For many people, Iran is a country commonly associated with violent war and religious extremism. Named one of the countries in the “Axis of Evil” by President George W. Bush, Iran has almost always been covered in a negative light by the international media.
The State Department has also issued an Iran travel warning, which cautions United States citizens against travel to the Middle Eastern nation. In particular, it warns of “the risk of arrest and detention of US citizens, particularly dual national Iranian-Americans.”
After spending three weeks traveling the country extensively, I’ve learned that the Iran travel warning doesn’t reflect the reality for most US visitors. Iran may be depicted as an aggressive, anti-American nation on the news, but that portrayal couldn’t be further from the truth.
Reality vs Headlines
Soon after you arrive in Iran, you find that it’s a country desperate to be seen for what it truly is rather than what it is mythologized to be.
Counter to the State Department’s description, Iranians are some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met in my travels. Their warmth and hospitality was what made my trip most memorable. An exuberant “Welcome!” was the word I heard most often in Iran. I lost count of the number of times Iranians welcomed me into their private homes and showered me with delicious sweets and piping hot tea.
The country has a lot to offer adventurous travelers, from ancient ruins and elaborately decorated palaces to wild, rugged deserts and dizzying mountain scenery. Some of Iran’s must-see highlights include the magnificent ancient city of Persepolis, the impressive Masjed-e Shah mosque in Esfahan, the labyrinth-like bazaar of Tabriz, and (my personal favorite) the rock-hewn tombs of Naqsh-e-Rostam.
Rich with a thousand years of history and culture, Persia (as it used to be known) is a land of poets, artists, and calligraphers who are continuing to honor the legacy of their forefathers. Centuries-old artwork and Farsi scripts are often found carved onto the walls of impressive monuments such as the Imam Reza shrine (the second biggest mosque by capacity after the Mecca) in Mashhad and Jahmeh Mosque in Yadz.
Modern Iran offers a sharp contrast, with chaotic traffic flooding the bustling streets and big neon signs lighting up vibrant teahouses and fashion boutiques. Big cities like Tehran, Tabriz, and Shiraz exude the modern, prosperous 21st-century vibe you’ll find in major Middle Eastern cities such as Cairo or Amman. Don’t be surprised to see young Iranians dressed in tight jeans, funky haircuts, and heavy make-up.
Safety in Iran
Contrary to the Iran travel warning, the country is many things rolled into one. But there’s one thing it’s definitely not: It’s not a country of gun-toting, American-hating extremists. It’s not a land of war-loving, flag-burning terrorists. The reality is much more inviting (and complex).
It is common in Iran to see murals depicting anti-American sentiments and paintings of war martyrs. But the vast majority of Iranians understand that the people of the United States do not represent its government. Everyone we met loved Americans, and were just as welcoming to Americans as they were to visitors of other nationalities.
I traveled solo in Iran and I felt safe throughout my time there. Men were eager to talk to me, but always in a friendly, polite manner. People wanted to know what I thought of Iran, and if I would return to visit in the future. I was more than happy to talk to Iranians I met on the streets, but I was careful to keep my distance as well.
Most parts of Iran are calm and peaceful, with no hints of any instability at all. But when traveling to forbidden lands, it’s always wise to keep yourself informed of any latest happenings by checking the news regularly.
Rules of the Islamic State
Iran is generally safe to visit as long as you follow the rules of the Islamic State. But as a conservative Islamic Republic, it’s important to understand that Iran has stricter rules than most countries.
Women in Iran are expected to cover up by wearing a headscarf, and this includes foreign visitors. It’s not necessary to cover up your entire body with a burkha (a cloth with veiled holes for eyes) or chador (a large piece of cloth covering everything). Only the head and hair need to be covered up with a loose scarf.
In order to blend in and show your respect for Persian culture, female travelers should also wear long, flowing tops that cover their bottoms, baggy pants, and closed-toed shoes.
Another thing to keep in mind when traveling to Iran is the gender differences inherent in their culture. Men and women use separate entrances into mosques, palaces, and many monuments. Women can only sit in the back seats on buses, and they’re not allowed to sit next to men they’re not related to. And men only shake hands with other men, while women do shake other women’s hands.
Discussing Religion and Politics with Iranians
While traveling to Iran, the two topics that you’ll find impossible to escape are religion and politics. As I discovered, Iranians are more than happy to discuss both topics with you as long as you’re respectful of their opinions.
I found that there was a broad mixture of opinions amongst the people I spoke to. There are some young Iranians who aren’t happy with their government and the strict Islamic regime. But there’s also an older generation content to live within the strict constraints set by the Ayatollah (their religious leader).
One young Iranian man I met was particularly vocal about his dislike for the current regime. But sadly our conversation came to an end when a military soldier joined in. It quickly became clear that the Iranians were living under a controlled regime with no freedom of speech.
That said, change is clearly in the wind, and you can see it in the more modern aspects of Iranian society. Despite the controlled media—TV, news, and Internet are heavily censored in Iran—there’s still a lot of international influence. It’s obvious from the way young Iranians are dressed, from the range of local fast food chains, and from the mentality of the young Iranians you meet.
The Future for Iran
Huge change is definitely coming to Iran. The recent Iran nuclear deal with six major world powers will probably mean a shift in dynamics within the Middle East and a change in the world's perception of Iranians.
The deal also lifts a wide range of sanctions against the country. If the Iranian economy starts developing, the country will likely pour millions into improving its tourism infrastructure. That means better hotels, better restaurants, better transport, and better facilities for international travelers who choose to ignore the Iran travel warning.
Personally, I’m confident that things will change for Iran in the future, and the country will one day become an accessible travel destination for everyone. In the meantime, go see the country for yourself and make your own judgement about whether the State Department’s travel warning is fact or fiction.
Nellie Huang is an adventure travel blogger and freelance writer specializing in unconventional destinations and unique experiences. She has traveled to more than 116 countries on all seven continents, and aims to visit every country in the world. Nellie writes for numerous leading publications and chronicles her adventures on her popular travel blog, WildJunket.