The country that brought us The Arabian Nights easily has more than 1001 tales to excite the traveller, and by the end of a trip to this country you might be able to add a few of your own.
This is the country of Cyrus the Great, poets, conquerors, Ayatollahs and religious police. If you obtain a visa you will be amply rewarded for your patience as the citizens of Iran are extremely open, friendly, hospitable, educated and curious, unlike their paranoid government. Despite the negative political attention Iran receives from the West, the country has much more depth and history to offer its visitors. It has produced some of the most splendid poets in the world such as Hāfez (aka Hāfiz), not to mention the grape variety known as Shiraz to vinologists.
The next time you drink a bottle of red Shiraz, think of Iran and the sweet folks that gave it to the rest of the world. Let the flavour and smell of your wine bring you to the endless bazaars, full of shouting merchants selling herbs and spices, to hidden tea-houses where secret whispers fill the air mingling with the sweet fragrance of dozens of shishas.
The real Iran is old and proud, descendants of Persia, of a string of Empires dating back 5000 years. Iranians are well educated. Both men and women, in fact, there are more women in the universities than men. You will be engaged in conversation by anybody and everybody.
When imagining Iran, let your mind drift into the land of swirling blue mosques, winding alleys, wind-towers, ancient ziggurats, graceful arched bridges, carpets, snow-capped mountains, simmering deserts, saints and sinners, poets and kings, shrines and mausoleums, palaces, ruins and more. Perhaps, in the distance, you will hear a call to cast off any pre-conceptions and discover the real Iran.
Highlights from Iran
- Stroll the immense Grand Bazaar of Tabriz (aka Bāzār-e Tabriz)in search of spices, trinkets or whatever else your heart desires
- Visit chaotic Teheran (aka Tehrān) and its many museums and palaces
- Ski with the Iranian jet-set in the Alborz mountains north of Teheran, or hike to any number of quaint, small villages like Masuleh or Kang
- Learn what “Esfahān nesf-e jahān ast” means and why Isfahan is justly called ‘Half of the World’ (aka Esfahan, Espahan, Sepahan, Hispahan) as you gape at its magnificent Islamic architecture, its covered bridges, bazaars, mosques and madrassas.
- Walk around the twisting lanes of Yazd, pinching yourself every now and again to make sure you are not dreaming, then climb up a minaret and look over a sea of wind-towers
- Go to Shiraz, where the old wineries might have disappeared, but the ruins of ancient Persepolis remain and will certainly leave you stunned, or venture further back in time to the 5000 year old ziggurat at Choqa Zanbil (aka Chogha Zanbil)
- Understand what Shia Islam means to Iran in Masshad or Qom, then realise the importance of poetry at the tombs of Ferdowsi in Tus, or Hafez in Shiraz
- Smoke shisha and drink tea in one of the many tea-houses while engaging in interesting conversation with any number of Iranians that will inevitably invite you as you meander through the country
- Iran is dotted with historical sites, shrines, mausoleums, ruins and whatnot; too many to mention, go out in search of them, and here are just a few to wet your appetite: Kaleybar, Qazvin, Kashan, Mahan, Hormuz and Bam
Hints and Tips for Iran
- Getting a visa for Iran is an art in itself. Do your research on where best to get one. The embassy in your country is not necessarily the best place to get it (though it might be). You will need an Iranian sponsor and there are specialized travel agencies and visa agencies who can handle this for you. You have to get your paperwork right, and you will need to be patient. Depending on your nationality, the embassy you applied at, the competence of the visa agency (sponsor), and any number of random events and facts, approval will come fast or slow or not at all.
- Everybody is welcome in Iran, including citizens of the US, though they are required to go on a tour, and, be aware, that for some nationalities it simply is harder to get a visa.
- Iran is very easy and safe to travel, with a good bus system, a functioning railway (though taking the bus is quicker), great roads and a lot of signs in both Farsi and English.
- People will want to talk politics with you, be diplomatic, let them take the lead and be mindful of ‘unwanted’ ears (secret police and the sorts).
- There is a strict dress code for Iran, men and women need to cover up their arms and legs (men can wear a t-shirt, not shorts though!!) and women are obliged to cover their hair.
- Do not show public affection to the opposite sex, no holding hands, cuddling or kissing! It will land you in serious trouble. There are religious police and, while you might not see them, they are everywhere.
- ATM’s, credit cards, and travellers cheques don’t work in Iran, they are not on the international banking grid due to Western sanctions. You will need to bring in cash, preferably crisp new US dollars or euros, which you will be able to change at the banks for Iranian rials. Remember to bring enough for the entire trip and then some.
- Farsi is the national language of Iran, but you can get around with English easy enough. Learning some Farsi, however, is highly appreciated.
- Alcohol is prohibited, but it is available underground. You might be approached by illicit traders and you might be invited to an underground party, whatever you do, keep in mind it is all illegal.