GeoEx’s destination specialist Linda de la Torre returned from a scouting trip in Iran with stories of hospitality and surprises. Below she shares observations and advice for Americans thinking of visiting Iran.
Report from Iran
Iranian Hospitality, Even Before Landing
When I was laying over in Istanbul before boarding my flight to Iran, an elderly Iranian woman sat next to me. She lit up when I said I was American and we began talking about her daughter, who lives in the US. She assisted me during the boarding process and after we arrived at the airport, she found me again and went out of her way to help me orient myself and find the correct immigration line.
In Iran I Felt Safe, Comfortable & Welcome
As Americans traveling in Iran, safety is on our minds from the minute we begin planning the trip. When I got there, I was pleased to see the openness of the culture and was able to enjoy absolutely everything without worrying. Yes, there are differences between our cultures, but I saw many similarities, too. For example, I never expected that I’d see young couples out and about, walking hand in hand or going on dates in teahouses and restaurants in Tehran. I mentioned that to my guide, Moji, and she laughed: “Of course, we go out on dates!” While touring a mosque in Esfahan, I repeatedly ran into a group of adorable schoolgirls who cheered “hello!” at me. They were curious about me, so they asked my guide where I was from. When she said America, they all said, “Oh, beautiful!”
GeoEx Guides & Drivers Made Me Proud
They went out of their way to make this a worry-free trip. During long drives, they made frequent stops without prompting so I could stretch my legs and have tea. At hotels, my luggage was picked up without my ever having to ask or even think about it. After seeing other guides enter mosques and sites with their guests and then give them halfhearted explanations, I was thankful for my guide, Moji. She was always engaged, quizzing me and interacting with me and teaching me, yet also giving me time for solo reflection and absorption of everything. And she made sure I felt safe and comfortable, and advocated for me as a woman.
Moji Drew Me Into Things I’d Find Interesting
My guide Moji made a point of getting to know me as a person and her Iranian hospitality was appreciated. She drew me into things I would be interested in: local interactions, history, architecture, and seeing artists and artisans in action. She not only pointed them out, she sought them out. In Esfahan, for example, she brought me to the studio of a painter who made miniature paintings, then to a craftsman who hand-painted and stamped tablecloths. She drew people around us into conversation so I could learn about their lives. I laughed a lot more than I thought I would on this trip, particularly because Moji had such a great sense of humor.
Culinary Adventures Are Worth Having
Moji Encouraged me to try foods that I wouldn’t have. At one point in Shiraz, she warned me that she was going to order and prepare something for me that was really traditional. It was a stew of chickpeas, tomatoes, potatoes, and lamb, and it’s accompanied by a sauce. You mix them together—really mash it up—and then eat it with bread. I was unsure at first, but it was good!
Iran Is Full of Surprises for Travelers
When I asked Moji what most surprised travelers in Iran, she said:
- The mountain scenery: It’s not all desert!
- The infrastructure and level of development, which is quite advanced.
- The fact that women drive, and they don’t all wear long, black chadors.
- It’s not a country ruled completely by men: women make meaningful decisions and serve in government.
Many Moments of Genuine Kindness
In Esfahan I was browsing in a local shop where another tourist was making a purchase. When she left, she accidentally left her purse on the counter. After a few minutes, the shopkeeper realized and went running out of the shop with her purse to find her and return it. There were so many moments of genuine kindness like this.
Especially Memorable Sights & Sounds
Certain sights and sounds stand out in my memory. Every day in Iran, the calls to prayer were a special moment for me. Even though they didn’t hold religious significance for me, they were a call to reflection and a reminder of where I was. I’d ask to just stand still so we could listen. In bazaars, I heard nomadic women bartering for fabrics while kids ran around and played. And the Jameh Mosque in Esfahan was one of my favorite places. A lot of the mosques I had seen up to that point were glittering and extravagant, with stunning mirrors and colorful tilework. But this mosque was simple and uncrowded, with a lack of color that actually made it even more striking.
Iran Travel Advice
Potential Iran travelers ask me for advice. Here’s what I can offer:
- Don’t believe all that you read about Iran. It’s changed dramatically since the turbulent years of the 1990s, and it is still evolving.
- Iranian hospitality will surprise you, and likely be one of the highlights of your time there.
- Spend time in Abyaneh: It’s a charming community where time has stood still.
- Visit Esfahan: This city felt like Florence to me, filled with romance, monuments, and history.
- Be open-minded about hotels—it can be basic in this part of the world. GeoEx works hard to be sure you’re as comfortable as you can be.