Iran offers tailor-made experiences to any types of visitors, from nature lovers to history fans and foodies. If most travellers choose to visit the mythic cities of Central Iran, such as Isfahan, Shiraz, and Yazd, Iran has so much more to offer. Going off the beaten track allows the visitor to embrace the cultural diversity of Iran, through people, food, music, while discovering natural wonders and antic genius. So, if you're looking for an expected experience in Iran, here are the best authentic experiences.
Iran isn't just Persian culture. If this latter is the most well-known and largely spread, it is due to the fact that Persians are the main ethnic group of Iran. Yet, the country counts many other ethnicities, whose traditions and culture differ and are still alive. Azeris, Kurds, Lurs, Qashqai, Arabs, and Baluchs are some of the most important minorities in the country. Each of them has its own dialect, sometimes its own religion, its own food culture, its own music, etc. Travelling through Iran is a journey throughout these various cultural worlds. Qashqai people are for instance an important Turkic-speaking tribal who lives in the province of Fars, the birthplace of the Persian Empires. They have preserved their nomadic lifestyle until nowadays, moving twice a year with their flocks toward lands of green pastures. In the west of Iran, Lurs are another distinct minority, whose beautifully coloured outfits and dances are a wonder for the visitors, while in southeast Iran, potteries done by women reflected the long history and traditions of the Baloochis people in Kalpuregan. Tasting the incredibly diverse foods, discovering local handicrafts, and listening to unique instruments is the promise of a trip far from the expected.
Iranians have developed a rich musical culture, blending the various influences of neighbouring countries and local ethnicities into something unique. Throughout history, traditional local’s instruments have shaped and coloured the rhythm of Iranian music. From the tar to setar, tombak, and daf, hundreds of string and percussion instruments were born in Iran, before reaching the rest of the world with the Silk Road. Discovering Iranian music does not only take place in museums, but it's also a living art which varies greatly from one region to the other, thanks to rich folk music. Each small city and village has its own lyrical tradition, often sung into the local dialect and sometimes accompanied by local-made instruments. It recalls the tale and ancient stories of the people of Iran. The southern city of Bushehr is famous for its music, and the use of the Neyanban, a rare type of bagpipe. Nearby, in the Persian Gulf, it's also possible to see how music is central to people's lives during a unique vaudoo-like ceremony called "zaar".
Persian cuisine is so rich that it would probably take a lifetime to discover it all. And it's so different from what visitors can expect! In Iran, sharing meals has a major significance, it's a joyful moment to gather between family and friends. Thus, special attention has been given to the dishes: grilled meat kabab, herbs and pomegranate stews, saffron rice, grilled eggplants, etc. A walk in any bazaar is enough to convince the visitors that food and ingredients are a serious matter in Iran! Along with these national dishes, each region has its own culinary tradition, which makes the list of Persian food endless, as well as the possible culinary journeys over the country. In Gilan Province, located in the north of Iran, the UNESCO has even recognized the city of Rasht for the creative genius of its cuisine. Not to mention the dozens of locals sweets one can taste along its trip, such as delightful baklavas, and many traditional drinks, such as Dough and Sherbets.
Iran is a land of ancient history and one of the cradles of mankind. Way before the construction of the splendid mosques who have brought fame to Iran, many fascinating constructions and engineering system were invented in Persia. The remains of these stunning structures from ancient civilization abound all over Iran. Many of them are listed by the UNESCO as a World Heritage, such as the ancestral underground water channel of the Qanat, which has ecologically turned the arid lands of many parts of Iran into lush cultivation fields. While during the hot months of summer, Persians had to find a way to keep water fresh and even ice: that's how they created water reservoirs as well as the ancestor of our fridge, the Yakhchal. Two types of conical abode structures which can be visited in many regions of Iran. In the warmest and driest cities of Central Iran as well as the Persian Gulf, the towers of the Windcatchers are another proof of the creative genius of the Persian civilization. One of the most stunning examples of it remains the Hydraulic Water System of Shushtar, in Khuzestan Province, still perfectly working 2500 years after its creation.
