When talking about Iran, and in the interests of expectation management, I always like to start with the negatives. The visa situation is still a bore (although soon to improve, inshallah); ladies need to wear a headscarf at all times in public; there’s no booze (anywhere – not even in the 5* city hotels); the accommodation, for the most part, lacks charm; the traffic and pollution in Tehran is something else and, finally, there are no direct flights from the UK (again, at least for the moment). But in spite of all this, I’d go as far to say that Iran about the most rewarding, the most enriching, the most intoxicating (not in that way, obviously) destination I’ve ever had the immense pleasure to visit. Big statement – here’s why.
Surrounded by mountain ranges and vast pistachio plantations, and just a few hours’ drive from the border with Afghanistan, the southern city of Kerman is a great introduction to Iran. The city is famous for its fabulous labyrinthine bazaars, where you can haggle at length over Kerman’s renowned rugs and carpets. Kerman is also the ideal staging post for visits to the blue-domed Aramgah-e-Shah Ne’matollah Vali mosque and elegant Persian gardens in nearby Mahan.
Also close to Kerman is the Kaluts region, a bizarre part of the Lut Desert where the wind has sculpted the landscape into huge pillars the size of city tower blocks or what looks like vast ocean liners sailing through a sand sea. Best seen at sunrise or sunset, the Kaluts are a truly extraordinary and mysterious place.
Yazd is another desert outpost with an Old City of winding lanes and houses sprouting badgirs – tall towers designed to catch what little wind blows through the city like an ingenious medieval era air conditioning system. At the centre of the mud brown maze rises the Masjed-e Jameh mosque with its signature blue dome and two soaring minarets. Outside the town, the Towers of Silence – where the dead were once left to be eaten by birds – pay testament to the city’s Zoroastrian heritage. The ancient pre-Islamic religion of Persia clings on in Yazd, and visiting the Zoroastrian fire temple, where the flame has been alight for a mere 1,500 years, is extraordinary.
The city of roses and poets, and Iran’s cultural capital, Shiraz is – by contrast to desert dwelling Yazd and Kerman – a verdant city, thanks to a succession of elegant green spaces showcasing the changing designs (but continual elegance) of Persian water gardens across the centuries. Shiraz is also the best place to engage in conversation with the locals. The city has a large student population but even the average Iranian is extremely well educated and hugely proud of the country’s imperial past, and always flattered that a Brit has chosen to travel to Iran despite the two countries’ recent difficulties.
One of the marvels of antiquity, Persepolis was the capital of Persia’s giant Achaemenid empire, at the time (500 – 330 BC) the largest ever known, until the city’s destruction at the hands of a vengeful Alexander the Great. Now a UNESCO Heritage Site, the partially rebuilt city (near Shiraz), much of which was perfectly preserved beneath the desert sands, demands a day’s exploration, along with the nearby tombs of Persian emperors such as Xerxes high in the cliff walls at Naqsh-e Rustam.
For many the jewel in the Iranian crown, the city of Esfahan contains many of the finest examples of Persian architecture, in particular the stunning mosaic calligraphy and blue dome of Masjed-e Shah mosque, the symmetrical elegance of the Naghsh-e Jahan Square in front of the mosque and the centuries old bridges crossing the (often dry) Zayande Bridge.
Often bypassed on the road back from Esfahan to Tehran, Kashan merits – in our humble opinion – a night and day to really do it justice. The city grew rich on trade and one of the great pleasures of a visit is wandering around some of the grandiose 19th century merchants’ houses, and stocking up on souvenirs in the extensive bazaars. Then there are the requisite tranquil gardens and mosques, but also an extraordinary ziggurat (pyramid) called the Tappeh-ye Seyalk which archaeologists think might date from 4000 BC.
Personally, I think the capital pales in comparison to other cities in Iran, but you’ll find yourself here at some point or other on any trip, so might as well enjoy your stay. In its favour, Tehran does have the best examples of architecture from the Qajar dynasty (roughly the 19th century) period, such as the Golestan Palace, and the jaw-dropping collection of the best bits from the county’s past at the National Museum of Iran, including everything from friezes and statues uncovered in Persepolis to the more ghoulish salt-preserved mummy of a salt miner dating from around the 3rd century AD. Hit Tehran in winter, and you can also pop up to the nearby Alborz Mountains – clearly visible to the north of the city (when the smog allows) – for a spot of skiing.
Tom Barber is Co-Founder of Original Travel.