caravan sarai iran group tour

Is Iran The Most Important Travel Destination in Our Lifetime?

T

he capital city of the world’s strongest Islamic Republic is Tehran. It’s unknown and enigmatic, mysterious and unfathomable even to those who have spent a lifetime in the shadow of the towering Alborz mountains – which on this day remained perplexingly dusted with snow, even though the sweltering temperature on the streets below would fry an egg on the bonnet of a Paykan. There was one reason I was here – I’d decided that Iran would be a nice place to organise a “group tour”. Of all the countries in the world, I chose to organise a tour in Iran. Paris in the spring came to mind. No. I was in fucking Iran. With a gang of people who, I guess, trusted that everything I had told them about Iran was actually true.

It didn’t take long for the real Iran to reveal itself to eight new Western witnesses. On the way from the airport to the hotel, we made an unplanned stop at the iconic Azadi Tower (Freedom Tower). An enormous 1970’s futuristic marble-clad monument, celebrating the two-thousand-five-hundred-year anniversary of the Persian empire. The site of protests, and of revolutions. Within a few minutes of arriving, a young guy sidled up. He looked me in the eye. I’d seen that look before. In Hong Kong, it was a guy trying to flog me a fake Rolex. In New York city, it was crack. Istanbul, a day-cruise on a boat. But, this was Tehran. He gave me a refreshing orange juice and a packet of snacks.

The guy couldn’t speak English, so I asked my friend to translate. “He’s just saying welcome to my country, and he hopes you enjoy yourself here”. We shook hands, he waved, and walked away. No big deal – for him. For me, this was the legendary Iranian hospitality I’ve experienced many times before. About twelve hours later, standing with the gang outside our modern downtown hotel, looking out over a modern leafy city, a cool breeze blowing, every local in eye-shot was smiling and genuinely interested in getting to know us, I was offered a classic Iranian car. Offered, as in, the car was mine. Keys were put in my hand, and it was a lengthy struggle to have the owner take the keys back.

It took less than 24 hours, for a small gang from the four corners of the Western world, to realise that, yes, everything they had read about Iran was slightly misguided media reporting at best, or outright mischievous and machiavellian government propaganda and lies at worst. I had no feelings of “I told you so”. It’s so beyond “I told you so” that really it’s laughable. Despite what you may have heard, Iran is by far the most interesting, safest, welcoming, and life-changing travel experience on the entire planet.  There are now eight more people who share my opinion, and I couldn’t be happier for them, for me, or for Iran.

One of the trippers summed it up perfectly – “Nate, we know nothing”.

I’ve always considered myself a travel evangelist. Going on the regular messages I receive, Yomadic has inspired more than a few people to visit places they never thought of visiting. Considering I’ve achieved this level of inspiration with pages filled with such a small amount of facts and actionable information, I’m pretty chuffed, because all I do is go places, write slightly hyperbolic and always heartfelt articles, show a few pretty photos, and then other people become convinced they must visit those places. I love it. It’s a victimless crime, and somebody has to do it.

But, for many people, visiting the Islamic Republic, well, it’s not so simple.

In fact, visiting Iran can be kind of complicated.

 

iran paykan lowered iran group tour
This was the second time someone in Iran has offered me a car. There’s a few things I like about the photo – Phillipa, wearing her Iranian get-up, and Kate, to the right of the photo – take a look at her facial expression stepping out into her first morning in Iran. This was our hotel in Tehran. It’s not listed in any guide books.

 

If you’re from the USA, Canada, or England (AKA, the bizarro-world-axis-of-evil), to get your Iran tourist visa you have to join an official group tour. And, all of the existing group tours in Iran, well, they’re a little sucky. Ten museums in one day, following a guy with a lolli-pop from one historical site to the next, listening to non-stop Wikipedia-esque spiels, sticking to rigid-timetables, there’s little interaction with locals, and guided tours of the bazaars and markets where your guide will take you to his preferred high-commission carpet and souvenir merchant. You pay big dollars for an Iran group tour, but you might get poorly located one-star hotels sharing with all the other tour groups, with some very average breakfasts included. You’ll probably be using public transport, you’ll need to be negotiating with vulturesque taxi drivers just to get from the airport to your hotel, and I could go on – the point is, the experience these traditional group tours offer, is often surprisingly close to my personal version of a hellish nightmare.

