As a country blessed with extraordinary historical sites, a colorful and diverse culture, and exquisite landscapes, Iran is one of those captivating destinations that have more than enough to lure a healthy dose of tourism.
Yet, Iran has failed to even make a blip on most people’s radar, especially when it comes to tourism.
Unfortunately, the country has suffered from international tensions and a tough domestic regime that has prevented it from being the treasured destination it has the potential to be.
It has, though, become a place only bold, adventurous, and seasoned travelers wish to explore. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Iran had been on my radar for over five years before I even decided to seriously attempt the trip. To be honest, at one point I even believed that as an American, I wasn’t allowed to visit or that it was going to be nearly impossible to get a visa. But I was wrong.
Since the election of a moderate president in 2013, this once out-of-bounds country has gradually reopened its doors and welcomed tourists from all over the world.
Still, whether for lack of information or disagreements in its matters of civic laws, many people aren’t convinced enough to visit this beautiful country.
But is it worth visiting Iran? After visiting it and seeing things with my own eyes, my only answer to that question is a huge YES! Here I’ll tell you why you should visit Iran and why you should go now more than ever.
Iran is Much Safer than People Think it is
Iran has had a strained relationship with the Western world for decades now due to political and economic reasons, but this shouldn’t deter you from experiencing what I believe is one of the most fascinating countries on earth.
The media paints Iran as a violent country plagued with wars, riots, terrorism, and violence. That’s just fearmongering at its best and it doesn’t compare, at all, to what you see when you’re in Iran (or most of the Middle East, actually).
Yes, the country experienced a defining revolution in 1979, when it became the Islamic State of Iran and changed the course of its political and social culture.
It also suffered through the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988, but since then, the great majority of the country hasn’t seen any armed conflict – 30 years and counting.
Any violence that happens in Iran these days is irregular and very rare. A huge contrast to the almost-weekly routine mass shootings in the US.
In fact, I’m comfortable saying that being in Iran is much safer than being in the US. The country counts with several military checkpoints and strict security, which are not only in place to protect its citizens, but tourists alike.
And kidnappings? No, they don’t happen. I had a funny moment with Nadia, my Intrepid Travel guide, when I asked her if kidnappings happened in the country. This happened when we were casually sitting at a café which had a sign outside saying “Skinny people are easier to kidnap. Stay safe, eat cake.”
She replied nonchalantly, “I’ve had that happen three times on my tours.” My tour companions and I looked at her with wide eyes, thinking, “this is serious!”
When she noticed our expression, she asked back, “wait, what’s kidnapping?”
When we explained it to her, her horrified expression told us she confused the word. She was thinking about pickpocketing. Yes, pickpockets happen, like in any country. Kidnappings don’t.
I never felt in danger while in the country, not even when I walked on my own in the city of Esfahan past midnight.
Visiting Iran as a solo traveler is safe. Americans, British, and Canadian travelers don’t have that luxury of solo travel in the country (for now), so being on a (required) tour adds another safety layer.
It’s About People. They Make it all Worth it
If you’ve read anything about Iran, I’m sure you must already know that they are among the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. I’m one more voice who can confirm this.
Iran’s hospitality is second to none. They are both warm and welcoming, but this is not just a façade to look nice, this is an essential feature of their culture.
It is not uncommon to strike a conversation with Iranians while walking on the street, sitting at a park, or just at any given moment.
After a few minutes chatting, it is also not uncommon for them to invite you over to their home to drink tea or have a meal with their family. This camaraderie is not reserved for tourists. It also happens among locals.
Sure, the country is in the middle of an economic crisis where many locals resort to reaching out to tourists in hopes of making a bit of money by guiding them or selling them something, but if you politely say “no, I already have a guide”, or “I’m not interested,” they will immediately drop the subject and continue the conversation with some other topic.
Pushiness is not their style, which is something I highly appreciate as a traveler.
Even in the most conservative towns, I had women (wearing chadors) reach to me in a friendly manner and ask to have their picture taken with me.
Considering how conservative they seemed to be, I would have never made an attempt to talk to them, but here they were, reaching out and being friendly.
In my opinion, their hospitality is one of Iran’s best qualities.
Its History is World Heritage
Iran is home to one of the world’s oldest continuous major civilizations, with historical and urban settlements dating back to 7000 BC. It also counts with 23 UNESCO World Heritage sites as of 2018.
Of all of these sites, Persepolis –the ancient ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire dating back to 515 BCE– is without a doubt the most famous one.
While most UNESCO sites are spread all over the country, you can easily cross off eight of them by visiting the Fars, Yazd, and Isfahan Provinces, which are usually included in most tours and are easy to visit.
Iran’s rich history spans from Ancient Persia to modern-day Iran, and as you travel through the country, you’ll see hints of the Achaemenid Empire, the Sassanian Era, Safavid Period, and Qajar Dynasty, among many others.
Not to be missed is also the importance and impact the Islamic Revolution had on modern-day Iran, its society, religion, and how it in certain ways clashes with the country’s past.
One thing is certain, Iranian history is not boring. It is as stormy, convoluted, expansive, and as interesting as it can get.
