Hunt for bargains in the dizzying bazaars of Tehran or the more relaxed meandering lanes of the ancient bazaars in Shiraz and Esfahan
Lightfoot Travel’s Vicky Pester travels to Iran to discover a truly magical place
Tell someone you are visiting Iran and you will be confronted with an array of responses depending on what they have read in the news or images they have seen on TV over the last 60 or so years. But what I can say with 100 per cent certainty is that if you open yourself up to all possibilities, you will be pleasantly surprised and even in awe of this magical place that was once part of the biggest and most rich empires in the world.
Much like its neighbours, kabab will become your staple diet while in Iran, ranging from succulent saffron chicken, lamb and beef to the perhaps less common camel found in the enchanting mud-brick desert town of Yazd. But much like the destination itself, the food will keep on surprising you as you delve deeper into the layers of this fascinating country. From the earthy tastes of their lamb stew (dizi), to the crispy shell of the buttery rice dish Tahdig, Iranian dishes offer non-stop surprises. For me, the best food you’ll eat is when you’re a guest of a local as they take great pride and care when preparing their traditional dishes. When I visited Iran, my favourite moments included dining at home with an Iranian family, eating alfresco with Nomads under a pistachio tree and joining an Iranian celebrity chef for a tasting session in his extremely kitsch kitchen in Tehran… I experienced tastes and hospitality like I’d never experienced before.
As Lonely Planet states, if you like people, then you’ll like Iran. And I have to agree. With their warmth and curiosity, they will welcome you into their country, and even their homes, like a long lost friend. With many who have grown up with Iran portrayed as a dangerous place for tourists, they go out of their way to ensure you go home to spread the word that the world couldn’t be more wrong. With a history of territory wars, Iran is a nation made up of numerous ethnic groups whose art, architecture, customs and attitudes have been influenced over thousands of years by Greek, Turkic, Mongol and Arab occupiers. This makes for a fascinating culture which you can experience first-hand just by spending time with its people.
Iran is home to some of the best handmade carpets in the world. Hunt for bargains in the dizzying bazaars of Tehran or the more relaxed meandering lanes of the ancient bazaars in Shiraz and Esfahan. You’ll find a huge range of different styles, types and quality so be sure to choose wisely and use a good guide. And while you’re there you should also look out for beautiful copper jewellery and pots, tapestry, ceramics and glassworks. More often than not you will see the masters of their trade at work at their stalls and they welcome you as a spectator to their fine art.
This vast and varied landscape has plenty to offer in the form of off-the-beaten-track experiences. There are still around one million nomads living in Iran. They will spend the scorching summer months breathing in the cool mountain air, then they will return to the valleys in the winter for warmth and fresh pastures for their animals. Visitors can travel to the Faz region where they can spend the night in the desert, sleeping among the nomadic tents.
If the idea of sleeping out in the desert sounds as romantic and mystical as it truly is, then there are also fabulous desert homestays. Farahzad, east from Esfahan, offers such an experience in an oasis amid sand dunes. The accommodation is surprisingly comfortable, the food some of the freshest you will taste and the stargazing out of this world.
There are also a plethora of options for trekking, but it can often be difficult to navigate yourself so be sure to hire a guide. If you want to have a taster of this, Darband Mountain behind Tehran is a welcomed escape from the manic streets and pollution – it’s also a great people watcher opportunity as you see Iranians go for a “stroll” in all manners of attire. In the winter, the Alborz Mountain range becomes a fantastic option for skiing with plenty of steep downhills and untracked powder to keep skiers of every level entertained.
History buffs are sure to be wowed when they tour the famous former Persian Empire. You’ll find remnants of the country’s many rulers and destroyers in architecture, art and culture, In Shiraz you will find the ancient capital of Persepolis. You can stroll among the ruins of this World Heritage Site that dates back to 515BC. Or travel to Esfahan in central Iran, where you can discover, the sublime, turquoise-tiled domes and minarets of Naqsh-e Jahan Square. Then feel history come alive when you walk through the maze of alleyways, between the magnificent wind towers and past the bustling tea shops in the historic centre of Yazd.
FYI: Like any country you visit you need to respect the laws and Iran has a few. If you’re a woman, you need to make sure that your hijab (head covering) is in place, and love birds should remember there’s no PDAs.