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maxwell Dec 2nd, 2008 06:52 AM

Iran Trip Report: What I did over my Thanksgiving Vacation
The following is a recap of my 9 day trip to Iran over Thanksgiving. Since many people (including airport security when getting on my flight back to the US) seem to have the same questions, I’ll try to answer a few questions about logistics first:

Why Iran? Is it safe if you are an American? Ever since getting about two chapters into “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” I’ve wanted to go to Iran. Comments from other tourists who had travelled in Iran assured me that I’d be welcomed warmly as an American. I tried for almost two years to find a way to secure a visa without a guide and travel independently…I finally gave up on this, and convinced my parents to join me over Thanksgiving for what would turn out to be one of the most memorable trips we have ever had. If you are just a run of the mill tourist, yes, Iran is safe (we weren’t engaging in any political demonstrations while there or trying to infiltrate the nuclear facilities, so I can’t speak to that ;)). As I found in my travels in Syria, once people find out you are American, you will be especially well taken care of, as most people really do seem to make a distinction between the US government and the American people. Quite often, the first thing someone would say in response to finding out we were American was “We love Americans!” Although I find any anti-US propaganda disgusting, I never once felt that any of it was directed at me on an individual level. Also, everyone seemed to have at least one family member living in the US – someone told us this early on in our trip so we started doing our own informal poll, and sure enough, everyone seemed to be related to someone living in the US. My parents have travelled to many parts of the world independently over the past 20 years, and they said they have never felt so warmly received.


Currently, if you are an American tourist, you must have a guide in order to get a visa. The tour company will secure a visa reference number for you from the Iranian government, who will then notify the Iranian Interests Section of the Embassy of Pakistan in DC of your visa reference number. You then mail in your passport to get the actual visa just like with any other country that requires a visa in advance of travel. I had serious problems getting through to a live person in DC, and once I did, the number of “inshallahs” (“God Willing”) I got in response to my question as to whether they’d mail our passports back to us in time made me quite nervous, so I ended up using Passport Express at the recommendation of thit cho (thanks Michael!) and we all had our passports back within three weeks.


Tickets from the east coast generally hover around $1,000, and KLM and Air France each have flights into Tehran a few times a week. I booked our trip through Gashttours (, a company based in Shiraz, Iran that I found through welltravelledbrit’s recommendation here on Fodors. Cost was the driving factor in booking through them – they priced our private 9 day trip lower than the other operators I contacted. Overall I was satisfied – there were some hiccups in planning (lost emails; I had to straighten out our hotels with them several times), but the extra leg work was worth saving money to me, and we were very well taken care of on the ground. Most of our issues with the tour were the result of being a family of independent travelers and having a guide with a schedule, but more on this later.


Yes, if you are a woman you must cover your hair, and you are supposed to wear a mid-thigh length coat or long shirt. (Julia, I should have listened to you --) I picked up some inexpensive silk scarves in Istanbul a few months ago, and these drove me absolutely insane. They were constantly sliding off my head and I resorted to using hair clips to pin the thing to my head (thus removing all doubt I was a tourist, since no other woman had visible hair pins.) I bought a cotton scarf along the way and was much more comfortable. The weather was absolutely beautiful while we were there – clear, crisp days with lots of sun. That being said, I still became overheated in my coat and really regretted not bringing a long tunic top to wear while touring ruins. I did see a number of flagrant dress code violations (which will be making an appearance in my photos!), primarily from tourists from the Philippines and Japan. The guide said no one would say anything to them since they were tourists, but I wouldn’t have felt comfortable walking around without a coat or long shirt on.

Femi Dec 2nd, 2008 09:27 AM

Waiting for more...

cruisinred Dec 2nd, 2008 10:58 AM

Enjoying your report....

maxwell Dec 2nd, 2008 04:59 PM

Day 1
I have to admit, by the time this trip rolled around, I had lost much of my previous excitement about the trip – between being in the middle of moving and not wanting to spend any money any the moment, I left for the trip exhausted and unmotivated to travel. When I met up with my folks in Amsterdam though, and started talking to people on our flight (all of whom seemed to be returning home to visit family), I suddenly could not wait to get there. When the people sitting near us on the flight realized we were tourists, one immediately adopted us for the remainder of the flight and wanted to make sure we found our guide after landing, others wanted to give us phone numbers of people they knew in the different cities we’d be visiting, and several women near me wanted to make sure I knew about the dress code, and really wanted to know why we decided to vacation in Iran.