Unfortunately, for citizens from the bizarro-world-axis-of-evil, you can either choose shadowy, money-making, Western travel corporations who are all doing much the same thing – they’re farming you off to Iranian tour providers with white-labelled pre-packaged tours designed last century. Or, you could choose one of those unknown Iranian companies – step one is being asked to transfer a large cash payment to a Turkish bank account number. It’s not their fault – due to the economic sanctions Iranian companies can’t accept your payment to an Iranian bank account, nor via credit card.

Of course, you might be adventurous. Many nationalities can travel independently to Iran, and that’s great, however there are issues. Booking anything in advance can be challenging. The web-presence of hotels is scant. Credit cards or any foreign bank-cards of any type aren’t accepted, anywhere in the country. If you do get an email response from a hotel, you’ll often pay “foreigner prices”, and it will be very difficult to find the good hotels anyway. Language barriers are real. Everything you need to pay for, anywhere in the country, for anything, will be cash-only. You won’t be able to access any more cash, than what you bring into Iran.

Iran is big. Getting around can take a lot of time. It’s truly difficult, or expensive, or both, to reach remote sites. Guide-books are outdated. Some are, very, very outdated. Information on websites is either inaccurate, incomplete, or out-of-date, and there’s not much of it anyway.

Despite all of this, truly, you’ll have an amazing experience travelling independently through Iran.

So for those people with time, and a genuine sense of adventure, go for it.

Visit Iran. Now.

Honestly, just go.

 

kashan bazaar
Overlooking the city of Kashan, in a place we probably shouldn’t have been. I know a guy who has the key to this view atop the Bazaar, and there really aren’t any other tourists around spoiling a good thing, so for now, it’s on like Donkey Kong.
esfahan tour of iran
Esfhan is such an amazing city, with perhaps the most visually spectacular city-square in the world. Go down the backstreets, just past the chickens roaming around, down an alley, and you’ll find my favourite spot to indulge in tea, Qalyan, and a selection of snacks.
bridge tour esfahan iran
Just before arriving in Esfahan, a popular global newspaper wrote an article about how the river was dry, due to gross environmental mismanagement by the Iranian government. Judge for yourself. Just down the street, another famous bridge is where those terrible Iranian authorities asked Anthony Bourdain and his CNN crew to not film men singing. Funny enough, in reality all we experienced was good times and welcoming people. What is the real truth about Iran? Well, ask yourself – who is more likely to be working with an agenda – a global, American-owned, media conglomerate, or an independent blogger?

fin garden kashan tour
It may be difficult to find an article about Iran that doesn’t mention the desert. Mentions of a UNESCO listed five-hundred year old garden, with so much pure and natural spring water coming from a source so strong that mechanical pumps are simply not needed, yeah, that part of Iran doesn’t get so much attention in the media. Oh yeah, that’s one of our friendly local assistants in Iran, my friend Vahid. Fin Garden, Kashan.
tour necropolis persepolis iran
Massive crowds at an ancient royal burial complex thousands of years old. This really sums up Iran, for now – spectacular sights, unfathomable history, and you’ll get it almost all to yourself. Naqshe-e-Rustam, Iran.
tehran bazaar iran tour
Over in Istanbul, Turkey, a friend of mine runs a shop at the Grand Bazaar. I asked him what proportion of his business came from tourists “100%” was his answer, with no hesitation. In Iran, you would be lucky to see another foreign tourist. The Bazaars in Iran are made for locals. They’re enormous, historical, have everything, are inexpensive, and if you know where you’re going, you can have some of the best meals in the country. Grand Bazaar, Tehran.
secret carpet shop iran
Even the deepest secrets of the sprawling Bazaars are not secret enough. Down the street, up a flight of stairs (of course, you need to walk down a small alley to get there), and into a disused apartment, is a man selling a secret-stash of antique Persian-carpets. They’re all between 30 and 100 years old, there is no sales-pressure, take all the time you want, the prices are wholesale. All carpets are hand-made and the natural fibres are coloured with natural dyes, and I will never reveal the location because I want to go back in October and pick one up for myself.
white chador iran
We deviated off-course to check out a town where all the ladies wear white-chadors to the mosque on Fridays. It’s in the middle of nowhere, not only can I guarantee there were zero other tourists, I can probably say they never get any foreign tourists. After checking out the mosque, hanging with the locals and taking a few photos, we headed out into the surrounding desert to drink tea, ride camels, and some of us punished quad-bikes, riding over the dune to explore the surrounding desert. Location – undisclosed.

