It’s fair to say that Iran has not had the steadiest start to 2020. The killing of Iranian major general Qasem Soleimani by the US – and the consequent accidental shooting down of the Ukrainian Airlines flight 752 – caused an international uproar that saw the country face a backlash from both the global media and its own citizens. Sadly, such critical coverage isn’t that uncommon for Iran, a nation that has seen its fair share of troubles and negative press throughout the last few decades.
That said, it has now been exactly a year since I moved to Iran, and not once during this period have I felt unsafe. Originally from Moscow, I have spent half of my life in Europe but have been coming to the Middle East since the age of 18. Having studied in Lebanon and Yemen, my love affair with Iran began in 2013 when I updated the fourth edition of the Bradt guide to the country – and I haven’t looked back since. Of course, like many Iranians themselves, I have felt unsettled at times. But it has not crossed my mind that I would want to leave the place that I now call my home.
The view from the Milad Tower over a wintry Tehran © Maria Oleynik
On the ground, Iran is safe. There is no doubt that – in the context of global geopolitics – the country is more volatile and prone to force majeure events than popular holiday destinations like France or Spain. But it’s important too to keep a sense of perspective.
The vast majority of ordinary tourists (without Israeli or Pakistani or any other ‘interesting’ visa stamps in their passports) will enjoy trouble-free trips to Iran, without the harassment or questioning from officialdom that the mainstream media might lead you to expect. Those who champion Iran as a tourism destination – those who have experienced its beauties first-hand – invariably praise the hospitality of Iranians. Having experienced that friendliness on countless occasions, I can only nod my head in agreement.
The FCO currently advises against ‘all but essential travel’ to Iran – a step that has seriously impacted many of my friends working in tourism here. While of course each person must decide for themselves how much store to place by official advice, in my opinion the FCO’s warning is not only excessive but unfair. If your purpose for coming to Iran is tourism alone, and you don’t plan to argue for regime change or campaign for women’s rights in the streets, I don’t believe there is any need to feel concerned.
Shiraz is at its prettiest in the spring, when carpets of flowers start to bloom in its gardens © suronin, Shutterstock
And there are plenty of reasons to consider a visit to Iran. This year it snowed generously – even the streets of Shiraz and palaces of Persepolis have been covered under a blanket of white. But winter is coming to an end, and gentle spring and the Iranian New Year – Nou Rouz – is on its way. This is a time when the country is at its best, when colourful blossoms take hold of Tehran, its stunning capital – a city I deeply love.
Inland, temperatures are at their most manageable in spring, meaning that it is the perfect time to explore Iran’s vast deserts and the UNESCO-listed cities of Yazd and Esfahan, home to some of the country’s best cultural and architectural treasures. March to May are also excellent months to head to Shiraz, a city renowned for its fragrant gardens and the jumping-off point for Persepolis – once the heart of the Persian Empire that today stands as one of the best-preserved ancient wonders of the world.
So if you’re thinking about travelling to this country of endless architectural and natural beauties, I’d encourage you to do so. Look beyond the media headlines and you’ll find a very different Iran.
Maria Oleynik is the author of the 4th, 5th and 6th editions of the Bradt guide to Iran. She is currently living in Shiraz, where she is studying Persian literature at the University of Shiraz. Should you have any questions about planning a trip to Iran, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and we will forward the messages on to her.