As a country blessed with extraordinary historical sites, a colorful and diverse culture, and exquisite landscapes, Iran tourism is about to take off. And it’s easy to see why. This captivating destination has more than enough to lure a healthy dose of tourism.
Yet, this Muslim country has fallen short of making a blip on most tourists’ radars, 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 get a tourist visa and explore. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Visiting Iran as an American had been on my radar for over five years before I decided to seriously attempt the trip. To be honest, at one point, I asked myself, “Can Americans travel to Iran?”. And I thought it would be nearly impossible to get an Iranian tourist 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 offered tourist visas to travellers from all over the world.
Still, whether for lack of information or disagreements in matters of local laws, tourism in Iran hasn’t taken off, and many people aren’t convinced enough to visit this beautiful country.
But is Iran worth visiting?
After visiting Iran and seeing things with my own eyes, my only answer to that question is a huge YES!
Here I’ll give you a few reasons to visit Iran and why you should go now more than ever.
You may wonder, “Is Iran safe for American tourists?”. The short answer is, Yes!
It’s true that the Iranian government 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 fear-mongering at its best. And it’s only denying you the chance to experience this beautiful country (which is more fascinating than countries like Saudi Arabia and 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 U.S.
In fact, I’m comfortable saying that being in Iran is much safer than being in the U.S. The country has several military checkpoints and strict security forces, which are not only in place to protect its citizens, but those who travel to Iran 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 that 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?” After we explained it to her, her horrified expression told us she was confused about the word. She was thinking about pickpocketing.
Yes, pickpocket incidents 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 Isfahan past midnight.
Visiting Iran as a solo traveler (and as a solo female traveler) is safe. However, U.S., UK, and Canadian travelers don’t have the luxury of solo travel in the country (for now). So you’ll be required to take an organized tour as another safety layer and to exercise caution.
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. Take me as one more voice that can confirm this.
Iran’s hospitality is second to none. Iranian citizens are both warm and welcoming, but this is not just a façade to look nice. This is an essential feature of not only Islamic law but their culture at large.
It is not uncommon to strike up a conversation with an Iranian while walking down the street, sitting at a park, or just at any given moment.
After a few minutes of 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 only 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 a conversation about 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 traditional chadors) reach out to me in a friendly manner and ask to have their pictures taken with me.
Considering how obedient to Iranian law they all seemed to be, I would have never made an attempt to talk to them, but here they were, reaching out and being friendly to me.
In my opinion, their hospitality is one of the best qualities they have, and it’s telling of authentic Iranian culture.
Its History is World Heritage
When you visit Iran, you get to explore one of the world’s oldest continuous civilizations, with its urban and historical settlements dating back to 7000 BC. You’ll find Iran’s 26 UNESCO World Heritage Sites dotted across its major cities and small towns.
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. These are usually included in most tours and are easy to visit.
Iran’s rich history spans from Ancient Persia to modern-day Iran. As you travel through the Islamic Republic, you’ll see hints of the Achaemenid Empire, Sasanian Era, Safavid and Qajar Dynasties, among many others.
Something you won’t miss when you travel to Iran is the importance and impact the Islamic Revolution had on the country in the modern-day. Its society, religion, and how it, in certain ways, clashes with the country’s customs.
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 in Shiraz (and the necropolis next to it). The Golestan Palace in Tehran, the Historic City of Yazd, the Persian Gardens (any, in any city), and the Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Isfahan complete the list.
Its Mosques and Architecture Are Outstanding
From its lavishly decorated mosques to its palaces, bazaars and its modern monuments, Iran has developed its own architectural language, 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 in 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 is lavishly decorated with a massive mirror mosaic.
It’s interesting how this concept of mirror mosaics began. During the Safavid Dynasty (1501 – 1736), 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, one of the other countries in Europe with florishing architecture at the time.
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 in the decorating of 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 culture and society at large.
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 historical houses of Kashan, like the Tabatabaei House. There are also ancient bathhouses, the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence in Yazd, and many other buildings to admire.
And it’s not just built architecture. Iranian authorities know how to get the right people to structure beautiful landscapes 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 Kurdistan and Farsi-speaking Tehran.
