Tehran – capital of Iran (Persia) population 16 million in the greater metropolitan area.
I flew from Astana to Tehran via Almaty where I had to change planes. The flight arrived in Tehran at 1235, followed the signs to the visa counter where a guy pointed to another counter and said Insurance (Medical) first. Walked over to it and said I already had Medical Insurance and the guy at first said not valid in Iran, then he asked me to show him the Insurance Certificate and I did and he stamped it and said ok no need to buy Insurance. Back to the first counter and the guy asked if I had an invitation I said no only a hotel booking and he wrote E145 on a piece of paper and told me to take it to the bank counter next door, took it there and gave the teller 150 euro and he gave me 5 euro change. You need Euro not US dollars or you will get a poor exchange rate. Back to the visa counter handed in my passport and waited, after about 15 minutes my passport came back with the visa stuck in it, valid for a 30 day stay. There were half a dozen other people of different nationalities waiting to get their visa’s as well, including 2 young guys from the USA and no one had any trouble. Next immigration where the guy stamped my passport, no questions asked by anyone so far, then baggage claim which was deserted, my suitcase was waiting for me picked it up and straight through customs, which was deserted as well, hotel driver was waiting, into the taxi at 1335, toll freeway into the city, then chaotic traffic, arrived at the hotel at 1435, easy.
Visa on arrival was only recently introduced to Iran and I was a little apprehensive about the bureaucracy when I arrived but as you can see it turned out to be a non event. The visa guy did not even ask to see my hotel booking which I had printed in Astana. The only document you must have a print out of is your Travel/Medical Insurance Certificate or you will have to buy Insurance at the Airport.
Booking a hotel in Iran from outside the country cannot be done using Booking.com or any of the other online booking services though this might change as sanctions are lifted. I found a few hotels on TripAdvisor, emailed 3 of them and only received a reply from one “Hotel Markazi“, cost USD$50 per night including breakfast and USD$25 for the Airport transfer. You book directly with the hotel by email and get a confirmation, the manager is Fatima, she speaks English and is very helpful. Ask for a room with a western style toilet or you might get the squatting kind, this applies to all hotels in Iran.
You cannot withdraw money from an ATM or use your credit cards in Iran, you have to bring cash US dollars or Euro, US dollars preferred, ironic. It appears that the government only recognises the Euro (for payments like your visa). The bank rate is much lower than the rate you get from a money changer. There is a whole street of money changers, Ferdowsi Street and it’s quite legal. If you are visiting other cities in Iran, change your money here as this is where you get the best rate and shop around, the rates are advertised on boards outside. If you have left over local currency it can be changed back at the airport when you leave.
SIM cards are freely available and I got one for USD$8.40 valid for 30 days with 1.5GB of data, took about 30 min to become active and I had no problems with it during my stay in Iran. You will have to show your passport and fill out a form, since the hotel keeps your passport I had to email them a copy of the passport photo page that I have on my phone. I met a couple at the hotel who were befriended by a local who changed money for them at an inferior rate and also took money from them to get 2 SIM cards and was never seen again.
The first thing you do is download an App called Snapp it’s the Uber equivalent and works really well, the rates are declared up front, you pay cash and they are cheaper than anything you could ever negotiate with a taxi driver. The metro is clean, cheap, frequent and will get you to most places but it is very crowded, women travel in separate carriages. I noticed that the station platforms are quite short, only enough for a train seven cars long which means that they cannot have longer trains to ease the crowding.
The city is clean but the air pollution is so bad you cannot see the mountains that border the city to the north. Traffic is chaotic and the metro or walking is the fastest way to get around. Crossing the street requires nerves of steel, the easiest way is to walk beside a local.
Women have more freedom here than any other Muslim Middle East country except Lebanon which is half Christian, they have to wear a head scarf but that’s about it, they walk alone even at night and I saw young couples holding hands in the parks while regular Police drove past, apparently it is the Religious and Moral police that are feared. Music is banned and the only place I heard any was under one of the bridges in Isfahan where a guy was singing with a small audience, if caught he would have been fined. Men are usually clean shaven, beards are not common.
The internet is censored, a taxi driver showed me an App that gets around the censorship Hotspot Shield but I still could not upload pictures. This app causes problems with some websites and you have to turn it off and on as required. And though alcohol is also banned a taxi driver offered to get me some hahaha, no thank you. Finding a restaurant is a challenge, people do not eat out. You won’t see many tourists either and when you do they are usually on a tour bus. No annoying touts or beggars, people are polite and helpful and a few speak English. More often than not a younger person would offer their seat to me on the metro. The tap water is drinkable and that’s all I drank with no ill effects.
National Museum – regular tour bus stop and the Muslim Museum next door which was deserted, a guy followed me around the Muslim Museum trying to look like another tourist, which is a bit hard when there was no one else around hahaha.
Golestan Palace – This is built in a square around a large garden and there are separate tickets for each section. I bought a complete set and was charged 840,000 rial (23 euro), when I added them up later the total came to 780,000 and when you enter each section the ticket collector will try to take the whole ticket off you not just the stub so it can be resold later, government employees supplementing their income.
USA Embassy – Huge compound, once under siege and now you come to see the murals.
Mount Tochal Cable car – the second highest cable car I have been on after the one in Quito. The whole structure looks badly in need of maintenance but definitely worth a visit hahaha.
Tabiat Bridge – more than a bridge and Taleghani Park