Nicknamed ‘nesf-e jahân’ [half the world], it’s with good reason that Esfahan is Iran’s crown jewel and one of the main two cities drawing visitors to the country. Imam Mosque with its calligraphy and symmetry and Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque with its lofty domes display Islamic architecture at its finest. Elsewhere, the city’s 11 bridges crossing over the babbling Zayandeh River create a most romantic atmosphere. A stroll through the bazaar is like walking through a living museum where you can witness the making of some of Esfahan’s most famous handicrafts.
Shiraz is the city of love, literature, and Persian gardens. Home to two of Iran’s most beloved poets, Hafez and Sa’adi, who even Johann Wolfgang von Goethe adored and was influenced by, their tombs attract throngs of Iranian visitors, as if they are making a pilgrimage. Elsewhere, a spectacular three-storey pavilion takes center stage in Eram Garden, a botanical Persian garden replete with towering cypress and palm trees, red roses, and flowing water, all of which will tempt you to break out a book of the great poets.
Brazilian poet Manuel Bandeira referred to it as a utopia, and though Pasargadae is a far cry from its former days, you haven’t seen Iran until you’ve visited the birthplace of its ancient empire. Walk in the footsteps of the great kings of the Persian Empire and marvel at the colossal tombs and reliefs carved into the rock at Persepolis. A local guide at these sites is essential, as they will lead you through the history of the ruins and provide valuable insight, all with a deep sense of pride and passion.
Pasargadae, Fars Province, Iran, +98 71 4334 1556
Yazd has the trifecta: kind people, ancient culture, and delicious food. Most famous for its badgir [windcatchers], this city blossomed in the desert and is the best place to experience ancient Zoroastrianism and modern-day Islam co-existing. Even though the sun-dried clay buildings ensure cooler temperatures inside, the summer sun is rather unforgiving outdoors, making winter the best season to visit. Not to be missed is the Zurkhaneh, ancient Persian gym, which is one of the only places in the country where women can also attend this UNESCO intangible cultural heritage.
Best known for its historical 18th century houses such as the Ameri House or Borujerdi House, Kashan has a wealth of other architectural and historical beauties which warrant it a stop on anyone’s trip to Iran. Especially photogenic are the Sultan Amir Ahmad Bathhouse (make sure you also climb up to the roof), Agha Bozorg Mosque, best visited at non-prayer times, and Khan Amir al-Dowleh Timche caravanserai in the bazaar. As the perfect stop between Tehran and Esfahan, you might want to plan your visit such that you stay the night in one of the historical homes, several of which have been converted into luxurious boutique hotels.
Don’t be put off by the traffic, smog, or wild confusion because Tehran deserves a chunk of your time. Iranians from all over the country eventually find their way here as do major international companies, which make the capital city a melting pot and best place to get a sense of modern-day Iran. There are plenty of palaces and museums to satisfy your historical requirements as well as a hip art and cafe scene to make you re-evaluate everything you thought you knew about Iranians. And when you’ve had enough city chaos, look no further than the northern Darband or Tochal neighborhoods for a quick escape into some pleasant nature.
The largest of the Persian Gulf islands, Qeshm is a free-trade zone and requires no visa to enter. It also contains some of the most epic natural wonders such as Stars Valley, Namakdan salt cave, and Hara (Mangrove) Forest, a beloved spot of migratory birds. Along with its charming towns, such as Laft, and cultural heritage, like the art of lenj-building, this island is also noteworthy for its unique local culture and style of dress. In a world of sites and beauty within Iran, Qeshm truly stands out from the crowd.
Ahvaz has earned the nickname ‘the city of bridges’ thanks to the many crossing over the Karun River which runs through it. Because it lay close to the front lines during the Iran-Iraq war, it suffered greatly at the time, but the carefree attitude of this south-western city today is contagious. The nearby towns of Khorramshahr, Shush, Shushtar, and Dezful are also worth stops for their breathtaking nature and triple dose of UNESCO world heritage sites. Since Ahvaz is unfortunately often plagued by harsh weather conditions, the best time to visit usually coincides with the Persian new year, just at the beginning of spring.