We live in an age where we are so pressed for time, we need to make snap judgements. All too often those judgements come from outside us: We believe what we are told to believe – by the media, by our peers, our families. All too often these judgements cloud our travel decisions, too. They affect our ideas of where we want to go, where is “safe”.
Sometimes the most rewarding travel destinations of all are left off our bucket lists because of the negative image spread about them across the media. For me, there’s no country that’s a better example of this than Iran.
Despite its rich culture, Iran is a country that few people make it to.
A country that has been cut off with bureaucratic and political red tape since the end of the ‘70s for all but the most persistent American and British travellers (in particular), the process of traveling to Iran is not simple for many travelers. The visa process is nuanced to say the least and requires a good deal of patience (mine arrived two days before I was supposed to fly).
For a hot moment in 2016-2017, it looked like things were improving for tourism to Iran – sanctions were being lifted and visitor numbers were increasing to discover the secret beauty within.
At the beginning of 2018, with the new US leadership, that all changed. Travel to Iran is still possible – even for Americans – but you may have to be part of a tour and be willing to put some effort in for your visa.
So why should you visit?
Iran is home to some of the finest architecture in the world. Its mosques in Shiraz and Isfahan will quite literally blow your mind with their intricately decorated domes and shades of blue, the Persian gardens and shrines to sufi poets will instill tranquility, and you’ll be welcomed by some of the warmest people I’ve ever met.
Rather than worrying about safety you’ll find your main concerns in Iran are what to say to all the friendly people who approach you and want you to have tea with them, practice English with their kids and want to know what you think of Iran.
Visiting Iran was a true lesson in how wrong my assumptions were. As a Brit, I fell under the mandatory tour requirement. (All British, American and Canadian citizens have to take a tour in Iran). I was a little nervous. Would I have to be accompanied at all times? Would I be watched? Would I be restricted in my movements and have to watch out for unwanted male attention in a country where women are known for having to cover up?
Sitting in my hotel room in Tehran, waiting for my tour to start, the phone rang. It was my tour guide – Mina – my surprise when I heard a young woman’s voice at the other end of the phone must have been noticeable. And that was just the beginning.
Throughout my time in Iran, I was pleasantly surprised to see a buzzing coffee and cafe culture in Tehran, headscarves pushed so far back they struggled to grip elaborate hairstyles, and some of the most stylish women I’ve seen anywhere. Today, 70% of Iran’s medicine and engineering graduates are women.
Beyond the dazzling architecture, delicious food, cultural scene and ever-present chai stops, what stood out to me most in Iran was the kindness of the people. People were curious, and their hospitality overflowed, beyond the customary Taar’of (the Iranian civility code). Even as a group of 12 people we were invited to countless homes and families stopped us at historical monuments just wanting to chat.
If you believe in the type of travel that brings people closer and overcomes perceptions of politics and governments – Iran might just be the most rewarding travel experience ever.