“Blessed be Shiraz in its unparalleled state/May God Almighty guard against its demise.” So wrote Hafez, the revered 14th century poet and native of Shiraz, a verse that has become for many the unofficial slogan of Iran’s esteemed cultural capital. Shiraz is a city steeped in history and poetry, and should be found at the top of any tourist’s itinerary. Here we run through 10 of the essential things to see and do when visiting this historic centre of arts, letters, and politics.
The wonderfully photogenic Vakil Bazaar is Shiraz’s main market place and home to hundreds of shops and stalls. Satisfyingly labyrinthine, the bazaar is the place for buying rugs, spices, jewellery, and household goods. Stumbling across teahouses, courtyards, caravanserais, and the traditional bathhouse, you may need more than one afternoon to explore the entirety of the Vakil Bazaar. The vaulted arched ceilings are a fine example of 18th century Zand architecture, and make for a pleasantly cool atmosphere through which to meander.
Shiraz is famed for its cultivation of fine gardens, and Eram is arguably the model par excellence. Eram falls within Shiraz University’s botanical gardens, and is replete with cypress trees, trimmed hedges, and rosebushes. At its centre is a small pool and a splendid Qajar-era palace, though it is closed to the public. The garden is located just north of the Khoshk River, opposite the university.
The Shah-e Cheragh (‘King of Light’) mausoleum is the picturesque resting place of two of the martyred brothers of Ali Reza, the 8th Shia Imam. Although killed in the 9th century, the present-day burial site has been considerably developed since the Qajar era. The central courtyard has a fountain at its centre, and the shrine features characteristically Iranian, intricate blue tile work and a dazzling mirrored interior, making it one of the prettiest mosques in Shiraz.
Not far from Shah-e Cheragh, the Nasir ol-Mulk Mosque, also known as the Pink Mosque, is one of Shiraz’s most famous buildings. The Qajar-era mosque, completed in 1888, is celebrated for its delightfully colourful interiors: the stained-glass windows, intricately painted tiles and arches, and innumerable Persian carpets create a mesmerising, kaleidoscopic aesthetic which can’t fail to astound. Combined with rows of delicately carved pillars, each angle of Nasir ol-Mulk Mosque is more photogenic than the last.
Hafez is arguably the most loved and respected poet in the vast canon of Persian literature. Considered the master of the ghazal (a short, amorous, rhyming poem), Iranians from all walks of life can quote his verses on demand. His tomb resides in a well-kept garden in northeast Shiraz; more than a tourist attraction, it functions as a site of pilgrimage for his admirers the world over. Have your fortune told, visit the onsite teahouse, and contemplate the playful nuances of his lyrical ingenuity as you wander around the extensive grounds.
The 13th century poet Sa’di was an important precursor to Hafez, and is one of the most cherished ancestors of modern day Shirazis. Many of his pithy maxims have attained a proverbial status, and he is widely praised for the enduring simplicity of his verse. His tomb is less busy than that of Hafez, but is located nearby and worth visiting on the same day. The underground teahouse offers a cool spot to refresh yourself after exploring the garden of roses and cypress trees.
Persepolis, or Takht-e Jamshid in Persian, was the magnificent ceremonial capital of the ancient Achaemenid Empire, over 2500 years ago. Ransacked by Alexander the Great, the site represents the pinnacle of ancient Iran’s political and architectural achievements. The UNESCO world heritage site is located about 70 kilometres northeast of Shiraz, and tours will take you from the city centre on a day trip. The impressive ruins require a good few hours to explore, although take plenty of water, for the midday sun can be pretty unforgiving.
A tour to Persepolis should include a visit to the nearby rock tombs and reliefs of Naqsh-e Rostam and Naqsh-e Rajab. The former consists of four massive tombs built into the face of a cliff, an appropriately ostentatious final resting place for four Achaemenid kings. Below you will see some stone reliefs depicting various Sassanian imperial triumphs, such as the Roman Emperor Valyerian kneeling before Shapur I. Four more Sassanian reliefs can be found at the less well-tended Naqsh-e Rajab, only five minutes away.
The final stop on your day-trip outside the city should be Pasargadae, an Achaemenid political centre that predates Persepolis. Another 50 kilometres north of its more famous successor, it’s not the most convenient of destinations, but the striking solemnity of Cyrus the Great’s ancient tomb, now surrounded by inhospitably harsh terrain, justifies the effort. The founder of the Achaemenid Empire, his isolated tomb is built upon a broad-stepped base, and was allegedly visited by Alexander the Great himself, after he conquered Persepolis.
Located centrally, the citadel (or arg in Persian) was built in the 18th century by the founder of the Zand dynasty, Karim Khan. Having made Shiraz his capital, the citadel was one of Karim Khan’s many ambitious construction projects in the city. Lofty and rectangular, the fortress features four circular towers (which were historically used as prisons), and is more unusual on the inside than the outside. Once inside, you can appreciate the shade of the many citrus trees and the gentle trickling of the central pool, before exploring the well-put-together museum of the Zand period.