Almost everyone’s reaction upon finding out I intended to travel to Iran was negative : “You’re insane”, “Why in the world would you go there”, “You’re going to be kidnapped”. I have to admit I felt pretty scared knowing how my friends and family felt, and based on everything I read in the news daily. It seemed to be one of those countries that was taboo to travel to considering the political situation since 1979… until you delve deeper into your research. I was confident about the information I found on travelling in Iran : that it is possibly *gasp* incredibly safe for tourists.
Domed ceiling of the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan
Here are a couple things you should know about Iranians :
- You will get bombarbed, by young school girls trying to practice their English and feed you candy
- You will be followed around, by locals wishing to invite you to dinner
- You will be scammed, by old women helping you figure out that you are trying to give a 1 000 000$ bill for a 10 000$ pomegranate juice (Iranian currency is the most confusing thing I have ever dealt with)
- You will be harassed, by Iranians yelling out “Welcome to Iran, what do you think of Iran?”
- You will get kidnapped, by locals on Couchsurfing who want to make you breakfast in their apartment and show you how to use the metro
Woman buying lemons at Kerman’s main bazaar
Iranians have been unfairly portrayed in Western media due to events that happened over 30 years ago and the actions of their current government, and they have suffered for it. The government does not represent all of it’s people, meaning Iranians are not anti-American Muslim fanatic terrorists. When it comes to the government committing human rights violations, I will not pretend to be an expert in the matter, but is it not intriguing that countries such as Russia and China seem to get away with it whereas Iran is crucified in our media. All I can say is as a tourist I have never felt as safe or welcomed when travelling in a foreign country as I did in Iran.
You can always find Iranians socializing and having picnics in parks, 3 ladies pictured here at the Eram Garden in Shiraz
As for the mandatory headscarf and womens rights, once again it is not always the choice of the people. Yes, many of the women are religious and choose to wear a chador, however most did not judge me for dressing liberally. I also met countless others who lamented the headscarf and dreamed of a day when they would have more freedom : to ride bikes, to play sports in public, to dress how they wish. For the time being, they hope for small victories and push the boundaries of conservative dressing. I did get many stares when walking alone with a man, but was never bothered when I wandered around on my own.
In Tehran, Isfahan and Shiraz, the cities are as modern and developped as any of our own. Turn around a corner and you will find a beautifully decorated mosque with a square in front and families having picnics, teens taking selfies and young couples strolling. Take a bus for a couple hours and end up in beautiful deserts or at the ruins of Persepolis. If you are willing to travel there with an open mind, then I cannot recommend Iran enough : from the sights, to the people, to the culture, to the religion and last but not least the food (just don’t order too many kebabs).
Ancient ruins to rival any crowded roman ones, how did I get Persepolis to myself?!
So have I convinced you yet? Well you’re probably not the only one. Iran has been popping up regularly on new travel destination lists left right and centre, everyone seems to be scrambling to label it as the next hotspot, myself included. The main advantage of not listening to anyone warning me not to go for various reasons, was having most places all to myself and locals. However I imagine it will only be a matter of time before attractions get unbearably crowded. If you don’t believe me, then all you need to do is check out these articles on Travel and Leisure, Condé Nast Traveler, The Guardian, Bloomberg…
Get there before everyone else does, I can guarantee that it will no longer be the same in a couple years. Especially with the Iranian government opening it’s borders and expanding visas for 37 countries as of January 2017. Cue discussions on mass tourism, beneficial or harmful?
*Edit : In light of current international events, I would still urge you to go now more than ever. Yes, I am referring to a certain President banning Iranian citizens from entering the USA, and Iran banning visas for Americans in retaliation. Despite being subjected to this cruel ban separating families and friends (there are over 1 million Iranians in the US), Iranians are still as welcoming to foreigners as ever. The silver lining in all of this is that Iran decided to cancel visas for 37 countries the day after the ban was announced, meaning citizens from these countries will no longer need visas in advance to enter the country, aka more tourism.
If you’re looking for some good reads on Iran, I highly recommend the following books :
- Lonely Planet Iran
- A History of Iran : Empire of the Mind by Michael Axworthy
- Revolutionary Iran : A History of the Islamic Republic by Michael Axworthy
- The Lonely War : One Woman’s Account of the Struggle for Modern Iran by Nazila Fathi