Tipped as one of the must-see destinations of 2016, it’s no surprise that the Iranian tourist industry is booming right now. With record numbers due to visit over the next five years is it time to let go of the pre-conceptions?
Interesting facts about Iran
- Iran has one of the only condom factories in the Middle East (like you didn’t already know?!)
- Iran is one of the few places where you can get married temporarily, even for just a few hours
- Google has been described by a police chief as a spying tool (sounds pretty accurate to me!)
- Iran has conducted more sex change operations than anywhere else in the world, second only to Thailand.
My Iranian Adventure
Persia (Iran) has always intrigued me, ever since I first saw Aladdin with its magic carpets and exotic spices, but did it live up to expectations? After visiting recently this is my ultimate guide to visiting Iran.
When Westerners think of Iran they often think of people burning flags, sanctions and nuclear programs. There are very few positive stories in the Western media depicting daily life here. However opinions couldn’t be more wrong, Westerners generally fascinate Iranians and they are keen to find out more about you. “Where are you from” and “Welcome to Iran, you are welcome” are two things you will hear from almost every friendly local you come into contact with.
Something that was evident to me is how naturally beautiful the people are. Both men and women take great care of their appearance and always dress smartly. A famous fact about Iranian people is that many people have corrective surgery on their noses. Don’t be surprised if you see people with huge plasters or bandages covering their nose, it’s like a status symbol.
My journey to Iran took a rather strange route; I flew from London to Istanbul then to Doha and eventually arriving into Tehran 24 hours later. This wasn’t ideal as I arrived completely tired and needing rest but sadly no rest for the wicked, I left Tehran as soon as I arrived and was driven to Kashan.
Across most of Central Asia, the Middle East and even some European countries the time around Easter is their time to celebrate the Nowruz festival (Spring time). Currently in the media being a Muslim can often be depicted as many different things, unfortunately what is rarely shown is actually how kind and generous the people are. During this period Iranians offer free tea, coffee, juice, sweets and other items to random people in the street as their way of celebrating. This is most certainly not how most people would assume an Iranian would be to a British person, which to me proves just how controlled we are by the media.
My first stop on the tour was to Kashan, a place famous for its merchant houses and beautiful old city, sadly many tourists often miss out this place in favour of travelling straight to Esfahan.
Sadly due to being sleep-deprived I don’t remember a huge amount about this place except for the unique accommodation. A mix-up meant I ended up sleeping in a local homestay where the bathroom was outside in a courtyard and I woke up to the sound of a chicken crowing. It was certainly a great way to start my Iranian adventure.
One of the must-see places in Kashan is the Khaneh Abbasian, an enormous complex that was completed in 1893 and was designed by a former tea dealer to provide accommodation for his daughter.
Esfahan is the third biggest city in Iran; it’s promoted as a Cultural Capital and has some of the most famous UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This sadly also makes it one of the busiest places in terms of tourist numbers.
Although Esfahan was initially Jewish, it quickly established itself as a majority Muslim city. Known for its impressive Maydan-e Imam square, one of the biggest in the world, this was a place I absolutely loved getting lost in. Every turn in the Bazaar meant a new discovery, whether it’s a new souvenir or a sweet pastry that had to be sampled, I simply fell in love with this place.
Whilst visiting Se-o-Se Pol Bridge, I was stopped so many times. Not by the police, but by locals wanting photos with me! For me personally, this is why I love to visit places that aren’t necessarily known for being tourist-friendly, simply to prove people wrong. If only I was able to walk around freely and alone without my guide I’d probably end up with thousands of photos of me with Iranians.
You can’t beat watching a bunch of men get a bit hot and sweaty for a good hour or so; in Esfahan (and in fact all across Iran) men use gymnasiums to practise and train for wrestling. Thankfully these days tourists can even go and watch, after seeing a group of eight men (including one who looked like Super Mario) warming up and using what looked like skittles they were then subsequently replaced by younger versions. These guys used a variety of equipment whilst during the whole time someone sat singing Iranian poems and banging a drum. A unique insight into an ancient tradition that still lives on to this very day.
