Tehran's Azadi (Freedom) Tower. Photo Credit: Lindsay Fincher/MIR Corporation

OpeningPersia


By Patricia Schultz

Forget everything you've ever heard. Iran is open for tourism. This Middle Eastern country, for decades demonized as dark and dangerous, has become today's surprising destination of choice for the adventurous and curious traveler.

Although interest from Americans is the immediate result of the nuclear pact struck by the U.S. and other world powers last July, renewed tourism from America was given a strong nudge back in 2013 with the arrival of moderate-leaning president Hassan Rouhani, an advocate of reconciliation with the West.

But for an ancient culture like Persia, decades of turmoil are but a historical blip. These people have been turning their charm on visitors for two millennia, since before the era of the Silk Road. In fact, Persia's age-old tradition of hospitality was the only extremism we found during our visit from April 25 to May 12. And we found it at every turn; I have never felt so welcomed.

The takeaway from my trip to Iran was this: Do not confuse a government with its people.

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This report is part of Travel Weekly's Masters Series, which features new perspectives on travel by noted writers, photographers and artists.

This was one of many complexities patiently untangled for us by Mahmoud Daryaee, our on-the-ground national guide during an 18-day itinerary of Ancient Persia/Modern Iran with the Mir Corporation.

American, Canadian and U.K. visitors to Iran must be accompanied at all times. The rule does not extend to Europeans, although the few we met were traveling on guided tours. Nevertheless, a guided tour is clearly the only practical -- and, I found, enjoyable -- way to visit a country with limited infrastructure and with so much history and heritage to explore.

Mir also oversees the visa application process which, while doable by oneself, can be a delicate and time-consuming dance.

Daryaee had a great deal of help in his attempts to lift the veil on one of the oldest cultures on Earth, a culture known to most of us solely through the lens of American media. His backup came in the form of our polyglot Mir tour leader, Netherlands-born Michel Behar, who has been working with the Seattle-based tour company for 20 of the 30 years it has been bringing visitors to the world's less-visited corners. For the last 15 years, that has included Iran.  

For the 16 intrepid travelers in our group, Daryaee was our professor of all things Persian.

The country has been continuously under fire for its human rights abuses, its refusal to recognize Israel and its obsessive nuclear ambitions. It was this last issue that, in 2015, made world news when Iran agreed to a landmark nuclear pact with the U.S. and five other world powers to curtail its nuclear program in exchange for an easing of international sanctions worth billions of dollars to the country's economy.

This long-overdue rapprochement, it was felt, would help end Iran's isolation, salvage a battered economy and improve relations.

No industry stood to see a bigger boost than tourism. Investment opportunities are attractive to American and European companies, especially in such areas of endeavor as aviation and hospitality, both of which will be crucial to an infrastructure that intends to court Western tourists.

The U.S. government had never banned travel to Iran the way it had to Cuba. Iran had been a popular destination during the time of shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. But after he was overthrown in 1979, ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the architect, founder and supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, bolted Iran's front door shut.

Close to four decades later, the unthinkable has happened: Iran is back on America's tourism radar.

As it should be.

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"There's no better way to understanding and peace than people meeting people," said Annie Lucas, vice president of Mir. "It's why we got started in this business 30 years ago. That grass-roots philosophy is as important today as it's ever been."

The travel media has done its share to focus the spotlight: National Geographic anointed Iran as No. 1 on its cool list for 2016; Travel+Leisure placed it on its Best Places to Travel to in 2016; and CNN listed it as one of the Top 16 Places to Visit in 2016.

In February, the New York Times, citing the Associated Press, reported that Iranian officials claimed that 5 million foreign travelers had visited Iran in 2014, 3,400 of them Americans, contributing some $7.5 billion to the economy. The Times reported that by 2025, the country aims to attract 20 million tourists a year; Iranian officials estimate they will spend about $30 billion.

The Achaemenid tombs at Naqhsh-e Rostam, near the Unesco-listed Persepolis, a city destroyed in 330 B.C. during Alexander the Great's invasion of Persia. It disappeared beneath the desert sands until it was excavated in the 1930s. Photo Credit: Lindsay Fincher/MIR Corporation
The Achaemenid tombs at Naqhsh-e Rostam, near the Unesco-listed Persepolis, a city destroyed in 330 B.C. during Alexander the Great's invasion of Persia. It disappeared beneath the desert sands until it was excavated in the 1930s. Photo Credit: Lindsay Fincher/MIR Corporation

A land bursting with treasures

For decades, I had been wowed by glossy photographs of Iran's archaeological sites, its lavish palaces with stained glass windows, its ancient baths, bazaars brimming with spices and carpets, Islamic architecture and dazzling blue-green-tiled mosques topped with domes of mesmerizing mathematical perfection. And yet, three-dimensional Iran still came as a surprise.

