Iran was once a popular travel destination for Westerners. Many will be surprised to learn that travelers who still visit the country return safely, having a great time.
Yes, there have been demonstrations and at the governmental level hostile words, but the average Iranian you meet while traveling is warm, open and very friendly. Iran is home to much of our culture, and today it still offers amazing cultural and personal experiences.
Yes, you will need a visa, but for most citizens it can be obtained at the airport upon arrival. For those traveling with a UK or US passport, it is required to book a group tour or at least apply for a visa at one of the local travel companies. For the brave it is possible to travel independently from countries outside the UK and US.
Iran is well served by a bus network, and both trains and domestic flights are possible. Outside of Tehran and Isfahan they speak English, so hiring a guide makes a lot of sense. They are relatively inexpensive. Having said that, the group tour also has something to offer.
Iran is an Islamic country and has a strict dress code that visitors must follow. This is especially difficult for women who have to be in closed hats, arms and legs while in public. Men need long sleeves and pants. Westerners are welcomed in most cities, but caution should be exercised in the very conservative religious cities of Qom and Mashhad.
Tehran has little to offer other than the Grand Bazaar and the marvelous jewelry museum, but it is done in the cities of Isfahan (also spelled Esfahan), Shiraz and Yazd.
Shiraz and Yazd are worth a day or more, and the ruins of the ancient city of Persepolis 70 kilometers from Shiraz – one of the most dramatic ruins in the world. Shiraz has beautiful gardens and an interesting mosque lined with mirrors. In the Ride there are winding alleys, a tower and bicycle houses. This is the best place to study Zoroastrian culture. Take a look at Amir Chakhmak’s impressive three-story high complex – with its rows of perfectly placed alcoves. If you have time, the Water Museum in Yazd has the most interesting exposition of underground water canals called quanta.
Isfahan is a relatively compact city, where most of the main attractions are within walking distance. It is really impressive and some say it is the most beautiful city in the world. The main attractions: the Imam Mosque, the Palace of Ali Kapu, the Mosque of Sheikh Lotf Allah and the entrance to the Grand Bazaar are gathered around a huge square of the Imam (Nagsh-Jahan). Once a military parade ground, a polo field and a horse track, now the central area is a water body, and dozens of shops surround the square.
Construction of the palace began in 1611. This is a great example of Islamic architecture at its peak. Its splendor is a seven-color mosaic tile covering the dome, and beautiful calligraphic inscriptions in various places. The front portal of the mosque is 27 meters high, and next to it are two minarets 42 meters high. Along with the 52-meter dome late in the day to the mosque with the tiles glistening under the south, is a scene you will remember for a long time.
If you see the appearance impressive, the beauty of the interior is breathtaking. Amazing tiles, plaster and other calligraphy along with dramatic patterns adorn the ceiling. Standing under the center of the dome, you can experience the most amazing acoustic properties of the dome design.
To the left of the square from the Imam Mosque is the majestic six-story Ali Kapu Palace. Built as a monumental gate, it also served as the residence of the Shahs.
You will need a good guide to fully understand this building, but undoubtedly the main thing – an elevated terrace with 18 slender columns. The view of the square for the Shah and his guests was probably a magnificent spectacle. Shah Abbas I and II ruled at the height of Persian culture.
On the other side of the square is Sheikh Lotfala’s smaller mosque, sometimes called the Women’s Mosque because it may have been built to serve as a place of worship for the harem harem. Built between 1602 and 1619 during the reign of Shah Abbas I, it differs from the Imam Mosque by its pale tones and quiet harmony. During the day the colors change from cream to pink at sunset. The arabesque pattern and floral design of the exterior panels are excellent. The portal is an example of magnificent stalactite art with a rich concentration of blue and gold motifs. This honey comb plaster forms small niches, nested in a geometric pattern, very pleasing to the eye. And again the interior is gorgeous, and the unusual design of mihab is the best in Iran.
Flash photography is prohibited inside, so bring a tripod for the camera.
Entrance fees apply to all of the above. A number of companies offer hiking tours. Check this out as they can be beneficial. Take water and take good walking shoes.
The gate of the Qeysarieh portal leads from the square directly to the Grand Bazaar. It is better to visit them in the morning, and trade is the busiest. The variety, smell, color and sounds of the bazaar will surprise you. Cheerful store owners love to showcase their wares. Bargaining is a move. Small items such as miniatures painted on one hair and tablecloths printed by hand, called qalamkar textiles, are inexpensive and easy to transport, however shopkeepers collect and ship larger items. If you use a credit card, check the fee.
Take some time to try one of the tea houses on the roof. Try a variety of teas by experiencing a bubbling bubble (smoking flavored tobacco through the tap). Explore some shops and teahouses that have converted caravanserais. It’s a return from the old Silk Road when trade was at its height.
Other attractions in Isfahan include the impressive Jama Mosque, which dates back to 771, the Chehelsotun Palace and the Kaju and Si-o-Se-Paul bridges. Check bridges late in the afternoon or early in the evening when they are lit.
Money can be a problem in Iran. Very few ATMs take western cards. The local currency is the rial, but the term Toman is sometimes used. Toman is 10 riyals. Instead, always ask for or wear US dollars or euros. The best way to get local currency is to use private money exchange offices (not black markets). A conversion chart or calculator helps if you are serious about shopping.
In Isfahan, many tourist hotels – from hostels to the luxury hotel Abbasi. Buy at the best prices. This hotel has many different types of rooms and prices. It has a great backyard setting and is worth checking out.
So is Isfahan “half a word”? Well, you have to go there for yourself before you can make a decision.
We thought it happened during our great trip to Central Asia, written in the book The Silk Road of Marco Polo.