We landed around 2am, but didn’t clear immigration until around 4am. According to our guide, there were four other Americans on our flight that sailed through, but by the time our passports were handed off to various people and we were fingerprinted, it was about 4am, and we didn’t get to the hotel and checked in until about 5am.

We stayed at the Ferdossi Grand our first two nights in Tehran. This hotel is centrally located and is fine IF you get one of the recently renovated rooms – our last night we were put in rooms that hadn’t been renovated, and they were quite bad (more on that later). As soon as we checked into our rooms in Tehran, we immediately noticed that it was very, very warm in the rooms, even with the heat off. This would be a recurring theme of the trip – all of our hotel rooms ranged from warm to hot, even with the heat off. Amin, our guide in Tehran, later explained that since energy is “practically free” there, they are prone to over heating everything. (He said his highest heating bill during the winter for his house is about 10 dollars.)

Amin picked us up around noon the next day. Our first stop was at the Niavaran Palace in northern Tehran, which was one of the last Shah's palaces and has been converted in to a museum complex. It was interesting enough, but quite frankly I was a little out of it from lack of sleep so don’t remember much of note.

We next headed over to Jamshidieh Park, a peaceful spot at the base of the Kolakchal Mountain & and just sort of milled around people watching. Amin was very chill – sort of to the point where we felt like we were bothering him when we wanted to ask him questions. He was the polar opposite of the guide we’d have for the remainder of our trip after leaving Tehran, and little did we know we’d miss Amin’s somewhat indifferent demeanor later that week. We had them drive us by the former US Embassy (now known as the Den of Spies), and took a look at some of the lovely murals running along the wall. They wouldn’t let us take pictures, but the murals included sayings such as “We will make America face a severe defeat; I confidently say Islam shall prevail over the US; Today the US is regarded as the most hated government in the world; and The US is too weak to do anything.” It was really sort of weird sitting in the van reading these things – we’d received nothing but a very warm welcome from everyone we had met. There’s a bookstore in the “den” that I was dying to go into, but Amin said “everything is in Farsi, you can’t read it” and quickly dismissed this idea.

After our embassy drive by (they wouldn’t let us get out), I asked them to drop us off at a restaurant with good traditional food and we’d just walk back – at first Amin agreed, but then decided the driver would just wait for us. We had a good natured back and forth about how unnecessary this was, but finally my parents and I decided to just agree to this and then we’d hightail it back out on the streets after they dropped us off at the hotel.

By the time we headed back out it was dark, but after wandering around for just a short while, we stumbled across a very busy area that was packed with people out shopping and milling around. Finally, we were wandering the streets of Tehran on our own. I was able to try out some of the Farsi I had learned before I left (I promptly told an Iranian that he was American, but I think he got the point). We were still very jetlagged, so just sort of wandered around trying different snacks and window shopping– we had everything from freshly squeezed pomegranate juice (about 1.50), to pistachios (I ate my weight in pistachios on this trip), to little pastries (about 15 cents each), to some odd ice cream concoction with jello and nuts in it (huge bowl for about 1.50 – I didn’t even want any but there were so many people sitting around outside eating this ice cream, and then someone offered us seats, so it was a “when in Rome” sort of moment). The worst culinary decision on the night involved a bowl of what appeared to be fruit…it was a combination of a horribly sour and slightly pickled tasting fruit – we decided to improve this shockingly bad treat by dumping a bunch of sugar on it that was placed out as a topping. This might had helped had the sugar been sugar and not salt. We finally wandered back to the hotel around 9:30, and turned in to our very toasty rooms for some much needed sleep.

