myths realities travelling iran bridge 33 arches

4 Myths And Realities About Travelling In Iran

Friends have always asked me where am I travelling next, and I’m usually happy to share and talk about my next destination. But there was one destination which I was reluctant to mention for I knew the questions coming my way, given the unusual choice of country. It’s the country that has a bad reputation in the West and there are not many news media releases that state the good stuff about the country.

That country is Iran.

You must be thinking, “but…why Iran?”  Typically, I would have responded cheekily, “hmm…why not?” but prior to the trip, I gave vague responses like Iran was very rich in history, architecture, and that I had a deep interest in those topics. Because I hadn’t left to experience the country yet and coupled with the negative media publicity, I wavered a bit in explaining to my friends. Truth be told, I was curious about the country but fearful at the same time, wondered if I had done the right thing.

However, after spending eight wonderful days in Iran, soaking up rich Persian history, architecture, art, delectable food, and most of all, enjoying the generosity and hospitality of Iranians, I was able to share with great conviction that travelling in Iran was a positive experience.

There are many misconceptions surrounding this misunderstood country, and every preconception I had about Iran was challenged every day of my trip. Here are some of the common myths about the land of Persia, and the reality is that not everything you hear is true:

#1 Is it dangerous in Iran?

myths realities travelling iran persepolis bas reliefs
Bas-relief of Persepolis

Iran borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan in the east, and Turkey and Iraq in the west.

Myth: Due to the geo-political instability of the Middle East, people have the misconception that Iran is at war, its streets are dangerous with suicide bombers and angry mobs pointing and firing rifles in the air.

Reality: Iranians go about their lives. They have jobs, and commute by car, bus or metro. Women in Iran are allowed to work and drive. In fact, the presence of women in the workplace and higher education has increased since the last decade, and women in Iran have been driving for many years.

Iranians send their children to school. They have gatherings with family and friends at cafes, restaurants or have picnics at the parks. The youths hang out at the mall, shop, go to the movies.

myths realities travelling iran kindergarten children
Iranian kindergarten children at Tomb of Hafez in Shiraz

Sounds like the same things that we do at home, right?

As a female foreigner, I have never felt threatened or unsafe when I walked around in the streets of Iran. Theft is rare and crime rate is low but I would advise to keep your wits about you and take precautions against pickpockets in crowded places, just like you would in other countries. Overall, I felt comfortable wandering around and exploring the streets.

#2 Do I have to wear a headscarf?

myths realities travelling iran shah e cheragh shrine entrance women chador
At the entrance of Shah-e-Cheragh shrine in Shiraz

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Iranian government has made the hijab a symbol of its religious and political identity, thus the image of a woman wearing the black chador became a representation of a typical Iranian woman.

Myth: Stereotypes abound that the women are black-cloaked only and repressed victims.

Reality: While it is mandatory for women to wear a hijab in public and to dress modestly, it does not mean that Iranian women are unfashionable. In reality, they are fabulously chic with their brightly coloured headscarves matching with their form-fitting manteaus (long jackets) and tight jeans or leggings. They also wear make-up and dye their hair. Many of them are pushing the boundaries of what is considered acceptable by wearing three quarter sleeve tops or pushing the headscarves further back to show off their fringe.

myths realities travelling iran attire
Me and my guide in Tehran

When I was travelling in Iran, I wore a long cardigan over my T-shirt or a three-quarter sleeve Indian kurta, jeans, ballerina flats, and a bright-coloured shawl on my head. The dress code dictates that our shirts have to be long enough to cover our butts and thighs. However, as a foreigner, we are judged less harshly than local women. Showing a bit of your fringe or neck is common but it’s still best to respect local culture and laws by dressing conservatively.

#3 Are they hostile towards foreigners?

myths realities travelling iran workers
Workers inside the Imam Mosque in Esfahan

Iran has been depicted negatively by the media with scenes of the 1979 hostage crisis or stereotypical cries of “Death to America”.

Myth: Many people assume that Iranians would be hostile towards foreigners.