I linked to the list of UNESCO Sites above, but if you have to pick just five to visit, I’d say do not miss Persepolis near Shiraz (and the necropolis next to it), Golestan Palace in Tehran, the Historic City of Yazd, The Persian Gardens (any, in any city), and the Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Isfahan.
Its Mosques and Architecture are Outstanding
From its lavishly decorated mosques to its palaces and bazaars, and even its modern monuments, Iran has developed its own architectural language that is well known for its ornamental elegance.
Since ancient times, pastel colors have gracefully interacted with bright hues. Facades have been carefully decorated with traditional calligraphy while minarets and domes have dominated the skyline.
Fine carvings and elaborate paintings have graced the walls of many palaces while detailed structural elements shaped their ceilings.
As an architect myself, I couldn’t stop looking at their wonderful Persian architecture; from the most sacred and delicately decorated spaces at their mosques to the most common pathways at the bazaar.
Iran knows how to share its history through its architecture as its many styles and features evoke the dynasty they belong to.
One of the most unique things you’ll see in Iran is the interior decorations of their mosques, a Shi’a Islam tradition that began around 450 years ago. Every inch of many of their mosques and mausoleums are lavishly decorated with a massive mirror mosaic.
It’s interesting how this concept of mirror mosaics began. During the Safavid Dynasty (16th-17th century), the king Shah Abbas the Great wanted to see himself and his wife on a mirror, so he placed one in his palace – Chehel Sotoun. Eventually, he wanted more and bigger mirrors, so he ordered them from Italy.
Back then, these big mirrors were transported from Venice to Iran with camels, so they all broke along the way. He asked a designer to come up with a solution to these broken mirrors and that’s when the idea of using them as mosaics was born.
He first wrapped the walls with mirror mosaics, followed by the ceilings. Eventually, he wanted the people to also enjoy this beautiful luxury of mirror mosaics, so he allowed their use to decorate the mosques.
It is surreal entering these solemn spaces and suddenly seeing your reflection, broken into thousands of tiny pieces – almost like a kaleidoscope. Another beautiful aspect of these spaces is their lighting.
The chandeliers reflect their light on the mirror fragments, creating an evenly lit space with bare minimum lighting. And during the day, the natural sunlight enters through the multicolored stained-glass windows, bathing the space in hues of red, green, yellow, and blue.
In all, the beauty and attention to detail speak to the importance mosques have in Iranian society.
I highly recommend visiting the Shah-e-Cheragh Mausoleum in Shiraz, as it is one of the best examples of this beautiful Iranian Mosque styling. The Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan is also not to be missed.
Beyond mosques, do not miss the historic houses of Kashan, the Golestan Palace in Tehran, the ancient bathhouses, the Zoroastrian tower of silence in Yazd, and many other buildings.
And it’s not just built architecture, Iran knows how to structure beauty with their Persian gardens and nature too.
Experience a Cultural, Ethnic, and Religious Gradient
Iran is culturally and ethnically diverse, with each region having its own customs, traditions, and in some cases, even language.
The culture shock is not limited to foreign tourists, as even locals experience some of it when traveling to different provinces.
You can see this gradient strongly marked when you go from Azeri-Turkish speaking Tabriz, to Kurdish speaking Kordestan, to Farsi speaking Tehran, to the nomadic regions in the Fars Province, and even down to the Arab-influence southern coast.
Iran, as a collective, is a combination of different cultures, all influencing each other in various ways.
While Shi’a Islam is the dominant religion in the country, it is not the only one practiced there. There’s Christianism, Armenian Christianism, and Zoroastrianism, among others.
Zoroastrianism is said to be the oldest monotheist religion in the world that is still practiced – dating back to the 5th century BCE.
Even though only about 25,000 people still practice the religion in Iran, it still has a strong presence in the country – especially in the city of Yazd, where you can still see some of its ancient structures for excarnation and its many temples still in use.
Just like every other Iranian, Zoroastrians are equally warm and welcoming, so if you have the experience of interacting with them, I highly recommend it to see a slightly different perspective of Iran from their point of view.
And the nomads, another rich and interesting subculture that unfortunately is slowly dying.
Nomadism, a Dying Lifestyle
Iran’s nomadic communities –the Qashqai– settled in the country during the 11th and 12th century. While most of these nomadic pastoralist tribes have become sedentary these days, a small group still practices nomadism on a seasonal basis.
These still travel roughly 480 km (300 miles) with their flocks twice yearly to spend the summer in the cooler highlands and the winters in the warmer lands near the Persian Gulf.
I highly recommend spending a night with a nomadic family. Many of the settled families open their doors for tourists who want to see and learn about their former lifestyle that still lingers in their daily traditions.
Spend the night with the family sharing traditions, eating their delicious home cooked meals –which are traditional nomadic dishes– and learning about their handicrafts – especially their handwoven carpets.
Many sedentary Qashqai families still conserve their traditional nomadic tents where you can spend the night or have breakfast.
No, Americans aren’t Hated in Iran (Neither are British or Canadians)
Of all the nationalities, Americans, British, and Canadians are the only ones that require a tour guide to enter Iran. Of the three, unfortunately, Americans have it the hardest (especially now thanks to our childish 45).
