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Let’s face it. Iran is not likely to be the first country that comes to mind when choosing your next travel destination.
The international media paint the country in a less than favourable light. Due to historical or current issues, diplomatic relations with some countries are strained. If you are a UK, American or Canadian citizen you are not permitted to travel independently and will need to join a tour.
However, those who do choose to travel here will find a country that is rich in history and cultural heritage, inhabited by some of the most welcoming people on earth. To convince you to add this enigmatic country to your bucket list, here are nine reasons to visit Iran
1. To learn about Iran’s long history
Iran is a must-see destination for any history buff. Millennia of history and culture have shaped the land, leaving a stunning legacy of archaeological treasures.
Built by the mighty Achaemenid Empire over 2,500 years ago, the vast UNESCO-listed heritage site of Persepolis was one of my main reasons to visit Iran. In its day, this was one of the world’s great cities and housed the palaces of Darius the Great, Xerxes and Artaxerxes. Persepolis is famous for its exquisitely detailed bas reliefs depicting kings and courtiers from tributary nations.
2. To marvel at Islamic architecture
Another legacy of Iran’s long history is its Islamic architecture. I have marvelled at mosques in other countries in the region, including Israel and Syria, but Iran is home to the most impressive Islamic architecture that I have seen. The influence of Iranian architecture can be seen in other parts of the Islamic world, especially in Central Asia, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Characterised by their domes clad in richly-patterned, golden, white and turquoise tiles, sparkling in the bright sunlight, and large arcades and arches each supported by several tapered brick pillars, visiting Iran’s mosques is one of Iran’s highlights. These monumental buildings feature soaring entrance portals and abundant symbolic geometry
I came across many examples on my visit. The exquisite blue-tiled mosaics of the Iman Mosque in Isfahan and the hypnotic harmony of the nearby Sheikh Loftollah Mosque. The 48 meter- high minarets and soaring tiled entrance portal of the Jameh Mosque in Yazd. But equal to these was the way the morning sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows of the Nasir al-Mulk (“Pink Mosque”) in Shiraz cast multi-coloured patterns on its carpeted floor.
3. To visit lush Persian gardens
Designed to symbolise paradise on earth, Persian gardens are another important part of Iranian architecture.
We visited the Eram Garden in Shiraz. Encircling a three-floored mansion with decorative pillars and elaborately carved wooden doors, this botanical garden features water channels framed by stately cypress trees, ornamental shrubs and flowers and fruit trees.
4. To discover the eco-friendliest way of dealing with the dead
With its mud-brick houses, wind catchers and winding lanes, Yazd was one of my highlights of visiting Iran. The city is also notable for being an important centre for Zoroastrianism and is home to the largest Zoroastrian community in Iran.
Zoroastrians believe that when a person dies, their body can be contaminated by demons and made impure. To prevent this from happening, they placed corpses in concentric circles on the top of flat-topped towers (dakhmas) in the desert to allow them to slowly disintegrate and be stripped by vultures. After this purification process, their sun-bleached bones were left in ossuaries inside the tower.
Since the 1970s, Iran has made the use of dakhmas illegal but you can visit these so-called Towers of Silence whilst in Yazd.
5. To explore the extraordinary rooftops of Abarkuh
Known for its ice houses, used to store food and water before the advent of refrigerators, and the Aghazadeh Mansion, which is portrayed on the 20,000 Rial bills, Abarkuh is an ancient mud-brick city in Yazd province.
We had a wonderful lunch in one of the town’s characterful buildings before being led outside to explore the city’s other-worldly skyline, punctuate with wind catchers.
6. To shop in vibrant bazaars
I’m not a shopaholic but I do like the vibrancy of bazaars, their colours, the smell of herbs and spices, the sounds of merchants calling out to one another.
