Iran might not seem like your usual tourist destination, and it’s certainly true that theocratic juntas, a fervor for all things nuclear, and tales of autocratic shahs from decades gone by don’t make for the most enticing of travel cocktails. But Iran isn’t like most Middle Eastern countries.
Millennia of rising and falling civilizations – the Persians, the Parthians, the Safavids – have all gone before the modern nation, and their glory and richness have done something to instill today’s country with a pride and stability that’s the envy of many neighbors (even if they won’t admit it). Today, that means Iran is hurtling headlong into the future whilst still clinging steadfastly to its dazzling past – it’s a curious dichotomy that really informs the whole place.
You can flit between boho coffee shops and avant-garde art galleries in Tehran, or seek out majestic madrassahs in cities like Esfahan and Yazd. You can carve the pistes at Dizin or trace the footsteps of Xerxes and Darius at Persepolis.
Lets explore the best places to visit in Iran:
Gilded with the riches of more kings and sultans and Muslim caliphs than you can shake a cobalt-blue ceramic pot from a Zagros Mountain village at, the glorious city of Esfahan is unquestionably one of the most beautiful in all of Iran.
Its heart is dominated by the colossal Naqsh-e Jahan Square; a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s ringed by ceramic-fronted mosques and gorgeous Safavid palaces.
Elsewhere and babbling fountains give way to tree-dotted avenues, legendary madrassahs pop up on the streets, and arabesque souks burst with multi-coloured stacks of spices and tassel-fringed carpets from the east.
In short: Esfahan is the Iran you really have to see.
Eulogized and eulogized over and over again by romantic poets and travelers, and revered as the birthplace of the great Persian wordsmiths Hafez and Sa’di, Shiraz is a city steeped in heritage and culture.
Visitors will be able to spot the great tombs of those writers nestled between the palm-dotted, flower-sprouting gardens of Afif abad and Eram, along with the intricate arabesque interiors of the Nasir al-Mulk Mosque and the 1,000-year-old Qor’an Gate.
Rather surprisingly, the town also lends its name to a popular strain of wine, and, despite the cascading vineyards of the Fars Province long since having dried up, it’s thought that some of the world’s earliest white tipples were produced here nearly seven millennia ago!
One’s thing’s for sure: Tehran certainly isn’t a looker like Shiraz or Esfahan.
Apart from the rugged wall of snow-tipped Alborz Mountains that rise like a phalanx on the northern edge of town, the place is largely dominated by concrete and packed with smog-creating traffic jams aplenty.
However, like it or loathe it, this sprawling metropolis is the epicentre of the country’s politics and economy, and that surely counts for something, right? Well, a lot actually.
Great monuments like the Azadi Tower have been raised here, while the glimmering wonders of the Treasury of the National Jewels and the mummified princes of the National Museum of Iran are just some of the awesome relics to see.
Add to that a clutch of stylish teahouses and coffee shops, frantic bazaars and youthful student energy, and Tehran really isn’t all that bad!
Perched nearly 3,000 meters up in the snowy heights of the Alborz Mountains, where the European Caucuses crash into the Asian ranges, the small hill station of Dizin has firmly established itself as one of Iran’s top winter sports destinations.
With a clutch of good groomed pistes ranging from moderate difficulty to challenging runs, and a selection of cableways and chairlifts that were first installed in the 1960s, the soaring resort is one of the top places to don the skis and salopettes here.
There are also some alpine-style hotels, and awesome views of the cone of massive Mount Damavand in the distance.
The adobe warren of the Yazd old town is like something out of Arabian Nights.
Here and there, turrets gilded in intricate geometric designs loft above the mosque domes; the scents of incense and mint tea twist and turn from the cafes.
Meanwhile, the middle of the city is dominated by mysterious Zoroastrian fire temples and the spiked minarets of the Shia hussainia that is the Amir Chakhmakh complex.
And then there are the souks, where dust devils twirl between the cotton and silk emporiums, and shisha pipes puff in the background.
Yep, it’s precisely the sort of place you’d expect to trace the footsteps of one Marco Polo!
Great kings by the name of Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes all set foot between the sun-scorched streets of Persepolis once upon a time, for it was here, amidst the arid erstwhile vineyards of Shiraz and the babbling Pulvar River, that the mighty Persian Empire made its home from the 5th century to the 3rd century BC. Today, only traces of this once feared power in the east remain, with a clutch of looming marble columns and a couple of stele all that’s left to mark the great compound out amongst the rising hills of Rahmet Mountain.
Travelers can immerse themselves in the history, and even see the tomb of the revered king Darius I.
With a history of more than 4,500 years, there’s evidence to show that Tabriz is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the entire world.