Reality: Iranians are well-mannered and soft-spoken. I love listening to them speak in Farsi for the language sounds wonderfully poetic, and just as well that the Persian culture is renowned for their poetry. Because of their genteel nature, Iranians despise poor behavior, as such, they speak gently and respectfully towards women and the elderly.

myths realities travelling iran flowers spring
Beautiful buttercup flowers in Shiraz

Offering hospitality is part of the Persian culture and national pride, therefore many Iranians are genuine, warm and welcoming towards foreigners. You will be surprised to learn that they love Americans! They are often curious and say, “How do you like Iran? I hope you enjoy Iran” and they feel embarrassed about their image portrayed differently in international news.

The one thing that I found absolutely amazing was the eagerness in young Iranians wanting to speak in English. I had been approached by university students to spend a few minutes to chat in English with them. Although they spoke haltingly, they were very happy to have that brief opportunity as a way to improve their proficiency in the language.

#4 Is there anything to see in Iran aside from the desert?

myths realities travelling iran esfahan boulevard maple trees
Boulevards brimming with maple trees in Esfahan

The desert makes up two-thirds of the country and the hottest place on earth is the Dasht-e-Loot desert.

Myth: The desert – is that all there is to see in Iran?

Reality: Not many people are aware that there are valleys and snow-capped mountains in the northern and western parts of the country, and there is no shortage of interesting sights to see within the major cities. You will be inspired, enthralled and amazed by the finest Persian-Islamic architecture and mosaics in mosques, glittering cut glass and mirror work in Islamic shrines, well-preserved frescoes in Armenian churches, beautiful boulevards brimming with maple trees, bridges with majestic arches and ancient ruins since 500 BC.

myths realities travelling iran mosaics mosque
Persian-Islamic mosaics

And for those who wish to indulge in local food, be prepared to put on extra pounds for Persian food is an absolute delight! Rosewater is heavily used and saffron is king in their cuisine!

Iran is a must-see destination that you have to see for yourself to realize that it is indeed safe, accessible and enormously fascinating. Cast aside your preconceptions and travel in Iran with an open mind, you will find that it is astonishingly beautiful and incredibly interesting.

*The edited version of my article was published in Zafigo in March 2017.

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12 comments

  1. I’ve been fascinated with Iran ever since reading Persepolis. Glad to know it’s safe for travelers and even solo female travelers. I have a question, is it fairly cheap in Iran? Thanks!

    1. Food, fruits and local snacks are cheap but souvenirs can be expensive. If you sign up for a tour (be it group or private tour), then it is costly. However, I would like to add that because travelling in Iran is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I feel it is worth every penny spent.

    1. Thanks Mike! I think Americans are required to engage a tour guide in Iran. Had met a few Americans there – they seemed very happy and glad that they came to Iran, and they didn’t encounter any issues. You may want to check out Iran Traveling Centre http://www.irantravelingcenter.com/, this is the travel agency that I engaged with for a 8-day private tour. They also provide assistance with visa applications for Americans, British, etc. But one thing though – no drones allowed because that might get you into trouble 🙂

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience in Iran! I’ve always wanted to go. One question — were you with guides the whole time or did you spend some time on your own? How much would it detract from your ability to meet people/do your own thing if you were with guides the whole time? (As an American, the only way I could get a visa is by going with a guide.)

    1. Hi Carrie, thanks for reading my post and for sharing your comments here 🙂

      My sister and I signed up for a private tour in Iran because at that time, we were both tired from independent travel and wanted a change to have someone else guide us during the trip. Throughout our 8-day trip, our tour typically ended at 4pm or 5pm (sometimes earlier at 3pm) which gave us plenty of time to move around in the city on our own. While walking around in the streets or chilling out at the park, we got the chance to speak with Iranians – chances are, they will approach you first because they are curious about foreigners travelling in Iran and the youngsters are keen to practise speaking in English 🙂 We were also fortunate that our guides were easygoing and flexible – they were comfortable in sharing information that is non-PC i.e. they were quite open-minded and forthright about their thoughts on the government, way of life in Iran and the future.

      I hope you get the opportunity to visit Iran – though it might be with a guide – it’s absolutely worth it! Cheers!

      1. That’s great — it sounds like a good mix of independence and support. Do you have guides you’d recommend?

        1. I engaged with Iran Traveling Centre who was recommended to me by another travel blogger http://www.irantravelingcenter.com/. The travel agency is fully aware of the visa complications especially for Americans, British etc, hence they provide assistance with visa applications. You may also check out their reviews on TripAdvisor. Because of sanctions, we paid for our tour in cash upon arrival.

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