Iran is a fascinating, complex society in transition. It’s a country of pilgrimage sites and Lexus dealerships, smartphones and prayer beads, religious zealots who cut themselves bloody to demonstrate their piety and fashionable women who undergo plastic surgery.
• Iranians like Americans. Really. They also like hamburgers, pizza, fried chicken and fast-food restaurants with names like Pizza Hat and Kentucky House.
• In the Middle East, Iran is relatively safe: No suicide bombings, no recent hostage-taking, no random knife attacks on the street.
• Iranians are incredibly warm and hospitable. In Tehran alone, more than 30,000 people have signed up to be Couchsurfing.com hosts so they can meet visitors to their city. (The government frowns on couchsurfing, but hasn’t blocked the site.)
• There is great food. Those fire-roasted kebabs may look familiar, but Persian cuisine highlights flavors that are less common in other Middle Eastern cuisines, including saffron, rosewater, walnuts, pomegranates and the ultra-sour pickles known as torshi. Platters of fresh fruit greet you in every Iranian home.
• There are lots of options for the adventure traveler. Ride a camel, sleep in a nomad’s tent, climb snow-capped mountains, or (most adventurous of all) go for a heart-pounding ride with an Iranian cabdriver.
• You’ll encounter great conversations. Iranians will want to talk to you. I was asked, “Where are you from?” and “How do you like Iran?” And I was told, “We are not our government” and “We are not terrorists, like they say in your media.”
U.S. citizens must have a visa to travel to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Because the United States does not have consular relations with Iran, visas are issued through the Iranian Interests Section of the Embassy of Pakistan in Washington, D.C. (1-202-965-4990; e-mail: email@example.com).
Because I have dual citizenship and a German passport, I was able to obtain a visa quickly and easily, and travel freely. I traveled around, mostly on buses, and met a lot of people along the way. I had a few contacts before I arrived: An Iranian friend from Minneapolis connected me with his family in Isfahan, and an American professor put me in touch with an old friend in Shiraz.
Most Americans can visit Iran only on a guided tour, with the itinerary approved in advance. But even on a guided tour, you’ll have lots of opportunities to interact with locals. You can also design your own private tour for one or two people, and choose your own itinerary.
Many tour operators offer trips to Iran, especially since the lifting of sanctions against the country in January. Among them are Mountain Travel Sobek (mtsobek.com), Wilderness Travel (wildernesstravel.com), both California-based companies, and North Carolina-based Iran Luxury Tours (iranluxurytravel.com), which offers private tours with luxury accommodations ranging from $1,995 to $6,495 (plus airfare). Some of ILT’s tours are led by Prof. William Beeman, chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, who is an internationally recognized expert on Iran.
Those private guided tours aren’t very restrictive, Beeman told me by e-mail: “People were free to wander out during their free time, and also during the tour — they wandered the bazaars and the shops and went independently to restaurants on occasion. … As for encounters with ordinary Iranians, there is no way to avoid it. … The tour ‘guides’ are mainly concerned that people don’t get sick or lost. They are not ‘minders’ like in North Korea or in the old Soviet Union, and they don’t ‘report’ on the activities of their guests.”
Iran-based travel agencies also offer tours in a wide range of prices. Key to Persia (en.key2persia.com), for example, offers options ranging from an eight-day economy tour using public transportation and two-star hotel accommodations for 750 euros to a 16-day luxury tour using private cars and four- and five-star hotels for 2,590 euros.
Isn’t it dangerous?
The State Department has issued a travel warning. Find it by going to travel.state.gov and entering “Iran” under “Learn about your destination.” The warning highlights “the risk of arrest and detention of U.S. citizens, particularly dual national Iranian-Americans, in Iran.” There have been a few incidents in which high-profile American journalists and Iranian-Americans have been imprisoned, but unless you fall into one of those categories, the risk of arrest is low. In 2014, around 5 million tourists visited Iran.
The U.S. government does not have diplomatic or consular relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran and therefore cannot provide protection or routine consular services to U.S. citizens in Iran.