Iran ought to be one of the world’s most treasured travel destinations, blessed as it is with extraordinary historical sites, exquisite landscapes and a fascinating culture. But international tensions and a tough domestic regime have prevented that from being the case – it has remained a destination for the intrepid.
Things are changing, though. Since the election of a moderate president in 2013 and the gradual thawing of relations with the West, this once out-of-bounds country has started to open up. No one’s pretending that its current leadership can’t be shockingly hard-fisted in matters of civic law. But most foreigners are likely to find their preconceptions shattered. They will find Iranians warm and friendly, keen to practice their English and quick with the tea invites.
Rich Persian heritage dating back 3,000 years is evident throughout the country. Historical sights like the ancient ruins of Persepolis and the still-glorious former capital of Isfahan are abundant. Iran has a distinct cultural identity too, with its predominately Shia-Muslim population, which sets it apart from most nations in the Islamic world.
Parts of the country are very conservative, but Tehran will strike many visitors as extremely modern. Despite the image perpetuated of religious dogma, in the capital women walk around in skinny jeans and make-up, while couples openly hold hands. There’s a lively café culture and a youth culture comparable to Mediterranean countries. Persian cuisine can be sampled in countless traditional and more contemporary restaurants.
Ancient Persia has the potential to attract millions of tourists per year, but it's the modern reforming Iran that could be of as much interest. Flashpoint travel advice should be heeded and tourists still won’t be flocking to the country on a whim. But those who do travel will find street-level Iran to be almost unrecognisable from the Iran making headlines around much of the world.