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Exploring Iran - Culture, cuisine and quashing misconceptions

Iran is one of those places that receives mixed reactions when you tell people of your plans to visit. Tragically underrated and misunderstood by the West, Iran has an incredibly rich history (and a complex one at that). Until the mid-20th century, Iran was widely known as Persia, home to the oldest continuous civilizations in the world with some settlements dating back to 700 BC. Wars, empirical takeovers and reunification over the region's long history have left incredible remnants of Iran’s earliest days scattered throughout the country.





The mixture of influences from the Romans, Macedonians, Arabs, Turks and Mongols are best seen in the country’s architecture. Heavy clay and mineral-rich compounds form the base of many of Iran’s most spectacular buildings, molded using traditional methods into column-wrapped and dome-roofed buildings with an underlying symmetry at the heart of every design. But it’s the exquisite detail in the final decoration that will really take your breath away.


The best example of this is the Nasir al-Mulk Mosque. I remember looking up in total awe of it. It was one of those places that couldn’t be considered a building; it was a masterpiece with walls. Commonly referred to as the Pink Mosque, the building’s multi-colored stained glass refracts the light, shooting beams of colour in all directions. The ceilings are covered in beautiful tiled designs and the floors are soft underfoot with opulent Persian rugs. I was lucky enough to be travelling with a guide who organised an early visit for us to explore the site before it officially opened. This was just one example of how proud the Iranian people are of their history and culture, and how eager they are to share it with the world.



Must-See Cities in Iran


Tehran


Most travellers who visit Iran tend to have three pillars in their itinerary; Tehran (where most people fly into), Esfahan and Shiraz. The flight into Tehran is spectacular during the day as you pass over the Alborz Mountain that looms over the city. Tehran is a great place to dip your toe into Iranian cuisine with a thriving local food scene and charismatic bazaars to explore. There are plenty of cooking classes on offer as well if you want to take some recipes home with you.





Esfahan


Further south, Esfahan is absolutely brimming with Persian culture. The city’s landscaped gardens are meticulously maintained, perfect for an afternoon stroll. Right at the centre of the city, Nasqsh-e Jahan Square (a.k.a. Imam Square) is a World Heritage-listed site, surrounded by some of the city’s most important landmarks. The most famous in the square is the Shah Abbasi Mosque, decked out in fabulous blue tiles and commanding archways, built during the Safavid Dynasty in the 16th century.



Shiraz


If you drive around 6 hours hours south from Esfahan, you’ll reach the remarkable city of Shiraz. It’s home to the Karimkhan Citadel from the Zand Dynasty and has the grandeur of a medieval fortress. If you’ve been to Turkey’s Grand Bazaar, you’ll be well equipped to handle the sensory overload of Vakil Bazaar in the historical centre of the city. There are hundreds of stalls to peruse, selling everything from antique clocks to luxurious Persian

rugs.





Foods to try


If the architecture of Iran is representative of the myriad political and cultural influences of the country’s past, you can imagine what the cuisine is like. Intense flavours, succulent meats, hearty dishes; Iranian food is a flavourful and varied representation of the Persian Gulf’s elaborate history.





Perfected over hundreds of years, dizi (also known as abgoosht) is a household staple; a mixture of lamb, chickpeas and tomato, slow cooked into a sumptuous stew. Another must-try is ghorme sabzi, a stew packed full of fresh herbs and spices like parsley, coriander and black lime, served with tahdig (crunchy rice).


You’ll be hard pressed to leave Iran without trying a kebab at least once. The classic Iranian kebab comprises a mixture of lamb, beef and onion, grilled to perfection and served with rice and veggies. Joojeh kebab is a slightly different version for chicken lovers, barbequed with saffron, tomatoes and olive oil.


Saffron ice-cream is a popular dessert in Iran, but it goes down a treat when paired with faloode; a sorbet-of-sorts, consisting of rice noodles, rose water and sugar syrup.



Travelling solo in Iran


If you’re tackling Iran alone, I’d recommend joining a tour group for convenience. This is actually an entry requirement in many cases (more on this later). Getting from city to city can be long and arduous so it’s handy to have someone take care of the logistics.


Dozens of tour operators offer group trips around the country, following slightly varied versions of the same route. Consider travelling with a company that employs local people and supports locally-owned and run restaurants, shops and experiences. It always makes for a more authentic experience and keeps your valuable tourist dollars within the local economy.


And of course, please dress conservatively for your own comfort and out of respect for the local customs. Women must wear a head covering in public at all times and both men and women should always wear long pants or skirts.





Iran is extremely hot in summer and bone-chillingly cold in winter so be sure to pack appropriate clothing such as light-weight, cotton blouses or shirts you can layer, sturdy shoes for walking and a scarf or shawl to wrap around you when entering a mosque or religious monument.


If you're still on the fence about taking your first solo trip, check out my top tips for travelling solo.



Need to knows


Visas


Unless you’re a citizen of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bolivia, Georgia, Malaysia, Syria, Turkey or Venezuela, you’ll need to purchase a tourist visa to enter Iran. Unfortunately, UK passport holders are not eligible for visas on arrival so you’ll likely need to apply beforehand. The application process is rather lengthy one.


First, you must obtain a visa code or “travel authorisation number” from your tour operator, hotel or a third-party tourism body. You must provide all the details of your trip when you apply, including flights, accommodation, planned activities and transport. You also need multiple copies of your passport photo, a photocopy of your original documents.


Once you receive your visa code, you can visit the Iranian visa website and apply online. You’ll need to fill out various forms and re-submit your documents. Then, once your visa has been approved, you can pick it up from your nominated embassy and pay the visa fee. As you can imagine, this takes time (and patience) so it’s a good idea to speak to a travel agent who can assist you with it.





Currency


The official currency of Iran is rial, also referred to as tomans. When you visit the markets and bazaars, you’ll notice everyone talking in terms of tomans. As of July 2020, the conversion rate was GBP 1 to IRR 52,923, or EUR 1 to IRR 47,443.


Entrance fees to most historical and significant sites are less than GBP 5, a meal in a mid-range restaurant is usually between 8-16 GBP and a 4-5 star hotel costs around 100 GBP per night.


Iran is a cash economy so you won’t be able to use credit cards to make everyday transactions. Bring your spending money in your home country's local currency and have it exchanged once you arrive. Your tour guide or hotel concierge will be able to point out a reputable bureau de change.



Language


Persian, also known as Farsi, is the dominant language of Iran, however, English is spoken in most tourist areas and major cities. If you happen to speak a bit of Kurdish, this will also come in handy.


Here are a few useful phrases to remember:


Hello - Salam or dorood

Please - Lotfan

Thank you - Mamnūnam

Excuse me - bebakhshid

Cheers! - Salâmati!



If you’ve never travelled to a country like Iran before and you’re not sure how to approach it, speaking to someone who has personally visited themselves does wonders to put you at ease. Having visited a few years ago, I love sharing my experience with people and dispelling their preconceptions.


If you’d like to chat about planning a trip to Iran, get in touch!


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Otherworld Travel 2020  |  Yvonne Campbell Travel Counsellor