The language disparity also expands to the nomadic regions in Fars Province and even down to the Arab-influenced southern coast, which connects to the rest of the Middle East.
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.
Christianity, Armenian Christianity, and Zoroastrianism, among others, are also common religions in Iran.
Zoroastrianism is said to be the oldest monotheistic religion in the world that is still practiced — dating back to the 5th and 6th century BCE.
Although 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. Here 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 you ask and see a slightly different perspective of Iran from their point of view.
And the nomads, another rich and interesting subculture of Iran, is unfortunately, slowly dying.
Nomadism, a Dying Lifestyle
Iran’s nomadic communities, the Qashqai, settled in the country during the 11th and 12th Centuries. While most of these nomadic pastoralist tribes have become sedentary these days, a small group still practises nomadism on a seasonal basis.
These tribes still travel roughly 480 km (about 300 miles) with their flocks twice a year to spend the summer in the cooler highlands. And their 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 to tourists who want to see and learn about their former lifestyle that still lingers in their daily traditions.
Spend the night with a family sharing traditions and eating their delicious home-cooked traditional nomadic dishes. Learning about their handicrafts, especially their hand-woven carpets, is another must-do in Iran.
Many sedentary Qashqai families still conserve their traditional nomadic tents where you can spend the night or have breakfast.
So, can Americans visit Iran? Yes. But of all the nationalities, U.S., British, and Canadian citizens are the only ones that require an organized tour guide during their trip to Iran.
However, when you visit Iran as an American, you’ll have the hardest time trying to acquire an Iranian visa.
Still, visiting Iran is possible for foreign nationals. These three just have it a bit harder to get a tourist visa to enter the country due to unresolved foreign affairs with the western world.
Also, contrary to what you see in the media, Iran has absolutely no hatred against Americans. Ignore the fear-mongering. I already told you how friendly Iranians are, and this extends to every nationality.
I’ll be the first one to admit that during the first day of my Iran trip, I was a bit hesitant to tell people I was American. I didn’t know how they would react and if that would put me in any sort of danger. Those fears were soon unfounded.
As soon as I met my tour guide, I asked her about it just to be safe, and she immediately put to rest any mild concerns I had about openly sharing that I’m an 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.
I told every single one of them 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, struck up 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 U.S. and shared an overall knowledge of the country -– almost in admiration. In fact, he was wearing a bandana with an American flag.
It’s a shame how we don’t have a similar appreciation for foreign cultures, like theirs, the same way they do about ours.
Iran Travel Is 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 local media publications share this country’s uniqueness, inspiring even more adventurous travelers to visit.
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’ll be challenged by prejudices and warnings from friends and family.
Only to end up with an experience you know will not compare to any other destination around the world. For the most part, Iran is still highly isolated from the rest of the world.
Iran is Still Cheap
This could vary drastically from the time of writing to when you’re reading this, as the economic situation in Iran is dire. Sanctions have crippled their economy, bringing down the Iranian Rial with it.
While this is very unfortunate for Iranians, it makes the country very cheap for us to travel to Iran.
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. Today the Iranian Rial is about 41,850 to the U.S. dollar.
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 $4 (167,400 Rials), and a can of Coke, $0.90 (37,665 Rials). If you’d like a taxi around town, you can expect to pay about $0.50 to $3 (20,925 to 125,550 Rials).
Another reason why travel to Iran is picking up is the vibrant and intriguing art. Each province, city, village, and sub-culture in Iran has its own handicrafts.
Yazd has the beautiful Termeh cloth, Shiraz has the “city carpets”, the Qashqai people 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 originate and are in abundance.
Also, different cities tend to offer different colors and patterns in their art. You can get so many high-quality handmade 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 some Persian delicacies. I loved their flatbread so much that 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.
Whether it’s due to the sanctions that have led to an extremely limited commercial exchange with many other countries.
Iranians take pride in their culture and traditions, therefore, Iranian authorities have manufactured their own identity that is very different from its neighboring countries in the Middle East.
Regarding 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 independently or on a guided tour, take your time to discover the country and see things for yourself. This is the most important step to forming your own opinion about 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 negative media by providing more honest and unbiased firsthand perspectives. I still recommend not taking our word for it.
Go and see it for yourself. Visit Iran now.
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.
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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