1. Meet the people
When we read this as Lonely Planet’s top reason to visit Iran we kind of laughed… People are nice everywhere, right? True, but Iranian culture is special. You get invited everywhere to drink tea, eat and even sleep. You get invited to family outings and get presents as a guest instead of the other way around.
And yes, your itinerary will change because of this. But hey, this is the only place where we’ve been called a present from God, so big deal if you have to drink tea instead of visiting another mosque?
2. Book a stay at a one-million-star hotel
Booking into a one-million-star hotel in Iran affords you the most spacious rooms imaginable and, unusually for Iran, air-conditioning that kicks in at night.
Unfortunately, this is not for everyone, as this is not actually a real hotel at all but the term used by Iranians to indicate that they are sleeping underneath the star-filled sky.
We slept outside multiple times but always in our tent. However, the most spectacular experience was sleeping without a tent in the middle of the desert on top of a Kalut. As you can imagine, the sunset and sunrise were out of this world. If you visit Iran, just do it!
3. Visit Isfahan
See some of the most beautiful mosques in the world, get inspired and talk to some locals. Maybe even see the president’s speech? Words simply cannot describe the beauty of this city and its many mosques.
4. Take a walk on the wild side
People called us crazy, multiple governments highly advised against it, but still, we decided to visit Kurdistan in search of the Kurdistan spotted newt (yeah, go figure).
While we may have gone for the newts, we’ll be coming back for the lush green fields and beautiful mountains of Kurdistan. We had similar experiences in Loristan and Ilam too.
So get out of your (and governmental) comfort zones and try something non-traditional.
5. Visit Persepolis
To visit Iran completely you have to see the archaeological site of Persepolis. Built over 2,500 years ago it still gives you a good sense of its majestic past.
Tucked away and generally ignored are the remains of the 2,500-year celebration of the Persian Empire that took place in 1971 to celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire by King Cyrus the Great…what could be known as the biggest party ever.
During this festival, the Shah of Iran created a city of about fifty ‘tents’, which actually were luxury apartments with all the amenities. Royalty from all over the world were present alongside presidents and prime ministers.
Food was served by Maxim’s which, at that point, was probably the best restaurant in the world. Of course, there was Caspian caviar, truffles, champagne, foie gras and probably all the other things we associate with extravaganza. All this was filmed by none other than Orson Welles.
Sure, all this sounds really nice, but not in a country where people were dying from famine. It is likely that this celebration was the start of a chain of events leading to the Iranian Revolution.
Although not really impressive to see, it still is a nice fun fact to show off to your travel companion who doesn’t know the story.
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6. Be a caveman, sleep in a cave
The UNESCO village of Meymand is special. It’s like being in the Shire (where the hobbits live) but also on Tatooine (where the sand people live). Carved into the rocks are around 350 hand-dug houses, including a mosque.
When you visit Iran, take the unique opportunity to sleep in a cave and meet some of the local people.
7. Visit Shushtar and Shoqa Zanbil
Want proof that there is more than just sand in the desert? While Shushtar is a pleasant city to visit with multiple archaeological sites, the main attraction is Shushtar Historical Hydraulic System, a large irrigation complex consisting of water mills, dams, tunnels and canals. Impressive, and, like all great things in the world made by Italians.
An hour drive from Shushtar is Choqa Zanbil, or, “the big heap of rocks in the desert”, as called by some. Nonetheless, it is quite an impressive pyramid style (ziggurat) building in the desert.
Turns out those people were not wrong as ‘Choqa’ actually means hill. So, yeah…Choqa Zanbil: a big impressive heap of rocks in the middle of the desert…I really don’t know how to make it sound sexy, but go visit, it’s cool.
8. Pretend you are Aladdin or the Prince of Persia in Bam
If you think about Persian cities, Bam is probably what you are imagining. Unfortunately, most of it got destroyed in a devastating earthquake and people generally do not visit it anymore.
However, people are rebuilding it and, if you’re lucky, your guide may take you to places you normally wouldn’t visit.
It helps to know sign language as they don’t speak English.
Some Iranian people think the region is unsafe but, then again, we noticed that inhabitants from a particular province would ALWAYS tell you that neighboring provinces were dangerous. We never felt unsafe.
9. Buy a Poem book in Shiraz
If Isfahan was spectacular, then Shiraz was cozy. You can stroll through its Persian gardens and watch Iranian pilgrims admire their famous poet, Hafez.
Maybe ask one of them to cite their favorite poems and enjoy either the sounds of Farsi rolling over their lips, or savor every verse should they decide to cite in English.
10. Bring some adventure stories back home
People have certain expectations before they visit Iran, most of them negative and most of them untrue. One of the most dangerous countries in the world turns out to be not quite that.
So, to please the people at home, make sure to bring back some adventures. Crash a car in Kurdistan. Get your car registration taken by the police, realize this 100 km further and then arrange a rendezvous, like you’re doing some dodgy transaction. All this while using a pocket translation guide.
But remember to keep the adventures safe. Try to avoid guides that use drugs in the middle of the desert and try to sell you opium; you’d only end up feeling nervous the day after anyway because there is no way around those police checkpoints.
Suggested next reading: 6 Not Well Known Places You Should Visit In The Middle East