 

As long as you don’t count that one time where one of my guests shot an Iranian in the chest with a firework, the first (of three) Iran Untours was an uncompromising, relentless, roller-coaster of success. Oh, he was fine, but a little shaken up. I’m not sure how the Iranian guy pulled-up. He seemed a OK. I jest. One of the guests really did shoot an Iranian with a firework. In the middle of a desert. It was really cool. Iran, for real.

It all worked out, because, in general, we did the opposite of every other tour in Iran.

More time was devoted to Tehran. It’s a bustling metropolis, one of the world’s largest, with ancient dusty backstreets, leafy modern boulevards, enormous bazaars, a community of contemporary creatives, engineering and architectural marvels, cafe’s, views, stylish people, shopping, food, history, and more than a few corners of complete and utter chaos. What’s not to like? However, when I was outlining the proposed tour to my partners in Iran, I was told “you’re spending too long in Tehran”. This is what decades of cookie-cut packaged group tours has done. Their mantra says tourists only want to see museums and historical sites out in the deserts. Even independent travellers gloss-over Tehran, they’ve also been infected with the mantra, such is the power of suggestion.

As it turned out, for us, three nights in Tehran wasn’t nearly enough time.

With just two weeks, you can’t see everything. And, we didn’t want to over plan this thing. There were deviations and changes when it made sense to do so. Late nights and sleep-ins. Of course, we checked out the unmissable historical sites all over the country. And in between, we dined at a variety of restaurants – traditional hole-in-the-walls, through to cool and contemporary. We drank tea and smoked Qalyan inside unfindable chai-bars with Iranian TV celebrities, and sipped coffee at cool cafes playing 1950’s country music, surrounded by portraits of The Godfather and Scarface. Most importantly, there was time for everyone to get their own personal Iran experiences. We also managed to just relax and let Iran come to us.

 

yazd iran tour
Yomadic Untour trippers, hanging on the mean streets of Yazd, Iran. This is a remarkable small city. Most of the gang scored large Persian-carpets for a bargain price, we drank carrot juice and icecream (it’s amazing), ate curries, camel, explored alley-ways, took in ridiculous roof top views, checked out a museum, and watched an ancient martial-art performance with an Italian princess.
arg karim khan bath shiraz
It’s kind of difficult to get a bad photo in Iran. This was taken in Shiraz, probably my favourite Iranian city. Shirazians have a reputation for being “lazy” by other Iranians. In truth, they’re “relaxed”, and my favourite Iranians of all. Except for my good friend in Tehran, she’s probably reading this, if you are, you’re my favourite person in Iran even though you’re not Shirazi.