Day 2

We were supposed to go to the archeological museum this morning, but instead opted out and went back out on our own. We were trying to get down to the bazaar, and while standing on a corner looking at a map, met a college student who stopped to see if we needed directions. Saeed was delightful – he had previously worked as a guide, and spoke excellent English. He was on his way to work, but said his hours were flexible, so ended up spending the morning with us. He was eager to talk about our recent election, and was fond of quoting MLK’s “I have a dream” speech. I tried to talk to him about snowboarding in the mountains nearby and other things he might do for fun, but he said he could do those things later – maybe when he was in his 40s – but now was the time, he said, for him to study and be serious. Saeed showed us all around the bazaar, and explained the different areas and products being sold.

He introduced us to his uncle, who invited us for tea. His uncle had lots of pictures of American movie stars up on his shop’s wall (Brando and De Niro among others) and had long hair and was, as Saeed pointed out, a very hip dresser. The uncle invited us to stay for lunch, but reluctantly we moved on, as we needed to get back and pack for our flight that afternoon. We stopped by Saeed’s office where he showed us a Yanni video he loved, he wrote down his contact information and we made tentative plans to meet back up with him and his mother when we returned to Tehran.

We said goodbye to him just a few blocks from our hotel, and started off to cross a busy intersection. Now, for anyone that has been to Cairo, the streets of Tehran are not Cairo level scary, but it is still quite frightening to just wander out into the street and hope for the best. Saeed took one look at us trying to cross (our strategy involved one of us slowly stepping out while yelling at the other two to “hurry it up!”, then running back to our starting point on sidewalk), and came running after us, yelling “wait wait!!” He immediately instructed us to fall into a straight line like soldiers, stay together, and he’d get us across the street.

After Amin picked us up that afternoon, we made an hour long stop at the National Jewelry Museum (which, as the name suggests, houses the national jewels), walked around the Freedom monument, did one last drive-by the den of spies, and then headed to the airport for our flight to Shiraz.

When we landed in Shiraz, we met the guide and driver who would be with us for the next week. Both had served under the Shah before the revolution, and I’m sure had many stories to be told. I never worked up the nerve to ask specifics though. Abbas, our guide, thought I was currently working in Dubai and didn’t realize that all of us were from the states. He made the comment that, oh, it made sense that I wasn’t working in Dubai since I still smelled good (in other words, did not smell Arab). This would become a recurring theme – Iranians are Persian and are not Arab. I guess I had never thought much about the distinction between Iranians and the Arab world, but I can assure you I will never confuse the two again after this trip.
To say our guide, Abbas, was knowledgeable about the history of all of Persia is an understatement. The man was a walking encyclopedia – on the rare occasion he didn’t know something, he’d immediately say so, and then find the answer. Abbas was great – his love of world history and culture was infectious…but it was also a little overwhelming at times. The man was determined to show us 3,000 years of history in one week whether we liked it or not. Our driver, Mansoor, was a very, very sweet and kind soul, who watched over us like a mother hen. He also spoke excellent English, and was also full of information.

We stayed at the Pars International Hotel in Shiraz, which was fine. The lobby was big and modern, but the rooms were probably on the three star level at home (which was fine). They were very clean and most importantly, the room wasn’t unbearably hot. (still warm, but manageable). My dad and I headed up to the hotel restaurant for a late dinner after we checked in ($6 for a wide selection of soup and salad items – I’d been munching on pistachios all day and was hungry for some real food). We ended up meeting a few guys my age from Shiraz at dinner – one heard me trying to figure out what was vegetarian and stepped in to ask the waiter for me. After chatting with them awhile after dinner (one was in town visiting family, lives in the States and has dual citizenship), I decided to go tool around town with them for awhile. (I’m not quite sure what the conversation was between my mom and dad when he got back to the room, but he was later instructed not to let me go wandering off with strangers the next time the two of us headed out alone.) The guys were a lot of fun, and I made plans to get in touch with them the following night.

maxwell Dec 2nd, 2008 06:14 PM

Day Three

Shiraz is known as the heart of the Persian culture. It’s a very vibrant city, and we all regretted not ditching our plans on Day Four (although this would have surely given our fearless leaders, Abbas and Monsoor, a heart attack), to have an extra day to wander around Shiraz, but I digress.

