Iran may not be at the top of your bucket list – particularly if you’re a United States citizen – but between its rich cultural heritage and vast natural beauty, we think it should be. The difficulty of getting to this Persian jewel is well worth the effort, and you’ll walk away with a travel experience few tourists can claim to have.
Ever dream of the wonders of ancient Persia? That magical empire has become modern day Iran. The capital of the Achaemenid Empire, Persepolis is an archaeological wonder on par with the Roman Forum or the Acropolis in Athens. Dating back to 518 BCE, these terraced ancient ruins are a UNESCO World Heritage Site for their incredible feats of architecture, parting the curtain between the modern era and ancient civilization.
You might be tempted to follow up a visit to Iran’s ancient capital with a trip to its current one, Tehran. Nestled amid snowy mountains, Tehran is gritty and modern. The soaring Azadi Tower, which marks the entrance to the city, is a point of beauty, and the city boasts several interesting museums, such as the Carpet Museum of Iran. Many travelers, however, find Tehran to be ugly and chaotic to the point of being unenjoyable.
Isfahan is a wildly popular, and far more attractive, city, located in the center of the country. There you’ll find a wide range of stunning Islamic architecture, including palaces, covered bridges, and mosques. The breathtaking Imam or Naqsh-e Jahan Square is also recognized by UNESCO. Art lovers may be put off by some of the major industry around the city, but keep faith. Local artisan culture also thrives, and you’re likely to secure a small treasure from a city bazaar.
Traveling couples won’t be able to resist a visit to Shiraz, well known as a center of poetry and love. The Eram Garden, or Garden of Paradise, may seem like it was made for the front of a postcard, but wait until you spy the intricate interior of one of the city’s many mosques and mausoleums. Their design goes beyond the power of words. In addition to being a very educated city, it’s one of Iran’s most historical, having been a cultural center for the region for over 2000 years.
Iran was also part of the famed Silk Road, and an overland trek through that Central Asian avenue of commerce is the adventure of a lifetime. Your journey might also include Istanbul, Samarkand, and Bishkek, and could even venture as far as Beijing. If you’re wary of undertaking such an adventure independently, there are many tour operators following the route, such as Overland Oasis.
Granted, Iran is not a place to fly footloose and fancy free. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government is dictated by Islamic sharia law, which can hit secular visitors with some nasty culture shock, or worse. In 2011, a group of American hikers were imprisoned after accidentally straying across the border and being accused of espionage. Use your common sense, your utmost caution, and the power of advance research to ensure you have a safe trip.