Admittedly, Iran, the beautiful country by the Persian Gulf, hasn’t had the best press coverage lately. All prejudice aside though: Iran’s magic will haunt you in a wonderful orientalist kind of way. Think Scheherazade – and the great Sufi poet Rumi!
In Iran, the lemons are sweet and the oranges are sour. There are snow-covered peaks and sunny beaches, lush forests and vast deserts. People are warm and welcoming. Iran is a backpackers’ paradise with luxurious overland transportation, cozy hostels, bustling bazaars, countless sand dunes and herds of camels, fresh honey-dew juice and one great, yet ironic bonus: you will have most of these places all to yourself.
To be fair, like in many other places, solo female travellers attract attention in Iran. However, the way I experienced it, this was mainly positive. Travelling Iran on my own, I always felt safe. People are helpful and eager to take care of visitors. I barely ever had the feeling of being treated disrespectfully, never mind vendors wanting to rip you off. Rather, they will run after you with the 10 cents of change that you forgot to take.
So, why should you travel Iran?
1. It will warm your heart with the most wonderful people
- You will be invited to new homes every day. Sometimes even twice.
- You will be welcome at traditional folk-music nights where everybody dances and few care about the Islamic dress code.
- The streets, the busses and cafes are bustling with poets and free spirits, who go out of their way to share the beauty of their country.
2. It will spoil you with amazing food and other treats
- You get to eat two pounds of sweet, moist, sticky dates for breakfast. Everyday.
- There are numerous tea houses, which used to serve as hamams, now serving juicy kebabs and delicious black tea with large chunks of sugar.
- Self pressed wine will await you everywhere you go.
- You will forever lose your heart to Iranian deserts: faloodeh, bastani…
3. It will surprise you in so many ways
- You can sleep in a cave in Meymand, light an evening bonfire and exchange greetings with local shepherds.
- Did you know you could ski in the mountains around Tabriz? And dive in the Persian Gulf!
- You will meet amazingly strong women – doctors, lawyers, dancers – who speak up for what they believe no matter how harsh the consequences.
4. It will take your breath away with stunning landscapes and abundant wildlife
- Roll down the sand dunes of Garmeh and explore the oasis surrounding you.
- On a boat trip from Qeshm Island, just 70 km off the coast of the UAE, you can see schools of jolly dolphins. They come so close to the boat, you can almost touch them.
- Ride a camel! It’s the best kind of transportation through the Dasht-e Kavir desert. Such spectacular sunsets!
5. It will work magic on you with its historical sites, bazaars and cities
- The ancient site of Persepolis is simply stunning.
- From the rooftops of Yazd, you can marvel at how the city perfectly adapted to its location in the middle of the desert.
- Catch the best view of Esfahan from one of the surrounding mountains – most beautiful at 6am with the morning fog!
- Roaming the bazaars of Shiraz, you will feel that even though you don’t have a home at the moment; you really do need a carpet.
Good to know before you go:
Bring enough cash. It is not yet possible to use foreign credit cards at ATMs.
No need to underdress – Iranian women are incredibly stylish and you want to blend in.
That said, learn how to wrap and fix a headscarf beforehand.
Wear a typical trench coat if you travel all by yourself. They are cheap and available at every bazaar – and they will make you feel much more comfortable.
Should you ever get picked up by the police: Don’t panic! They will most likely interrogate you about your trips and then let you go. Don’t speak Farsi, even if you can. There’s a possibility they will think you’re a spy…
Get familiar with the local custom of ‘Taroof‘. It obliges the customer to insist on paying, possibly several times, before a shopkeeper or cab driver finally quotes a price and real negotiation can begin.
If you couchsurf, which can be a great experience, be aware that it is not exactly legal and your hosts could get into trouble. Behave accordingly.
Don’t put on lipstick in public, as it’s considered ‘too sexy’ and should be done behind closed doors.
In a “go big or go home spirit”, backpacking Iran has been my first real solo travel adventure. It was the best introduction I could have asked for. My favourite lesson learnt: once you’re on the road, you won’t ever be alone – unless you choose to.