Travelers who return home helped spread the word about the country's treasures, but they also often speak of the disparity between Western perceptions and the realities of a young and welcoming population.

Iranians are proud of their unparalleled attractions, including 19 Unesco World Heritage Sites with dozens more listed as tentative, and they are clearly happy to share them. Drop into any cafe filled with young, hookah-smoking locals (the aromatic fruit-flavored tobacco comes in a variety of flavors), and you will find a citizenry that is exceedingly charming, friendly, curious and always eager to chat.

"You're American?" they'll ask. "Thank you for coming to my country!"

Tour leader Behar explained the attraction: "I would not say that Iranians love all Westerners, even Americans, but especially Americans."

Strangers invited us to dinners, weddings and more than a few alfresco picnics. One girl insisted that a woman in our group accept the ring she was wearing. Another lovingly handed us her year-old baby, as if we were long-lost cousins. 

Mir's fastest-growing destination

"Universally, Mir traveler post-trip feedback is filled with surprise and delight at the especially warm reception felt while traveling throughout Iran," Lucas said. "Word is getting out about what an intriguing and worthwhile destination Iran is. It's our fastest-growing destination over the last two years."

More than 70% of Iran's 80 million people are under age 35, and 33% are under 15, a result of the early Islamic Republic's policy of making population growth a priority.

The amount of potential influence that demographic can wield is clear. If you were to go by appearances alone, you might think that the revolution was mellowing or the hard-line clergy was softening. The hijab, the Muslim head scarf once worn tightly around the face (women in Iran do not cover their faces) is gradually slipping back to show lots of bangs and heads full of highlights.

Once-forbidden formfitting clothes are no longer uncommon in the large cities, nor are bright colors, striking red lipstick and even the occasional blue-polish manicure. A bandage from a recent nose job is both a badge of courage and status symbol: Iran is one of the top destinations for plastic surgery in the world, and it's No. 1 in rhinoplasty.

The enveloping, identity-stifling black chador is still very commonly worn, and there are few exceptions in the rural areas or by older women. Like all visiting foreign women, we were required by strict laws to wear a hijab throughout the day, including on our bus and in our hotel lobby, until we closed our hotel room door behind us.

Iranian school groups visiting their country's historic and cultural sites are commonplace. So is their curiosity and warmth, says author Patricia Schultz, surrounded here by a cluster of high school girls who enthusiastically peppered her with questions about life in the U.S.
Iranian school groups visiting their country's historic and cultural sites are commonplace. So is their curiosity and warmth, says author Patricia Schultz, surrounded here by a cluster of high school girls who enthusiastically peppered her with questions about life in the U.S.

A young, conservatively dressed Iranian girl confided to me that she liked wearing her chador. Another, who could easily have graced a Conde Nast cover, told me she detested it. I had read much about Iran's "morality police," who patrol the streets looking for women who violate dress code restrictions, and the government's imposed tradition and control continue.

"But as visitors," Behar said, "the only interference of clerics you're likely to see are mullahs who chat with us or pose for photos, whether in the mosque or at Persepolis."

The second-largest country in the Middle East after Saudi Arabia, Iran straddles a strategic region between East and West, and between the oil fields of the Persian Gulf (called the Arabian Gulf by most Arab nations) and the Caspian Sea.

Iran is a complicated place: over time, both friend and foe, once progressive and ultracosmopolitan but today dictated by Sharia law. It is a country where women are forced to navigate a web of archaic restrictions, yet, unlike in Saudi Arabia, women are allowed to drive and move about with relative freedom. At the university level, they are the majority, comprising one of the highest student ratios in the world. And although women hold only 18 seats in the 290-seat Iranian Parliament, they now outnumber cleric members for the first time.

Proud of the Persian culture

Boasting an ancient and sophisticated culture, Iranians speak Farsi, one of the oldest living languages, and most speak an impressive level of English, which they are not shy about practicing with you.

They are quick to inform you that they are Persians, not Arabs, and will gladly tell you just what they think of the country's tenuous rapport with Saudi Arabia.

Given Persians' long-standing tradition of being well-traveled and very well-educated, a strong national identity and pride prevails. The notion of beauty and poetry is everywhere in a country that is both exotic and comfortable with an underlying nuance of sensuality.