abyaneh iran
Abyaneh, Iran. A remote ancient city made from mud. Popular, for good reason. The photo was taken from inside an ancient citadel that looks down on the small settlement.
iran group tour van
This was our Yomadic Untour van. Air-conditioned, roomy, and with the best driver in Iran – a human GPS. What a great guy. He would take us wherever we liked, whenever we liked. On our final night, of a long two-weeks, he told us he’d never experienced a group of tourists quite like us. We had a lot of fun together.
lauren the shop keeper esfhan tour
Did we fit in as locals? Well, this is one of our Yomadic trippers – my friend Lauren – taking money and working at our local convenience store in Esfahan. Next door, was our apartment building. Yes, we all got our own apartments for our time in Esfahan. What better way to feel like you’re really in Iran, than having your own apartment? We rented most of the building. There are no other tours where you get your own apartment. None. A market next door, kebab joint across the street, hip coffee shop down the road, and a short walk to one of the most spectacular city squares in the world. This is how you feel like a local, in Iran, for real. And it’s why I call it an “untour”.
iran money changer
Every guide-book will tell you not to change money at Tehran airport, due to scams and bad exchange rates. Not true. The rates are the same there as in the city. I know this, because I once found myself in the bathroom of an Iranian black-market currency exchange dealer. He was cutting my hair, and shaving my beard with a cut-throat razor. We were talking about money, Metallica, and Sadam Hussein. Dr Paul, one of our Yomadic trippers, demonstrates what a couple of hundred bucks looks like in Iran.
taraneh tehran iran tour
My friend Taraneh, a local of Tehran, showed us the things we would never have discovered without some local knowledge. From cafes, restaurants, scenic lookouts, and modern architecture, to custom hand-made leather camera straps, she had us covered. She’s a wonderful person, one of those people that everyone likes spending time with, and I can’t wait to see her again in October.
This was our "hotel" for a night. A restored Caravan Sarai, looking as it would have centuries ago, when traders stopped here with their camels, along the ancient silk-road. Totally relaxing, even with the hour-long fireworks show we created.
Our “hotel” for a night. A restored Caravan Sarai, looking as it would have centuries ago, when traders stopped here with their camels, moving goods along the ancient silk-road. Totally relaxing, even with the hour-long fireworks show we created.
tehran view on the iran tour
View from our Tehran Hotel. Super modern hotel, I would go as far as saying luxurious. We mixed up the accommodation – four-star hotels, apartments, classic guest houses,  and ancient caravan-sarai’s.
tehran kebab
And we mixed up our food – street food, fine dining, there is an enormous variety of restaurants in Iran, if you know where to look. In any case, Iranian food is incredible.
My man, Vahid.
My man, Vahid.
iran street photography
Iran is a street-photographers dream destination.

 

I love independent travel, I’ve been doing it for more than 1000 days in a row. I’m not that fond of traditional group tours. In Iran, there needs to be a middle-ground, because the thing is, travelling independently, you’re going to miss a huge part of Iran. I know, I’ve been there. Without some local Iranian knowledge, you’re simply going from one Lonely Planet listing to the next. Even the friendly and well-meaning locals will encourage you to see the same things that all the other tourists see – they don’t realise that thousands of years of historical sights can be eclipsed by the experience of sharing a slice of watermelon in the lounge-room of a friendly Iranian family.

Until you’ve visited Iran a couple of times, you’re not going to know that although the ancient Zooastrian Fire Temple in Yazd sounds impressive  – it’s not. And, it’s not really that ancient either. Or, that Persepolis is an unmissable highlight, and Cyrus the Great’s Tomb at Parsagad is, in my opinion, only for the die-hard history buffs – of which I include myself.  But the whole Parsagad complex is not for everyone, and for most people, maybe it’s not worth the time. Guide books won’t tell you that. Iran has a very, very, ancient tourist circuit – just not very well trodden these days – and it’s hard not to just slip into the same route as everyone who has come before you. The contemporary aspects of Iran remain almost undocumented, and it would be a big shame to miss out on the whole picture.

Sure, no matter where you go in Iran, it’s the real Iran.

But, it’s not necessarily Iran for real.

For me, chatting with locals inside a third-wave cafe in downtown Shiraz, was just as memorable as exploring the ancient ruins of Persepolis. There’s a juxtaposition awaiting you –  old and new, well-trodden and unexplored – and it would have been impossible to see what we saw, from Tehran to Shiraz, without the knowledge, advice and street-smarts from my group of friends and associates who spend their entire lives in this remarkable country. Thanks to them, this was an unforgettable experience.

Even so, one truth remains – for me, the group of eight that I untoured around, and all the other foreign tourists that come to visit – we know nothing about Iran.

Which makes right now, a totally unique time to head there.

I’m at risk of sounding like a broken-down-record. We get it, Nate, Iran is fucking great and it’s totally safe and all that with the other thing. Sure, I’m passionate about Iran. The reason for my passion – I’ve been living a nomadic-travelling lifestyle for more than a thousand days now, and sharing this experience with a small gang of friends was pretty much the highlight of my last three years.