We worked our way through the major sites in Shiraz: In the morning we saw Arg-e Karim Khani, the citadel which also served as a prison (interesting) and Nasir-ol Molk mosque (beautiful) and Bagh-e Eram (Garden of Paradise), which would be most interesting for botanists and would be especially nice if everything is in bloom. We originally had the Khan Theological School on our itinerary, but the guide said that they no longer let westerners in for visits. Today I was introduced to the custom of taroof, a verbal dance of offering and refusing things until the offer is made three times. It became a running joke between all of us, and I never knew if someone was really expecting me to follow this custom, or whether we could accept their offer. I got a kick out of watching the taroof song and dance between men entering a building (“you go first, no you, no really, you go first…”)

While we were back at the hotel for an afternoon break, my friend from the night before called. His family home was right near the hotel, and once they heard that Americans were in town, invited us all over later that night. I knew my parents would love the idea of heading over to someone’s home, and, since my new friend was very easy on the eyes, I immediately dispensed with taroof and accepted right away. After I hung up, I realized, somewhat horrified, I was likely going to be seen, sans headscarf with my headscarf hair (The extent of styling products I had packed consisted of a hairbrush and a ponytail holder), and I’d have to wear my chuck taylors and jeans over to his home.

When Abbas and Monsoor picked us up for the afternoon, we hit the rest of Shiraz’s major sites. The shrine for the nephew of the seventh Shiite Imam was fascinating –the mirror work reminded me of the Iranian shrine I visited in Damascus – my mother and I sat on the women’s side in chadors for awhile taking pictures with no problem. I felt a bit intrusive at first, but Abbas assured us it was fine, and no one seemed to mind. We spent some time wandering through the bazaar, bought a few inexpensive gifts for friends back home, and made a stop at Hafez’s tomb. Two of Iran’s great poets, Hafez and Saadi are both buried in Shiraz. I regret not going to both tombs, and I’m sorry we didn’t go during the day – Hafez’s tomb was a very peaceful place, with lots of people (even after dark), milling around and reading poetry. We also talked to a number of local folks here, who all wanted to make sure we were enjoying Iran. Our final stop of the night was the Koran Gate. An old tradition says that travelers should pass under the Koran before a journey, and it’s quite beautiful lit up at night. You can also climb up the hill by the gate (Which I had done the night before with my friends.)

After a quick stop to get flowers for our host, we said goodbye to Abbas and Monsoor for the night.
Our night with our new friends was the best night of our trip. I could write for hours about this night, but it doesn’t seem quite right, since they welcomed us into their home like they had known us for years. We were greeted with warm hugs, and spent a wonderful night eating great food and talking politics and religion in their lovely home, and really just had a fantastic time. After one of the guys played the piano, my dad sang Amazing Grace while my mom accompanied him. I was sorry when the night was over, but I made plans to go out with the guys again the following night. When we left, my dad turned to me and said “tonight alone made the entire trip worthwhile.”

thit_cho Dec 3rd, 2008 10:17 AM

Linda, this is a great report (and hopefully will be accompanied by your high standard photos). I have a lot of friends that have also visited Iran, and, without exception, they have likewise had wonderful experiences.

Do you think there's any way to take photos at the former US embassy?

thit_cho Dec 3rd, 2008 12:59 PM

I had also meant to add that I only went as far as Andorra over Thanksgiving. I am seriously considering a trip to Iran for May 2010 and I'm sure I'll have a lot of questions (or maybe December 2009 if I can't use miles to get to Sri Lanka).

Femi Dec 3rd, 2008 01:22 PM

Loving your report (as usual).

maxwell Dec 4th, 2008 03:16 AM

Glad y'all are enjoying it...

Michael, I know that some reporters have taken pictures there, since I saw some online. However, the guide assured me there was an excellent chance they'd take my camera (I felt sure I could have ducked down in the seat and snapped some out the window) but my father said he did see a few people patrolling around there.

Is your Jordan/Lebanon/Syria trip still in the works?

As for pictures, unfortunately I used a new compact camera - I'm really, really disappointed in the quality of the pictures. However, I took lots of street scenes and people, so you'll still be able to get an idea.

Femi, I am glad you are back on track on your report ;) - can't wait to see your pictures!

thit_cho Dec 4th, 2008 06:27 AM

<<Is your Jordan/Lebanon/Syria trip still in the works?>>

Yes, its ticketed for next May -- I was able to use Delta SkyMiles and am flying on the direct, non-stop flight from JFK to Amman, and then back on Air France from Beirut with a connection at CDG.

