As seasoned travellers, we were looking for somewhere a bit different to explore this year. Iran immediately sprang to mind as we had heard rave reviews from people who had already been there. ‘The most beautiful and friendly place we’ve ever been and such an interesting and unusual cultural experience.’ they said.
We decided to book the ‘Treasures of Iran’ tour from Explore Worldwide through Andara Travel. We booked with Andara again this year as they go the extra mile in terms of customer service and get the very best they can for you. They ensured all the preparation went smoothly, including checking out the somewhat unusual visa application process for Iran. At the time it felt quite daunting but actually it was quite an adventure in itself, especially the visit to the underground visa office in London, with its rather unusual queuing order.
We travelled to Tehran direct from Heathrow, and as we arrived our experience of Iranian culture began: on with the headscarves and full length skirts and trousers.
We were met at the airport and taxied to our first hotel, right in the heart of Tehran, where we met our tour guide, Mohsen, and the other 5 other members of our tour group, 4 Brits and 1 Aussie.
We spent a couple of days in Tehran at the beginning of our tour and another couple of days at the end as there are many places to visit in this huge capital. The most noticeable thing about Tehran is the huge amount of traffic and the crazy way in which people drive: no signals, no adherence to lanes and definitely no pedestrian crossings. With some initial trepidation, we learnt very quickly that the only way to cross a road is to walk slowly across and pray that the cars will stop, which I’m pleased to say, they did!
Another thing we learnt very quickly was that western tourists are quite a novelty and that people are keen to make conversation, practice their English and, to our surprise, it is hard to go anywhere without being asked to join a family group for a selfie or 2.
We visited some jaw droppingly beautiful palaces, mosques and even an Armenian cathedral in the main cities of our tour – Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz and Yazd, and saw some ancient historic sites such as Persepolis, which is on a par with some of the ancient Egyptian monuments.
Our guide was extremely knowledgeable, giving us all the information we could possibly need at each place we visited. He also talked to us about society, culture and politics, answering our questions in a factual and honest way, giving us some insight into what it is like to live in Iran.
The current advice is that British, Canadian and US tourists are expected to have a guide with them at all times in Iran. In fact we found that once we were there this was not the case and we were free to go out ‘unsupervised’. We were able to travel around freely and take photos, with the exception of the usual government buildings, and of course the couple of nuclear enrichment plants we passed on our journeys between stopovers. I did get told that I needed to go in the women only section on the metro when Neill and Stefan ran ahead of me to catch a train, but, quite frankly, that wasn’t a big deal. I also received a slightly disapproving comment from a guard outside the former US Embassy when I was taking some photos of the interesting anti US street art that has, according to locals, been there since 1979 when the Embassy was closed. Amazing to think that such sparkling paintwork has been there for nearly 40 years!
As far as currency is concerned, the recommendation is to take cash as you cannot use a UK bank account in Iran. My advice would be that high denomination notes are best (£50 notes if possible) as you will get the best exchange rate with these, however much money you change.
I have learnt so much about Iran and would thoroughly recommend you take a guided tour if you want to have an amazing experience in the most beautiful and friendly country and you are happy for a holiday with no alcohol or much of a suntan.