Visiting Iran can be an unforgettable experience for travelers. Whether you’re looking for a unique culture, breathtaking nature, or majestic architecture and historic sites to visit during your vacation, Iran has more than enough to offer in each category to dazzle anyone. However, like most relatively unknown destinations, the cultural faux pas and differences might make traveling to Iran seem a little hard to navigate. Continue reading this article with our travel tips to get a better sense of how one should act and behave in Iran, as well as what to expect, so that you are better prepared for your visit. Please, be assured that Iranians are warm, peaceful, hospitable, super friendly people and even if you do something culturally wrong as a tourist, as long as you’re respectful and willing to learn, Iranians won’t be hard on you!
Iranian laws state that women should cover their hair at all times with a scarf and wear trousers and a long-sleeved blouse that is not too short, too tight, or revealing. However, you don’t have to go the extra mile! Many modern Iranians bend the rules on a daily basis. Right now in Iran, women dress fashionably and you might be surprised by what you might see in Tehran and some other cities vs what you see portrayed in mainstream media. Our advice is that wearing three-quarter sleeves for women and a top that covers your bottoms is totally enough when you travel to Iran! Wearing skinny jeans and even moderately ripped jeans is also okay in many big cities and non-religious settings.
Basically, the dress code varies a lot based on which city, district, building or community you want to visit. For visiting a shrine or mosque, women are usually obligated to wear a Chador (a long piece of garment covering all of the body like a cloak which is available to rent at the site).
[If you want to know more about fashion and clothing rules for women in Iran, Check out our article with travel advice for female solo travelers.]
The dress code for men is easier; but it does exist. Men should avoid wearing sleeveless tops and shorts unless they are at a beach. Three-quarter pants (above the ankle) are not forbidden but are generally not perceived as proper in public.
It also goes without saying that your clothes shouldn’t depict an image of sexual nature since Iran is a Muslim and conservative country. We also recommend you to avoid using the flag prints of the United States and Israel as well as political signs on your clothes during your Iran trip.
Just like many cultural traditions in Iran, greeting rituals hinges on the religion and beliefs of the people that you’re greeting. When in doubt, always choose the most conservative option. But we’re going to break it down for you:
When you meet people of the same gender, you go for a nice, firm handshake. Before Covid-19, Iranians used to greet one another by reciprocating kisses (usually three) on the cheek, which is also a sign of accepting and welcoming each other but is done usually for people of the same sex (or close family members).
If you are a man, shake hands with the opposite gender only if you are confident that they are not religious and are willing to shake your hand in return. If you have doubts, always go for NOT shaking hands. Just bow politely and let THEM offer you a handshake if they’re willing. Since the arrival of Covid-19, not shaking hands and exchanging kisses has become a norm between many Iranians, but don’t be shocked if some people still want to shake hands or bump fists with you (just like you shouldn’t get it personally or get offended if some people don’t shake hands with you).
If you’re invited to a person’s home, it’s customary not to go empty-handed the first time you visit. You can bring chocolates, fruits, pastries and sweets or flowers to your host. Bringing a small gift from your own country, like your local sweets and chocolates, or a simple handicraft might also be a good idea.
Also, Iranians are well-known for holding cleanliness dearly and they might suffer from a minor heart attack if you step on their Persian carpets in your everyday shoes. We recommend you take your shoes off right at the threshold of the house before entering. The same goes for entering mosques or basically any other carpeted building.
This is probably the most talked-about Iranian cultural phenomenon, and you’ll find many Youtube videos from tourists who travel to Iran trying to dissect this practice and find their way through it. Basically, what Taarof means is that an offer shouldn’t always be taken at its face value. Sometimes an offer is true, but on some other occasions, it’s more of a polite gesture and you shouldn’t actually take up the offer. Iranians are masters of this subtle give and take of genuine/fake offers and can navigate most interactions without misunderstandings. If you have a guide, you won’t have problems with Taarof, but otherwise keep reading for a few examples.