But, I need to get going on some hotel arrangements for my trip to Micronesia and the Philippines -- I leave in two weeks (on 12/19 for my lengthy flight to Guam).

telechick Dec 4th, 2008 10:45 AM


Leely2 Dec 4th, 2008 09:06 PM

Hi maxwell, I'm really enjoying your Iran adventures. And I'm looking forward to your photos!

maxwell Dec 5th, 2008 04:31 AM

I think I can get pictures up later today...
Michael you must bounce back quickly from jet lag - I am still tired.

back to the report:

Day Four:

I have become the world’s laziest person when it comes to planning trips - because I have little to no down time in my daily life at home, I absolutely hate being scheduled on vacation, and have been known to show up in countries without having looked at a guidebook or any sort of plan as to what I want to do. Thus, when I “planned” this trip, I really didn’t bother to carefully review everything they had planned for us – I neglected to consider that we might end up with a guide that didn’t understand the value of down time. Hence, the unfortunate excursion to Bishapur from Shiraz.

Now, if you are (a) really into ruins, (b) really want to see as much as possible while you are travelling, including driving several hours to see said ruins, or (c) enjoy being on the go nonstop while on vacation, then by all means, Bishapur is a great side trip for you.

Bishapur is about 125km west of Shiraz, and was founded in 266 by Shapur I. The site contains six impressive rock reliefs depicting the Persian’s victory over the Romans, and you can also see the ruins of the ancient city. We took the scenic route to get to Bishapur – It seemed like about three hours, but in reality I think we were there in about two. I was tired. We were all tired. It was very warm, my scarf was driving me mad, and I was getting very overheated in my coat, and considering the entire trip took about 6 hours (which was a six hour non-stop history lesson), this was just a little much for me. I don’t need my ruins to be Petra level big in order for me to appreciate them, but this little jaunt just contributed to the exhaustion factor we all felt by the end of the trip, as it was a perfect example of how there was absolutely no down time built into the trip. If I had to do it over again, I would, without hesitation, skip the long ride to Bishapur and spend a leisurely day wandering around Shiraz. When we left the ruins and realized we were getting ready to drive even further away from Shiraz to get a late lunch, we quickly told them no, please drive TOWARDS Shiraz and we can get a quick bite en route. By the time we got back to the hotel that night (there were several additional stops once back in town), we had had about a nine hour day of driving and history class. (And quite frankly, the only reason we were back by 6pm was because I had plans and said they had to drop me off at the hotel by then.) This was the beginning of our struggle to gain some control over our schedule – our guide and driver were determined to make sure we saw as much as possible, and learned as much as possible, even if their passengers were going slightly mad in the process.

I headed out that night with my friends in Shiraz, who were nice enough to let me tag along on their weekly guys night out. They didn’t bother to tell the rest of the group they were bringing not just an American, but an American girl along, so the reaction to me showing up was rather comical. (At one point they called a friend that wasn’t going to be able to make it to tell him there was an American in the house – he didn’t believe them, so they put me on the phone as proof and he ended up making an appearance later.) Many in the group had known each other since childhood, and it was just like any gathering I’d have with my friends at home – people talking about their jobs, their significant others, trips they have planned, etc etc…the only difference was that people were speaking Farsi, and they put out a much better spread of food than any of my guy friends have at their gatherings. They could not have been nicer and made me feel very welcome. Quite frankly, I have trouble imagining me showing up with a random Iranian tourist at my weekly girl’s night out and him being treated as well. Now, not that I am admitting anything, but if one is going to be touring lots of ruins the next day, and is prone to overheating, especially when dressed in a headscarf and coat that is too heavy, that person might want to reconsider what an appropriate time is for last call the night before. Regardless, I was determined to squeeze every last moment of fun out of Shiraz, and after a very entertaining and fun night, with much sadness I said goodbye to the guys in Shiraz.

maxwell Dec 5th, 2008 05:30 AM

Day Five:

My dad appeared at my door around 7 am, like an angel sent from above, with two cups of coffee on a tray for me. We had a long drive to Yadz today, and had numerous stops planned along the way. First up, Persepolis. Time wise, I wish we had used Shiraz as a base for Persepolis (it’s quite close), and then flown to Yadz.

