The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises against travel to some parts of Iran.
Welcome to what could be the friendliest country on earth. Iran is the jewel in Islam's crown, combining glorious architecture with a warm-hearted welcome.
In the Footsteps of Empire
If you're drawn to places where echoes of ancient civilisations resonate down through the ages, Iran could be your thing. Some of history's biggest names – Cyrus and Darius, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan – all left their mark here and the cities they conquered or over which they ruled are among the finest in a region rich with such storied ruins. Walking around the awesome power and beauty of Persepolis, experiencing the remote power of Susa (Shush), and taking in the wonderfully immense Elamite ziggurat at Choqa Zanbil will carry you all the way back to the glory days of Ancient Persia.
The Beauty of Islam
Iran is a treasure house for some of the most beautiful architecture on the planet. Seemingly at every turn, Islam's historical commitment to aesthetic beauty and exquisite architecture reigns supreme. The sublime, turquoise-tiled domes and minarets of Esfahan’s Naqsh-e Jahan (Imam) Square gets so many appreciative gasps of wonder, and rightly so, but there are utterly magnificent rivals elsewhere, in Yazd and Shiraz among others. And it's not just the mosques – the palaces (especially in Tehran), gardens (everywhere, but Kashan really shines) and artfully conceived bridges and other public buildings all lend grace and beauty to cities across the country.
Iran's greatest attraction could just be its people. The Iranians, a nation made up of numerous ethnic groups and influenced over thousands of years by Greek, Arab, Turkic and Mongol occupiers, are endlessly welcoming. Offers to sit down for tea will be an everyday occurrence, and if you spend any time at all with Iranians, you'll often find yourself invited to share a meal in someone's home. Say yes whenever you can, and through it experience first-hand, Iranian culture, ancient, sophisticated and warm. It’s these experiences that will live longest in the memory.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Iran.
This elegant mosque, with its iconic blue-tiled mosaics and its perfect proportions, forms a visually stunning monument at the head of Esfahan's main square. Unblemished since its construction 400 years ago, it stands as a monument to the vision of Shah Abbas I and the accomplishments of the Safavid dynasty. The mosque's crowning dome was completed in 1629, the last year of the reign of Shah Abbas. Although each of the mosque’s parts is a masterpiece, it is the unity of the overall design that leaves a lasting impression, and the positioning of the much-photographed entrance portal is a case in point as it has more to do with its location on the square than with the mosque’s spiritual aims. The portal's function was primarily ornamental, providing a counterpoint to the Qeysarieh Portal at the entrance to the Bazar-e Bozorg. The foundation stones are white marble from Ardestan and the portal itself, some 30m tall, is decorated with magnificent moarraq kashi (mosaics featuring geometric designs, floral motifs and calligraphy) by the most skilled artists of the age. The splendid niches contain complex stalactite mouldings in a honeycomb pattern; each panel has its own intricate design. Work began on this magnificent monument in 1611 and took four years to complete; deliberate mismatches in its apparent symmetry reflect the artist’s humility in the face of Allah. Although the portal was built to face the square, the mosque is oriented towards Mecca, so a short, angled corridor was constructed to connect the square and the inner courtyard, thereby negating any aesthetic qualms about this misalignment. Inside the courtyard, there is a pool for ritual ablutions and four imposing iwans. The walls of the courtyard contain the most exquisite sunken porches, framed by haft rangi (painted tiles) of deep blue and yellow. Each iwan leads into a vaulted sanctuary. The east and west sanctuaries are covered with particularly fine floral motifs on a blue background. The main sanctuary is entered via the south iwan. It is worth finding a quiet corner here to sit and contemplate the richness of the domed ceiling, with its golden rose pattern (the flower basket) surrounded by concentric circles of busy mosaics on a deep blue background. The interior ceiling is 36.3m high, but the exterior reaches up to 51m due to the double layering used in construction. The hollow space in between is responsible for the loud echoes heard when you stamp your foot on the black paving stones under the centre of the dome. Although scientists have measured up to 49 echoes, only about 12 are audible to the human ear – more than enough for a speaker to be heard throughout the mosque. The marble mihrab and minbar (pulpit of a mosque) are also beautifully crafted. The main sanctuary provides wonderful views of the two turquoise minarets above the entrance portal. Each is encircled by projecting balconies and white geometric calligraphy in which the names of Mohammed and Ali are repeated almost ad infinitum. To the east and west of the main sanctuary are the courtyards of two madrasehs. Both provide good views of the main dome with its glorious profusion of turquoise-shaded tiles.
