The main purpose of this post is to offer an outline of our practical experiences from our recent trip to Iran (we've returned home two weeks ago) and to update some information in order to help other travelers plan their trip.
Thursday, Arrival at Imam Khomeini airport at 2:00 aboard Turkish Airlines flight TK874 from Istanbul. Transfer to Mehrabad airport. Flight Tehran – Shiraz. Overnight in Shiraz
Friday, Morning: Excursion to Persepolis and Naqsh-e Rostah. Afternoon: Shiraz. Overnight in Shiraz
Saturday, Morning: Shiraz. Afternoon: bus to Yazd (450 km, 5-7 hours). Overnight in Yazd
Sunday, Yazd. Overnight in Yazd
Monday, Morning: Temple of Fire. Afternoon / Evening: bus to Esfahan (300 km, 4-5 hours). Overnight in Esfahan
Tuesday, Esfahan. Overnight in Esfahan
Wednesday, Esfahan. Overnight in Esfahan
Thursday, Morning: Esfahan. Afternoon/Evening: bus to Kashan (220 km, 3-4 hours). Overnight in Kashan
Friday, Kashan. Overnight in Kashan
Saturday, Morning bus to Tehran (240 km, 3-4 hours). Tehran. Overnight in Tehran
Sunday, Tehran. Overnight in Tehran
Monday, Tehran. Overnight in Tehran
Tuesday, Tehran. Overnight in Tehran
Wednesday, Tehran. Late Transfer (around midnight) to Imam Khomeini Airport
Thursday, Leaving Tehran for Istanbul at 4:00 aboard Turkish Airlines flight TK875.
We've applied directly at Iranian embassy without asking any help from the agency. The answer came after 3 weeks and the visa was for a 30 day stay (valid during a 3 months period from the day of issue – not from the date indicated on the visa form).
We've submitted our intended itinerary to five different Iranian travel agencies (all of which have received positive reviews either in LP or on Thorn Tree); two of them have never responded.
Among those who did, www.uppersia.com has given us the best offer (13 nights in double bed rooms with breakfast, excursion to Persepolis, two plane tickets Tehran – Shiraz, transfer Imam Khomeini Airport – Mehrabad Airport, bus tickets for two Shiraz – Yazd, Yazd – Esfahan, Esfahan – Kashan and Kashan – Tehran, commission for bus ticket delivery to the hotels in which we were staying and agency commission: 1323 USD). They've offered us free lift from Shiraz airport to the hotel, too. They've also accepted payment upon arrival in Shiraz, so no money transfer in advance was involved.
We stayed at Niayesh hotel ( www.niayeshhotels.com ). This is one of so-called traditional hotels, located in restored old houses and the location is OK (roughly near Armenian Church – No.18 C4 on Shiraz plan in LP), so most monuments can be visited on foot. However, our room (no.7 – Daniel, each room has a name, too) was very clean, but the drawback was that it was on the first floor, so we had to climb narrow and very steep steps to reach it - difficult task if you have to carry the bag, too; the beds were very hard and the space between them was not more than 40 cm.
Masjed-e Vakil was closed during the opening hours listed in LP; on the contrary, the nearby Hammam-e Vakil was open as a modest carpet museum.
Bagh-e Eram garden was closed when we tried to visit (it was a Friday) for unknown reasons (all informations were in Farsi and nobody around to ask).
When visiting Aramgah-e Shah-e Cheragh it pays to find local guides (very helpful, speak good English and are free!), as they can facilitate your access to the interior of the shrines (if you look at least a little bit like a local!), direct you to the museum (now open, but lacks decent English explanations) and to Masjed-e Jameh-ye Atigh.
Naqsh-e Rostam and Persepolis
In our opinion group tour organized by Pars Tourist Agency hasn't been a good value: while having enough time to admire reliefs at Naqsh-e Rostam, at Persepolis we had only two hours and a half (barely enough time to see the main part of the site, but not to climb to the tombs above). Museum was closed (Friday?). In order to do the justice to the site, one should dedicate at least four (or even five) hours to the visit. Also, forget about following walking tour suggested in LP, as many paths are closed to the public; however, this doesn't mean one cannot access all principal buildings – you just have to find alternative paths. Naqsh-e Rajab wasn't included in the tour.
If you can, try to visit Naqsh-e Rostam first – the reliefs are facing east and so they are well lit in the morning.
Only worth a quick stop on the way from Shiraz to Yazd. The most impressive monument is the Tomb of Cyrus.
We stayed at Silk Road hotel ( www.silkroadhotel.ir ): very clean and professionally run (the only hotel in Iran where they haven't insisted to keep our passports at the reception desk until check-out), free internet, large rooms, but hard beds.