Still, visiting Iran is possible for every nationality. These three just have it a bit harder to get the visa.
Also, contrary to what you see in the media, Iran has absolutely no hatred against Americans. Ignore the fearmongering. I already told you how friendly they are, and this extends to every nationality.
I’ll be the first one to admit that during my first day, I was a bit hesitant to tell people I was American. I didn’t know how they would react nor if that would put me in any type of danger. Those fears were unfounded.
As soon as I met my guide, I asked her about it just to be safe and she immediately put to rest any mild concerns I had about sharing openly that I’m American. No one had an issue with it.
As I traveled the country, countless locals asked me where I’m from, as part of the typical “curious about you” and “how are you enjoying Iran” conversations. I was equally curious about them.
To every single one of them, I told I’m American. I kid you not, they all smiled or opened their arms with enthusiasm saying a variation of, “Ah! America!!”
One of my favorite random encounters happened at the Azadi Tower, just hours before leaving Iran. There I met a few early 20-something local guys who in typical Iranian fashion, stroke a conversation with me.
As soon as one of them learned I was American he expressed with joy how much he’d love to visit the US and shared an overall knowledge of the country – almost in admiration. In fact, he was wearing an American flag bandana.
It’s a shame how we don’t have a similar appreciation for a foreign culture, like theirs, the same way they do about ours.
It’s Slowly Getting More Popular
As sanctions get slowly removed and political issues get solved, more and more travelers are now visiting Iran (though still not nearly enough). Add to this the fact that more publications are sharing the uniqueness of this country, inspiring even more adventurous travelers to go.
Curiosity is also another big draw. Pair that with the pride of visiting a country that is not on the beaten path and the fact that you challenged all the prejudices and warnings from friends and family, and you end up with an experience you know will not compare to any other destination in the world.
Iran, for the most part, is still highly isolated from the rest of the world.
It’s Still Cheap
This could vary drastically from the point of writing to when you’re reading this as the economic situation in Iran is dire. Sanctions have crippled their economy, bringing down their currency with it. While this is very unfortunate for Iranians, it makes the country very cheap for us.
During the two weeks I stayed there, the currency changed from $1 = 100,000 Rials to $1 = 130,000 Rials, roughly (this is the “black market” rate). That’s how unstable it is. Depending on when you go, it may go up or down, but still, even with their currency as strong as it used to be years ago, Iran is still a very affordable country to travel to.
To give you an idea of prices, a nice meal can cost you 400,000 Rials, a can of Coke 20,000 Rials, and a taxi around 300,000 Rials.
Their Handicrafts are Art
Each province, city, village, and sub-culture have their own handicrafts. Yazd has the beautiful Termeh, Shiraz has the “city carpets,” the Qashqai have the “nomad carpets,” Isfahan has Persian copper handicrafts, and so on.
You will find all of these handicrafts in most cities, but it’s always good to buy them in the city where they are strongest at.
Also, different cities tend to offer different colors and patterns in their art. You can get so many high-quality hand-made items for a fraction of the price of similar items in Western countries.
Ok, writing about food is definitely not my forte (I’m a picky eater) but I at least have to mention it is delicious. I loved their flatbread so much I ate way too much of it. Their version of cinnamon rolls is stupidly good, and the camel stew is delicious! Yes, camel.
If you have a sweet tooth, Iran is your place to go. They have so many kinds of traditional sweets that you won’t even have time to try them all.
Last but not Least, You’ll have a Truly Authentic Experience to Form Your Own Opinion
Whether it’s due to the sanctions that limit commercial exchange with many other countries or their pride towards their culture and traditions, Iranians have manufactured their own identity that is very different from even its surrounding countries.
When it comes to genuine local experiences, Iran is at the top of their game. There are no western fast food chains, no western clothing stores, and a very limited selection of western snacks and drinks. Iranians truly understand their ancient culture and preserve it with pride.
Whether you’re going independent or on a tour, take your time to discover the country and see things for yourself. This is the most important step to form your own opinion about a country (any country), especially one with such unfavorable views in the mass media.
While independent blogs and social media have played a role in bypassing this unfavorable media by providing more honest and unbiased firsthand perspectives, I still recommend not taking our word for it.
Go and see it for yourself. Explore it. Feel it.
Nothing will compare to that.
Essential Info: Logistical Tips and Tricks to Book your Trip to Iran
GETTING THE RIGHT TOUR
I visited Iran with Intrepid Travel on their two-week Iran Adventure Tour. The experience was beyond what I expected, not only by Intrepid’s effort but also by Iran’s character itself. Intrepid Travel also helped tremendously to get my visa. I recommend reading this post for more information about getting the Iranian visa and how to plan your trip.
Before the tour, I booked my pre-tour and post-tour hostel with HostelWorld, one of the few sites that would show me hostels/hotels in Iran (at the time).
BOOK YOUR FLIGHTS
Find a cheap flight by using Skyscanner or Kayak. These are two of the sites I use the most due to their exhaustive search on several websites and airlines around the world. They usually bring the cheapest fares.
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