Boasting gorgeous landscapes and a rich tapestry of ancient cultures and religions, Iran is highly welcoming and easy on the wallet (though you can only use cash), offering plenty of bang for your buck. Stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea and from Turkey to Pakistan, it encompasses spectacular desertscapes even more desolate than the American Southwest, snow-capped peaks, fertile valleys and lush forests. Its treasure chest of attractions includes ancient Persian monuments, lavish Qajar mansions, Silk Road caravanserais, world-renowned museums and art galleries in the bustling capital of Tehran, and the splendid Safavid gardens in Esfahan that encircle some of the world’s most hauntingly beautiful mosques, adorned with mesmerizing turquoise tile-work.
Much like its 3000-year-old qanats, an ingenious network of irrigation tunnels, Persia’s sense of heritage runs deep, boasting a richness on a par with the greatest of civilizations. Wandering the ruins of majestic Persepolis, one of history’s greatest capitals, it’s hard not to be impressed with the wealth and glory of the once-mighty Persian Empire. In Shiraz, City of Poets and heartland of Persian culture and sophistication, visitors from near and far pay their respects to the ornate tomb of Hafez (whose lines are often held in greater honour than those of the Qur’an), while in Yazd, home to one of the Middle East’s best-preserved medieval bazaars, a flame said to have burned for 1500 years flickers on in the Zoroastrian Fire Temple. Mingling with pilgrims in sacred Mashhad’s Haram complex, you’ll marvel at the dazzling, tiled Tomb of Imam Reza, resting place of Shi’a Islam’s eighth Imam. And while soaking up the grandeur of Imam Square and admiring its iconic, blue-domed Shah Mosque, you’ll begin to appreciate the old rhyme, “Esfahan is half the world,” then join local Esfahanis for an evening promenade past the magically lit bridges spanning the Zayandeh River.
Even considering Iran’s abundance of worthy sights, returning travellers, particularly from the US, are most impressed with the warmth of Persian hospitality. Doubtless among the most welcoming people on earth, Iranians are lauded even by their most bitter enemies as superior hosts. In chatting with curious locals, often keen for a glimpse of the outside world, foreigners in Iran are guaranteed endless cups of tea, spontaneous gifts, home invitations and even impromptu guide services. And in stark contrast to more established regional travel hubs, jaded by decades of mass-tourism, you’ll find hardly any of the old tourist touts in Iran. Until quite recently, however, Iran only drew a small trickle of foreign visitors, but as relations with the West continue to thaw, tourist numbers are on the rise, hotels are booming, visa requirements are easing up and airlines are rapidly expanding to connect Iran’s hubs with Europe, the Middle East and beyond. Some international companies have already set up shadow offices in the country as they anticipate an end to crippling international sanctions.
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