That deep past now reveals itself in the layers of architectural majesty the place is known for, at spots like the colossal Blue Mosque of 1465, which comes gutted with shimmering ceramics of a deep cobalt blue.
Another real must see is the sprawling Bazaar of Tabriz, which is known as one of the great trading outposts of the old Silk Road.
Today, the vaulted ceilings and alcoves of this ancient merchant centre still burst with shimmering gold jewellery and blood-red carpets, sweet-smelling Turkic pastries and oodles of spice from the east.
Mashhad is hallowed ground for many Iranians. It houses the revered tomb of the eighth Imam of Shia Islam: Ali al-Ridha (or Imam Reza). It’s a seriously holy place, and is appropriately marked by the colossal Imam Reza shrine, which sprawls over nearly 600,000 square meters in the middle of the city; a glimmering mass of gold-clad minarets that go over 30 meters into the ski and great domes inlayed with precious metal (it’s definitely one of the country’s most breath-taking pieces of architecture).
Away from that must-see and Mashhad also has clean streets and curious sculpture art, not to mention some saffron-infused curries that are sure to set the taste buds a-tingling!
For Iranians, Rasht represents the gateway to the Shomal – a region of verdant hills and high rainfall that’s really unlike anywhere else in the country.
The unique climactic conditions of the high ridges that surround the town are made possible by its enviable location on the edge of the Caspian Sea, which also happens to imbue it was an array of other curious attractions.
We’re talking about the USSR-themed relics relating to the Soviet sympathiser Mirza Kouchak, and the leafy European-style facades of the Shahrdari in the center.
However, it’s trips out to see the gorgeous Golestan National Park, where the misty forests house Persian leopards, that usually come up trumps!
Encompassed by the sweeping deserts of the Iranian south, the old trading outpost of Kerman still clings to the bustling mercantile character it has had since the days when major trading routes between Arabia and India passed this way.
Check out the sprawling bazaar in the heart of the city, where five spice mixes with chilli and coriander powder between the vaulted emporiums.
There are also earthy Turkic hamams to bathe in, and a warren of mud-brick streets to wander.
And once the city’s done and dusted, be sure to strap on the boots and go intrepid into the ochre-hued hills of greater Kerman Province.
Kashan sprouts from the deserts of northern Iran midway between Esfahan and the capital at Tehran.
An oasis town, it’s packed with blooming pockets of date palms and green gardens that are fed with babbling irrigation streams.
The buildings are distinctly adobe and brown though, except – of course – for the elegant mansions of the Tabatabaie Residence, the Ameri House and the domes of Aqabozorg.
These are remnants of the Qajari royals, who came here and raised magnificent residential structures in the 18th and 19th centuries.
There’s also a throbbing bazaar and beautiful views of the mountains on the horizon.
Just 19 kilometres south of Iran’s coast, in the sparkling waters of the Persian Gulf, more than one million people discover the island of Kish each year.
They come to wallow in a place that’s quite unlike its mother country in many ways; a place where huge casinos converge on the palm-dotted gardens of opulent resort hotels.
However, there are two other attractions that ensure a steady stream of visitors on Kish: shopping and beaches.
The first of these comes with the duty-free malls that ring the main town, and the latter comes in the form of sparkling white sands, coral reefs, and awesome SCUBA diving to boot.
Forged by the Medes and the Assyrians, the Persians and the Parthians, this once great city might not be the legendary metropolis it was in antiquity, but it still comes steeped in all the culture you’d expect of a place with so many thousands of years of history behind it.
It’s perhaps most famed as the home of the Tomb of Avicenna, which chronicles and honors the life of arguably the most totemic scientific thinker in the Islamic world.
And there are other awesome sights to see too, like the Ali Sadr Cave, which is the largest in-cave lake on the planet, and the inscriptions of the Ganjnameh, made by the ancient Persian kings Darius and Xerxes.
Qom is considered one of Iran’s most holy cities.
It’s packed with soaring minaret spires and the turquoise-hued domes of totemic mosques (don’t miss the uber-handsome Ahlulbayt Mosque). One of the country’s cultural and religious centers, it’s also got some acclaimed madrassahs and draws massive crowds of pilgrims throughout the year.
Most come to wonder at the filigrees and pay their respects at the Shrine of Fatima-al-Massumeh, which is the resting place of the sister of the eighth Imam of Shia Islam.
Ramsar sits neatly sandwiched between the rugged rises of the Alborz Mountains and the lapping waters of the Caspian Sea.
It’s a truly enviable location; one that imbues this town of neo-classical hotel fronts and palm-peppered avenues with a wealth of good beaches and some seriously jaw-dropping panoramas of the hills that rise to form the Caucasian chains of Azerbaijan to the north.
The place has long been one of the top seaside retreats for Iranian luminaries, and continues to draw with its bubbling hot springs and fabled healing waters.