Yours Truly in Yazd
Before writing about surprises one finds traveling in Iran, I figure most of you are probably thinking, why travel there in the first place? That’s the question many of my friends asked. Iran was  the epicenter of one the the greatest civilizations in history — the Persian Empire, which stretched from Europe’s Balkan Peninsula—in parts of what is present day Bulgaria, Romania, and Ukraine—to the Indus River Valley in northwest India and south to Egypt. It was a global hub of culture, religion, science, art and technology for more than 200 years before it fell to the invading armies of Alexander the Great. And then there’s a reason to go for those interested in present GeoPolitics in the Middle East, but more on that a little later.

persepolis, travel to iran, iran travel, iran sights
The imposing entrance to Persepolis, the palace complex built for the Persian empire by Darius the Great
Just a few of the highlights — Remains of that civilization include the World Heritage Site,  Persepolis, the impressive ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire (ca. 550–330 BCE) built at the apogee of the Persian empire by Darius the Great. Then there’s the grand square of Isfahan, known as Shah Square, another world heritage site that dates from the Iranian Renaissance under the Safavid dynasty.
Isfahan, shah square, Iran sights, Iran attractions
Shah Square in Isfahan, a grand complex with two striking mosques, a palace and sprawling gardens and arcaded bazaar
Constructed between 1598 and 1629,] it is surrounded by buildings including a mosque with breathtaking tiles, an  exquisite palace and grand bazaar teeming with tempting silk carpets, copper kitchen ware to covet,
iran shopping, copper in iran
Copperware made in Iran
marquetry, and much more.
Iranian crafts, things to buy in Iran, Iran shopping
Iranian crafts — ceramics, enamel on copper
And then for anyone interested in geo politics in which Iran is a major player, it’s fascinating to see other realities from what we would imagine in the West. A visit literally breaks the stereotype. With that in mind, rather than this being a travel piece, I thought  you’d enjoy some of the very surprising observations I and my very well traveled UK companions found most surprising.
From Shiraz and Yazd to Isfahan, Kashan and Tehran, we found Iranians welcoming, open, warm and friendly. They smile and laugh easily. There’s a parallel universe to that of the government.