The Jameh complex is a veritable museum of Islamic architecture while still functioning as a busy place of worship. Showcasing the best that nine centuries of artistic and religious endeavour has achieved, from the geometric elegance of the Seljuks to the more florid refinements of the Safavid era, a visit repays time spent examining the details – a finely carved column, delicate mosaics, perfect brickwork. Covering more than 20,000 sq metres, this is the biggest mosque in Iran. Religious activity on this site is believed to date back to the Sassanid Zoroastrians, with the first sizeable mosque being built over temple foundations by the Seljuks in the 11th century. The two large domes (north and south) have survived intact from this era but the rest of the mosque was destroyed by fire in the 12th century and rebuilt in 1121. Embellishments were added throughout the centuries. In the centre of the main courtyard, which is surrounded by four contrasting iwans, is an ablutions fountain designed to imitate the Kaaba at Mecca. Would-be pilgrims once used the fountain to practise the appropriate rituals prior to undertaking the hajj. The two-storey porches around the courtyard’s perimeter were constructed in the late 15th century. The south iwan is highly elaborate, with Mongol-era stalactite mouldings, some splendid 15th-century mosaics on the side walls and two minarets. Behind it is the grand Nezam al-Molk Dome, which is flanked by Seljuk-era prayer halls. The north iwan is noteworthy for its monumental porch with the Seljuks’ customary Kufic inscriptions and austere brick pillars in the sanctuary. Behind it (entered through a door next to the iwan) is a prayer hall featuring a forest of pillars. The bricks of each of these pillars is decorated with the craftsman's signature trademark. At the rear of the north iwan is the exquisite Taj al-Molk Dome, widely considered to be the finest brick dome in Persia. While relatively small, it is said to be mathematically perfect, and has survived dozens of earthquakes without a blemish for more than 900 years. The west iwan was originally built by the Seljuks but later decorated by the Safavids. The mosaics are more geometric in style here than those of the southern hall. The courtyard is topped by a maazeneh, a small raised platform with a conical roof from where the faithful used to be called to prayer. The Room of Sultan Uljeitu (a 14th-century Shiite convert) next to the west iwan is home to one of the mosque’s greatest treasures – an exquisite stucco mihrab with dense Quranic inscriptions and floral designs. Next to this is the Timurid-era Winter Hall (Beit al-Shata), built in 1448 and lit by alabaster skylights.
The magnificent, labyrinthine, Unesco-listed Tabriz bazaar covers some 7 sq km, with 24 caravanserais (sets of rooms arrranged around a courtyard) and 22 impressive timches (domed halls). Construction began over a millennium ago, though much of the fine brick vaulting dates to the 15th century. Hidden behind innocuous shopfronts, it's surprisingly easy to miss, but the open Ferdosi mall is a good entry point. Take a GPS waypoint below the tourist information office, then abandon yourself to the closest laneway. There are several mozaffareih ( carpet sections) according to knot size and type. The Amir bazaar, with gold and jewellery, is immediately behind the tourist-information office. The spice bazaar has a few shops selling herbal remedies, henna and natural perfumes. A couple of hat shops (in the Kolahdozan bazaar) sell traditional papakh (Azeri hats) made of tight-curled astrakhan wool. Other quarters specialise in leather, silver and copper, general household goods and fruit and vegetables.
One of Iran’s most historic and fascinating bazaars, this sprawling covered market links Naqsh-e Jahan (Imam) Sq with the Masjed-e Jameh. At its busiest in the mornings, the bazaar’s arched passageways are topped by a series of small perforated domes, each spilling shafts of light onto the commerce below. While the oldest parts of the bazaar (those around the mosque) are more than a thousand years old, most of what can be seen today was built during Shah Abbas’ ambitious expansions of the early 1600s. The bazaar is a maze of lanes, madrasehs, khans (caravanserais) and timchehs (domed halls or arcaded centres of a single trade, such as carpet vendors or coppersmiths). It can be entered at dozens of points, but the main entrance is via the Qeysarieh Portal at the northern end of Naqsh-e Jahan (Imam) Sq. Cool in summer and warm in winter, it's easy to lose half a day wandering the bustling lanes of the bazaar, sniffing the heaps of layered spices and dishes of dried dates, watching shoppers finger coloured lengths of material, and pausing to admire the rows of red and white teapots in the many crockery shops. Teahouses help punctuate the walk and a beryani restaurant is the perfect place for lunch.
Hemmed on four sides by architectural gems and embracing the formal fountains and gardens at its centre, this wondrous space is a spectacle in its own right. It was laid out in 1602 under the reign of the Safavid ruler, Shah Abbas the Great, to signal the importance of Esfahan as a capital of a powerful empire. Cross the square on a clear winter's day and it's a hard heart that isn't entranced by its beauty. At 512m long and 163m wide, Naqsh-e Jahan is one of the largest squares in the world, earning a listing as a Unesco World Heritage site. The name means ‘pattern of the world’ and it was designed to showcase the finest jewels of the Safavid empire – the incomparable Masjed-e Shah, the elegant Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfollah and the lavishly decorated Kakh-e Ali Qapu and Qeysarieh Portal. It is has changed little since it was built, and at each end the goal posts used in regular polo games 400 years ago are still in place (these polo matches are depicted on miniatures for sale around the square). The only modern additions are the fountains, which were added by the Pahlavis, and the souvenir and craft shops, which occupy the spaces on either side of the arched arcades. Resisting grumbles from shop owners who occupy the surrounding arcades, recent civic administrations have restored the square to its full glory by making the entire space a pedestrian zone. Horse-drawn carriages, a few electric carts and Shank's pony are now the only transport in the square allowing visitors to enjoy the majesty of the view untroubled by traffic. The square is at its best in late afternoon when the blue-tiled minarets and domes are lit up by the last rays of the sun and the mountains beyond turn red. This is the time when local families congregate for a promenade around the perimeter, the fountains are turned on and the light softens, illuminating the truly splendid architecture.
