As a seasoned traveller, I’m always trying to balance my travel experiences. When travelling to a new country I want to visit some of the main sites but I also want to get a chance to see behind the scenes and really discover what the place is all about. Non-touristy experiences in Iran are waiting for you.
Striking this balance is tricky. Especially in emerging travel destinations like Iran where the international tourism industry is in its infancy. So, how can you see all the good stuff but avoid a cookie-cutter tour where you don’t make it past the souvenir shops selling fridge magnets and postcards?
Here at 1stQuest, we’ve written a tonne about the best places to visit in Iran. Some good reads are:
In this post, I’ll give you some tips on how to experience Iran, while not feeling like a cheesy tourist the whole time!
Before we go on…
Most incoming tourists need to apply for a visa to enter Iran. You can apply for a visa on arrival but we recommend applying in advance. For as little at €35 1stQuest will apply for your Iran tourist visa and arrange travel insurance for you. Most visa applications get approved within 3 days! For more information visit 1stQuest.
Come with an open mind
Despite what you read in the media, the Iranian people (men and women alike) are spunky, educated, informed and opinionated. Any preconceived ideas that you might have about Iran will most likely be thrown out the window the minute you arrive.
Come with an open mind, objectively observe and decide for yourself what’s really going on in Iran. You’ll see it is crazy, but not for the reasons you read in the news!
Want to know more about Iranian culture, check out Iranian hospitality and culture explained.
Get out of the cities
This is a simple idea yet it is often forgotten. The disparity between Iranian cities and villages is huge. Iranian cities (such as Tehran, Mashhad, Isfahan and Shiraz) are sprawling concrete jungles where all occupants live in apartments and rarely experience nature. The villages are like stepping back in time to a place where life is simpler and people still have a connection with their surrounding environment.
If you’re visiting…
Consider a day trip to…
Located at the foothills of the Alborz Mountains to the north of Tehran you will find the small village of Darband. Accessible only by foot or donkey, take a walk through the village and to the mountain trail beyond, or chill at one of the traditional tea houses in the village.
One of Iran’s most photographed villages, Abyaneh is famous for its traditional mud brick houses and handicrafts. Located 1.5 hours outside of Kashan, consider a day trip to this quaint village. Book an Abyaneh day trip with 1stQuest.
Masuleh is a favourite destination for Iranian tourists. High in the mountains, surrounded by thick forests and running steams is the unique “stacked” village of Masuleh. Here one house’s roof serves as the neighbour’s balcony. Masuleh’s bazaar sells beautiful knitted clothing and medicinal plants found in the surrounding mountains.
Located 40 kilometres from Shiraz, the village of Ghalet has winding streets and traditional stone buildings. Just outside of the village are a gorgeous waterfall and decent hiking. A few years ago this village was referred to as Iran’s Amsterdam because tourists could easily find illegal substances in Ghalat’s coffee shops.
Home of the rock houses – the tiny village of Kandovan is unique and amazing. For hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years the locals have lived in small houses cut out of strange rock formations protruding from the side of the mountains. Hidden in the rocks, the locals were safe from invading forces and protected from the cold winters. See traditional agriculture in Kandovan where the locals graze sheep and cultivate walnuts.
Go on Couchsurfing
Undoubtedly meeting locals is the best way to keep it real when you’re travelling. In Iran, it can be hard to actually meet locals as many people who approach tourists are in fact tour guides wanting to make a buck.
Although the Couchsurfing website is blocked in Iran (along with Facebook, Twitter, etc.) many Iranians have profiles and are active members. I do not recommend using Couchsurfing to find a place to crash for the night but I do recommend it as a way to meet up with locals.
Go on, be brave – what have you go to lose?
Explore Tehran’s café scene
Most international tourists coming to Iran will fly in and out of Tehran. Although Iran’s capital often gets a bad wrap as being a busy, polluted metropolis (this is true), Tehran is also Iran’s most edgy and progressive city.
Instead of visiting yet another mosque or museum, why not spend the afternoon in a hip café in Tehran. Cafes are the best place to people watch. Over the course of your single origin latte and New York cheesecake feel the media stereotypes of jihadist Iranian’s disappear.
Try these spots:
- UpArtMann Café, Haft e Tir
- Type Café, IranShahr
- Lamiz, Vanak Square, Tajrish or Vali Asr Square
- The Cinema Café, Bagh Ferdos
- Sam Cafe, Sam Centre, Fereshteh
Reach out before you arrive
Thanks to social media, connecting with strangers is really easy. As well as Couchsurfing, try connecting with locals on other social media platforms. Many Iranian’s will post on social media in English as well as Farsi, so finding out what’s happening is easy as pie.
What are you in to? Art? Rock climbing? Teaching English? Parkour? Shakespeare? Go online and find out what’s happening within your scene in Iran.
Iranian’s are super friendly and very willing to collaborate. Consider a pottery course, an artist’s residency or hosting a discussion while you’re in Iran. The level of culture will surprise you.
The See you in Iran Facebook page is a good place to start looking.
Stay at an Ecolodge
Ecolodges are an increasingly popular choice for ecologically minded travelers and those who are seeking a genuine cultural experience. If you want to stay on a farm or spend the night in a traditional desert lodging an ecolodge stay might be just for you! What about riding a camel through the desert or weaving a basket out of reeds from the Caspian Sea? Yes – okay, you can do these things at some of Iran’s best ecolodges.
Iranian ecolodges are like ecolodges everywhere, a hotel or guesthouse that follows the philosophy and principles of ecotourism. Check out this post on Iran’s best ecolodges 2019 for all my ecolodge recommendations.
Allow a few unplanned days
Consistently travellers to Iran tell me that they wish they had left some flexibility in their schedule. While booking hotels and transportation in advance makes your travel stress free, consider leaving a few days at the end of your trip open. You never know who you might meet, what you might hear about or where you might want to revisit.
Booking online before you arrive or while you’re in Iran is easy with 1stQuest.