I just came from Iran. Here are some tips about accommodation, transportation, security, and traveling as a solo woman, and more. It is a long post but I hope it is helpful.
Tehran: I stayed at the Ferdossi Grand Hotel (US$88). It included breakfast and had a great location, but I found the place overpriced for what it was. The hot water didn’t run for long, the bed was hard, and the room looked as though it hadn’t been used for a couple of years. I picked it because I stayed there for one night and didn’t want to be stuck in traffic. I would stay somewhere else.
Isfahan: I originally planned to stay at the Hotel Melal, but it was full. So I went to another hotel by chance, called “Tourist Hotel,” which turned out to be probably better and cheaper. It cost US$25 per night and included breakfast. The location was awesome—within walking distance from all the important sights. It had Internet access. The room was spacious, the bed was comfortable, and it had hot water. The people at the reception desk spoke English fluently and were very helpful. Address: Abbas Abad St. Chaharbagh-Abbasi Ave. Phone: +983112204437. Web site: www.esfahantouristhotel.com. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Yazd: I stayed at the Silk Road Hotel. It cost US$25 per night and included breakfast. The single room was tiny, and the bed hard. But the hotel was nice, with a restaurant in the courtyard, and the location was great, one minute from Jameh Mosque. The Internet is free—you need to walk though to a “sister hotel” around the corner—and the hotel offers day trips to the desert and ancient cities. Address: 5 Taleh Khakestary Alley, off Masjed-e Jameh Ave. Phone: 0351 625 2730. E-mail: email@example.com. Web: www.silkroadhotel.ir. By chance, I ran into the Fahadan Hotel Museum, a beautiful old traditional house turned into a hotel, but it was very beautiful but more expensive ($US60 per night). It also has a great location, just across from the Alexander Prison. Phone: +98-351-6300600. Web site: www.mehrchainhotels.com. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Shiraz: www.uppersia.com that sponsored my visa recommended the Eram Hotel (US$50 per night, breakfast included). Although the hotel was a bit high for my budget, it was quite good, with a comfortable room and a great location. It has a coffee shop that is really good for a light bite, and has surprisingly great hot chocolate. It has three computers for Internet access, but they are slow. The people at the reception were very helpful. I am sure there are cheaper options, but I liked this hotel so I recommend it. Address: Zand Ave. Phone: 98711-2300814. E-mail: email@example.com. Web site: www.eramhotel.com.
TRAVEL AGENCY: I had a great experience with the www.uppersia.com. It is based in Shiraz but can arrange anything you may need across Iran. I used the agency for my visa, a flight from Shiraz to Tehran, and a day tour in Shiraz, and I was very happy with their services. The staff was super helpful prior to and during my trip to Iran, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. and check their cheapest Iran tours at http://www.uppersia.com/Iran-tours. Due to the situation in Iran, I bombarded her with questions and she was always quick to answer and give me valuable advice to help me plan my own itinerary. I strongly recommend this agency. If you plan to go to Persepolis and want to go into the history in depth, try to arrange through them a day trip with guide Reza Poorhoseini; he was very knowledgeable and made my visit to Persepolis an entertaining yet educational experience.
VISA: I am a Venezuelan living in the United States. After receiving the visa number from the agency, I sent my documents to the Interests Section of Iran in Washington D.C. It took exactly one week to get my passport stamped; this short time may have had to do with the close relations between the Iranian and Venezuelan governments. There are no restrictions for Americans to travel to Iran, but the visa process may take a couple of weeks for a U.S. citizen. Prior my trip, many American friends said they would be afraid of traveling to Iran because they were US citizens. If you are one of those, I can assure you that locals are very welcoming to Americans and all foreigners in general. The mean murals have nothing to do with the sentiment of the regular iranian, at least from my experience.
WORKING HOURS: In Tehran you may not notice it, but outside Tehran, you will see a lot of places closed in the middle of the day for siestas. This can be confusing and frustrating at times, so make sure to take this into consideration for your travel and sightseeing plans. Working hours usually go from 8:30 in the morning till 12:30 in the afternoon, then close for siesta and open again at 16:00 o’clock till 19:30. Remember that there is no work on Friday.