Whether you are after an authentic souvenir to take home – no “Made in China’ cheap tatt here – spices to pep up your cooking back home or a Persian carpet to grace your hardwood floor, you will not be short of inspiration in Iran. Even if you are not on a shopping spree, the bazaars are a destination in their own right and you can do worse than wandering through their labyrinthine alleyways.
I challenge you not to be tempted to buy a Persian carpet by the end of your visit to Iran.
7. To tantalise your taste buds
After dining at the home of an Iranian friend in London I was looking forward to expanding my taste buds further. Iranian cuisine is unique and another very good reason to visit Iran.
Persian cuisine is characterised by stewed and charcoal-grilled meat, flatbreads and dips such as baba ganoush and hummus, rice and salads. Saffron often permeates in marinades and rice, and is used to add warm golden colour and distinct aroma. Complex and layered flavours are created by using black (dried) lime and other sources of a sour note with warm spices such as cinnamon and parsley.
Those with a sweet tooth will not be disappointed. As delicious as the saffron and rosewater ice cream was, my favourite was faloodeh, semi-frozen rice noodles dunked in syrup and rose water.
Foodies will not be disappointed on a trip to Iran. If you are looking for a gift to take home, saffron is cheaper than in Europe or why not pick up a few packets of pistachio nuts?
8. To experience legendary Iranian hospitality
How many times have you heard travel writers wax lyrical about local hospitality? A travel writing cliché it may be but, in the case of Iran, that doesn’t make it less true.
Hospitality is ingrained in Iranian culture but it’s more than that. Iranians highly-educated and progressively-minded people and want visitors to see them as such. A far cry from how they are portrayed by the western media.
9. To form your own opinion about Iran
This brings me to the last of my reasons to visit Iran and, I argue, the most compelling one.
All too often, right-wing politicians and some media outlets reduce Iran to a caricature; a religious fundamentalist state hell-bent on the destruction of the West, and of the United States in particular. Iranians are the ultimate cartoon villains.
But if you scratch the surface of this rhetoric, the reality is far more complex. Iran is an Islamic State but this doesn’t mean that Iranian people despise Western people or their values. Iranian people I spoke with were eager to chat and to find out about my life back home.
There’s virtually no violent crime, and petty theft is rare. Contrary to some perceptions, Iran is a safe nation to travel in. Unlike my home city of London for example, violent crime is virtually non-existent and petty theft rare.
Therefore, turn your back on the image of the country and its people propagated by the media and give Iran a chance. I’m not suggesting that one visit to Iran will transform you into an expert on the country’s history culture and politics. However, it should open your mind to alternative narratives and surely that’s what travel is about?
How I visited Iran
I visited Iran on a group tour operated by Exodus Travels. Although Explore is not currently operating tours to Iran, other operators continue to do so. For example. a similar itinerary is offered by Explore!
Getting an Iranian visa
Acquiring an Iranian visa is not straightforward, requiring time, patience and an acceptance that success is not guaranteed. Note that Israelis are not permitted to travel to Iran at all and you are likely to have your visa refused if you have an Israeli stamp on your passport.
UK visitors to the US may not be not eligible for the Visa Waiver Program (ESTA) following a visit to Iran.
Dress code for women in Iran
If you are a female visitor to Iran, you need to be aware of the country’s dress code and pack accordingly. The country has a conservative dress code and women need to wear a loose, long layer over their regular clothes. By law, you need to wear a headscarf in public places.
However, this doesn’t mean you have to look frumpy. Iranian women are super stylish so take your cue from them (I quizzed my Iranian friend before setting off). I scoured Primark for cheap leggings, skinny jeans and oversized tunics and shirts.
If you really want to blend in, pick up a light overcoat (manteaux) as a cover-upon arrival. This should only set you back $25 at the most.
As younger Iranian women wear their headscarves loosely, often just sitting on the top of the head, don’t fret about having this tightly pinned onto your head.
Some mosques will require you to wear a chador – a large piece of fabric to cover you from head to toe – to gain entrance, which they will lend to you.