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An American in Iran: Why You Should Go and What You Need to Know

I’ve wanted to go to Iran for some time. But with Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and many U.S. senators saying for years that we should bomb the country, I thought I should hold off on traveling there. When the nuclear agreement (or as Donald Trump calls it, the “worst deal ever”) took effect in January, I jumped at the opportunity to visit. I went to Tehran for a week in April and found it fascinating and fun. Here are my top takeaways:

1. Iranians like Americans. I engaged with strangers on the bus, in cafés, and on the streets. They weren’t shy about speaking up when they heard me speaking English. “Are you American?” “We like Americans,” “We like your president,” “Why won’t Secretary of State Kerry release our money like he was supposed to in January?” I told my new friends I’d talk to John and get back to them.

2. They don’t want another revolution. They are not particularly happy with their government, although they are grateful it has kept their country safe. They said the revolution brought them much uncertainty and upheaval. They are happy trying to find a path to a better future, which is never a straight line in Iran.

3. Yes, women have to wear headscarves. Legally, they are supposed to wear hijab, keeping their heads, arms, and legs covered. Many wear their headscarves loosely; if they slip off, a stranger may kindly point out the infringement. But women are not nearly as restricted as they are in Saudi Arabia.

4. Now that is a country Iranians don’t like. Iranians call the Saudis arrogant, tyrannical, spiteful, and untrustworthy, and they claim the Saudis have no culture. Hmm.

5. We need more Iranian restaurants in the States. Before my trip, the only time I’d eaten Iranian food was in L.A. The things I enjoyed most in Tehran? Kebabs, of course. Fesenjan, a chicken dish made with toasted walnuts and simmered pomegranate juice and served with rice. I especially loved it with tahdig, a crispy rice crust. I also loved dizi, a stew made of lamb, chickpeas, beans, onions, tomatoes, and potatoes that comes in a pot. You strain the liquid and eat it with bread, then mash the solids and eat them.

6. The contemporary art scene is happening. Iran’s modern art movement began in the late 1940s, and the country had a contemporary revival, post-revolution, beginning in the ’90s. I went to e1, a one-week-old gallery that was featuring many of the greats of the past 30 years, including Monir Farmanfarmaian, Mohsen Vaziri Moghadam, Mohammad Ehsaie, and Farhad Moshiri. I was fortunate to meet one of the featured artists, Pariyoush Ganji, at her home. Everyone in her family is an accomplished artist: Her husband is a writer, her son is an internationally renowned pianist and composer, and her daughter is a classical guitarist and composer who recently released a new album with ECM Records.

7. Go to the bazaars. Buy a carpet at your own risk. The two biggest markets in town are the Grand Bazaar in central Tehran and Tajrish in the northern part of the city. It looks like the vendors have been there forever, selling everything. There is an Iranian version of Amazon.com called Digkala, but it doesn’t look like it has impacted the bazaar market yet. It’s worth a trip even if you don’t want to buy anything. Just leave your American sense of personal space at home. When it comes to buying carpets, I asked a local about how not to get ripped off. “They will all rip you off,” he said. “The trick is finding the ones that will rip you off the least.” He recommended a shop and I went with an Iranian friend who loves to negotiate. There was yelling, a storm-out-the-door, and even a face-to-face shouting match that was resolved with my friend kissing the carpet dealer on both cheeks. It made for great theater, and as my friend said, the keys are to love what you buy and spend what you are willing to spend.

8. See where the Shahs lived. Go to both Niavaran and Sa’dabad in the northern part of the city: They are huge complexes, with gorgeous manicured grounds, old palaces, and a contemporary home built for the last shah. And definitely go to the Golestan Palace, in the central city, where the shahs of the 18th century lived. I loved the Iranian mirrored walls and ceilings, and the antique rugs gave me a serious case of carpet-envy.

9. The sanctions did not decimate the city. I expected Tehran to feel more like the developing world, but the city was commercial and upscale. There was a lot of construction. Everyone I met said the sanctions had hurt, but not so much that it was readily apparent to a visitor.

10. I was most surprised by how beautiful it is. I know it sounds weird, but I didn’t even notice the beauty during the first two days; I was so caught up in the traffic, pollution, and urban chaos. But then I started looking up and around and noticed how pretty and green the city is and the snow-topped Alborz mountains in the background. One of my favorite spots was Ab-o-Atash Park, which is connected to Nowruz Park, by the award-winning Tabiat pedestrian bridge (it was designed by a young Iranian woman in 2010). And Mount Tochal, a ski and recreation area that tops out at nearly 4,000 meters, provides a dramatic backdrop to the city.