persian food, iranian food, iranian cuisine
Restaurant in Isfahan
There was little evidence of a police state, with no military and only traffic police in view, even at tourist sites. And we all felt safe.
Public services worked — streets were well paved with scarcely a pothole, highways well maintained, and surprisingly, we never saw garbage or litter anywhere.
All, and I mean all, women wore a hijab covering their heads, tunics or some facsimile, pants and long sleeved shirts to cover up. Tourists are obliged to follow this dress code as well, even in hotels. In eight days I saw one single Iranian woman who did not cover her hair. That being said, the fashion statement was made with colorful headscarves, shoes and handbags.They also spend a lot of time on makeup, emphasizing their large expressive eyes, and often sporting tattooed eyebrows.  Very religious women of whom we saw few, wore all black chadors which are like robes, and even fewer  also had the burka which covers the face.
Cosmetic surgery among women and men is big, especially nose jobs. You see the tell tale sloping noses everywhere. In fact, nose surgery is considered a status symbol among some, so much so that people are known to sport a plaster splint across their nose even when they didn’t have the surgery.
iranian kebabs, iranian food, typical iranian food
Delectable chicken and lamb kebabs as they are traditionally served
Iranians don’t call their food farm to table, but that’s what it is. Vegetables are delicious,  often prepared with nuts and varied spices. There is fish, but most prevalent is lamb and chicken (pork isn’t allowed), made in uber tasty stews or most usually in mouth watering kebabs. Often used ingredients include spices — The common ingredients include cardamom, cumin, cinnamon, dried rose petals, coriander, black pepper, turmeric, dried limes, cloves and such; nuts; and pomegranate molasses. In fact, our favorite dish of the trip was grilled chicken that had been marinated in a sauce of pomegranate paste and crushed walnuts. And do they ever love sweets, most frequently made with sesame paste, honey and nuts in different variations.
iranian street food, date bread in Iran
Come and get it, street food — fresh out of the oven date bread
The word Iranian and Persian are not synonymous. Iran is composed of different ethnic groups of which one is Persian. Others include Turkmen, Kurds, Baluchis, Lors, Azeris, Arabs and others.Though the country is predominantly Shiite Muslim, there are also Eastern Orthodox Christians and even Jews.
kashan, Iran attractions, what to see in Iran, Iran city of roses
Gathering roses in the “rose city” of Kashan where you find rose water, rose perfume and rose buds for tea
For those who don’t know, Iranians will make it clear that they are not Arabs, nor do they speak Arabic. They have their own language, Farsi,which is from the Indo-European branch of languages.
Isfahan attractions, Isfahan sights
Mosque in Isfahan
One of the biggest surprises, is that men and women seem to be more equal than I would have imagined. On the streets you see most of  them walking side by side, some holding hands, and sharing the care of  children (not the very religious ones). Women seem happy, behaving as you’d see them in any Western country.
Words used to compliment and criticize are often very telling in a culture. And so, when I asked my guide if people cursed and what was a terrible curse in Farsi. She replied saying the other person is “uncivilized”.
What was not a surprise was the large expanses of barren, undeveloped land between cities. This was among the signs of some facets of development having stopped in time due to Iran’s political isolation after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 that brought Khomeini to power. Others included old housing and many older model cars.
Shiraz, Persian gardens, Iranian gardens, Iran garden city
One of many gardens in the garden city of Shiraz. Here art students at work.
Iran is definitely a place to put on your “to go” travel list. Just be prepared for an alcoholic detox (totally dry), maybe viewing it as an opportunity; being prepared to forget about being a fashionista, unless you can do it with a tunic and head covering (though save money on hairdressers); and in many tourist spots you’ll find latrines (no positive here in my book). Also, Americans, British and Canadians are not allowed to travel without  a guide, Iran’s quid pro quo to our sanctions.
persian food, iranian food, iran travel
Typical delicacies in Iran
Turkish Airlines flies non stop from Miami to Istanbul which now has one of the world’s largest airports. There you catch a plane to Iran. I suggest combining Iran with a trip to Istanbul, a complement to better understanding that part of the world.
Thanks to our terrific guide Hanieh Bagherzadeh and fellow travel companions from Wild Frontiers International for their input in this post. This includes Sarah, Sue, Linda, Eliza, Luzia, Fiona, Teresa and Jim.
Any questions about Iran or Istanbul including how to get a visa? If so, go to Ask Karen and ask away!!!!




  1. Very interesting read – thanks for sharing this Karen. It must have been an amazing trip into a different world!

    1. Spellbound….what a lovely in the moment narrative. I (we) have many friends here in the US (fled just before or after 1979) and have thrived here. They never cease to talk about the virtues of their homeland and the incredible Persian history. One can only hope for the future. One thing I have experienced: families and people are good and loving everywhere, irrespective of governments. Congratulations on your travel and blog energy, inspiration, and leadership.

      1. What you wrote about people over the world is so true. It was so sad for me to see how Iran is closed off and how the people we met yearn for an approchement with the USA and its peoples. I firmly believe travel helps promote understanding among people. When I started in the travel business it was with Hilton International hotels. Conrad Hilton’s slogan was world peace through understanding (and travel).

  2. What a fabulous travel report on this magnificent country!
    Now we’re more excited than ever to go in September!
    Thankyou, the photos are gorgeous! Can’t wait to hear more

  3. Thanks dear Karen for your nice narration.
    As you know, I decided to become a tourist guide to spread peace among people.
    And now… I am super happyyyy

  4. Karen…This is a brilliant, informative as well as mouth watering travelog. CONGRATULATIONS, George

    1. Thank you George, a great compliment coming from you. Have you been to Iran? And yes, the food is amazing. This past weekend we made the chicken with pomegranate molasses and chopped walnuts with spices. Super yummy.

  5. Fascinating way to present your experience. You answered my unspoken questions and added the nose job sequence. Great post!

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