Chances are that you haven’t considered Iran as a must see destination. Who would, right? With the usual negative rhetoric towards the country and its political representatives.. it makes one doubt the safety.
But nothing can be further from the truth. Politics aside, Iran is the most welcoming country I’ve ever been to. So I wrote up a short and sweet overview of what you should know about Iran and Iranians. Enjoy! 🙂
Iranians are extremely hospitable
You can see it everywhere – from shy smiles, to curious questions about where you’re from, Iranians are welcoming to visitors and are generally happy to see travellers coming. In traditional hotels and houses, they’ll treat you like family and you might even be invited for a homemade meal, just from a person on the street! No wonder Couchsurfing is so popular there. I haven’t tried Couchsurfing in Iran myself, but have heard the only potential ‘threat’ is that a host might be too friendly and might want to accompany you everywhere. What a threat, right?
Iranians care about their country’s image abroad
Most Iranians I’ve met feel sad about the image of Iran abroad. Of course, the information they get is a bit biased, but they are always hopeful that you as a traveler to Iran will then tell everyone how great it’s been there! We were often asked about what we thought of Iran and we always honestly replied how amazed we were by the hospitality of people. Iran has the bad luck to lie in an unstable region, but it’s one of the safest countries in the area.
Iran is a safe travel destination
No matter what your nationality or religion, you’ll be perfectly fine. Don’t cause conflicts and follow the local rules and you have nothing to worry about. The troubled areas of Iran are along its borders with Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many travellers are fine in those areas as well, but for the cautious traveler it’s a big no-no.
When it comes to practicalities, visa is supposedly not issued to everybody. For me as a Czech citizen, there was no problem. I could even get an on-arrival visa. If you already have an Israeli stamp in your passport, get a second passport for your Iranian visa. If you’re American or British, you’ll need a local guide accompanying you everywhere. Even if you’re Harley Davidson riders, like the Brits we met in Yazd. Fortunately, the guides are often very easy going, so fear not that you would end up with a government official as if you were in North Korea or somewhere.
It’s cheap to travel around Iran
Iran is really cheap for us visitors from the Western world. Even with the high inflation and outdated prices in guidebooks (Lonely Planet should issue a new edition in 2016, let’s see..), prices are still relatively low. I’d say perhaps on the same level as in Thailand. I spent only about 500 EUR in 2 weeks – including accommodation, one local flight, food and souvenirs!
Iran is developed and advanced
The infrastructure in Iran runs smoothly and people are well educated. Of course the people you’ll speak to will be mostly those with a good level of English, but that’s quite a big part of the young educated population. It’s a fact that it takes 10 years to gain a PhD in Iran! So those who study are very serious about it.
Iran has been Islamic for only 1300 Years
Ok, 1300 years does sound like a long time. But the Persian culture shaped throughout the times of Persian Empire was not lost, rather absorbed into Iran’s Islam. It is therefore a bit different to regimes in the neighboring countries, not only because Iran’s population is predominantly made of Shiite Muslims.
Iranians divide their country’s history before & after the Revolution of 1978
After you’ll speak with a few locals, you’ll notice how they naturally divide the past before and after the Revolution, when the spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeini took over and Iran became more Islamic. Study Iran’s history, it’s incredibly interesting. I found Lonely Planet’s overview of Iran’s history very well described. Get a Lonely Planet guidebook now to do some reading before your trip (or here if you’re in Europe)
Iranians are so diverse – you can even meet green-eyed people!
There are many ethnic groups living in Iran. You can see representatives of nomadic tribes and of the neighboring countries who have fully assimilated and become Iranians. You’ll be amazed by the big bright blue or green eyes of many!
Women have a certain level of freedom
I’m not here to praise Iranian women’s freedom as it’s obviously far from what we’re used to in Europe, but compared to other countries in the region women have relatively more rights. Take the then 18 year old film director Samira Makhmalbaf who became world-famous by directing ‘The Apple’ in 1998. She’s a woman, and young! Also, as opposed to e.g. Saudi Arabia, women are allowed to drive. When it comes to women’s rights, Lonely Planet quite fittingly calls Iran the ‘Country of contrasts’.
In fact, many households are ruled by women. Mothers have the upper hand at home while outside, it’s the men. This dynamic seems to work quite well for Iran.
Iranians are proud of their nation
Persia has a long history and Iranians carry a lot of national pride in them. Some people you’ll meet might be critical to certain past or present representatives, but the overall feel you’ll get is that they are proud to be Iranian.
Iran is the no. 1 nation for picnics
I’ve never seen anything like it! Any patch of grass, or actually even a concrete sidewalk, is an ideal picnic spot! People roll out a Persian carpet, get out flasks with tea and some snacks and their favorite pastime is on! Some even bring gas stoves and actually cook their meals. If you’re in Esfahan, walk around the Imam Square in late afternoon, you’ll see many locals sitting down for a picnic with family or friends. If you’re lucky, you might even be invited to one.
Iranians are very family-oriented
Love of family emanates from Iranians like from no other nation I’ve visited. Perhaps it’s also because they don’t use strollers much, so they carry their young ones in their arms. You can often encounter parents or grandparents cuddling their babies and it really seems like family is in the center of the universe for them.
Iranians don’t eat out very much
You might find out there are not restaurants on every corner as you’re used to from your travels. Iranians traditionally eat most of their meals at home (or on a picnic), with a work lunch occasionally taken at a street stand. It’s not that common to go eat out. Many of the restaurants you’ll encounter have been set up for tourists, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you stay at a traditional house instead of a hotel, you can taste the real homemade cuisine that’s so sought after!
Liberal North, conservative South
Generally speaking, the North including Tehran is much more liberal when it comes to views, opinions and even clothing. The further to the South you’ll go, the more long black chadors you’ll see and the more conservative and traditional people are. Just be aware of that if you travel down South.
Iran is not touristy
Among the friendly people who’ll approach you, there might be an occasional vendor, but even if you’re taken into a carpet shop for a cup of tea, you’re in no way obliged to buy anything and you can easily get out of there.
The lack of ‘pushiness’ from street vendors is refreshing! But it might not last forever. Iran is becoming increasingly more popular among travellers, so go visit while it’s still unspoiled by mass tourism!
One resource that helped my tremendously to wrap my mind around the country’s history and better understand the people: Lonely Planet Guidebook. The one on Iran is a high quality one. Check it here (here if reading from Europe).
For some further reading on the ethnicity of Iranians, the early history and cultural development, head to this Wikipedia article.