Make Your Next Trip Extraordinary

Just Back from Iran: The 10 Biggest Surprises

by Wendy Perrin | May 26, 2014

My friends Mary Munn Laronge and Josh Laronge just got back from a World Affairs Council trip to Iran. Mary and Josh are no strangers to the exotic and forbidden: They’ve been to Papua New Guinea, Madagascar, Cuba, even North Korea.  In fact, they’ve slept on all seven continents. So of course I wanted to hear what, from their perspective, were the most surprising things about Iran. Here are the ten Mary singled out, in her words, with photos by Josh to illustrate.

Iran Kerman schoolgirls

1.     How friendly the people are. “When they spot a foreigner, they approach you and ask where you’re from. When you answer “The United States,” their faces light up like you’re a long lost relative. “Welcome to my country!” they exclaim. “We love the U.S.!  Thank you for visiting my country. Do enjoy your trip.” They are smiley and giggly too—and eager to have their photos taken. The only people who were sometimes camera-shy were older women dressed in chador.”

Persepolis, Iran

2.     Empty UNESCO World Heritage sites. “On a sunny Saturday in May, there were only two tour buses at Persepolis. That’s unheard of for a UNESCO site in peak tourist season. Compare that with the Palace of Knossos in Crete, or the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, where dozens of international tour buses jam the parking lots.”

3.     The English signage everywhere. “There’s English signage even in the rural areas and in every museum, no matter how small.”

4.     The sheer volume of the crown jewels. “Housed in the underground Bank Melli Iran vault, the jewels can be viewed only by advance appointment and on certain days. They’re more plentiful and impressive than the crown jewels in the Tower of London or in Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace. They include salad-bowl-sized containers overflowing with uncut emeralds, diamonds, and rubies, as well as pieces designed by Western jewelers—think Van Cleef & Arpels—that were acquired by the Shah.”

5.     The availability of American consumer products. “Not only are Coca-Cola drinks everywhere, but the country has 100 or so ‘Apple Stores.’ They’re not official Apple stores, but they sell iPhones, iPads, and iPods for little more than you’d pay in the U.S.”

Iran Shiraz picnic

6.  Picnics—everywhere and anywhere—at all hours of the day or night. “Picnicking is the country’s #1 recreational activity. If there’s a patch of green on the side of the highway, as many families as can possibly fit will be picnicking on it.”

Iran white rose

7.     The powerful scent of the roses in Persian gardens. “When approaching a garden, you smell it before you see it. Iran is a desert country, so you wouldn’t imagine such a variety and diversity of gardens, but the Persians are masters at capturing and diverting water coming off the snow-capped mountains. The result is that Persian gardens are exceptional and sweet-smelling. And, because it’s breezy in Iran, the scent of the roses carries far.”

8.     The number of flavors of non-alcoholic beer.“ Alcohol is forbidden in Iran, of course, so there’s non-alcoholic beer everywhere. Fruit flavors—strawberry, lemon, lime, cherry, pineapple—are particularly popular.”

Iran Isfahan colored chicks

9.     The technicolor chicks on sale in bazaars. “They look like Peeps—except that these actually do peep. They’re given to children as gifts in springtime.  (The dye comes off the chicks as their feathers start to grow.)”

10.    How far the U.S. dollar stretches. Price of an ice cream on the street: 15 cents.Price of a Coke on the street: 30 cents.Price to get a shirt laundered and ironed at the hotel: $1Price of a one-way flight within Iran: $30


If you’re curious to see more photos, Josh will be publishing a book called Faces of Friendship: Iran, a collection of portraits of the wonderful people he met there. When the book comes out, I’ll let you know.

Friday mosque of Isfahan

Friday mosque of Isfahan

Royal Square, Isfahan, Iran

Royal Square, Isfahan

Azadi Tower, Teheran, Iran

Josh and Mary at Azadi Tower, Teheran

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  1. Sonia Donegan

    We lived in Iran 1968-1974. Would love to return, but fear that my age now is against me. However, I know that my children will go back to where we spent happy times…….should the opportunity ever arise!!
    It is a beautiful country,with , by and large, wonderful, friendly people!

