Welcome to what could be the friendliest country on earth. Iran is the jewel in Islam’s crown, combining glorious architecture with a warm-hearted welcome.
If you’re drawn to places where echoes of ancient civilizations resonate down through the ages, Iran could be your thing. Some of history’s biggest names – Cyrus and Darius, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan – all left their mark here and the cities they conquered or over which they ruled are among the finest in a region rich with such storied ruins. Walking around the awesome power and beauty of Persepolis, experiencing the remote power of Susa (Shush), and taking in the wonderfully immense Elamite ziggurat at Choqa Zanbil will carry you all the way back to the glory days of Ancient Persia.
Iran is a treasure house for some of the most beautiful architecture on the planet. Seemingly at every turn, Islam’s historical commitment to aesthetic beauty and exquisite architecture reigns supreme. The sublime, turquoise-tiled domes and minarets of Esfahan’s Naqsh-e Jahan (Imam) Square gets so many appreciative gasps of wonder, and rightly so, but there are utterly magnificent rivals elsewhere, in Yazd and Shiraz among others. And it’s not just the mosques – the palaces (especially in Tehran), gardens (everywhere, but Kashan really shines) and artfully conceived bridges and other public buildings all lend grace and beauty to cities across the country.
Iran’s greatest attraction could just be its people. The Iranians, a nation made up of numerous ethnic groups and influenced over thousands of years by Greek, Arab, Turkic and Mongol occupiers, are endlessly welcoming. Offers to sit down for tea will be an everyday occurrence, and if you spend any time at all with Iranians, you’ll often find yourself invited to share a meal in someone’s home. Say yes whenever you can, and through it experience first-hand, Iranian culture, ancient, sophisticated and warm. It’s these experiences that will live longest in the memory.
Good To Know
Iran’s food is one of the enduring highlights of any visit to the country. Mastered over three millennia, the cuisine is a reflection of the very soul of the country and its varied terrain. Think camel kabab and dates in the desert, fish on the Gulf coast and a huge variety of vegetable dishes (with meat, of course) in the fertile Caspian provinces of Gilan and Mazandaran.
While tastes are broadening, it remains that outside Tehran restaurant menus are dominated by kababs and fast food. To enjoy the best cooking you really need to be invited into an Iranian home. There’s a good chance that will happen and when it does, just say ‘yes’. As a guest you will be honored as a ‘gift of God’ and the fabulous food and humbling hospitality should make for a meal you’ll remember for a lifetime.
Almost every meal in Iran is accompanied by nun (bread) and/or berenj (rice). Nun is cheap and usually fresh. Even in a restaurant with a long menu, most main-dish options will be kabab. These are served either on bread or as chelo kabab (on a vast mound of rice). In contrast with the greasy doner kebabs inhaled after rough nights in the West, Iranian kababs are tasty, healthy and cooked shish-style over hot charcoals. They are usually sprinkled with spicy sumaq (sumac) and accompanied by raw onion, grilled tomatoes and, for an extra fee, a bowl of mast (yoghurt).
While after-meal dessert is often a bowl of fruit, Iran produces such a head-spinning array of freshly made shirini (sweets) that sweet-toothed travelers might remember the country by its regional specialties:
Esfahan Gaz, rose water–flavored nougat, often with pistachio; prices vary greatly according to the percentage of pistachio, whether honey or sugar is used, and to what extent angevin (extract from the tree called gaz, hence the name) is used.
Kerman Kolompe, a soft, date-filled biscuit.
Orumiyeh Noghl, sugar-coated nuts.
Qom Sohan, a brittle, toffee-like concoction of pistachio and ginger.
Yazd Baghlava, like Turkish baklava but thicker, and pashmak, candyfloss made of sugar and sesame.
Other widely available sweets worth trying include refreshing paludeh or falude (a sorbet made of rice flour, grated fresh fruit and rose water) and bastani (Iranian ice cream).