I know this article sounds like a bit of an advertorial. This is the truth: two Iran Untours have sold out already, and I know the final couple of places in November will sell. I don’t need any more hype about Iran, it seems to be gaining popularity all on its own, interest is increasing rapidly, so for now it’s kinda nice to have the place almost to myself, with just a small gang of trippers. The point is, if you take away just one thing from this article, it’s this:

If you’re thinking about visiting Iran, do it while we still know nothing.

Nate.

PS, all of the Iran posts I’ve ever written, since way back in 2012, are right here. UPDATE: sorry, all trips for 2015 have now sold out. If you would like more info, to help you decide if a Yomadic Untour in 2016 is right for you (spoiler: it is right for you) – pop your email in the box below, and I’ll make sure you’re the first to know when any new Untours are launched.

PPS, right now I’m in Bulgaria, relaxing in Varna, on the coast of the Black Sea. Coming up, I have stories from recent non-Iranian and Iranian adventures, plus I have a journey planned through my favourite region of Europe – the Balkans. Pop your email in below, and you’ll be the first to get offers for any future tours, plus semi-regular travel articles from somewhere off-the-beaten-track:

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31 thoughts on “Is Iran The Most Important Travel Destination in Our Lifetime?

  1. Iran for the world… The world for Iran!
    So happy you had such a nice experience in my beloved homeland. Thanks for your great report.

  2. You hit the nail on the head when you said even the locals don’t know which is the bigger experience – everyday watermelon or thousand-year sights. Definitely part of the difference between travel and tourism. Great post! Tour sounds pretty special too.

  3. Hi Nate,

    Always love reading your posts about Iran – has made me think I need to get there ASAP. What do you recommend for American citizens? I certainly am not too keen on going with a large tour company, for the obvious reasons you list in your article. What about the Iranian companies? Do you have any knowledge about/experience with any you particularly like?

    Or is there a sort of informal way for people (US, Canadian, British citizens, that is) to travel through Iran somewhat independently after getting a visa through an official tour agency?

    Thanks again for your inspiring posts – I have a feeling that Iran is going to have to happen sooner rather than later. Was on the border with Armenia just earlier this year and wish I could have hopped over for a quick jaunt…

    1. Hey Nick, cheers!

      For American citizens, there is no way to do it independently. The reason for this – to get your visa, you need to sign up for a tour. The tour needs to include a guide that is specifically “licensed” to guide American tourists. This guide would not allow you to just leave and go travel the country by yourself. Of course, there is nothing stopping you from doing so – it’s not like North Korea where you are watched at every minute. However, that guide when then report you as “missing”, to the authorities. You can see where it could lead from there…

      This is *exactly* why I am doing these tours. The other option would be to find a cool guide who would just take you personally around Iran – but this would be more expensive. Honestly, I’ve spent a long time planning this, and thinking through what I think is the best current solution. An “untour”.

      I wish I had a personal recommendation for a local company, but I don’t. When I hear about another alternative, that I can recommend, I’ll do it.

  4. I’ve travelled to Iran twice. Once to Tehran, Esfahan & Shiraz, and then to Kish Island on my second visit.

    You’re exactly right about the friendliness & hospitality of the local people there! I travel to many countries with my work & I still think Iran is probably the friendliest place I’ve ever visited!

    As you’ve said, people should forget what the Western media say & go experience it for themselves as it’s such a beautiful place with such fantastic people.

    1. Hey Jeff… everyone who has actually visited Iran says the same thing, and yet, so many people still believe the media portrayal – which is usually negative, or at least suspicious, in some way. And I also agree – I know there is no friendlier country than Iran, the people are incredible.

    2. thank you for your Positive feedback
      we love Usa . we love every Person that Came our Country
      We Belive : Visitors ( Gusts ) are a Gift From god that we should care and love them

  5. You’ve sold me on Iran. If I wasn’t working in November, I’d be signing on. I’ve joined your email list, and will be watching for Iran in 2016.

  6. Another pleasant article Nate. I love the flexibility of your approach to travel, especially in a country like Iran. I wonder, although I know you have, do your groups get the opportunity to experience home cooking/hospitality in a typical Iranian home? The reason I ask that is because even the finest restaurant in the country is no match for home cooking by an Iranian mom.
    Also, there are some natural marvels north of the country that I haven’t seen in any of your articles yet?!

