The United States government and the leaders of Iran might not get along, but that’s no reason not to visit the ancient land of Persia. The lure of dusty incense-infused bazaars, mosques emblazoned in a myriad of mosaics, and thousands of years of architectural history was overwhelming and earlier this year, I decided Iran was too intoxicating a prospect to let safety concerns deter me.
Iran is a deeply polarized nation due to its political governance. But the hospitality of Iranians is legendary. Even though their government may not see eye to eye with ours, the Iranian people couldn’t be more delighted to welcome tourists to their country. Only recently, Iran’s government has begun urging tourists to return, particularly tourists from the United States, and small groups are trickling in.
Iran is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and one that’ll remain with any traveler forever. Traveling alone, even as a woman, might even be to your advantage since hospitality to lonely travelers is ingrained in the Iranian culture.
A Quick and Dirty Iranian Travel Cheat Sheet
Your Visa: It must be pre-approved by the Iranian embassy; I applied for mine through intrepid tour operator, Travel The Unknown, whose exciting itineraries such as Classical Iran would satisfy the heartiest of adventurers.
Get a Guide: It isn’t the norm for a young woman to travel alone to Iran most tourists have to be accompanied by a guide at all times. Mine turned out to be a 25-year-old woman, and we instantly hit it off. Traveling with a guide is a huge bonus since it puts an invaluable fount of knowledge at your fingertips and allows you to learn first-hand about life in Iran and its rich tapestry of history.
Safety: Contrary to the western stigma, I found Iran the friendliest and safest country in the Middle East. (And I’ve traveled extensively from Oman to Lebanon, so I speak with authority.) On occasion, I explored alone, stumbling into Persian teahouses and navigating busy bazaars. People looked at me and asked questions out of curiosity, since a foreign woman alone is a rare sight. But this just spurred great conversations—a highlight of the trip.
Dress Code: "Why do we have to wear this thing?" I cried out, pointing at the itchy, hot hijab (headscarf) suffocating my hair and neck, which I pinned like an amateur into my scalp, lest it slip in public. Since Iran became the Islamic Republic in 1979, the headscarf is mandatory, as is long, baggy clothing to hide the female form. On the ground, interpretations vary. In Tehran, veils start far back at the crown of the head, exposing a perfectly coiffed bouffant. Faces are a palette of sculpted beauty, with expertly layered make-up and attention-catching pouts. As a tourist, dress conservatively and remain respectful, but you can experiment with beautiful materials and colorful prints.
Culture: I found Iranians to be honest and hospitable. One morning, I left my mobile phone in the back of a taxi. Within 15 minutes, the driver safely returned it to me. During another ride, the cost of a taxi actually decreased, as the driver decided my destination was closer than he’d initially thought. My final few days were spent with my guide and her friends, being driven around the city exploring sights, restaurants and hidden gems.
Why Should You Go to Iran?
The Persian Empire was once the largest in the world. The remaining ruins are numerous and remarkably preserved. Iran features one of the highest concentrations of Unesco heritage sites in the world with many more on the tentative list.
Intellect is Engrained: With a history of poets, philosophers, scientists, artists, and leading architects, Iran has always been a hub of thought and creativity.
Exotic Goods are Abundant: Spices, incense, fruits and nuts, water pipes, fabrics, textiles, and handicrafts such as Persian rugs all add heady eclecticism to an intoxicating country.
Fabled Cities: Spend time roaming through the romantic cities of Shiraz and Esfehan, which feature mosques of staggering craftsmanship. Shiraz has a legacy of poets, wine (though vineyards no longer exist), flowers, and literature. Isfahan is famed for its elegant boulevards, Islamic architecture, and the second largest square in the world: Naghsh-e Jahan Square.
Architecture: Iranian feats of architecture are mind-boggling. Laden with captivating mosques, wind towers, and Ziggurat temples, a highlight is Persepolis. The former capital of the Achaemenid Empire, it is a treasure trove of frescoes, murals, tombs, inscriptions, and carvings.
Capital of Contrasts: Tehran is a sprawling and vibrant hub, interspersed with green parks and Persian teahouses and outlined by the Alborz mountains. A half-hour cable car whisks visitors from stifling city heat to knee-deep snow and ski slopes.
A travel journalist who specializes in emerging destinations, Anisha Shah is a former BBC TV and radio news reporter. Her work has appeared in the Huffington Post, Fodor’s Travel, and Prestige Asia.