Named after the bitter oranges that line the central courtyard, this is Shiraz’s smallest but most lovely garden. Enclosing the delightful Naranjestan-e Ghavam Pavilion it was laid out as part of a complex owned by one of Shiraz’s wealthiest Qajar-era families. The pavilion’s mirrored entrance hall opens onto rooms covered in a myriad of intricate tiles, inlaid wooden panels and stained-glass windows. Particularly noteworthy are the ceilings of the upstairs rooms, painted with European-style motifs, including Alpine churches and busty German frauleins. Built for the wealthy and powerful Mohammad Ali Khan Qavam al-Molk between 1879 and 1886 as the buruni (public reception area) of his family home, the pavilion is connected to the Khan-e Zinat ol-Molk, which housed the family’s andaruni (private quarters), by an underground passage (not open to the public). The basement of the pavilion houses an archaeological collection put together by Arthur Upham Pope, an American scholar who taught at the Asia Institute in Shiraz between 1969 and 1979. There is also an excellent selection of handicrafts for sale in the basement, including miniatures painted on camel bone and tiles inspired by antique designs. Those looking to take part in the current craze for dressing up in Qajar-era costume can do so at the booth in the corner of the courtyard. Receiving the last rays of the day’s sun, the teahouse here is a good spot to enjoy the light fading over the garden wall; it also sells delicate tinctures of rose- and pomegranate-flavoured jellies.
Soaring above the old city, this magnificent building is graced with a tiled entrance portal (one of the tallest in Iran), flanked by two 48m-high minarets and adorned with inscriptions from the 15th century. The exquisite mosaics on the dome and mihrab, and the tiles above the main western entrance to the courtyard are masterpieces of calligraphy, evoking sacred names in infinitely complex patterns. Built for Sayyed Roknaddin in the 15th century, the mosque is built on 12th-century foundations over a former fire temple and with access to the Zarch Qanat (a stairwell leads down to part of this ancient water channel but is closed to the public). The Jameh Mosque is particularly notable for the prevalence of faience – a form of tiling that, like mosaic, is formed of different coloured pieces that are sandwiched together to create the design. These predate later uniform tiling, which feature painted designs. The gardoneh mehr (swastika symbol) used on some tiles symbolises infinity, timelessness, birth and death, and can be found on Iranian buildings dating back as early as 5000 BC. This is one sight where having a guide (and ideally a rudimentary knowledge of Arabic script) can transform the experience of a visit as it is impossible to guess at the calligraphic conundrums involved in the design without expert interpretation. The most revered object in the small museum, which is only open in the mornings, is a piece of hand-loomed cloth that once adorned the Kabbah in Mecca.
The stunning three-storey facade of this Hosseinieh is one of the largest such structures in Iran. The rows of perfectly proportioned sunken alcoves are at their best and most photogenic in late afternoon, when the copper-coloured sunlight is captured within each alcove and the towering exterior appears to glow against the darkening sky. New two-storey arcades hem the pedestrianised square and illuminated fountains lend an attractive foreground to the splendid vista at night. Only the 1st floor of the structure is accessible. A huge wooden palm nakhl (cypress tree-shaped wooden structure) is parked under the Amir Chakhmaq. An important centrepiece for the observance of Shiite Ashura commemorations, this nakhl is over 200 years old and is no longer moved. During Ashura, it is draped in a black cover for a day or two around the celebrations to represent the coffin of Imam Hossein. Illusions to cypress trees, and by association the nakhl (which in fact means date palm), predate Islam and signify immortality, resistance and freedom – qualities that have come also to be associated with the Shiite imam, Imam Hossein. Underneath the complex is a bazaar where kababis specialise in jigar (grilled liver).
One of the most elegant and most photographed pieces of architecture in southern Iran, the Pink Mosque was built at the end of the 19th century and its coloured tiling (an unusually deep shade of blue) is exquisite. There are some particularly fine muqarnas in the small outer portal and in the northern iwan, but it is the stained glass, carved pillars and polychrome faience of the winter prayer hall that dazzle the eye when the sun streams in. The mosque attracts most visitors early in the morning (9am to 11am is best) when the hall and its Persian carpets are illuminated with a kaleidoscope of patterned flecks of light. It makes for a magical experience – and an irresistible photograph. A museum in the opposite prayer hall opens into the Gav Cha (Cow Well), where cows were used to raise water from the underground qanat. The structure has survived numerous earthquakes, due in part to its construction using flexible wood as struts within the walls – look for the wooden bricks in the iwan columns. The rose-pink floral tiles are a signature feature of Shiraz.