Iran has a huge amount to offer adventurous travellers, with highlights including ancient ruins, fabulously tiled palaces and dizzying mountain scenery, not to mention the famous hospitality; chatting over tea with people will undoubtedly be one of the most memorable experiences of a trip. Plan your journey around these top destinations.
Esfahan's tree-lined boulevards, Persian gardens and iconic Islamic buildings deliver the city's reputation as a living museum of traditional culture. Many of the top sights are in the sprawling Naqsh-e Jahan, one of the world's largest public squares. It holds the Masjed-e Shah, a mosque covered in vibrant, blue-tiled mosaics and an absolute masterpiece of Safavid-era architecture. The Kakh-e Ali Qapu is also here, a six-storey palace with plenty to explore including an elevated terrace, throne room featuring original decoration, and a top-floor music room with stucco walls. Get a sense of the glories of the former capital of Persia by slowly crossing the historic bridges of the Zayandeh River at sunset – there's a wonderful social scene along the riverbanks, especially on Fridays, when families boat, stroll and picnic in this scenic setting.
Magnificent Persepolis embodies ancient grandeur, with its monumental staircases, exquisite reliefs and imposing gateways. Dating back to around 520BC, it was developed by generations of rulers and became the ceremonial capital at the heart of an enormous empire, a showcase designed to awe visitors with its scale and beauty. The Apadana Palace is the grandest sight of all, with evocative bas-reliefs along the northern wall showing scenes of past splendour.
Shoppers have been hitting the magnificent bazaar of Tabriz for over a millennium. It stretches over a staggering 7 sq km with numerous caravanserais and impressive timchehs (halls) and is the perfect place to haggle for honey, carpets, jewellery and countless other souvenirs. Once a significant Silk Road trading station, the bazaar is worth a visit even if you don't plan on buying anything - the intensity of the smells, colours, noise and bustle are more than enough of an experience.
For hiking, skiing, or admiring, you couldn't ask for a more perfect setting than Alborz Mountains. The fabled Alamut Valley landscapes are among the most exciting to explore, spiced up with a dramatic medieval history: the ruined fortresses dotting the hills were once home to the feared medieval religious cult of the Assassins. Both shorter, independent hikes and longer guided journeys, accompanied by a mule are possible. As for skiing, Tochal, Shemshek and Dizin resorts are all within a few hour's drive from central Tehran.
Iran’s holiest city is home to one of the marvels of the Islamic world: an enormous shrine complex commemorating the martyrdom of Shiite Islam’s eighth Imam, Reza. This sacred city-within-a-city has clusters of gold and blue domes and minarets, vast courtyards and magnificent arcades and is really a sight to savour. Tens of millions converge here yearly to pay their respects.
On-the-ground research and additional writing by Andy Symington, author of the Iran chapter of LP's guide to the Middle East. This article was originally published in July 2015 and was updated in January 2020.