One of my favourite memories of Esfahan that I will always remember is how children were able to play freely in the street. One of my fellow tourists even played football with several who then politely proceeded to ask if their mum could video them interviewing him in English on their mobile phones so he could show his teacher at school. Such a sweet experience and one that you’ll rarely encounter anywhere else in the modern world.
Yazd used to be a desert city, although these days it’s a bustling place that’s often described as one of the most tourist-friendly cities in Iran. After discovering the old city I realised that it is the second most preserved city after Venice, pretty incredible given how many times Iran has been invaded.
I arrived in Yazd on not only International Women’s Day but also Independence Day; this is when Iranians celebrate the day of the Islamic revolution. This was a huge turning point in Iran’s history, however even with Western sanctions the country has flourished and continues to attract tourists from all over the world intrigued to get a glimpse into the magic carpet world of Persia.
As I’m not religious I’d never heard of Zoroastrianism, however Yazd is famous for once having a thriving community here. Zoroastrianism predates Judaism, Christianity and Islam and focussed on the uncreated god, Ahura Mazda, creator of all things. Sadly after the Islamic revolution the Zoroastrian population is now less than 10%.
Persepolis – the jewel in Iran’s tourism crown and probably the most famous site in the whole country. Tourists thankfully don’t know about this place yet, but adventurous travellers have been venturing here for ages to discover a unique side of Iran that’s still relatively unknown in the mainstream travel industry.
With 2016 due to be a bumper year for Iran’s tourism industry, I’m in no doubt that this place won’t stay hidden for long. Currently French, German and other European tourists dominate whilst Brits, Americans and Canadians make up a relatively low number, more than likely due to the visa restrictions.
If you plan to visit Persepolis, definitely aim to get there early as once the crowds gather it’s difficult to get the perfect shots and can get extremely hot in the summer.
Naqsh-e-Rostam is only a few minutes drive away and was only discovered thanks to carvings in the rocks at Persepolis. This fascinating ancient burial place was once the final resting place for Iranian kings who would be placed inside the open tomb and left for nature to take its path.
This place really reminded me so much of Petra in Jordan, it’s incredibly well preserved and should definitely feature highly on your list of places to see if you decide to visit Iran.
Shiraz is the third biggest city in Iran; situated in the south of the country I had been prepared for this place to be warmer but thankfully this made exploring all the more comfortable. There’s so much to see here, including my favourite place in Iran – the Pink mosque. It’s probably the most famous image you’ll see of the country but most people wouldn’t guess it’s located here. I happily spent a good hour there just absorbing the wonderful colours.
At the Qu’ran Gate I met a very lovely local who was super excited to meet me, although I was restricted by time she wanted to know where I was from, when I was leaving and whether I could come and have dinner with her and her mum. So sweet! Sadly I didn’t get the opportunity but if I head back to Iran I’ll be sure to take her up on that offer.
If like me you can’t survive a week without your Facebook fix then you’re going to need to use a VPN in Iran. This way you can bypass the Government restrictions that are currently in place, and have been for the past 7 years. Facebook/Twitter and most Western media is not accessible without a VPN, if you try to access it you’ll be confronted by a rather angry looking screen, all in Persian – naturally.
After spending eight days in Iran I can easily say this is one of the safest countries in the Middle East. Being sandwiched between Iraq and Afghanistan can certainly cause its fair share of problems, but none that you’ll likely encounter if you decide to visit.
Fancy following in my footsteps? I travelled with UK based travel agency Lupine Travel who offer tours to unique destinations including Eritrea, Turkmenistan and North Korea.
If you’d like to discover more photographs and information from this trip or any others please feel free to ask me any questions. You can visit my Facebook page and please don’t forget to ‘Like’ Travel Geek UK.