Visiting Iran is not the first place one would think of to spend their travels, and with all the bad press the country gets it would not be surprising.
But ignore their government and politics, and you will find some of the most friendly people you could ever wish to meet.
I decided to get in touch with several backpackers who had been to Iran, and asked them to write about their favourite experiences and impressions.
I did this to help potential travellers make up their mind on whether to visit, or indeed to inspire people who may not have even thought about it.
Here’s what they had to say about their time visiting Iran.
Nick and Dariece
32 days in the country of Iran is simply not long enough…but that’s all the time we had, and we took full advantage of it.
Everything was a highlight for us: the people were incredibly warm and welcoming, the food was surprisingly delicious, the sights were beautiful and the markets were bustling! It was everything we hoped it would be and more.
We have story after story that we could share with you from this Persian nation, but we thought we’d tell you about our experience with Ashura (or Muharram).
In short, this is a 10 day ceremony/mourning period to commemorate the death of Imam Hussein (the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson), who died brutally in Iraq in 680AD.
We were in Kerman for the last day of the mourning processions, and witnessed thousands of people on the streets, openly sobbing, dressed in black, all chanting in unison – while the men whipped themselves with chains in honour of Imam Hussein who died 1333 years ago!
It was one of the most interesting religious displays we’ve ever seen.
In the evenings, the rich would give food to the poor, and on the sides of the road, families would set up tables to serve food or drink to anyone, and everyone – including us.
The hotel we were staying at sacrificed 6 lambs for the occasion to make stew. We were asked to help prepare the food and spent that evening with the family learning about Ashura and making food together in massive cauldrons.
The following morning, we helped serve the free food to the community!
The fact that we were asked to participate in this important time was incredible.
We’ll never forget our experience with Ashura in Iran.
Nick and Dariece are the couple behind Goats On The Road. Their website is designed to show others how to turn their travels into a lifestyle. Masters at making money abroad, they’ve been on the road since 2008 and have explored some of the least visited places on earth, finding adventure wherever they go.
We spent a month backpacking in Iran, arriving from Turkey at the Bazargan border, travelling east to Mashhad and then south through the deserts.
The most memorable aspect of Iranian life for me is the generosity and warm welcoming people. They are simply one of the friendliest bunch of people you could wish to meet.
As a foreigner there you will stand out a mile and you will be approached by lots of curious locals, inviting you for tea, for dinner, to stay with them, to tour their Mosques.
In the end we had to turn down many offers as it was overwhelming, but our favourite home-stay came in the western town of Shahr-e Kord.
If you go to Iran and are invited into someone’s home – say yes! It’s the most rewarding experience you can wish for.
I can’t think about my time in Iran without breaking into a huge smile. Nowhere else have I been showered with more warmth and hospitality by locals.
A lot of my friends from home were surprised when I told them this, though to be honest, I had sort of expected it.
I decided to go after meeting other travellers who had been and could not stop raving about the wonders of Iranian hospitality. Because of this, I did something I very rarely do when traveling to a new country alone: I found a Couchsurfing host for my first two nights in Tehran and then didn’t make any other plans.
It was of course a bit of a gamble, but since I was more interested in getting a feel for the culture than seeing specific sights, I figured the best way to plan my trip would be to ask people I met in Iran where I should go.
It worked perfectly!
On my second day in Tehran I had lunch with Mina, an Iranian student who had messaged me on Couchsurfing.
She took me to a tiny hole in the wall restaurant near her university, where we ended up staying for hours, bonding over shared taste in music and books, laughing at each other’s embarrassing stories, and (of course) showing each other photos of our boyfriends.
By the end of the afternoon Mina had agreed to come with me on a trip to Isfahan, invited me to join her family for Persian New Year celebrations, and started scheming up ways to get her parents to allow us to visit her (secret) boyfriend near the Iraqi border in Kurdistan.
Needless to say, my time in Iran turned out pretty fantastic.
Silvia blogs at Heart My Backpack about all her travelling adventures. She enjoys getting off the beaten path as often as possible looking for the road less travelled. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.
I travelled through Iran for a month in 2012 as part of my Silk Road journey from China to Europe. I entered Mashhad from Turkmenistan towards the end of July, two days before Ramadan started, and stayed for a month.
Without a doubt it has some of the most hospitable and friendly people on this planet. They really take you in like family and invite you for picnics in parks and squares on a daily basis.
One such example happened on my way to Palangan, a picturesque stepped village with earth-coloured stone houses in Kurdistan rarely frequented by tourists due to its proximity to Iraq, and lack of public transportation.