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    A week in Tehran
    Scroll through the slideshow for the highlights from my trip. 

    All Photos by Greg Sullivan
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    Finally, going to Iran!
    I got my Visa through a Visa service in Iran and picked it up on my way to the country in Istanbul. 

    Photo by @gregsul
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    The Shah's summer grounds
    Strolling the grounds of Sa’dabad, one of the complex that belonged to the Shahs. The residence of the current president of Iran is adjacent. 

    Photo by @gregsul
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    Noosh-e Jan! (Persian for Bon Appetit!)
    Iranians are very gracious hosts; if you can have dinner at someone's home, I highly recommend doing so. This meal featured kebabs and fesenjan, a chicken dish with pomegranates and walnutes. 
    Photo by @gregsul
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    A favorite spot
    Ab-o-Atash Park features fountains, an amphitheater, and cafés.

    Photo by @gregsul
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    Nature Bridge
    The Pol-e Tabiat, a pedestrian bridge, connects Ab-o-Atash Park to Nowruz Park. The bridge has great views of the northern part of Tehran and the Alborz mountain range. 

    Photo by @gregsul
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    A walk in the park
    People walking in Ab-o-Atash Park. 

    Photo by @gregsul
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    In Darband
    Darband is a charming village within the Tehran city limits with a hiking trail up to Mount Tochal. The village is full of restaurants and hookah lounges, as well as stands selling treats.  

    Photo by @gregsul
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    Head to Kashan
    Saraye Ameriha Boutique Hotel occupies an ancient home in Kashan, a city about 150 miles south of Tehran. The 18th century building was only recently converted into a beautiful boutique hotel. 

    Photo by @gregsul
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    Abyaneh Village
    In Abyaneh, one of the oldest villages in Iran.

    Photo by @gregsul
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    My hosts in Tehran
    Rooz is an ‘re-pat’ (as opposed to expat). He grew up in Tehran, moved to the U.S. before high school, and then back to Tehran two years ago as an investment banker. Zhinous has always lived in Tehran and is an interior designer. 

    Photo by @gregsul
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As much as I loved my visit, traveling to Iran has its challenges:

1. Bring cash. And your math skills. Your credit and debit cards are no good in Iran. You need to bring cash and convert to Iranian rial. One U.S. dollar converts to about 30,000 rial (the rial has been strengthening against the dollar considerably the past few months). To complicate matters, prices are quoted in toman, which isn’t an actual denomination of currency, but represents 10 rial. So when someone tells you a sandwich is 1,500 toman (that’s about 50 cents), you give them a 10,000 and a 5,000 rial note—which you have to pick out of the 8 different sizes of bills in your wallet.

2. Hope you don’t need a glass of wine to enjoy dinner. Alcohol is not legally available. If you know locals who enjoy a drink in private, they probably have a bootlegging source or might even ferment something at home. Young Iranians are famous for serious partying. But as a tourist, your trip will be a dry one.

3. Get a SIM card. The Wi-Fi is poor even in better hotels. If you want to access email and various websites, get a SIM card from Irancell. They will make you jump through some hoops, so it is easiest if you have a local get it for you. You can visit news sites like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and Instagram is freely available, but you can only access Facebook and Twitter through a VPN.

4. Don’t expect 5-star hotels. With the exception of a very few new hotels being built near tourist sites, most of the hotels were built before the revolution in 1979. Need I say more?

5. Always have the phone number of someone who knows where you are going. Getting around is difficult. Traffic is bad, but you are probably used to that. In Iran, even figuring out where places are is challenging because they don’t really use addresses, and streets are not laid out in any kind of grid. I almost always ended up calling someone at my destination and having them give directions to my cab driver. There’s an Uber-like service in Tehran called Snapp, but it is in Farsi and requires an Iranian bank card, so that won’t help.

6. Go with a group. If all of the above hasn’t convinced you, let me tell you outright. I was fortunate; I had great connections. It is challenging to get a visa, hotel reservations, and approval to move around, particularly for Americans, Canadians, and Brits, who are required to be accompanied by a guide at all times. You need a pro to organize and execute a trip to Iran. I highly recommend GeoEx, Iran Doostan Tours, and Intrepid Travel.

>>Next: What Does It Mean to Travel Boldly?