) for Israel.
Health risks: malaria (If you are travelling in endemic areas it is extremely important to avoid mosquito bites and to take tablets to prevent this disease. Symptoms range from fever, chills and sweating, headache, diarrhoea and abdominal pains to a vague feeling of ill-health. Seek medical help immediately if malaria is suspected. Without treatment malaria can rapidly become more serious and can be fatal. If medical care is not available, malaria tablets can be used for treatment. You should seek medical advice, before you travel, on the right medication and dosage for you. If you do contract malaria, be sure to be re-tested for malaria once you return home as you can harbour malaria parasites in your body even if you are symptom free. Travellers are advised to prevent mosquito bites at all times. The main messages are: wear light-coloured clothing; wear long trousers and long-sleeved shirts; use mosquito repellents containing the compound DEET on exposed areas (prolonged overuse of DEET may be harmful, especially to children, but its use is considered preferable to being bitten by disease-transmitting mosquitoes); avoid perfumes and aftershave; use a mosquito net impregnated with mosquito repellent (permethrin) – it may be worth taking your own, and impregnating clothes with permethrin effectively deters mosquitoes and other insects), cholera (This diarrhoeal disease can cause rapid dehydration and death. Cholera is caused by a bacteria, Vibrio cholerae. It’s transmitted from person to person by direct contact (often via healthy carriers of the disease) or via contaminated food and water. It can be spread by seafood, including crustaceans and shellfish, which get infected via sewage. Cholera exists where standards of environmental and personal hygiene are low. Every so often there are massive epidemics, usually due to contaminated water in conditions where there is a breakdown of the normal infrastructure. The time between becoming infected and symptoms appearing is usually short, between one and five days. The diarrhoea starts suddenly, and pours out of you. It’s characteristically described as ‘ricewater’ diarrhoea because it is watery and flecked with white mucus. Vomiting and muscle cramps are usual, but fever is rare. In its most serious form, it causes a massive outpouring of fluid (up to 20L a day). This is the worst case scenario – only about one in 10 sufferers get this severe form. It’s a self-limiting illness, meaning that if you don’t succumb to dehydration, it will end in about a week without any treatment. You should seek medical help urgently; in the meantime, start re-hydration therapy with oral re-hydration salts. You may need antibiotic treatment with tetracycline, but fluid replacement is the single most important treatment strategy in cholera. Prevention is by taking basic food and water precautions, avoiding seafood and having scrupulous personal hygiene. The currently available vaccine is not thought worthwhile as it provides only limited protection for a short time), schistosomiasis (bilharzia) (Bilharzia is carried in freshwater by tiny worms that enter through the skin and attach themselves to the intestines or bladder. The first symptom may be tingling and sometimes a light rash around the area where the worm entered. Weeks later, a high fever may develop. A general unwell feeling may be the first symptom, or there may be no symptoms. Once the disease is established, abdominal pain and blood in the urine are other signs. The infection often causes no symptoms until the disease is well established (several months to years after exposure), and damage to internal organs is irreversible. Avoid swimming or bathing in freshwater where bilharzia is present. Even deep water can be infected. If you do get wet, dry off quickly and dry your clothes as well. A blood test is the most reliable test, but it will not show positive until a number of weeks after exposure), altitude sickness (In the thinner atmosphere above 3000m (9842ft), or even lower in some cases, lack of oxygen causes many individuals to suffer headaches, nausea, shortness of breath, physical weakness and other symptoms that can lead to very serious consequences, especially if combined with heat exhaustion, sunburn or hypothermia. Acute mountain sickness (AMS) can affect anyone and care should be taken to avoid ascending mountain peaks above 3000m too quickly. Sleep at a lower altitude than the greatest height reached during the day, if possible), sunburn (In the desert or at high altitude you can get sunburned quickly and seriously, even through clouds. Use a strong sunscreen, hat and barrier cream for your nose and lips. Calamine lotion and aloe vera are good for mild sunburn. Protect your eyes with good-quality sunglasses, particularly if you will be near water, sand or snow)
Time Zone: GMT/UTC +3.5
Dialling Code: 98
Electricity: 230V ,50Hz
Weights & measures: Metric
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Just about everything that can close will close on a religious holiday, so it's important to know when they fall. Iran's religious holidays follow the Muslim lunar calendar, so the dates according to the Western calendar vary each year. Major events include Ramazan, the month of dawn to dusk fasting; Eid-é Fetr, the one day festival of feasting that marks the end of Ramazan; Ghadir-é Khom, which commemorates the day that the Prophet Mohammed appointed Emam Ali his successor; and the birthday of Mohammed.
National holidays follow the Persian solar calendar, but still usually fall on the same day each year according to the Western calendar. The big bangers include the lustily titled Magnificent Victory of the Islamic Revolution of Iran on 11 February, which is the anniversary of Khomeini's coming to power in 1979; the enthusiastically celebrated No Ruz or Iranian New Year (21 to 24 March); and the tear-jerking Heart-Rending Departure of the Great Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran on 4 June, which commemorates the death of Khomeini in 1989.