  2. Sohrab Sohrabi-Laleh

    Dear Friends
    I live in Iran and i read your very good comments about my country. you made me glad and i know your countries are developed but every country may have interesting things. i live in Tabriz the firsts city, i will be glad if see you here.
    with best wishes for you

  3. Ali

    First of all, Thank you very much for your great and well written article, but as a Persian-Cabadian , I would like to remind writer that Iran is not desert country , we have chain mountains, huge jungle and bush , beaches from hot snd humid to cold and dry,
    Again, thank you for your article

    1. Margaret

      I second what Ali said. Though there are parts that are arid and semi-arid, the country as a whole can’t be classified as desert.

  4. Homayra Sellier

    Wendy, i am iranian, thank you for this beautiful comments on my beloved country, i read you with tears of emotion.
    I have not been back for years and am hoping to go back one good day asap.
    People who have never been to Iran, have so wrong opinion on our nation, some mainstream media do not help.
    There is a feeling of closeness inside me towards all those who love Iran, you are one of them.
    Thank you

  5. Diane Redington

    As an American who lived there in the 1970s, the only thing that surprised me (of what is written above) is the fact that ice cream now costs US$0.15…back in the day, that got you a loaf of barbari bread and cheese wedges.

  6. Mark Townsend

    I’m happy friendly people were encountered. Hopefully, Shí’ite-Sunní conflicts in the region will cool, and Baha’ís will gain human rights there.

  7. Mosy

    I am an Iranian. I’m very glad that you had a nice experience and enjoyed your time in Iran. We need more people like you that have the courage to come to Iran and see that Iranians are not a bunch of hostage taking monsters that live in the deserts and use camels to commute!! We love interacting with people from all around the world. We love experiencing new cultures and introducing our culture to the others. Come back soon guys, you are very welcome in here.

  8. Renata Calil

    I’ve been to Iran in 2013. Since then no other country has fulfilled my heart with its people, art & architecture as Iran did!! Love Iran!!!!

  9. Alex Vassallo

    Couldn’t agree with you more. Just returned from Iran and the people are so helpful. Theyare also very learned and civil. Did not like the beer though :) A truly amazing country with world heritage sights and possibly the safest place on earth.

  10. Fatemeh Le Tellier

    As an Amer-can-Iranian and the CMO of Travel Document Systems I am so glad to hear positive comments on Iran! The people are so kind and coupled with the amazing historical sights, culture & cuisine it is a amazing destination. My clients are often surprised when they travel to Iran and get exposed to the genuine warmth of the people.

  11. Jerry Sorkin

    Thank you for covering this. I just returned from Iran last week, as we have been having 3 to 4 small group tours a year since 2009 and the warm, welcoming faces reaching out to American visitors are exactly what is so surprising to most Americans when they visit Iran. Even more so, most unexpected to be heard by Americans who have been afraid to go.

    Anthony Bourdain’s newest “Parts Unknown” just aired on Iran and he said in an interview this past Sunday with Fareed Zakaria that this type of reception by Iranians was the most unexpected part of his trip… the outpouring from Iranians upon hearing American English and their desire to speak to them and tell them they are welcome to Iran.

    So, for all the skeptics, you have helped add to the real welcome that awaits Americans if they can only start seeing that Iranians should not be judged by their foreign policies of their government, as we perceive them, but for the warmth the people of Iran truly wish to share with Americans.

    Thanks for helping to make this known.
    With best wishes,
    Jerry Sorkin

  12. Annika Ziehen

    I loved this post! Iran is a country I am very interested in, but was always a bit shy of actually going, especially as a woman. But this has, yet again, put it on my list – thanks for sharing!
    By the way – I saw these chicks in Morocco too and was wondering what happens to the dye when they grow up, mystery solved.

  13. Leyla

    I lived in Tehran for a year as a child and all I have are fond memories of the people, the food, the art. I’ve always wanted to return and I think the time is getting closer. Thanks for giving me this little jog!

  14. Nina Wennersten

    And this is the reason so many of us travel our world. Meeting one-another, a smile where languages are different, a nod that says hello makes us strangers no more.

  15. Kim-Marie Evans

    I am absolutely fascinated by this. I have read much of the Iranians love for the US but have never considered traveling there. It is now on my bucket list. Thank you for reminding us what a wonderful welcoming world we live in.

    1. Marion Hylton

      I have known several Iranians over the years. They are wonderful people!
      The culture, architectural wonders, ancient cities filled with beauty fascinate me!
      Looking forward to a future visit.

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