Iran is more than twice the size of Texas and mostly desert. But it is also a country of great beauty, natural and man-made: high, arid mountains, rural villages of adobe homes, some of the world's oldest (and painstakingly restored) archaeological sites and flourishing modern cities that are millennia old.

There is even a popular ski resort an hour's drive from Tehran. Roads are good, and our bus was modern and comfortable, though bathroom stops were a succession of "squatty potties" that kept us yearning for the elusive Western toilet.

Tabriz, a former capital in the northwest area of the country, made for a beautiful introduction to Iran. Its massive and ancient bazaar (some parts of the 2.75 square-mile market date back a thousand years) evokes the city's history as a classic stop along the Silk Road, with a section dedicated to handmade carpets, each a masterpiece of skill, once written of admiringly by Marco Polo.

A day excursion brought us to tiny Kandovan, a kind of Cappadocia in miniature.

With its notorious traffic and visible extremes of wealthy haves and impoverished have-nots, Tehran is surprisingly modern in places, with hotels, art galleries and a clutch of fashion boutiques that would not look out of place in Europe's capitals.

"Tehran's impressive museums make the city an absolute priority," Lucas said. "In particular, the Crown Jewels as well as the newly opened Islamic section of the National Museum," which had reopened months before our arrival after an extensive 9-year renovation.

We drove past the former American Embassy, the "nest of spies" that was the site of the 1979 takeover by Iranian student revolutionaries who held 52 Americans hostage for more than a year. It is kept as a sort of museum of the revolution with anti-American murals still covering its outside walls. (Anti-American slogans in general, we were told, referred only to American policy and not the American people.) The British embassy reopened just weeks after the nuclear agreement made news, following a four-year closure; in response Iran reopened its embassy in London. There is no talk of the American Embassy reopening any time soon.

Our only domestic flight brought us to the desert capital of Yazd, a fascinating city known for its mud-brick historic quarter, towerlike buildings traditionally known as wind catchers, and its pre-Islamic fire-based Zoroastrian religion symbolized by a flame that is said to have been burning since 470, transferred from its original site in 1940.

Exploring Iran
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This Middle Eastern country, for decades demonized as dark and dangerous, has become today's surprising destination of choice for the adventurous and curious traveler. Pictured here, the remarkable mud-brick fortress of Arg-e Rayen, Iran.<br /><br /><strong>Photo Credit: Michel Behar/MIR Corporation</strong>The 164-foot Azadi (Freedom) Tower, located in Tehran's Azadi Square.<br /><br /><strong>Photo Credit: Lindsay Fincher/MIR Corporation</strong>The Achaemenid tombs at Naqhsh-e Rostam, near the Unesco-listed Persepolis, a city destroyed in 330 B.C. during Alexander the Great's invasion of Persia. It disappeared beneath the desert sands until it was excavated in the 1930s.<br /><br /><strong>Photo Credit: Lindsay Fincher/MIR Corporation</strong>The Vank Cathedral in Esfahan's historical Armenian neighborhood, a testament to the city's multicultural roots.<br /><br /><strong>Photo Credit: Michel Behar/MIR Corporation</strong>Mahan is a small town famed for its tomb of the Sufi leader shah Nematollah Vali and for its luxurious Persian garden, the Bagh-e Shazdeh or Prince Garden.<br /><br /><strong>Photo Credit: Michel Behar/MIR Corporation</strong>An array of exotic spices awaits in the markets of Tehran.<br /><br /><strong>Photo Credit: Lindsay Fincher/MIR Corporation</strong>Persian cooking has influenced Middle Eastern, Moroccan, Northern Indian and Turkish cuisines.<br /><br /><strong>Photo Credit: Lindsay Fincher/MIR Corporation</strong>Iranian school groups visiting their country's historic and cultural sites are commonplace. So is their curiosity and warmth, says author Patricia Schultz, surrounded here by a cluster of high school girls who enthusiastically peppered her with questions about life in the U.S.The classical Persian garden, this one in Shiraz, contains the Zoroastrian elements of sky, earth, water and plants.<br /><br /><strong>Photo Credit: Lindsay Fincher/MIR Corporation</strong>Locals greeted Schultz's tour group with warm smiles and open hearts.<br /><br /><strong>Photo Credit: Michel Behar/MIR Corporation</strong>Rolls of beautifully handcrafted Persian rugs were for sale outside Isfahan's bazaar.<br /><br /><strong>Photo Credit: Lindsay Fincher/MIR Corporation</strong>A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Persepolis encompasses some of the most fascinating ruins in the world, and is a top draw for travelers to Iran.<br /><br /><strong>Photo Credit: Peter Guttman</strong>Esfahan's beautiful blue-tiled buildings are considered some of the most extraordinary architecture in the world today.<br /><br /><strong>Photo Credit: Michel Behar/MIR Corporation</strong>

Exploring the cultural heartland

Refined Shiraz is the fabled heartland of Persian culture. With a long history of literary, artistic and intellectual patronage, it was the seat of the 18th century capital once famed for its vineyards, which no longer exist.

