Update – January 2020: The Canadian government has a travel advisory for Iran. Obviously, there is a lot of tension in the region right now and you might want to consider that during your planning. This is especially true for dual Iran/Canadian citizens. If you are an Iranian “dual” citizen, understand that Iran does not recognize dual citizenship and will consider you a citizen of Iran only. The same holds true for Iranians who hold U.S. citizenship.
Because of the tensions in the region, and because we’re not experts on Iran, we don’t feel comfortable advising you on whether or not you should visit. This post is for informational purposes only.
I’m sort of an extrovert. When I am at gatherings, I’m usually the one who interacts with people, cracks jokes, and generally has a good time.
Even when I travel, I typically introduce myself to people and try to hook up with groups to explore cities and sites in the places I visit.
Iran was different for me. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed my guided Iran tour immensely.
For me, the excitement of the trip was tempered by a bit of a bout of loneliness. Loneliness is not something I am used to feeling, even when I travel by myself.
It caused a bit of frustration that I am also not used to feeling.
Iran is generally safe and it is a beautiful country with so much to see and Iran tourism deserved to be farther along than it is.
But there is just something that you miss when you’re at the mercy of a guide and cannot travel independently.
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My Iran tour mates
I did my Iran tour with two other people (and a guide, of course). They were two very nice ladies.
One was just a few years younger than I . She was from Singapore. The other woman was her mother-in-law, who happened to be from Iran originally, but now lives in Stockholm, Sweden.
They were on the tour so mother-in-law could introduce daughter-in-law to Iran.
The daughter-in-law’s husband was back in Singapore. This was a mother-daughter trip.
While they were super nice and I did hang out with them on occasion, they were there together, and I didn’t really fit with their plans much. When I did, I sort of felt like I might be imposing.
On a side note, I never really understood why they were doing a guided tour of Iran. They didn’t have to. I’m assuming it was because it was easy and the mother-in-law was in her 70s.
Guided Iran tour – The Schedule
I did a guided Iran tour because I had no choice.
I am a Canadian, and I fall under the same rules as my fellow American travelers. That meant I needed a guide while I was there.
It also meant I had to legally abide by the tour schedule – something I am not used to.
Basically, the schedule was this:
- Visit sites
- Visit sites
- Dinner on your own
- Maybe another site
Regimented, right? And the thing is, it takes you a while to realize that, while legally your tour guide in Iran is supposed to know where you are at all times, you can often have a bit of freedom to move about on your own.
Iran may be a very restrictive country, but the guide often tells you to just go on your own if you want.
I should note that this wasn’t quite the case in Tehran, where my guide was with me – and wanted to be with me – the whole time. He seemed to be much more nervous about letting me go on my own at night.
I probably could have (and should have) done more at night. Knowing what I know now, I probably would have.
But it took a few days for me to realize how much “freedom” I actually had. And I think most travelers visiting Iran for the first time might feel the same way.
What can you get away with?
When I asked my (non-Tehran) guide if I was supposed to stay near the hotel, he kind of looked at me and said “Do what you like. Here’s my number, just in case.”
Loneliness on my Iran tour
Loneliness is something I am not used to. That’s partly because I am pretty social, but also because when I travel, I get so wrapped up in everything I’m doing that there’s little time to be lonely.
The problem in Iran is that, when I got back to the hotel, there was nobody to talk to. I talked to the staff a little bit.
But their command of English, while great for the purposes of welcoming you and taking care of your hotel needs, was not geared towards small talk and all the things you wanted to talk about.
There was almost nothing social about this trip. At all. No meeting people at night. No getting together with fellow travelers to go to see something cool.
There was no gathering spot at the hotel bar or coffee shop where like-minded travelers met.
There wasn’t a place in Shiraz, for example, where travelers hung out.
The locals rarely spoke any of languages I speak. To the extent they did, it was largely sales-oriented language or “Where you from?”
Eating alone at night
Even trying to find a place to eat at night was a chore, which exacerbated the feeling of being alone. It’s even harder when you’re a vegetarian, like me (which, admittedly, is partly my own fault for not learning a bit of Farsi).
I remember one night, I was absolutely starving. I walked around the neighborhood of my hotel for about 1.5 hours and all I found were places that sold meat kabobs, sweets, or dried fruit and nuts.
So I ended up eating a half a bag of pistachios for dinner.
Another night, it was pizza (or something like it)
Even the hotel staff was stumped. They could recommend places to find rice (basically everywhere), but could not tell me where to find anything vegetarian other than a salad.
I like salads – just not for dinner – and not all the time.
In the end, I ate a lot of Mirza Ghasemi – an Iranian vegetarian dish that’s delicious.
But after awhile, it gets kinda old, you know?
Social Media in Iran
I can’t really blame this on being part of a guided tour, but another thing you need to think about is how much you depend on having a connection to social media.
Personally, I like keeping up with current events while I am on the road. A complication in Iran is that there is no access to social media besides Instagram.
And even Instagram sometimes gets banned in Iran during periods of unrest.
I wouldn’t call myself a social media junkie, but it’s something that I do use. At night when was alone in my room and too exhausted from walking all day, it was something I depended on.