MONEY: Due to the economic embargo, you cannot use credit cards or ATMs—and if you do, you risk having your account frozen. So cash is the way to go. Although Iran is cheap, bring plenty of cash, and be aware that in Iran people use two currencies. The official currency is the Iranian rial, but in every day life the toman is also well known as currency. Ten rials equal one toman; a 10,000 rial banknote equals 1,000 toman. Watch out for this, otherwise you may—as I did on the two first days—be giving out more money than what you are supposed to!
INTERNET: This was a bit frustrating. There are “coffee nets”—as Internet cafes are known in Iran—almost everywhere, so it is not hard to get online. The problem is the filtering of Internet use. YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter are banned (not a surprise), but I didn’t expect that Yahoo, Hotmail, and Gmail could, at times, be blocked as well. Sometimes your e-mail can be working well, and a minute later it won’t work anymore. I noticed that in the big cities (such Shiraz and Tehran) the control was tighter than in the smaller cities or towns.
TRAVELING AS A SOLO WOMAN: I have been traveling solo for 12 years and to dozens of places, and I have to say I felt Iran was one of the safest places I have visited as a woman traveling solo. The locals were very nice and courteous with me. I was followed by “fans” on two separate occasions, but it wasn’t anything scary. Some young men may throw the “I like you!” line and walk beside you to see if you pay attention to them. If you ignore them, they will give up and leave you alone—not a big deal or a threat.
Also, I was worried about how to dress; I brought loose clothes, long pants, jackets that reached my knees, and scarves. There is no one on the streets reinforcing the use of the hijab, and some Iranian women—especially the young—have a less strict interpretation of the Islamic dress code, so it is not as tight as some may think. I still recommend dressing modestly and seeing what local women do in terms of dressing and behavior. I went in winter and I brought heavy jackets. If you are traveling in winter, and are also taking buses, bring a light jacket or a raincoat—otherwise, you will be suffering in a sauna on wheels. The buses have their heaters on, and even if you are suffocating you won’t be able to take off your scarf or jacket.
PHOTOS AND VIDEO: I was recommended not to take my cameras (especially video cameras) in Iran because of the protests going on. I brought my camera and video camera anyway and had no problems at all. I was able to record the sights and to even record myself talking on camera, and no one came to ask me anything or try to get my video camera—something that did happen to me twice with the police and military in Lhasa, by the way, and I wasn’t even recording any sensitive locations in Tibet! If you are not taking photos of government buildings, police, or soldiers, you should be OK—although I did ask some soldiers if I could take a picture of them and they were happy to pose. So don’t be afraid of taking your camera; just be respectful and discreet. Always ask.
OTHER RECOMMENDATIONS: Visit and stay in Persepolis until the sunset—it is jaw dropping! In Isfahan, do not miss the sunset at the Gheysarieh tea shop; it is located on the left side of the bazaar’s entrance. It has a beautiful view of the whole Iman Square at sunset. There are so many stunning Islamic buildings in Iran, and all places that I saw in Isfahan were breathtaking so spend as much time as you can in Isfahan. In Shiraz, I wouldn’t miss the Madraseh-ye Khan and the Nasir-ol-Molk mosques; they were both incredible. I found Abyaneh very quite, it looked like a ghost town- maybe because it was winter- so I would recommend a visit during summer or during a festival. Also in Shiraz, visit the Eram Palace or some of the parks on Friday for people watching. Bring some medicine for a sore throat, as pollution, especially in Tehran, can make you sick very quickly. You can buy medicine in Iran, but it’s better to be prepared.
SECURITY: Without any doubt, the country is undergoing political and social changes, but it is not a dangerous place to visit as some people may believe. If you stay away from the demonstrations, you will be OK. People were very welcoming and curious, especially the young people, who are very likely to approach you to ask questions. I strongly recommend visiting Iran; it is not only a beautiful country with a rich history and stunning architecture, it is definitely very different from what many of us in the West have in mind—or at least I had prior to my trip. I can guarantee that you, too, will go back home with a totally different image of the country and its people.