Ever since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, many in the West have considered Iran as just another no-go zone in the Middle East for them. Back then, it may have been a very accurate assessment to make, but these days, matters are quite different. While many restrictions are in place (e.g. those who are Israeli are barred from entering the country, as are any visitors showing Israeli entry stamps in their passport), the country these days is a surprisingly safe place for Westerners.
That said, many visitors will have to put in a good deal of work in visa procurement before flying to Tehran can become a reality. The process for getting the necessary entry stamp is an onerous one, with those going through the bureaucratic hoops expecting to wait a long time, with processing times upwards of 30 days for some nationalities. Additionally, U.S. citizens are not permitted to travel independently here, as they must be part of an organized group to travel within the country.
Once inside the country, take care to adhere to the very conservative norms (long pants for guys, hijabs for women), and refrain from taking pictures of military installations or other infrastructure, as it may give security forces cause to detain you indefinitely.
Once you get past the rigid expectations surrounding your conduct, the culture and the nature of this historically significant nation will have you spellbound. Rich detailed mosques and monuments await you in the cities, while sky-high peaks, contemplative deserts and subtropical beaches await those who seek out Iran’s outdoor bounties.
Overall, this fiercely proud nation, descended from the mighty Persians that once ruled the known world and resisted attempts by other powers in the region to stamp out its culture, is a travel destination that any fan of the Middle East would regret missing.
Currency: Iranian Rial
Languages: Persian, Turkish, Kurdish
What To Do
Back in the age of the Romans and the Greeks, the Persians were a force that rose up from the arid plains of modern day Iran to conquer much of the known world more than 2,000 years ago. Persepolis was their capital city, and though only ruins remain in the present day, the bones that they left behind hinted at it being a major centre of commerce, government and culture.
With construction finished during the reign of Xerxes the Great (yes, THAT Xerxes), they had a power base that reflected the influence and might of the Persian Empire at that time. Walk among the immense ruins of palaces and temples, with elaborate carvings of people and events of those times, and stare on in bafflement at the Babylonian script etched into multiple reliefs around the city.
Next, head to Meymand, which is held up by many as one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited settlements, as there is evidence of people organizing themselves into groups of buildings here as far back as 12,000 years ago. 410 houses here are hand-carved into the rocks, with 150 people still calling some of them home. Rock engravings in the area date back to 10,000 years ago, while there is pottery that is mostly intact that has been confirmed to be over 6,000 years old.
For those looking for examples of Iran’s outstanding Islamic art, be sure to check out Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Esfahan. This town centre contains mosques and palaces with mesmerizing art within their interiors, immaculately trimmed and manicured gardens that feel like you are walking through the middle of a masterpiece, and soaring minarets that surround it all.
Much of the interior of Iran is arid, making for excellent opportunities for travelers to go out on a desert trek. By coordinating tours through operators in Na’in or Kashan, one can ride camels, camp in the desert, and climb the sand dunes that are found near here. This last activity is best tackled just before sunrise, as the views from the dunes that top out at 62 metres can be quite spectacular.
Finally, depending on when you visit Iran, there are options for some other fun (but season-dependant) activities. The mountains located in Iran soar high into the troposphere, piercing the sky at a peak height of 5,600 metres (18,000 feet). As such, many of the surrounding lower mountains make for excellent skiing in the winter time. Unencumbered by long lift lines in Japan or the European Alps, you can feed your (snow) powder addiction while connecting with the locals in a way you never thought possible before coming here!
If you want to test the waters of the Persian Gulf in the warmer months, and don’t mind mass tourism (or the enforced conservatism of the government concerning gender), then a visit to Kish Island is a curious way to cool off in the middle of summer. Those looking for facilities will not be disappointed here, as there are abundant hotels, shopping malls, and eateries to satiate your every whim. Well, except for cocktails, that is, as alcohol is illegal in Iran. It is considered haram by the edicts of Islam and the religious authorities within the government, so stick to a non-alcoholic banana shake for now, eh?
What To Eat
You may be let down by restaurants here, but it’s not because the local food is bad; it’s just that most Iranians prefer to cook at home, as a matter of culture. That said, try to track down some Chelo Kabab, which is a blanket term for a variety of grilled meats that are placed on a bed of fragrant rice. These dishes come with a slew of side dishes, from tomatoes, to raw onions, and even raw egg yolks, if that’s your thing.
A popular meal cooked at home, should you manage to get invited to eat in somebody’s residence, is a hearty stew named Khoresht. This delicious dish, which is traditionally eaten with rice, contains a bit of meat along with fruits like apples and plums, among other variations, of which there are many.
Finally, those that are avowed vegetarians should make an effort to have some Ash Reshte during their stay in Iran. This dish is made by combining herbs, chickpeas, and thick noodles, and is topped with yoghurt and fried onions when served.