Buying things at a shop: when you want to pay, the shop owner tells you “be my guest”. True or false? False! You should definitely pay. The same thing goes for taxi fare and any other service that you receive in Iran.
You meet a local and they offer you a home-cooked meal at their place. Is it really a true offer? Might be. The norm is to politely decline the first time and say that you don’t want to burden the host. If they offer for a second or third time, and even become more inviting, then they probably mean it and you can agree to come visit.
We know it is kind of tricky for travelers to get it right but practice makes perfect and don’t worry. Even if your judgement is flawed in the taarof provoking situations, no Iranian will really be hard on a traveler.
It’s not customary to leave a tip in most of the restaurants in Iran, and the tip is usually calculated and added to your final check. Burping and farting in public is considered inappropriate in Iran.
In Iran’s culture and in the eyes of the law, too much PDA is regarded as inappropriate and sometimes even taboo. Hand holding between heterosexual couples is acceptable in most settings (except maybe in religious sites or in ultra-conservative communities). Norms of kissing and embracing in public are contextual. The usual three kisses on the cheeks as the regular form of greeting (especially between people of the same sex) is usually fine. Embracing one’s friends (especially of the same sex) is not a problem either. But you should be aware of the fact that homosexuality is not that accepted among the public and not at all legal in Iran, and if you’re a member of LGBTQ community, you should not outright act like it when you travel in Iran. It’s safer to stay in the closet.
It goes without saying that talking about people’s love life, sex life, and sexual practices is also considered a very sensitive and awkward topic. Don’t comment on these topics or ask people about them unless you’re 100% sure that you have established a level of friendship with that person that allows you to approach such sensitive subjects. Talking to religious people about topics like this is off-limits.
In Iran, most of the public restrooms have squat toilets with a hose of water to wash yourself with. Some of the newer restrooms in modern shopping malls and airports also have the western toilet, but you should be aware that many of the public bathrooms quite often MAY NOT have toilet paper. You should always carry your own stash of toilet paper/tissues in your pocket just in case. Also, some of the restrooms on the roads between cities require you to pay a very small fee, so it’s wise to have some change available (although it’s really not compulsory to pay)
There’s a lot of discussion around whether the thumbs-up gesture is offensive in Iran. We believe that if you give the thumbs up to the older people and people of smaller cities, they might get offended by it. But most of Iran’s younger generation, recognize the two thumbs up as the universal sign of “like” in social media and use it without perceiving it as offensive.
There are a lot of misconceptions about Iran and Persian Culture. Here we address some of the most repeated ones:
Alcoholic drinks are prohibited in Iran and it’s against the law to bring them with you into the country. You might see ‘cocktails’ or ‘Irish Coffee’ on the menu of different restaurants, but rest assured that they are all without alcohol.
This is another topic where several different opinions exist. As opposed to many other blogs, we do not see blowing your nose in public as offensive when you travel in Iran. You don’t have to excuse yourself every time you need to do it and run off to the nearest bathroom. But in order not to make some sensitive people cringe, you might want to do it a bit more slowly and gently.
When you go to a person’s home and sit on the floor, common etiquette suggests that you should keep your legs crossed and not spread them all the way to the center of the circle. If you are tired of sitting cross-legged and need to change your sitting position, you can politely ask the people for their permission to stretch your legs out (the permission is just a polite gesture, you will always be granted permission to do so). This etiquette rule is most important when you’re in the company of elderly or traditional people.
Another group etiquette rule is that Iranians get up from their seats to greet the newcomers in a gathering. It is considered a little rude not to get up from your seat. You can sit back down after the greeting is over.
Also, Iranians try not to sit with their backs to anyone. But if you have no choice, you can do so after apologizing for it (especially when your back faces an elderly).
Are you wondering if there is anything else you need to know before your Iran travel? We have you fully covered! Here is some more travel info that will help you to feel at ease in the ancient land of Persia.