When it comes to the walking tour suggested in LP (highly recommended!), it's better to start in the morning from Jameh mosque and to leave the monuments around Amir Chakhmaq Complex for the afternoon – the light is much better then. Now it's possible to climb Amir Chakhmaq Complex to admire the view. Also, don't miss Water Museum.
Alexander's Prison and Khan-e Lari aren't worth the entrance tickets and your time; if you are interested in seeing the interior of an old Yazd house, it's a much better idea to visit Heidarzadeh Coin Museum.
It's a good idea to finish the tour with the visit to Saheb A Zaman Club Zurkhaneh – please note that the evening workout starts at 8 pm and not at 8:30 pm as stated in LP and lasts for about an hour and a half.
We've liked Esfahan more than any other city in Iran; so, try to dedicate as much time as you can to its monuments (please note that most of them and museums are closed between 1 / 1:30 pm and 3 / 3:30 pm).
We've stayed at Esfahan Traditional Hotel (www.isfahanhotel.com ): good location (most monuments can be reached on foot), very clean and spacious rooms, soft beds, helpful staff at reception desk.
We've eaten at Shahrzad restaurant: nothing to write home about, overpriced for the quality and quantity of food they offer (260.000 IRR for a lamb kebab, a fesanjun ???, two portions of rice, two salads and a bottle of water).
We've been told Hakim Mosque is open in the afternoon (after 3 pm) only, but one morning I've managed to enter it via eastern entrance.
As Khan-e Ehsan Hotel was fully booked, we've stayed at Sayyah Hotel (www.sayyahhotel.com – doesn't open); even if the location is OK and the rooms are reasonably clean, do yourself a favour and try to avoid it at all costs as the overall atmosphere is depressive, breakfast is minimalistic and the guy at the reception desk (daylight shift) was very rude (the other one that worked the night shift was very polite and helpful).
Khan-e Ameriha still doesn't operate as a hotel.
If you need a knowledgable guide who speaks a good English, try to contact firstname.lastname@example.org
For dinner, check Khatoon restaurant (recommended by the locals); to reach it, walk north along 22 Bahman Street and it's located on the right side, about 500 m after 15 Khordad Square. It's clean and reasonably priced (two soups, two lamb kebabs with rice, two salads for).
Don't rely on information that appear on central display in the waiting hall and don't be lazy to check the displays at each gate (there are only about 6 of them that are operational, so it's just a short walk of about 50 m at the most). In the case of our Tehran – Shiraz flight, the boarding was almost over, while on the central display it hasn't been even mentioned that it had started!
Imam Khomeini Airport
There are separate entrances for men and women.
If you prefer to protect your luggage by wrapping it in transparent plastic sheets, you can do it in a corner at the extreme right side of the check-in hall.
Bank counters are open even at small hours. On leaving Iran, it is possible to change unused IRR back into EUR or USD – in check-in hall, this operation can be done at the counter at the left side only (as seen from the entrance of the building). Neither passport nor receipt from previous exchange operations has been asked for. There is another change counter after the passport control booths, too.
Southern Coach Terminal (Terminal-e Jonub)
Entrance to Terminal-e Jonub metro station on Line 1 (red) is located opposite coach platform No.12. There is a long subterran corridor between this entrance and the actual metro station. The metro tickets are sold at three counters, but those for several days are available at the central one only.
Very efficient and well maintained, we have used it a lot. We don't know if these tickets are valid on buses, too (Tehran metro site isn't clear about this issue) – anyhow, we have never been asked to buy separate tickets upon boarding buses.
Exits in various directions are clearly indicated at all metro stations even in English; usually, there is also a plan of the local area, but in most cases street names on it are written only in Farsi.
Line 1(red) has been extended northwards for three new stations after Mirdamad station, so now the last station is called Gheytarieh (useful when going towards Tajrish Square in order to visit Sa'd Abad Museum Complex and Niyavaran Palace Museum).
Line 4 (yellow) is partially operational now and runs roughly from west to east between Enqelab Square (useful when visiting Park-e Laleh, Museum of Contemporary Art and Carpet Museum), stopping at Ferdosi Square, Darvezah Dowlat (intersection with Line 1 – red) and continuing to Shohada Square.
Books about Iran, foreign languages books, CD of Iranian classical music: there are several decent shops on the left side of Karim Khan Zand Street when going from Haft-e Tir metro station (Line 1 – red) towards Sarkis Cathedral.
Electronics (in the case of mobile phones expect to pay 20-25 % less than in Europe!): Jomhuri-ye Eslami Avenue, specially between its intersection with Ferdosi Street and Valiasr Avenue (at the corner with Hafez Street there is a big shopping mall selling mobile phones only).
