More than Mosques
I know what you’re thinking. Iran? Out of all the travel destinations in the world, why would I consider visiting Iran? For the last few decades, Western media has made sure the mention of “Islamic Republic of Iran” equals terrorism, hatred and fear. Why is it then, that people who’ve visited Iran have such a different story to tell?
There’s nothing more rewarding and eye-opening than seeing the country yourself and experiencing Persian culture first hand. Of course, every travel destination isn’t completely risk free, so it’s always important to be aware of your surroundings; for a woman travelling solo (as I usually do), do your best to respect the local custom (e.g. dress modestly and wear a hijab).
Leave your preconceptions at the door, follow the footsteps of Miss Traveling, because after you read these Top 10 Reasons To Visit, your perception of Iran may change completely. If you feel the urge to book a flight to Iran after reading this, go for it! Don’t let people who’ve never set foot in Iran tell you otherwise.
1. It’s safe
I travelled in Iran on my own as a woman and never for one moment did I feel unsafe walking around. Having said that, it’s important to be aware of your surroundings at all times and always remember to look purposeful even if you are actually lost (fake it until you make it!). Obviously it’s important to cover up (as you would in most Muslim countries), but honestly the hijab dress code in Iran is not strict at all. You’d be surprise how many Iranian women only wear a hijab loosely on their head, showing their hair proudly. It’s also very safe to take the public transportation in Tehran and taking buses between cities (the VIP seats are super comfy!). I especially enjoy taking the metro, which has a women-only cart where all the shopping can be done. You can find Iranian ladies selling anything (bras, homeware, makeup… you name it) and although the battle to get into the metro can become fierce during peak hours, some of them will squeeze a space between them for you to sit.
2. Persian hospitality
Iranians are the friendliest people I’ve met, and anyone who has travelled in Iran would tell you the same. On my second day in Iran I was invited to lunch at a restaurant (my first taste of Iranian kebab) and ghalyoon (shisha) while I was wandering aimlessly at the Tehran bazaar. I can’t even remember how many times I was invited to sit down and have tea with the locals. If you’re not comfortable with the idea of visiting a random Persian household (though many of them mean well), I’d highly recommend you to go Couchsurfing while you’re in Iran to experience an authentic Persian way of living. There’s a big Couchsurfing community in the major cities such as Tehran, Shiraz and Isfahan – it’s not hard to find a Persian family who will be happy to host you!
3. Stunningly diverse natural landscapes
If you think Iran is a dry desert, you’ll be surprised to find so much greenery and many natural wonders. The most iconic ones are Badab-e Surt, a natural mineral spring in Mazandaran, and the colourful mountains of Tabriz (look them up! Promise you won’t regret it). The beaches and mountains in Northern Iran are not to be missed – and yes you can’t wear a bikini, but it’s really nice to have a picnic (a Persian thing) or just stroll along the beach!
4. Persian food is to die for
Oh, Persian food. Where should I start? Honestly, I think the best way to experience the Persian flavours is at a local household because while you can have amazing chelo kebab at restaurants, nothing can compare to a Persian mum’s cooking. My favourite Persian dish is Tachin Morgh, which consists of crispy rice taken from the bottom of the pot in which the saffron rice is cooked, mixed with chicken fillets and yoghurt (my mouth is watering already!). This dish is not only delicious, but it’s also beautifully presented with barberries on top of the golden top layer. Another amazing dish that you could rarely find outside of Iran is Ash Reshteh, a flavourful bean and noodle thick soup that is topped with kashk (fermented yogurt) and I’m not gonna lie – it’s soul-soothing! My favourite Persian desserts are Bastani Sonnati, a traditional ice-cream made from mainly rose water, saffron, vanilla, and pistachios (the ingredients speak for themselves) and Havij Bastani, which is the same thing with carrot juice!
5. Ghyaloon (Shisha)
You don’t need to be a smoker to enjoy ghyaloon! The flavours available in Iran are so unique that you might be tempted to try them all. There are so many places to have shisha in Iran, be it a restaurant at the bazaar or a ghyaloon-only smoking lounge on the street. If this already sounds good to you, how about shisha with a view? Head over to Darband, where you can smoke ghyaloon with mountains and waterfalls as the backdrop and you can sit on the traditional Persian seating (raised beds with a Persian carpet as cover and comes with lovely pillows to lean on) that is literally placed on the river. How cool is that?
6. Challenge your palate
Persians love sour food. Some of them can eat a lemon on its own and Iran is known to grow some of the most sour fruits like Gojeh Sabz, a green plum that is crunchy and often eaten with salt. Well, as much as I love Persian food, I struggled to swallow this one! One of the beloved Persian snacks is Lavashak, a fruit roll usually made from plum. It’s not hard to find a traditional market that sells all sorts of colourful, dried sour, berries and cherries. Definitely worth a try so you can test your own palate!
7. Persian Architecture
No matter your religious affiliation, it’s hard to deny that some of the most beautiful architecture in the world belongs to mosques. Men and women have separate entrances and you don’t have to worry about the dress code as you can borrow a chador (a heavy, floor-length cloth that hangs from the top of the head, in Farsi the word means ‘tent’, so basically a tent over your body) at the gate. It’s also impossible to talk about Persian architecture without mentioning Yazd, a city placed in the central Iranian desert. To deal with the scorching hot summers, many old buildings made of clay in Yazd have magnificent wind towers (wind catchers), an ancient yet efficient ventilation system that allows air to circulate within the houses – natural air-conditioning!
8. More than just the mosques
Getting a bit mosqued-out? Vank Cathedral in Isfahan is one awe-inspiring gem that you shouldn’t miss. A church in Iran? Yep, and there’s also a museum that tells you about the Armenians who built it in the 17th century. You will get to see with a microscope the inscription of a line of Biblical verse on a strand of hair written with the tip of a diamond studded pen 20 times thinner than the strand of hair… pretty darn impressive!
9. World Heritage Sites
Iran is home to 19 World Heritage Sites, and visiting Persepolis was one of the main reasons I wanted to visit Iran. Literally translated as ‘The Persian City’, the Persepolis dates all the way back to 550-330 BC and was once the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid (the First Persian) Empire. The visible details of the ruins will leave you in no doubt about how powerful the empire was, just as the fallen and broken columns attest that its end was both tragic and merciless. I was surprised by how enormous the stone columns are – even though most of them are not even in their original size!
There’s always some religious observance going on every month in Iran and these special dates are the perfect opportunity to get a local experience. When I was in Iran this October, it was the month of Muharram, which marks the first month of the Islamic calendar. On the tenth day of Muharram is Ashura, and Shia Muslims spend the day mourning for Imam Hussein. Booths serving free traditional Iranian food and drinks (Ash Reshteh, sweet soup, hot chocolate, tea, dates, etc) are everywhere and sometimes they even walk around delivering the goodies to cars on the road. It was so interesting to walk around watching the ‘ceremonies’!
As always, be sure to check the Foreign Affairs website in your country for any travel advice and warnings (as you should for any country you plan to visit) before you book your flight and proceed with further planning: Hong Kong, UK, Australia, America. Happy travels, girls!