Skip to main content

I Went to Iran. Here Are 9 Things That Took Me By Surprise

Mat is the co-founder of Patch Adventures, a women only travel company, with Rebeca Newton. Iran is one of their favourite countries, and we asked Mat to share his impressions below.

Ever thought of going to Iran?

The average person wouldn’t even consider it, but for those travellers who are a bit more adventurous, Iran has become a popular destination as of late.

However, the mainstream media hasn’t yet caught on. So, it’s been fun to see people’s reactions when I tell them that I’m going.

Iran is a place that doesn’t fit into the neat box that people tend to put it in. It doesn’t matter what your expectations are – be they negative or positive – as it’s a complex place with a lot of people, loads of interacting cultures from the different minorities, and all sorts of sub-currents that would take years to understand.

Here are some things that have taken me by surprise..

‘Google Maps’ Works

In Iran, everything is blocked.

After all, it’s like North Korea or China, right?

A seemingly obvious assumption, but it’s actually wrong.

Yep, stuff is blocked, but nothing like China.

To give you an example, take Google Map. It works in Iran… and, not only that, it works well. It is accurate and detailed. And just like in Australia, businesses keep their profiles updated with accurate opening hours and photos. Each place even has lots of reviews, too, just like ours back home.

On my first visit, I wasn’t expecting Gmail to work either, but it actually did! In fact, very few websites were blocked. Even most of the news websites I looked up were working, with New York Times being the only exception. Google works, too; and even delivers results for some fairly controversial search terms.

So, what is blocked, then? Social media websites are nearly all blocked in Iran, because these are the platforms that are used for the purpose of organising protests.

That exception aside, the average Iranian has no difficulty accessing different information sources from around the world. When you meet them, you’ll find that many locals are well educated and highly informed as to what is going on in their country – and outside of it.

The bookshops aren’t full of international titles, but it is easy to find examples from a wide range of authors and perspectives.

The Stores Are Full

When countries are under sanction, the stores are meant to be empty, right?

At least, that’s what we’re led to believe…

However, visitors to Iran are surprised to find that this is not the case.

Shops are everywhere… they’re open, and they sell just about anything you’d want.

Even better, the produce is INSANELY high quality.

In fact, when I last visited (in May 2023), the group I was with commented many times that the fruit and vegetables taste just like they did before industrial farming got their hands on everything in Australia.

“The watermelon tastes just like the watermelon from my childhood.

So, how then, do sanctions impact Iran?

Long story short: in many ways. If you look for it, you can see it easily.

Very few international brands have outlets here, for one, and you won’t see many foreign car brands here either. For the average traveller, this is actually quite refreshing. It makes Iran unique.

Who wants to visit a country awash in McDonalds and Starbucks? Not me. Besides, Dubai is always nearby for anyone who is into this kind of thing.

On the other hand, supermarkets – especially the health and beauty sections – are full of international brands.

Tehran Has World Class Flat Whites

“You can take the boy out of Australia…”

This is one that I truly was not expecting when I first visited Iran but yep, it’s true:

Tehran’s coffee scene is so hip, even the beans wear skinny jeans. 😎

The locals have discovered the joy of espresso and you can easily get a flat white – and more importantly, a good flat white – in dozens of coffee shops around the city.

There’s a Growing Artisanal Ceramics Scene

Artisanal ceramics are having their time in the sun in Australia and New Zealand, but did you know that there’s a growing scene in Iran, too?

I certainly didn’t. But, in my most recent visit I discovered that lots of young up-and-coming Iranian artists have turned their hand to ceramics.

In my May 2023 visit, I bought items by multiple artists. There are quite a few options, and they’re very affordable compared to their overseas equivalents.

I also found a couple of second hand record stores, too:

Nose Jobs Are Weirdly Common

If you watch the media, you’d think that Iranian women spend their waking hours buried under chadors and hiding behind closed doors.

But that is very much not the case.

The Iranian cosmetic surgery industry is actually thriving, with tens of thousands of people travelling every year to Iran to take advantage of the low prices.

And the locals partake, too. It seems like almost everyone in Iran has had a nose job, which is surprising to most visitors! Even many men proudly sport bandages from their recent visits to the scalpel.

Putting nose jobs aside, many young people in Iran are fashion forward and ooze style. The youth of Iran are very cool.

The Dress Code is More Loosely Enforced Than You Think

In 2022, all of us saw the courageous protests by Iranians nationwide, sticking up for their rights.

