Iran was once a popular travel destination for Westerners. Many people will be surprised to learn that travelers are still visiting the country, returning safely with a wonderful time.
Yes, there are demonstrations and, at the level of hostile governmental terms, but the average Iranian you meet on your travels is warm, open and very friendly. Iran is the home of much of our culture and today also offers many amazing cultural and personal experiences.
Yes, you will need a visa but for most nationalities it will be available at the airport upon arrival. For those traveling with a UK or USA passport, the requirement is that you must book a tour group or at least apply for your visa application through one of the local tour companies . Independent travel of people from non-UK / USA countries is possible for the brave.
Iran is well served by a bus network and both train and internal travel are possible. Small English is spoken outside of Tehran and Isfahan, so getting a guide can make a lot of sense. They are especially cheap. With that said, taking a group tour has a lot to offer.
Iran is an Islamic country and has strict dress code that guests must obey. This is especially difficult for women who are required to have headgear, arms and legs completely covered while in public. For men, long-sleeves and pants are a must. Westerners are welcome in most cities but care should be exercised in the most conservative religious towns of Qom and Mashhad.
Tehran has little to offer except the Grand Bazaar and the quaint Jewelery Museum but is made for the towns of Isfahan (also known as Esfahan), Shiraz, and Yazd.
Shiraz, and Yazd are for a day or so and the ruins of the ancient city of Persepolis, 70 kilometers from Shiraz are one of the most devastating ruins in the world. Shiraz has beautiful gardens and an interesting mosque tiled with mirrors. Yazd has its lines, wind towers and mud brick houses. This is the best place to explore Zoroastrian culture. Check out the stunning three-height Amir Chakhmaq Complex – with its rows of perfectly proportioned decorative alcoves. If you have the time, the Yazd Water Museum has the most interesting display of underwater canals called quanats.
Isfahan is a relatively complex town with many of the main attractions within walking distance. It is unique and some say it is the most beautiful city in the world. The main attractions: the Imam Mosque, Ali Qapu Palace, the Sheikh Lotf Alah Mosque and the entrance to the Grand Bazaar, are bounded around the huge Imam (Naghsh-j Jahan) Square. Once a military parade, polo field and horse racing track, the central location is now a water feature and many shops surround the plaza.
The construction of the Palace began in 1611. This is a good example of Islamic architecture at the top. Its splendor comes from seven colored mosaic tiles covering the dome and beautiful calligraphic inscriptions in different locations. The front door of the mosque is 27 meters high and it is witnessed by two minarets 42 meters high. With 52 high dome, late afternoon looking at the mosque with tiles glistening in the late afternoon sun, it is a sight you will remember.
When you see the excitement outside, the beauty of the interior will take your breath away. Amazing tiles, plasterwork and lots of calligraphy along with dramatic patterns adorn the ceiling. Standing beneath the center of the dome you can experience the most amazing acoustic properties of the dome’s design.
On the left side of the square from the Imam Mosque is the magnificent six-story Ali Qapu Palace. Built as a huge gateway, it also serves as a home for the Shahs.
You will need a good interior design to fully understand this building but undoubtedly the highlight is the raised terrace with 18 slender columns. The view across the square for Shah and his guests can be a beautiful sight. Shah Abbas I and II ruled in Persian high culture.
Across the square is the small Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, sometimes called the Ladies Mosque because it was probably built to serve as a place of worship for the Shah’s harem. Built between 1602 and 1619 during the reign of Shah Abbas I, it is marked differently from the Imam Mosque with its pale tones and quiet harmony. Colors change during the day from cream to pink at sunset. The arabesque patterns and floral design of the interior panels are unique. The portal is an example of stalactite work with high concentrations of blue and gold motifs. This honey-comb-like plasterwork of small nice brackets is one above the other in geometric patterns, pleasing to the eye. The interior design is amazing and the unusual design of the mihab is the best in Iran.
Flash photography is not allowed inside so bring a tripod for your camera.
Entry fee applies to all of the above. Many companies offer travel insurance. Check it out as it can offer good value. Drink water and put on good walking shoes.
The Qeysarieh Portal gate leads to the square directly to the Grand Bazaar. It is the most visited of the dawns while the trade is especially heavy. You will enjoy the variety, smell, color and sound of the bazaar. Store keepers will be happy to show off their wares. Bargaining is the go. Small items like miniatures painted with hair and handmade rugs called qalamkar fabrics are inexpensive and easy to carry even when shoppers pack and ship large items. If you use a credit card, check the charges.
Spend a little time trying out one of the home’s rooftop homes. Tune in to different types of tea while trying out a hubbly foam (smoking tobacco tobacco through a tube of water). Check out some of the shops and tea houses that are converted caravanserais. This is a waste from the old Silk Road when business is at its height.
Other attractions in Isfahan include the thrilling Jamah Mosque that dates back to 771, the Chehelsotun Palace and the Khaju and Si-o-Se-Pol bridge. Check bridges in the afternoon or early evening if they are illuminated.
Money could be a problem in Iran. Very few ATMs carry the card west. The local currency is Rial but the term tomans are sometimes used. The toman is 10 rials. Always ask for or bring USA dollars or Euros instead. The best way to get local money is to use private money exchange offices (not the black market. A conversion chart or calculator can help if you are serious about your purchases.
Isfahan has a variety of tourist hotels that range from hostels to the Abbasi Hotel market. Shop around for the very best prices. This hotel has different rooms and different rooms. It has a beautiful courtyard setting and is worth checking out.
So Isfahan is “half the word”? Hmm, you have to go there for yourself before you decide.
We thought this was when we were on our big trans-Central Asian trip written in the book Follow the Silk Road by Marco Polo.