Having a VPN was great, as it allowed me to go on Facebook and Twitter, but only barely. Often, the hotel’s network speed was bad. And even if it was good, they limited you to a certain number of Megabytes before you had to get a new password.
It just got annoying sometimes to keep asking. So you give up.
It was hard to keep up with the world. So I often just wrote or organized photos at night.
I was in Iran for ten days. And it was awesome, don’t get me wrong. But it was just different than any sort of travel I have ever done in the past.
What You See, and Miss, on a Tour of Iran
You will see amazing things when you’re in Iran – whether it’s a guided Iran tour or independent travel. That I can promise you. From Shiraz to Persepolis and more, Iran is a country overflowing with history and beauty.
So even if your only choice is a guided Iran tour, you should go.
I am so grateful I did it.
But be aware that a guided Iran tour has a set schedule that, while there is flexibility, it will depend on how intent on sticking to a schedule your tour guide is.
In Tehran, my young guide was very married to the schedule and he was determined to get me through everything. Even though I got to Tehran at 3 AM, I knew he was getting antsy when I wasn’t ready by 9 AM to go out and start doing stuff.
In the rest of Iran, my guide was much more relaxed about it (though we didn’t understand this until a few days in).
Mosques are a big part of your schedule. Don’t get me wrong, they are amazing! The Pink Mosque in Shiraz was stunning, as was the Shah Cheragh with it’s billions of tiny mirrors.
It’s just that you see so many mosques, you sometimes wonder what else you’re missing.
In Shiraz, for example, we went to so many mosques that we missed seeing other things. And to the extent that we did see other things, it felt rushed. One example is the tomb of Hafez – Iran’s most famous poet.
We were there for a grand total of 20 minutes before our guide said we had to leave.
I could have stayed there for hours.
Eventually, we made our guide cut a few mosques from the itinerary.
A guided Iran tour lacks personality
You’ll also miss the “just hanging out” part of what makes travel special. On your trip to Iran, you won’t go buy food for a picnic and sit on the riverfront in Isfahan for a couple of hours.
You won’t sit at a local coffee shop and enjoy tea or coffee while just people watching.
And, if you’re gay, your Iran tour guide is not going to give you any guidance about being gay in Iran, obviously. If you travel independently, you have a chance of finding other gay people to meet.
On a tour though, forget it.
What you will do is see one thing and then get in the car and go to the next thing.
There are a lot of boxes to check and you’re guide’s gonna make sure you check them.
What about eating?
As I mentioned, it was hard to find food I really wanted to eat. Some of this had to do with the fact that I didn’t learn any Farsi before I left.
I didn’t think I needed to because I knew I wasn’t going to meet many locals.
And the tour agency in Iran told me not to worry about vegetarian food.
In Tehran, my young Iranian tour guide was probably more understanding of vegetarianism and I got lots to eat with a good variety. He took me to a few of his favorite spots in the two days I was there.
I enjoyed that – a lot.
The rest of the tour, about 7 days, was with an older guy – very “meat and potatoes” – who thought that as long as there was a salad, I’d be happy. I really liked this guide, by the way.
He knew EVERYTHING about Iran and I learned so much from him.
He was not creative though. Where my guide in Tehran took me to a few great local restaurants, this guide took us to the Iran equivalent of American buffets and chain restaurants.
I ate a lot of mayonnaise-based pasta salad.
If I were to travel independently, I would have scoured the Internet looking for great local places everywhere we went. Because I was on a guided Iran tour, we just ate wherever the guide stopped the car.
There was never any local “feel” to it.
And remember, there is no legal alcohol in Iran.
I say “legal” because it does exist – just underground.
Should you do a guided tour of Iran?
Are you unsure whether or not you should even go to Iran? I’ve written a couple of posts about this:
If you are used to traveling independently and have the option to travel in Iran independently, do it. The only reason I enjoyed my trip was that I knew I had no choice but to do a guided Iran tour.
I would never have done this if I had the choice.
If you’re from Canada, the United States, The United Kingdom, and a few other places, you have no choice. And yes, you should do a guided tour. Because Iran on a guided tour is better than no Iran at all.
It really is a country worth seeing.
Some travelers spend their entire adult lives on tour buses doing guided tours of everything – whether they have to or not.
To them, I say “Go!” because you’re going to enjoy this perhaps more than anyone. If guided tours are what you enjoy, no one does them better than a good Iranian guide.
They are very proud of their country and will give you a solid overview of Iran.
Before you go though, here are some things you need to know.
Me? I can’t wait for my next Iran holiday.
I’m patiently waiting for the Canadian government to restore diplomatic relations with the country. I do not want to do another guided Iran tour, however.
If that’s my only option, I’ll skip it.
Been there. Done that. Ate the pasta salad. Every. Day.
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Iranian Tourism: What do you think?
Have you done a guided tour in Iran?
How about traveling independently while there?
Let us know your experience in the comments.
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Michael is originally from Canada but now resides in Atlanta, GA with his husband, Halef, who also writes here. He is a Couchsurfing expert. Michael has traveled to over 50 countries learning how to experience more for less as he travels.