Arriving at Sanandaj in the morning after an overnight bus trip, I decided to find my way to Hawraman and try to get to Palangan. Most people hire a driver for this route.
I managed to find a bus from Sanandaj to Marivan and took a shared jeep to Hawraman, just to find out that the only hotel in town was closed.
It was already late in the afternoon and there was no transportation back to Sanadaj and I was getting quite frustrated. The jeep driver was heading back to his village with others and invited me to come along.
The drive from Howaraman to Paravyan was about 1-1.5 hours with lots of hairpin turns and we passed through a number of villages en route. The scenery was rugged but breathtaking.
He introduced me to his lovely wife and family, and we also visited a number of houses and watched the local women pumping water out of the well for their household.
We made dinner together and slept on the balcony under the stars that night. It turns out that the driver is one of the few people in the Parvyan village with a car. Each morning at 5 am he will pick up all the people and drive them to Marivan for work (which is exactly what we did the next day).
He would stay in Marivan for the day and drive people back in the afternoon, picking up more en route. Up until this day I still cannot locate Parvyan on Google Maps.
The generosity I received from people throughout Iran really is a humbling experience.
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” When people today speak about Iran after they have travelled they alway mention friendliness. While I experienced that in Eastern Iran my greatest enjoyment in Iran was getting to experience the vast wealth of history on show.
The Persian empire was one of the greatest the world has ever seen. Yet few get the opportunity to visit the remains of it. Today Persepolis, the “city of Persians”, still stands with a slew of impressive ruins that’s akin to walking into an Indiana Jones movie.
Columns and pillars still stand today as they did in 550–330 BCE. Indeed black marble gates still have vivid images depicting life back then. There are few places in the world that have ruins this old so well preserved.
It’s all out in the open close to Shiraz. Another lovely little city in Iran worthy of a few days stay just for the market and history.
Yes the people of Iran are lovely, well educated and well versed in the arts. For me though I’d like to spend more time exploring ruins scattered all over Iran. It’s a treasure trove of discovery just waiting for you.”
Nowruz (The first day of spring in the Persian calendar) was around the time that I visited Iran. Although I currently live in the Kyrgyz Republic, where the people celebrate this holiday as well, my thoughts always go back to Iran around this time.
The country of extraordinary hospitality.
I was traveling alone there for more than two months in 2012. In spite of my anxiety about a general image of Middle East in my country, the “dangerous” people were extremely kind and helpful.
I was very lucky to be there at that time of the year, especially staying with a local family in one of the most historical cities, called Shiraz. Before Nowruz, I was taken to a traditional festival of fire, where we all ran and jumped over a bonfire in order to burn the fear in our spirit.
When Nowruz came, they prepared seven things that started with a sound ‘s’ in Farsi; apple, candle, mirror, water, green plant, goldfish and eggs. All the relatives visited each other, and I was kindly taken around.
Everywhere they served apples, oranges, kiwis, cucumbers, varieties of nuts, and black tea with chocolates and candies.
Once I was invited by young girls to their room. As soon as we entered, we all took off the scarf and long-sleeve shirt you wear outside, and the room turned into a disco! We danced to American pop music, and I thought I saw the hidden part of the country that you don’t normally see.
I’ve traveled to over 40 countries so far, and Iran is definitely one of the countries I really want to go back to again.
It was first time for me to visit a strict muslim country. For that reason, my backpacking around Iran had become a very interesting experience.
This is what I think about travelling there.
As my trip was during Ramadan (where muslims fast during daylight hours once a month in a year), I couldn’t eat anything outside in the daytime.
Although we could eat if it wasn’t in a public place, I never suffered from hunger, but still it was strange. The practice of Ramadan gave me a certain rhythm of life which had never happened before, and I think because of that I could really feel the country’s atmosphere.
As mentioned above, the Iranians are so inviting.
Another aspect of Ramadan is that people can get a free meal at the mosque after the sunset, even if you were not a muslim. Of course there are so many local people, but it’s easy to join in because Iranian people are so friendly.
The most important thing that you can’t miss is the very last day of Ramadan where they have a big meal to mark the end of the fasting. I was invited to a barbecue by local guys and they cooked me camel meat.
Travel to Iran
I have met other people that went backpacking in Iran, and they all had a similar kind of experience as written about here.
You will meet similar minded backpackers there, ones full of curiosity in exploring a part of the world they were told they should probably avoid.
A question I get asked sometimes from American travellers is:
Can Americans visit Iran? The answer is yes, but you have to be on an organised tour.
This is my own personal take on why you should visit Iran.