Persepolis was clearly one of the highlights of the trip, although we all later agreed that it was the people we met along the way that were the highlight, and not the actual tourist sites. Darius the Great began construction on Persepolis in 518 BC, and his successors added to it over the next 150 years. Persepolis was only used during No Ruz (New Years) to pay homage to the king. Alexander the Great burned part of it to the ground, and excavations didn’t begin on Persepolis until the 1930s. We also stopped at Necropolis, the mausoleum of Achaemenian kings, and Pasargad, which includes various monuments, including the tomb of Cyrus the Great.

By the time we arrived in Yadz, it was about 7:30pm, so we’d been traveling for about 10.5 hours (including the various site seeing stops). We were desperate to get to the hotel and get out of the van, but something very peculiar happened – we started doing a preview of what we would be seeing the following day. We also started making stops at various traditional hotels, just to take a look. When I’m traveling somewhere where they don’t see many Americans, I go to great lengths to be overly nice, as obviously I’d like to them continue to like Americans. I tried nicely to explain that we really didn’t need to see any hotels, and we really just needed to get to ours and get some dinner, etc, but they insisted that we needed to just make a few more stops. We were now officially captive in this van driving around Yazd, looking at heaven knows what (at this point we weren’t even paying attention, as we were all trying to figure out how long this Yadz by night tour might continue). In addition, my dad has a cold, and is not feeling well. Finally, at one of the stops, my dad told Monsoor in no uncertain terms that he had better take us to the hotel immediately, as we’d been traveling at that point for over 12 hours and needed to eat and get some sleep. It was unfortunate that the exchange had to be so stern, however, they really left us no choice at that point. I know they were just trying to do what they thought a good host would do (leave no stone unturned), but considering the reason we booked a private tour was so that we could have some control over our schedule, my patience was wearing thin.

Over a very late dinner, I appointed myself family representative to talk to Abbas and Monsoor the next morning about our schedule. I didn’t get much sleep that night, as I was up plotting my surprise ambush on Iranian hospitality.

sandi Dec 5th, 2008 05:59 AM

This is great... more! more!

I know only Persians... lots of them (Iranian is never mentioned; for certain not Arab).

Can't wait for your tale on this factoid!

maxwell Dec 5th, 2008 07:33 AM

Sandi - I have to laugh - yes, my one Persian friend here is constantly correctly how people refer to her.

Here are photos - I tried to add captions to most of them so people know what they are looking at, but you have to scroll your mouse over the caption to read the entire thing:

thit_cho Dec 5th, 2008 08:31 AM

Linda, your photos are great. I'll take your word for it that some of the dishes are tastier than they appear.

What would I need to wear if I visited -- I assume long pants and long-sleeve shirt is OK.

maxwell Dec 5th, 2008 08:39 AM

Thanks! the brown concoction that looks disgusting was delicious. My dad even enjoyed the camel meat he had one night.

Actually, you don't even have to wear long sleeves - although the guide books say that men must do so, it's definitely not true. (We asked our guide about this and he proceeded to wear short sleeved polo shirts for the next few days to prove his point.) Although I still wouldn't want to be there in the heat of summer, since you don't have the clothing issues that ladies have, that opens up more possible travel months for you.

cw Dec 5th, 2008 11:07 AM

I have become addicted to your report. It's informative and quite entertaining.

I love your photos. (Now I know to tip the priest well, whether it's a tower "burial" or not!)

I love your food photos. I will take your word for the taste descriptions. I don't much like fish looking at me either.

I did love the photo of the students sketching where one young woman is clearly looking at her cell phone. It is such a land of contrasts. That's why your impressions are so interesting to read.


Femi Dec 5th, 2008 11:15 AM

LOL, nothing worse than being held hostage in a van with a host/ess who insists that you see EVERYTHING.

I'm sure they worry about one missing out, and they never seem fully convinced when I tell them I want out.

I guess that dessert has to be tried to be believed, it looks mouthwatering to me, although I have had more than one unpleasant surprise when dining out at Persian restaurants :)

Love your pics, especially the one about the squirrels, LOL.

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