We stayed at Escan Hotel ( www.escanhotel.com ). It was rather expensive, but we were very satisfied; this is a recently built business people oriented 3 star hotel (we were told it would be a 4 star one, if only it had a swimming pool and a conference hall – we agree), located in a quiet street near Ferdosi Square (and Ferdosi metro station on Line 4 – yellow). Abundant breakfast, free Internet and even a piano player in the evening!
Tehran Bazaar: One may have a quick look on the way to or from the nearby Golestan Palace; for us the bazaar in Aleppo (Syria) remains the most authentic we've ever seen.
Golestan Palace: Worth the visit.
National Museum of Iran: Don't forget to check two halls on the first floor – in March and April 2010 there has been a selection of Iranian artefacts from various periods much better labelled and illuminated than those on the ground floor.
Museum of the Islamic Period: Closed for reconstruction.
National Jewels Museum: A must !
Glass & Ceramics Museum: Worth the visit both for the collections and the palace. Even if it should be opened till 6 pm, the guards have started to chase the visitors away around 5:40 pm.
Madresah Va Masjed-e Sepahsalar: We've seen it only from the outside. It's near Baharestan metro station (Line 2 – blue).
US Den of Espionage: Not really worth the visit; Greek church just across the street represents a more unusual sight for Tehran, at least.
Park-e Laleh: Nice place for a break on the way to or from the museums nearby.
Museum of Contemporary Art: When we visited, a exhibition of Iranian art was under way; we were told the works of Western artists will be on show again from May 2010. The bookshop has a decent selection of Iranian classical music CDs and, what is even more important, they are eager to play it for you in order to help you choose. We have tried both Turkish coffee and espresso at the café – both were far bellow any reasonable standard.
Carpet Museum: Not to miss! Only ground floor was open.
Sarkis Cathedral: Worth a quick look if you happen in the neighbourhood. Note the anti-US mural on the high side façade of the building just east of the church.
Sa'd Abad Museum Complex: To reach it, take the Line 1 – red metro northwards to the last station (Gheytarieh – 3 stops after Mirdamad station – it seems that all trains don't go all the way, so ask around), then walk uphill (it isn't too steep) for about 1 km until you reach Tajrish Square. Once there, ask for the directions – visitor's entrance to the complex (easily recognisable by the wall of reddish stone that encircles it) is from the northern side; there is another one on the southern side, guarded by the military, but you can't enter there.
Worth seeing are Museum of Fine Arts (immediately to the right after the ticket office), White Palace (straight ahead – Nation's Art Museum in the basement was closed), Green Palace (to reach it, you can walk or look for a silver van parked to the right of the main entrance steps of the White Palace – not the white one – that shuttles between White and Green Palace; it isn't free anymore: 5000 IRR/person one way) and, perhaps, Military Museum (if you have time). Take your time to admire the park, too. It seems the bookshop mentioned in the LP doesn't exist anymore.
Niyavaran Palace Museum: To reach it, follow the instructions for Sa'd Abad Museum Complex till Tajrish Square, then grab any car going eastwards as described in LP – it's too far to walk. The ride costed us only 6000 IRR (for both of us).
Don't miss Sahebqaranieh (a rushed tour guided by an old lady who barely speaks a few words of English), Niyavaran Palace and Ahmad Shahi Pavilion.
Azadi Tower: To reach it, take the metro Line 4 (yellow) westwards to the last stop Enqelab Square and than board any bus that goes westward along Azadi Avenue.
Not to miss! There is an underground passage to the tower, from which you can access a museum of ancient Iranian artefacts, too located under the tower (we've heard it's interesting, but we were told to return after 3 pm as it was closed, which certainly wasn't true, as there've been groups of school children entering it – we didn't have time to return in the afternoon).
Milad Tower: Visit requires a lot of careful planning. Although we've seen buses that stop nearby (and minibuses that go to a nearby hospital), we haven't been able to figure out where to catch them in order to reach the tower. So, a taxi remains the only option. Once you reach a control point, the guards will ask for your passport and check your data against a list of visitors. As we haven't been on the list (Internet site of the tower doesn't mention you have to apply in advance for an individual visit, only for a group one – maybe a mistake happened during translation of Farsi site text) and our passports have remained at the reception desk of the hotel, we couldn't proceed any further. It seemed the guards were ready to let us pass if only they could see our passports (we've tried with ID cards, but in vain). It seems the opening time of the viewing platform is not on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday from 3 pm to 7 pm as stated on Internet site www.miladskytower.com , but to 6 pm only. Later we've heard from the locals they had to apply up to two months in advance to gain access to the tower.
Thanks for sharing your experience. www.uppersia.com helps all the travellers to Iran.