Iranians love Shiraz for its beautiful gardens and for being the city of love and poetry. Much of the latter is due to the revered 14th century poet Hafez, whose parklike tomb is a popular meeting place for groups of friends or young couples who come and read to each other the poet's verses of love.

Shiraz is also the base from which to visit Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the largest empire that ever existed, dating to 515 B.C. It was destroyed in 330 B.C. during Alexander the Great's invasion of Persia and disappeared beneath the desert sands until it was excavated in the 1930s.

The sprawling site is tainted with infamy today as a result of the shah's ostentatious commemoration of the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian monarchy, staged in 1971 for an astounding $90 million ($516 million in today's dollars). This over-the-top attempt to instill nationalistic pride backfired royally.

Esfahan, also commonly spelled Isfahan, is Iran's real showstopper and was appropriately saved for our last stop on the itinerary.

I thought maybe I could live in Esfahan, with its wide, tree-lined avenues and dreamy bridges. The vast Imam Square is its gem, one of the largest in the world, site of some of the most significant achievements of Islamic architecture and extravagant decorative work, all within strolling distance. Tourists are few and welcome, though incidental, in the ancient bazaar, where most shoppers are Iranian, prices are modest and bargaining is gentle.

Exotic gastronomic traditions

Food is at the center of Persian culture, and it played a big role in our Iran experience. The repertoire of dishes was diverse and exotic but often felt comfortably familiar because Persian cooking has influenced Middle Eastern, Moroccan, Northern Indian and Turkish cuisines.

At times, it was highly refined, at other times basic and straightforward, beginning with the requisite barley soup and the ubiquitous grilled kebabs, which are sold on every street corner as well as in upscale restaurants, served alongside a bed of fluffy saffron rice.

Dishes are infused with fresh flowers (rose petals) and herbs (mint) or spices (saffron) and fruit (pomegranate and barberry). Ghormeh sabzi, Iran's national dish of green-herb stew made with lamb and kidney beans, is sure to make an appearance. So is fesenjan, a chicken stew with a rich sauce of pomegranate and walnut. Tahdig is the golden, crunchy buttery crust from the bottom of the rice pot.

And to top it all off, creamy Persian ice cream delicately flavored with rose water or saffron or made from pistachios that Iranians insist are the finest in the world.

All these sites of interest for tourists are far from the borders with Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, all of which the U.S. State Department urges travelers to avoid.

Though the population is 99% Muslim, of which 90% are Shia, Iran is largely free of the kinds of Shia-Sunni friction that so sour its regional neighbors.

Though the ever-cautious State Department warns American travelers that "various elements in Iran remain hostile to the U.S.," intrepid travelers are not listening. Visitors are warned to respect Iran's strict interpretation of all local traditions, including alcohol prohibitions and rules for dressing modestly, but that is a small price to pay for the experience Iran promises. It's a cash-based society, so don't expect to use your credit cards nor rely on ATMs.

Direct flights from the U.S. to Iran haven't been offered since 1979, but travel on Turkish Airlines is very convenient, with flights from 12 U.S. gateway cities including Los Angeles and New York JFK nonstop to Istanbul, with connections to various Iranian cities.

Emirates is an attractive option, and in April, Air France joined Alitalia, Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines as the first European carriers to relaunch service to Tehran after the sanctions were lifted. British Airways is expected to resume its London-Tehran route in July.

The national carrier, Iran Air, has been on the European Union's banned list since 2010, and because the economic sanctions have prevented the carrier from purchasing new planes or replacing parts, its safety record has suffered. Both Airbus and Boeing await final resolution of the sanctions to replace the country's aging fleet.

As with other anticipated improvements in the future, everyone is waiting to see what will happen after president Barack Obama leaves office and whether Rouhani will be reelected in 2017.

But there is no reason to wait. Right now is a great time to explore both sides of Iran: ancient Persia, whose wonders are breathtaking and awe-inspiring, and modern Iran, with all its surprises and contradictions.

Both are fascinating.