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|Best time to Visit
Generally the best times to visit Iran are mid-April to early June, and late September to early November - these times avoid the long, cold northern winter, the Iranian New Year (late March) and the summer, which can be unpleasantly hot in much of the country. And if the heat doesn't keep you away, take note that prices along the Caspian coast can quadruple during summer whereas great bargains can be found come wintertime. Many people prefer not to visit Iran during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, but apart from most restaurants closing between dawn and dusk, Ramadan is not that bad for travelling.
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|Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending
Currency: Iranian Rial
Iran is inexpensive by international standards. A bare minimum budget for cheap hotels, Iranian food and overland transport is US$15 per day. Unless you thrive on discomfort, however, you should double this to around US$25 per day. This will provide you with decent accommodation, better food, transport by first-class bus and shared taxi, and visits to all the important tourist attractions. One unfortunate part of travelling to Iran is the dual-pricing for foreigners. This affects international flights and ferries, where all tickets must be paid for in US dollars; tourist attractions, where foreigners pay up to 15 times as much to enter as Iranians do; and the more expensive hotels, which often charge in US dollars.
There are three ways to change money (preferably US dollars in cash): at the official, and unfavourable, exchange rate at a bank; at the favourable 'street rate' at a legal, though uncommon, money-exchange office; and on the black market, anywhere. Don't bother taking travellers cheques of any denomination or currency unless you absolutely must: you can only exchange them at the Bank Melli branches at the international airport in Tehran and in central Tehran. An increasing number of mid-range hotels (and all top-end places) accept Visa or MasterCard - but certainly not American Express. However, if your Visa or MasterCard has been issued in the US, it may be useless because of the US trade embargo. Bottom line: bring plenty of greenbacks.
In most cases, tipping is an optional reward for good service. Although there are many circumstances where a small tip is expected, you are unlikely to have a waiter hovering expectantly near your table after delivering the bill. On the other hand, it's worth remembering that helpful Iranians probably deserve some extra appreciation to supplement their meagre wages. As for bargaining, in the bazaar virtually all prices are negotiable; in shops, it's a complete waste of time. Fares in private taxis are always negotiable, but not in any other form of transport because these prices are set by the government. Hotel rates are open to negotiation except in top-end places.
It is also worth noting that prices in Iran are set to rise over the coming years as fuel prices increase from their ridiculously low levels.
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Iran is not blessed with one of the world's loveliest capitals. Pollution, traffic snarls, chronic overcrowding and a lack of responsible planning have all helped to make Tehran a metropolis that even the most effusive travel agent would have difficulty praising.
The major attraction for visitors to Tehran is the city's excellent museums, featuring everything from ancient stone carvings to Islamic paintings to jewels that have started wars. Its best non-museum sight is the haphazard bazaar, so big it's practically a separate city.
Previously a pleasant town with a striking inner citadel and a spectacular 2000-year history, the 6.3 magnitude earthquake that struck Bam in December 2003 decimated the few ancient structures that were still standing along with 70% of the residential area.
Up to 13,000 people once lived in this 6 sq km (2 sq mi) city until it was abandoned following an Afghan invasion in 1722. The city was abandoned again in about 1810 after bloodthirsty invaders from Shiraz popped in, and then was used as an army barracks until the 1930s.
The cool blue tiles of Esfahan's Islamic buildings, and the city's majestic bridges, contrast perfectly with the hot, dry Iranian countryside around it: Esfahan is a sight you won't forget. It's a city for walking, getting lost in the bazaar, dozing in beautiful gardens and meeting people.
Not only is the architecture superb and the climate pleasant, but there's a fairly relaxed atmosphere here, compared with many other Iranian towns. The famous half-rhyme Esfahan nesf-é jahan (Esfahan is half the world) was coined in the 16th century to express the city's grandeur.
Persepolis, the Throne of Jamshid, was a massive and magnificent palace complex built from about 512 BC and completed over the next 150 years. This magnificent site embodies the greatest successes of the ancient Achaemenid Empire, exemplified by the monumental staircases, exquisite reliefs, immense columns and imposing gateways.
Persepolis was burnt to the ground during Alexander the Great's time, in 331 BC, although historians are divided about whether it was accidental or in retaliation for the destruction of Athens by Xerxes. The ruins you see today, rediscovered in the early 1930s, are a mere shadow of Persepolis' former glory, but you can still get a great idea of its majesty if you carry a map and use a bit of imagination.
One of the first things you'll see is Xerxes' Gateway, covered with inscriptions and carvings in Elamite and other ancient languages. The gateway leads to the immense Apadana Palace complex, where the kings received visitors and celebrations were held. Plenty of gold and silver was discovered in the palace, but it was predictably looted by Alexander the Great, and what he left behind is in the National Museum in Tehran.
The largest hall in Persepolis was the Palace of 100 Columns, probably one of the biggest buildings constructed during the Achaemenian period, and once used as a reception hall for Darius I.
Shiraz was one of the most important cities in the medieval Islamic world and was the Iranian capital during the Zand dynasty (1747-79). Through its many artists and scholars, Shiraz has been synonymous with learning, nightingales, poetry, roses and, at one time, wine.
Today Shiraz is a relaxed, cultivated city, with wide tree-lined avenues and enough monuments, gardens and mosques to keep most visitors happy for several days. The university here is one of Iran's finest, and you'll come across lots of students eager to speak English.
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