I recently visited Iran, one of the most misunderstood countries and societies in mainstream media today. I will highlight that I visited Iran during a particular period in the arena of world politics. My visa process coincided with Trump’s 1st attempted travel ban from 7 predominately Muslim countries, which included Iran. Some suggested I cancel my plans, but I was determined to not allow current affairs stop me from a dream trip of a lifetime.
I hope anyone who reads this will continue to travel despite what they read in the news, to thoughtfully consider acting on their concerns to travel, balancing rhetoric with reality. While I was in Iran, I met tour guides who explained how current affairs has affected their work- due to tour groups who had cancelled their trips. Even in Italy, I’ve heard about people cancelling their trips to Europe. I wish I could assure anyone who had doubts about traveling, but hopefully this note can add something positive in the sea of overhyped, sensationalized, click-bait driven media.
In short, visiting Iran was safe, beautiful and one of the most enjoyable experiences in my entire life on any one vacation. I hope that after reading my subsequent posts on visiting Iran, that if you held any confusion about this wonderful country that at least some of it would be squashed, and that I can inspire you to also one day visit. Everyday life in any city and village I visited was tranquil and safe, and the people were so kind- they deserved a medal! In fact, I was less worried about petty theft in Iran than when I was recently in New York City!
I found locals to be welcoming to visitors from around the world and I only heard positive things said about Westerners. Iranians are reasonable and intelligent- they understand that individual people don’t represent politics.
Yes, there are stricter laws in place than say visiting some areas of Europe, but they are easy to be informed about and easy to follow (such as the hijab for women and no alcohol). I honestly think the only real challenge I encountered was crossing the street in Tehran, which is notorious for its traffic. If you’ve visited Naples, Bangkok or another city with chaotic traffic- you are probably already prepared. In fact, I got used to it after a couple days and most of the time, I had someone to help me safely cross.
Before I dive in, I wanted to share the most FAQ and frequent reactions from people when I told them I was going to Iran:
The conversation would go like this: Ciao Coral, how’s it going- what’s new? “I’m great! Super excited and busy getting ready for my dream trip to Iran!”
…Why Iran? That seems a bit odd to have a dream to visit Iran!
Oh, are you traveling alone? Be careful!
*General gasps* then proceeding to look at my as if I just grew a second head
Why would you want to go there?
Aren’t you scared?
Wow- you’re brave!
Are you sure?
Of course, there were many who were so thrilled for me and had great encouraging responses like “AMAZING! How cool! I envy you! Send me photos! Lucky you! What a beautiful trip!” But as someone who travels frequently, and used to telling people in day-to-day my upcoming plans, never was I met with such mixed reactions.
I wanted to prove the former reactions wrong. It only fueled me to extinguish any doubt and go have a fantastic time and come back with wonderful stories to prove contrary to stereotypes. I was sure that anything I’d heard or read was simply inaccurate/incomplete information propagated by the merciless media.
I’ll answer to some of the FAQ/Reactions. How did wanting to visit Iran come about? Hopefully you have gathered by now as a long time reader that my ethnic background is Sicilian and Persian- I have a deep love for my both my heritages. I sincerely attribute my curiosity for food and an open-minded palate thanks to being born to diversity.
Persian food has strong, punctuated and distinct flavors like dried lemons, saffron, rose water, bitter greens, gamey lamb, onion rich ground beef kebab, honey drenched sweets, spiced picked vegetables…etc. As a kid growing up in America, my palate was exposed to flavors otherwise unknown in the American food landscape of baloney, processed foods, high fructose corn syrup things, sketchy canned soups, hydrogenated fats, hot dogs, fast food and garbage cafeteria food at school mealtimes. I believe and thank my Persian family for giving me an advantage when forming a relationship with food.
So yes, I had an inherent interest to discover my roots but I grew up split between families, so I never properly learned Farsi for example. I struggled with cultural identity- I never quite felt “American.” But it was okay, I embraced it & was proud to be multi-cultural.
In general, I naturally gravitated towards making friends with people from around the world. In University, I studied Italian Language and Literature and a minor in Geography (mostly int’l food studies). In my first years at community college, I had friends from the Middle East (Iraq, Kurdistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, etc) Eastern Asia, North/West/East Africa, Western & Eastern Europe, South & Central America and Mexico. Everyone in our group were all friends- and proof that governments and politics do not represent local people. I was curious about all their cultures and I felt out of place with most Americans who didn’t travel or share a similar curiosity for the world.
In my University years, I had roommates who all majored in some International subject and were adamant travelers of the world, some having lived in Ghana, Tanzania and South America and I was involved in on-campus culture clubs (Persian and Italian). All my friends at University were worldly, spoke different languages, we bonded over international-themed potluck dinners and all shared a love for the world.
This is generally what I have grown up with as the norm. I’ll admit, Seattle is a bit of a progressive bubble and I attended a rather liberal public University (University of Washington). But it still felt like someone was telling me that Santa Claus wasn’t real since Donald Trump took office, fueling inaccurate generalizations towards countries and people that I found so beautiful.
I think if you have any doubts about Iran and its people, you simply need to go and see for yourself, it’s a safe, warm and rewarding country to visit.
Of course, you need to follow the rules and make sure you are 100% aware of them before going. Iran is an Islamic Republic and is under theocratic law. If you come from a country where religion and state are separate- there may be some rules new to you, such as the hijab (headscarf) for women. The recipe for a smooth trip is to be smart, practice common sense & plan proactively, read up on the rules and ask many questions to people who have experience traveling to/from Iran & local travel professionals. As long as you follow and respect the rules, you will have a smooth trip.
If you are interested to plan a trip to Iran, Lonely Planet is an invaluable resource and considered the ultimate guide for travelers to Iran from around the globe. In Iran, I ran into many tourists from Australia to South America.
Here are a couple great posts summing up requirements for visitors to Iran:
Travel to Iran – Things To Know Before You Go
I went for 2 weeks, and happily visited Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan and villages in between. While I was amazed by colors, architecture, food, smells and sounds, the one single aspect that impressed me the most about Iran was its people. Iranians were so incredibly helpful during my travels, I had my hand held by strangers (or as I like to say now: fellow human beings) in any instance that I needed it- especially when crossing the street!
One interaction that impressed me the most was in a store, as I was needing help with a purchase. There was a huge line and the store was about to close. When locals realized I was a visitor, they allowed me to go to the front of the line and said “you’re the guest, we can wait.”
I know it was just one small gesture, but it represented the incredible, hospitable approach Iranians have towards visitors. If I can convince you of anything, is that people in Iran are respectful, sensitive and helpful to visitors and there is no reason to be afraid. Even walking down the street, I stuck out as a tourist, albeit not saying a word and thinking my dress and Mediterranean features blended in with locals. But that was nothing to fear, Iranians simply stopped to say “Welcome to Iran, enjoy your stay!”
There were a few times when people just came up to me and after a few minutes of speaking, invited me to their house for dinner! As someone commented on one of my recent instagram posts on Iran “The traditions of hospitality in the Middle East should get UNESCO World Heritage status and we should all aspire to be such thoughtful human beings.” I COMPLETELY AGREE! I fell in love with Iranian people, to say the least. I hope that I can learn from this human experience and return the same hospitality and kindness to any guest, immigrant or visitor to my land.
I’ll leave this post for now, I will make some posts more organized by each city I visited. But I wanted to share my initial impressions with the country I now deeply love and adore. I hope to visit again and again, to continue discovering this magical country’s splendor.
In your world citizenship,
Have more questions or advice about visiting Iran? Leave a comment- I’d be glad to help in any way.