With a rich Persian heritage dating back over 3,000 years, Iran has no shortage of options to showcase its glorious and interesting past to visitors.
As soon as I set foot in Iran on my Iran Adventure trip with Intrepid Travel, I knew that I was about to do many things I had never experienced before. And Iran didn’t disappoint.
Even through small gestures and quick interactions with locals, Iran found a way to awe and inspire me on a daily basis – placing it high on my list of favorite countries visited.
Of the many unique experiences I had there, I’ll share here with you five of them that you shouldn’t miss having on your own adventure:
Experience a nomadic homestay with the Qashqai people
Iran is known as one of the friendliest countries on Earth, a trait that also extends to its nomadic communities –the Qashqai– who settled in Iran during the 11th and 12th century. While most of these nomadic pastoralist tribes have become sedentary these days, a small group still practices nomadism. These still travel roughly 480 km (300 miles) with their flocks twice yearly to spend the summer in the cooler highlands and the winters in the warmer lands near the Persian Gulf.
Among the many experiences I had in Iran, spending a night with a nomadic family in the small village of Kahkaraan is high on the list. This family settled here roughly 40 years ago, in a community that is also composed of other Qashqai people. While they are sedentary, they still practice their nomadic traditions through their daily life.
The night is spent with the family, sharing traditions, eating their delicious home cooked meals –which are traditional nomadic dishes– and telling stories of their families and life in Iran. While you could sleep in their brick house, the family also conserve their traditional nomadic tent where you can also spend the night or have breakfast.
Have lunch with a Zoroastrian family
Zoroastrianism is said to be the oldest monotheist religion in the world that is still practiced – dating back to the 5th century BCE. Even though only about 25,000 people still practice the religion in Iran, it still has a strong presence in the country.
For this experience, I have to give full credit to my Intrepid Travel guide, Nadia, because this was not officially in our itinerary. While we were in Yazd, which has one of the biggest Zoroastrian communities in the country, she contacted a Zoroastrian family she knows to see if they would welcome us for lunch.
Like many other Iranians we met on the trip, they gladly welcomed us and showed us their culinary delights and their history. While a Zoroastrian meal uses many of the same ingredients as a traditional Iranian meal, they have their own dishes, tastes, and culinary practices.
Even if your guide doesn’t have any contacts with local Zoroastrians, it’s possible that if you meet one on the street and hit an interesting conversation, they might end up inviting you at least for tea.
Speaking of Iranian food…
Learn how to cook a traditional Iranian meal
From day one, you will be exposed to stunningly varied culinary delights that include Pirashki, Laboo, Kebabs, and Saffron Ice Cream, among many others. Iranian cuisine counts with a variety of flavors and ingredients thanks to Iran’s multiple climate regions. Given its long-standing traditions, Iranians cook all of their dishes mostly with locally-grown ingredients, so you’re always getting the freshest, most natural meal possible.
If eating or cooking traditional meals is something you enjoy, then you must not miss trying a cooking class. Even though it’s a “cooking” class, I rather call it an “eating” class because traditional Iranian meals take at least a few hours to make. While you learn how to make the dishes in the class, many of them are already in the cooking process when you get to interact with them.
You might learn how to make their delicious saffron rice with barberries and chicken stew, Zereshk Polo Morgh, their eggplant spread, Kashk-e Bademjan, or their golden crispy rice, Tahdig.
But, the most wonderful aspect about this experience, in my opinion, is getting to eat with the family in their traditional setting. And like with any traditional meal, learn how to drink their chai (tea) the Iranian way, with one sugar cube in the cup and one in your mouth.
Stay overnight at a Caravanserai
Of all the accommodations we had during the trip, this was my absolute favorite.
A caravanserai is like a small fortress built for the merchants traveling the silk and spice roads back in the 16th century. The king of Iran build 999 of them spaced 30 km apart, as this was the distance merchants could travel with their camels in one day. While most caravanserais are either destroyed or in disrepair, a few have been restored, with two of them open to the public to stay overnight, just like the merchants did 500 years ago.
Sure, you won’t sleep with any smelly camels around you, and the accommodations have been improved, but you still get to experience the true ambiance of the caravanserai. During the tour, we spent a night at Zein-o-Din Caravanserai, which is slightly different from all of the other caravanserais build by the king. This one, instead of having 4 square towers like the rest, has 5 round towers.
When walking in its central courtyard, you can still see the platform where merchants used to unload the merchandise carried by their camels. In the interior, you can still see the niches where merchants used to sleep (also with their camels during the winter). We got to sleep on those same niches, which are now semi-private thanks to a thin fabric wall.
Marvel at the lavishly decorated mosques
Iran is home to some of the most beautiful architecture in the world, and many of those buildings are mosques. Different from other Islamic countries, Iran decorates its mosque interiors lavishly with chandeliers and by covering every inch of its walls and ceiling with a massive mirror mosaic.
It is beautiful entering this solemn space and suddenly seeing your broken reflection in thousands of tiny pieces of mirror, like a kaleidoscope. The chandeliers reflect their light on the mirror fragments, creating a beautifully lit space with bare minimum lighting. The natural sunlight enters through the multicolored glass tiles bathing the space in hues of red, green, yellow, and blue.
In all, the beauty and attention to detail speak to the importance mosques have to Iranians. If possible, do not miss visiting the Shah-e-Cheragh Mausoleum in Shiraz, as it is one of the best examples of this beautiful Iranian Mosque styling.
Want to have these amazing experiences for yourself? Check out Intrepid’s range of small group tours in Iran.
(All images taken by Norbert Figueroa on Intrepid’s Iran Adventure trip.)