Protesters were fighting for the right to dress however they please.

The protests may be over, but the mood is very different now.

Many young women, especially, openly flout hijab rules. They’re sick of being told what to do, and they’ll gladly tell you this.

And on that topic…

People Will Tell You What They Think

You don’t expect people in Iran to shit all over their government within 20 seconds of meeting you..

But .. they do. And a lot more often than you’d think.

In Iran, folks don’t just spill the tea on the government; they’ll offer you a cup to join in.

Tehran has a Ski Resort

Yep, Tehran has a ski resort. With actual snow. And chairlifts. And people skiing down the hill. And.. well, I think I’m being clear enough:

This photo is from our May 2023 Iran trip. Our ladies all arrived early, so we organised a trip up the mountain for them as a bonus.

And you may be surprised to learn that it’s actually close by. The cable car up to the ski resort is a 15-minute taxi ride from the nearest metro station, Tajrish. The city itself sprawls right up to the gate where one boards to ride into the heavens.

Even in early summer, a couple of lifts were open and hundreds of skiers and snowboarders were enjoying their final opportunity to carve some trails.

It’s a High Trust Culture

Iran is the only country in the world where I’ve seen people say their PIN number out loud while passing their card to a local vendor.

Instead of putting their own PIN into the machine, the local vendor does it for them.

In fact, this even appears to be the default – you pass your bank card over, while saying your PIN out loud to the seller. They take the card, input the pin, and hand it back to you. I’ve never seen this anywhere, in any of my travels.

(*Edit* Since writing this, I had the same experience in Uzbekistan.)

Iran is so high-trust, you could probably borrow a local’s car and they’d just ask you to bring back some bread.

But What About the Bad Stuff?

We all know about the negative stuff, and there’s no point rehashing that here. It exists, is real, and a lot of innocent people are affected in horrible ways.

All I’ll say here, is that it’s way less in your face than you’d think.

The movies would have you believe that Iran is full of gun-toting, bearded men wearing Kalashnikovs. These men are looking at you everywhere you go.. Just waiting for you to take one false step… ..

Well, it’s not like that. The regime generally stays out of the way. Overall, they’re less noticeable than in many other countries you’ve visited.

But … Don’t Tourists Get Arrested?

In the last 40 years, roughly 20 tourists have been arrested. Twenty too many, but less than what you’d think.

Unfortunately, all of them had one thing in common: they were travelling without a guide.

For all the misconceptions I’ve covered above, one is true: the government of Iran is paranoid about spying. Super paranoid.

So, when people dig themselves into trouble, it’s almost always because they’ve taken photos of things that were not permitted, OR they’ve wandered onto forbidden territory. This is an easy mistake to make – when you’re by yourself.

Happily, it’s not actually all that difficult to avoid this issue. Either hire a private guide, or join a guided tour.

Guided tours are a reliable, safe way to visit Iran. In fact, there is not a single recorded instance of someone in a guided group getting arrested or being harmed by the government.

Millions of tourists visit Iran each year (yes – millions), and by and large people have a wonderful time. Some get into trouble, but not many, compared to other countries.

(It’s also worth mentioning at this point that if an Iranian tourist decided to fly drones over American military sites, they too would be arrested. Westerners behave in unbelievably naive ways in foreign countries.)

For a more realistic view of the safety of travelling to Iran, I’d recommend looking at this website from the organisation International SOS. They are an international security organisation that specialise in providing advisories to travel companies and internal security teams. Right now, at the time of publishing, they have Iran and India at the same level as each other for risk, and that feels accurate to me:

It’s All About the People!

All experienced travellers know what it’s like to be scammed while overseas. Too many of us know what it’s like to be mugged, robbed or conned in some way.

However, this is exceedingly rare in Iran. And this is one of the most refreshing aspects of visiting Iran – it’s just so easy to relax and let down your guard.

Why?

The people. They’re just so.. nice!

One of our Patchies – Harriet – enjoying chats with some local ladies.

In Iran, no one is trying to rob you or pull a trick on you. (Well, I’m sure it’s happened to someone… but it’s not a pervasive threat).

Once you arrive and get settled, you’ll find it’s one of the most fun, relaxing countries to visit.

Organised tours are a reliably low risk way of travelling to Iran, which is why we decided back in 2019 to start offering trips to this country. They’ve been a great success and we’ll be offering more over the coming years.

Will I be back? Most definitely. Iran is now one of my favourite countries to visit!

Your Destination Has Been in the News – What Happens Next? Next Article