Can you imagine, in the 21st century, living a self-sufficient life, free from modern technologies, always on the road with your family and your flock? This is the traditional lifestyle that nomad tribes of Iran have achieved to preserved and perpetuate to the new generation. Sharing their daily life during their migration toward green pastures is one of the most authentic experiences Iran has to offer. A few dozens of nomadic tribes, from various ethnic groups, live in the mountain regions of Iran. Just a few hours’ drive from the beautiful city of Shiraz, in the heart of the Zagros mountains, visitors can encounter the Qashqai nomads, and learn by their side, the stories behind their culture and traditions, while enjoying the natural food their produce and the marvelling sight of their traditional outfits.
Iran is a vast country whose major parts are rural. Thus, villages are a blend of historical and cultural wonders. And all over the country, small ancient villages compete with beauty and uniqueness. Deep into the mountains of Kurdistan, the small earth-coloured village of Palagan is wrapped into an out-of-time atmosphere, with its villagers bringing their sheep to the pastures. Going souther, the visitors stumble upon one of the most extraordinary villages of Iran, listed by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Site: Kandovan. The cave-houses of this troglodyte village, reminding the Turkish Capadoce, are still inhabited like centuries ago. As it's also the case in the desert village of Meymand, where men have carved the rock to look for freshness.
The history of the Silk Road has more than 1700 years and still fill the traveller's mind with epic images. From China to Europe, the Silk Road was the most important commercial road of its time, crossing the whole territory of Iran. The stunning bazaars of Qazvin, Zanjan, Tabriz, and many other cities are the testimony of this merchant life, exchanging precious and unique goods all over the world. During their long journey throughout the deserts of Iran, merchants needed a safe place to rest with their animals and caravans loaded with goods. That's why thousands of beautiful caravanserais have been built, to welcome the visitors and give them protection at night. Nowadays, many of them have been turned into hotels to welcome modern visitors as it used to be. Sleeping between these abode walls full of stories is like travelling into a time of fairytales.
The north of Iran, which benefits from the cooler and more humid weather of the Caspian Sea, is the perfect place to cultivate some of the most iconic products of Iran in the traditional way. Every year, as spring has just started, it's time to harvest the rice in the Gilan and Mazandaran Provinces. This small white rice will later take centre stage on the Iranian families' table. Not far away, it's the tea fields which give the landscape its exceptional beauty, as a delicious kind of tea is planted in Lahijan. Before the first waves of summer's heat, visit Kashan to attend the beautiful rosewater ceremony and discover how rosewater is made out of the marvellous Mohammadi rose. Finally, at the end of the fall, head toward the regions of northeast Iran to harvest one of the world's most precious flower: saffron. 90% of saffron's world production takes place here, under the delicate and expert gestures of local people.
The sub-culture of southern people from the Hormuzgan and Khuzestan provinces has no equivalent. It's a blend of rich traditions, influenced by Arabs and Africans countries, which offer the visitors an unexpected vision of Iran. From the traditional clothes to the local handicrafts, the Bandari people of this region maintain alive their traditional way of life. Minab Friday Market, on the coast of Hormozgan Province, looks like an amazing show to the visitors' eyes, with women wearing their traditional masks. Take the time to listen to their stories, and discover their unique beliefs and witness, if you are lucky, an exorcism ceremony by the sea.
For those looking for nature adventures, Iran combines all the imaginable landscapes you can dream of. If most people know about the beauty of Iranian deserts, Lut in particular, and sometimes about the strange rocky formations of Qeshm islands, there are many other wild places which are meant to be discovered by travellers. In the plains of Golestan Province, for instance, lie endless green hills of untouched nature in Turkmen Sahra. Not too far away, the curious rock terraces of Badab-e Surt wrapped themselves into multicolour patterns, thanks to the minerals waters of hot springs nearby. While the salt lakes in the deserts offer endless areas of white soil contrasting with deep blue sky. Each region has its own natural wonders, from stunning waterfalls in Lorestan, the northern green belt of Hyrcanian forests, to the majestic snow-capped Mount Damavand, Asia's highest volcano.