Rediscovering Persia: Iran awaits

Iran, former member of the “Axis of Evil” and a country still deeply mistrusted by the United States, is not generally known by Americans to be a tourist destination. The Islamic revolution of 1979 and the subsequent hostage-taking at the U.S. embassy in Tehran basically killed that idea.

Persepolis Iran

Me at Persepolis

But those of you who follow the news have probably seen that there has been a warming of relations (however small) between the two countries as of late. These developments got me thinking. Why not go visit? I’ve always wanted to see Iran. After doing extensive research and concluding that it was safe to go, I booked a ten day trip with an Iranian tour company who sponsored me–American tourists, like Canadians and Britons, must be hosted by tour companies.

Nasir ol Molk Mosque, Shiraz

Light shining through stained glass in the prayer hall of the Nasir ol Molk Mosque, Shiraz

My trip took me to four of Iran’s biggest cities over a course of 800 miles. I saw so many mosques that their blue domes and tall minarets have become indistinguishable in my memory. I became transfixed by the bazaars, attracted to piles of colorful spices and burlap sacks bursting with all varieties of exotic fruits and vegetables. I walked along the narrow winding alleyways of mud brick cities, and admired 2,000 year old columns against the backdrop of the Zagros Mountains.

Light peaking through a window in the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan

Light peaking through a window in the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan

The best part of the trip were the smiles I got from Iranians when they asked me where I was from. “Americya?!”. “Welcome! It’s great to see you here!” They loved it.

Kashan Iran bazaar

Child in the arms of a Iranian mother wearing a chador, Kashan Iran

No hatred or suspicion, only welcomes and handshakes and generosity. You wouldn’t have known that our counties are still deeply distrustful of each other and are enemies to some degree. Tourism has the power to transcend national politics and cut through the distrust and stereotypes to allow ordinary citizens to connect.

Khaju Bridge in Isfahan

The Khaju Bridge in Isfahan

I began my trip in Shiraz, in Iran’s south, where I met my guide, Amir.¬† Quite amusingly, I turned out to be the only one on the organized tour. I therefore had the flexibility to do what I wanted to do. Amir and I really got along and it was with sadness that I said goodbye to him 10 days later.

zurkhaneh in Yazd

A zurkhaneh, or “house of strength,” where the ancient sport of varzesh-e bastani is practiced

I chose a tour called “Iran Delicious,” a ten day culinary and sightseeing program that not only brought me to Iran’s cities, religious shrines, and ancient sites but also to food workshops and factories to get an inside look into how Iranians produce their food. We visited about 15 establishments, many of them nestled in nondescript corners of bazaars or busy thoroughfares bustling with activity.

Shiraz bread

Man selling sangak, a flatbread, in Shiraz

We observed Iranian workers making bread, spices, spices, sesame oil and paste, starch noodles, even henna powder. As Americans we are often so separated from the production of our food, leaving it up to corporations far away. These guys–and they were all guys–were making this stuff by hand to sell down the street or downstairs that day.

Iran sesame

Worker throwing sesame into an oven for drying. It will be made into sesame paste, halva or sesame oil

We also visited the homes of four Iranian families for dinner, one in each of the cities. While the restaurants in Iran were superb, I enjoyed the home cooked meals as well. They allowed me to meet Iranian people in a way that wouldn’t have been possible at restaurants booked through a regular tour package. These family meals shed light on Iranian culture, customs, and the challenges that the country faces in the future. They also confirmed for me why Iranians have such a good reputation for hospitality.

Iranian family making dinner

Dinner at an Iranian family’s house in Kashan, Iran

Overall, it was a deeply fulfilling, exciting, and educational trip that I will never forget. I can’t say it’s the easiest country to go visit, but it was a challenging and rewarding destination for any tourist. I highly recommend that you go.

Below you’ll find my blog posts from the trip:

Iran Part 1: Testing the Persian Waters

Iran Part 2: The Heart of Persia

Iran Part 3: Into Tehran

I’ve also written a separate post about what you need to know if you’re planning a trip to Iran as an American. My hope is that the post will help others reduce some of the uncertainty that comes with planning a trip to Iran.

I also wrote posts about my food experiences across Iran and my visit to the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.

Enjoy!

Kevin is based in Washington, DC and writes about his travel adventures in the Mid-Atlantic region and around the world. Through entertaining writing and eye-catching photography, he aims to provide readers with useful information as they plan their next trips.

Leave a Reply