For Americans curious about what lies beyond the great diplomatic freeze, the time is right to visit Iran. The weather in both north and south is ideal in spring and fall.
Tourist visas are generally only issued to Americans who will be accompanied in Iran by a local guide. Visas can be obtained through a tour packager or by contacting the Iran Interests Section in the Pakistan Embassy in Washington (2209 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20007; 202/965-4990, fax 202/965-1073; www.daftar.org/default_eng.htm).
Contrary to popular belief, most women in Iran do not veil their faces; however, all women are required to cover their hair with a scarf and to wear long-sleeved, loose-fitting coats that extend to their ankles (or shorter coats over long pants). It's also courteous to avoid wearing bright colors: mourning days, when Iranians dress in black, are frequent. Shorts and tank tops are not acceptable for adults; sandals, however, are fine.
The following organizations offer both private and group tours led by English-speaking guides.
Distant Horizons 350 Elm Ave., Long Beach, CA 90802; 800/333-1240 or 562/983-8828, fax 562/983-8833; 17-day group trip $4,990, including airfare from New York. This outfit put together my trip, which was impressive from every standpoint. Tour size is limited to 15 and includes a guest scholar. Stops are made in Tehran, Mashhad, Shiraz, Kerman, Yazd, and Esfahan, with visits to the Caspian Sea and historic sites and traditional villages along the way.
Geographic Expeditions 2627 Lombard St., San Francisco, CA 94123; 800/777-8183 or 415/922-0448, fax 415/346-5535; www.geoex.com; 23-day trip $3,690$4,090, depending on group size, airfare not included. Described as "rigorous touring," this excursion covers an itinerary similar to Distant Horizons', with the addition of a loop through northwestern Iran.
Absolute Asia 180 Varick St., New York, NY 10014; 800/736-8187 or 212/627-1950, fax 212/627-4090; www.absoluteasia.com; 15-day trip $3,125, airfare not included. The itinerary focuses on major cities, plus ancient sites in northwestern Iran.
Pasargad Tour 146 Africa Ave., Tehran 19156; 98-21/205-8833, fax 98-21/205-8866; www.pasargad-tour.com. This private Iranian company offers customized itineraries for individuals and groups from abroad. Its clientele includes the first two agencies listed above. Pasargad's guides are extremely knowledgeable about their subjects.
Iran by Paul Greenway and David St. Vincent (Lonely Planet)—A solid general guidebook that is a must for anyone traveling to Iran. On the Internet, check out Destination Iran at www.lonelyplanet.com.au/dest/mea/ira.htm.
The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron (Oxford University Press)—A highly entertaining account of the author's adventures in Persia in the 1930's.
The Iranians by Sandra MacKey (Plume)—A good overview of Iranian history and society from the ancient Persian empires through the Islamic revolution.
Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women by Geraldine Brooks (Anchor Books)—Engaging essays by a Wall Street Journal Middle East correspondent who looks at the lives of women in Muslim countries.
My Uncle Napoleon by Iraj Pizishkzad (Mage)—A hilarious satire set in 1940's Tehran that captures the essence of Iranian family life, romance, and politics. An enormous pre-revolution hit.
On the Web
Iran on Line (IranOL.com/Travel)—Provides links to Iran-related Web sites, including a comprehensive travel section.
Iran's Candy Coating
Iranians love sweets, and each town has its specialty. Yazd is known for baklava; Esfahan for gaz, a rose-flavored nougat, and Qom for sohan, a dangerously addictive pistachio brittle.