A trip to Iran is jam-packed with sightseeing. Just one square in Esfahan takes up almost a day for you to explore every four attractions situated on each side and if you decide to ditch any, you are very likely to regret it later. I’m not here to blame you for wanting to tick off too many places from your list. I always advice on quality rather than quantity, but there are certain places you just have to see with your own eyes and you shouldn’t feel guilty about it. But Iran’s not only about shimmering palaces, dazzling mosques and bustling bazaars. There’s a whole new lifestyle emerging in this very complicated region. One that manages to find time for an afternoon nap in the capital’s green area while the traffic rushes by.
Let’s pretend you’re short on time, you’re not the couch surfing type who stays with locals and you’ve brought a camera that needs to go back with a full memory, but you actually crave a little something that would make you feel more of a local and less of a tourist. You’ve done this without knowing many times before. Like when you rent a bike to find your way around Amsterdam, or the time you order croissants with your coffee in Paris. But what is there to do in Iran?
Here’s where I come to help, giving you a list of 7 must-have experiences in Iran that hardly take up any time and cost almost nothing. Things you could do whether you’re on a tour or travelling at your pace.
7 must-have experiences in Iran
#1 Buy bread right from the oven and have it with cheese and fresh veggies
Bread in Iran is holy and very unique to this part of the world. It’s so sacred that we avoid cutting it with a knife and it’s so exclusive that it’s one of the first things we crave away from home. Barbari (my favourite), Sangak, Taftoon and Lavash are the leaders and each is cooked in their own bakery. We swoon over a piece of fresh crusty Barbari and relish over the extra doughy sides.
So next time you pass the baker’s in Iran, don’t just sneak in for a photo. Get yourself a bread and see if there will be any left once you’re back in the hotel. 😉
If by any chance the bread reaches home, we finish it off with some feta cheese and fresh veggies. If you haven’t tried this then have an Iranian tell you that half of your life has gone to waste!
#2 Have a picnic
We Iranians are experts when it comes to picnics and we don’t compromise with sandwiches and a can of coke. We take a huge pot of warm Lubia Polo (beans with rice) and do not dare to leave our Shirazi salad behind. We set a whole feast and eat with style. You’ll witness a ton of this strolling in Shiraz or Esfahan on a delightful afternoon and you’ll see everything at full glory if you get the chance to visit Iran on Nature’s day on April 2nd, when picnics are not just out of pleasure but a tradition to follow.
So instead of spending another night in a fancy restaurant and munching on another plate of Kebab, consider a picnic. Ask for a take out, buy a bowl of Ash if it’s winter and have it in a local park, in the middle of Naqsh-e Jahan or besides Arg-e Karim Khan in Shiraz. And don’t be shy to ask a local family for a cup of tea before you leave. You never know what else could come with it. 😉
If the take out didn’t work, you’ll have no excuse to not try the Barbari bread and cheese! Just sayin’.
#3 Sleep in a caravanserai
It’s not everyday that you get to live like a wealthy merchant and sleep under a blanket of stars in the middle of nowhere. Due to the huge number of abandoned caravanserais in Iran, many of them are now being converted into hotels and restaurants. Some as fancy as 5 start hotels and others more humble. But for the most authentic experience head out to Caravanserai of Zeinodin. I swear by this place and had one of the best stays of my life here. I doubt if it could get any better.
#4 visit a mosque at prayer’s time
You’re likely to visit plenty of mosques while you’re in Iran but visiting them at the right time makes such a huge difference. Visits to Nasir-ol Molk mosque in Shiraz should be done in the morning when the sun rays hit through the stained glass windows and their reflection dances over the rows of lavishing Persian carpets. Sheikh Lotfollah mosque in Esfahan is most serene in the late afternoon when the glittering sun creates such a heavenly feel. But besides seeking for the most picture-perfect timing, visiting a mosque just before the evening prayers is an experience you ought to not miss. Getting to witness men and women rushing for the lines and the call of prayers echoing through the chambers adds so much charm to the majestic structure.
Khaju Bridge in Esfahan has long become a hub for those who don’t mind to show off their singing skills in public. Head over here in the afternoon and there are bunch of people singing along to songs that vary from heroic poems to cheesy love songs. Don’t be intimidated to give it a little try yourself. Perhaps with something that sounds more like home. There will be people cheering you in no time, no matter how awful you might sound.
#6 Dizi on a weekend
Lazy weekends in Iran are supplemented with Dizi for lunch. Known as one of the oldest food recipes of Iran, Dizi or Abgoosht – however you like to call it – is mashed meat with chickpeas, onion and potatoes and is served with pickles. It’s not something you find in a fancy posh restaurant. It’s rather found in traditional places or Dizi Saras, which are exclusive to serving Dizi. You’d find a ton of places where you could try it, but Azari restaurant near Tehran’s railway station has been serving it for decades and knows the trick. Not to mention the atmosphere is also a bonus point. But for my favourite Dizi place in Tehran, you’d have to be a bit more adventurous and head over to the old Jewish neighbourhood of the capital to have it served in the once oldest bank of the country.
#7 Visit a Zoorkhaneh
Even from a point of view of an Iranian, visiting a Zoorkhaneh has been one of the most fascinating and rewarding experiences of my travels. Zoorkhaneh or literally ‘Power House’ is a place where an ancient version of training or wrestling was practiced in Persia and dates back to as late as the times of Parthians. Today it’s a hub for young men who don’t mind a few minutes of workout while going back to their routes in the most spiritual way and keeping the traditions alive. Unfortunately many Zoorkhanehs are left abandoned and the whole ritual is quickly being forgotten, but if you ever get the chance to witness one, do not hesitate to go. You never know, you might even get the chance to lift a few weights and do an actual spin on the stage if you’re lucky.
Fitting a few, if not all of these experiences to your already overloaded itinerary won’t set you back so much but it’s bound to leave you with some memories that will be etched in your memory for a lifetime.
This post was originally written by myself for Persiaport.