  7. We went to Iran in March/April of this year. My husband was born and raised in Iran and over the years has traveled back. He took our son twice, but it took me 20 years to make the decision to go with him, which I did this year. I believe everything happens for a reason and this was the time I needed/wanted to go. I learned so much, saw so much, gained such perspective and really, isn’t that what travel is all about? We traveled before and after our 3 weeks in Iran so I am just now beginning to write about the experience. I think for an American woman there are a few added challenges, but also great gifts of kindness for those who were brave enough to approach me and tell me to spread the word that Iranians love America.

  8. Hi Nate,
    Wow, thanks for sharing such an amazing post, I never thought I would be adding Iran to our bucket list. Thanks! Really enjoyed reading this article and love the photography Nate, following your adventures now
    Annie ox

  9. Hi Nate,

    This sounds wonderful! I’ve wanted to go to Iran since I interviewed a couple guys from the Iranian embassy in Venezuela when I worked there. I also met a retired state dept. employee who was stationed there before the revolution & said at that time it was the best place in the world.

    Anyway, I know this isn’t a political article. But, what’s the real rub between the US & Iran? Does that come up in conversation there? Or, are regular people just doing their thing, and not worrying about politics just like in most places?

  10. I just got back from a 2 week trip in Iran and what can I say but OMG! Just go already before tourists discover it! Thanks Nate for writing so accurately about Iran – reading your blogs made sure I didn’t cancel when I had a few nervous second thoughts about going pre-trip and I am so glad I did go. The sights are amazing, the people are so friendly and welcoming it’s ridiculous (yes, what people say IS true) and I felt completely safe the whole time. It really is the best time to go now and see the country ‘almost’ untouched – even though it is changing rapidly and will so even more quickly if and when sanctions are lifted. Best of all, all of the propaganda and pre-conceptions I had in my head were washed away and I returned home with a much more accurate understanding of this great country and its people. Don’t hesitate – go now!

  11. Lovely website, lovely post! Enjoyed reading your entries especially about my Azizam.
    I don’t know why Varzaneh is undisclosed though, it needs to be seen. I really enjoyed it a lot and they do have foreign travellers there just not at the same time, I guess :P There is even a guesthouse there I overnighted in :)

    Can’t wait to be back!

  12. Iran is beautiful, I really want to go!! This article is awesome, I love your writing and photos! Thanks for the ispiration today!

  13. Reading this post make me so happy…I am an Iranian girl….I felt so proud when I realize you had a good time in Iran
    come back here and enjoy our country:)

  14. Great article and bang on. I just got back from a trip to Iran this summer. Great advice and I agree with almost everything you wrote. Check out my 4 part story about my trip to Iran, found on my blog.

    1. Hi Anthony, I started reading your blog, just a small correction, you stated that “at this time it is difficult for westerners to have free access in Iran, tourists are required to be guided at all times in order to enter on a tourist visa.” This is not true – only USA, Canada, and English citizens require a guide in order to obtain a tourist visa.

      Glad you enjoyed Iran, it was a very honest travelogue you wrote, and most importantly, congratulations for wearing shorts!

  15. In the era of propaganda, these types of Friendships are the most daebrsile for the “public”. On one hand, the regime in Iran calls the US, the Great Satan, and on the other, the American Sisters have been enjoying their stay in Iran, the country which was declared as one of the Axes of Evil. So, a couple of years ago, we saw that Hollywood “discovered Iran”. Then, it was Mr. Sean Penn’s visit of the country and his “penning his journal” in a Friday’s prayer (Namaz-e Joomeh), and now we have the Sisters in Iran. I wonder when the president of the US is scheduled to have his state dinner in Jamara? Katayoun

  16. Hi
    to be honest if someone asks me the question , as an Iranian I’d probably say no ,but Iran is the clear example how medias could lie about a living community .just imagine if there was no internet yet how would people around the world think of this country .cool article btw

  17. Welcome To Iran …
    if you see this Bullshits : Down With Usa its Political Game… Don’t give a shit
    we love every Tourist from every where so come here and enjoy and visit our Calture / Nature / History
    High recommend to see Chalus Road ( Tehran to Mazandaran Road )
    Its Must Biutiful Road in the world

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