There’s something particularly satisfying about exploring a place with a rich and complex history. It’s largely what makes Iran such an intoxicating place to visit, as I learned recently on my first trip to the country. Thanks to improved political stability and the recent U.S.-brokered nuclear agreement, it may well be on the road to becoming the Middle East’s most exciting new travel destination.
For the moment, there are no restrictions on U.S. citizens visiting Iran as tourists. Though, full disclosure, the United States still warns against visiting the country, and asks travelers to "consider the risks" when traveling to Iran. U.S. citizens can travel on a visa, but need to pre-arrange a group tour or private guide who will be specially authorized to guide Americans. Count on two to four weeks to get the documents, and don’t forget that holders of an Israeli passport, and anyone with an Israeli stamp, will not be issued a visa. Another quick tip? Talk to your agent in advance about what you wish to see or experience so the trip is not an overdose of mosques and monuments.
In my experience, travelers are warmly welcomed by Iranians, who readily greet you in the streets, parks, and the country’s many architectural sites. (Iran has an impressive 19 UNESCO listings.) “Welcome to Iran, welcome to my country!” was a refrain I heard over and over again. We traveled during the summer months, when it’s quite hot (between 77°F and 100°F) but dry and with fewer visitors. Iranians I met were quick to ask why I chose their country as a travel destination and to thank me for visiting. If you’re lucky some will invite you into their homes to drink tea, have dinner, attend a party, or even crash a wedding.
It may be surprising to experience that kind of openness in a country where women (even visitors) are required wear scarves and modest clothing in public—plan to wear a long-sleeved blouse, sweater or jacket over trousers or a long skirt—and alcohol is strictly forbidden. But many of the Iranians I met spoke multiple languages and had studied abroad (follow Stories of Iran on Instagram for an intriguing view of the country through the eyes of Gilda Gazor, an Iranian who grew up and studied in the U.S.). They were proud of their unique identity as Persians and Farsi speakers—and keen to distance themselves from the radicalism often associated with the Arab world. And each of them shared a profound sense of hope for the future of their country.
Then there is the history. World-renowned archeological sites like the Persepolis, which dates back to 518 B.C.—were mind-blowing in their scale and beauty. And I loved charismatic and modern cities like Shiraz, or Isfahan, where you can spend days zigzagging through the bazaar, stopping at trendy coffee bars like Espadana along the way. Another favorite city was Yadz, which is located in the desert-like center of the country and has a wonderfully laid-back old town made of mud-brick buildings. Among them you’ll find cool boutiques selling carpets made by nomadic people, and stylish jewelry by local designers like Mandow.
(Though, it should be noted that no credit or debit cards are yet accepted in Iran; you can exchange euros and dollars in hotels and banks. The only place where you might be able to use your credit card would be in a carpet shop.)
In Iran, the ancient and the very new coexist, naturally and easily, everywhere you look. I loved admiring complex mosaics in centuries-old temples, then, afterwards, eating kebabs in hip places like the rooftop bar at Haft Kan in Shiraz (a meal will cost between three euro in a small eatery and twenty dollars per person in a more upscale restaurant). There’s something about wandering through the lush Fin gardens in Kashan, where the Shah of Iran used to escape the desert heat, then the next day discovering the north of Tehran, where hipsters hang out in places like Sam Café. It’s a fascinating, addictive combination, and one that no doubt means Iran’s profile as a travel destination is only set to rise.