Architecture

More than 3000 years of history and empire has left Iran with an array of architectural treasures that include towers, great domes and adobe cities, as well as mosques. Some are World Heritage sites; the others should be.

Naqsh-e Jahan (Imam) Square, Esfahan The lasting glory of the Safavids is enshrined in the exquisite mosques and palace in Esfahan’s unforgettable square.

Church of St Stephanos, Jolfa One of three splendid Armenian churches to form part a Unesco World Heritage listing.

Oljeitu Mausoleum, Soltaniyeh A vast 14th-century mausoleum with the world’s tallest brick dome is the most magnificent surviving Mongol structure in Iran.

South Khorasan Timeworn mud villages and so many candidates for the title of Little Yazd.

Mil-e Gonbad, Gonbad-e Kavus A soaring, almost unfeasibly bold 11th-century brick tower.

Masjed-e Jameh, Yazd A 15th-century conundrum of clever calligraphy.

Golestan Palace, Tehran Grand complex of ornate buildings and serene gardens built by the Qajar dynasty.

Naranjestan, Shiraz Take the ultimate selfie in the exquisite winter iwan (vaulted hall), repeated ad infinitum in the mirror.

Bagh-e Fin, Kashan Get a sense of proportion in this symmetrical Unesco-listed garden designed to make you feel good.

Rayen Beautiful little town with a fine mud fortress more than a thousand years old.

Cultural Encounters

Listening to impromptu poetry recitals, joining pilgrims at a Shiite shrine or locals for a picnic, sipping tea at a carpet shop or smoking qalyan to traditional music, are all parts of the Iranian experience.

Kurdish hospitality, Howraman Valley Journey among the Kurds to experience singing and dancing in this ancient Kurdish bastion.

Persian Food Tours, Tehran Learn how to cook Iranian-style and shop with locals to buy the ingredients.

Zurkhaneh, Yazd Uniquely Iranian show of male strength with strangely mystical undertones in Yazd.

Picnic with the locals Iranians might well be the world champions of picnic, and a walk along the mountain trails of Darband in north Tehran will likely see you invited to join them.

Impromptu poetry, Shiraz Iran’s famous poets are as relevant today as they were 1000 years ago. Listen to recitals while visiting the poets’ tombs with local ‘pilgrims’ in Shiraz.

Religious pilgrimage, Mashhad The reverence for Shiite Islam is nowhere more passionately displayed than at the major holy shrines, particularly the huge shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad.

Zoroastrian experience Get a taste of how adherents of one of the world’s oldest religions live by attending a Zoroastrian temple, festival or ceremony in Yazd.

Iranian Food

There’s more to Iranian cuisine than kabab. Let your tastebuds explore Iran's restaurants, teahouses and sweet shops.

Ardabil Possibly the sweetest town in Iran, famous for its honeycomb, black halva ('pest') and myriad confectioners.

Hezardestan Traditional Teahouse, Mashhad Fabulous food, a memorable teahouse setting and live music make this the top choice for Mashhadis.

Haj Khalifeh Ali Rahbar, Yazd On Yazd’s picturesque Amir Chakhmaq Sq, the mind- and taste-bud-blowing array of Iranian shirini (sweets) is the best in town.

Fereni Hafez, Esfahan Fereni is a classic Iranian dessert and this Esfahan institution is so popular people eat it for breakfast.

Bastani Traditional Restaurant, Esfahan The best for its combination of atmosphere and terrific food.

Orumiyeh Noghl Industrial strength nougat mixed in copper 'cement' mixers.

Mostofi Restaurant, Shushtar Lay back on carpets under the desert sky and gaze at a Roman bridge as you puff on your qaylan (water pipe).

Eat in a local’s home When someone asks you to eat with them in their home, say yes – the food and the experience will be memorable.

Divan, Tehran The capital's best dining experience – fab views, great food and stylish decor.

Ancient Civilisations

From the Elamites to the Sassanians via the Achaemenids, Iran has hosted some of the ancient world’s greatest civilisations. What’s left of them must have been well built. The first four are World Heritage sites.

Choqa Zanbil The Elamites built this huge, 12th-century BC brick ziggurat in honour of their chief god and it survives largely because it was lost under the sands until 1935.

Persepolis The full glory of the Achaemenid period in one magnificent former summer capital.

Shushtar The Sassanian-era structures here include watermills, a 45-span bridge and a cliff-top castle. Captive Roman legionnaires are thought to have built the first two, while their leader Emperor Valerian is said to have died in the third.

Takht-e Soleiman History’s foremost Zoroastrian fire-temple complex is set in a high, lonely bowl of mountains beside a crater lake.

Ardashir’s Palace South of Shiraz, Ardashir’s monumental palace was one of the earliest Sassanian architectural triumphs, and the most impressive of what’s left.

Village Life

If you fancy the simple life – that’s sleeping in homestays and eating delicious home-cooked food in a village that’s barely changed in centuries – head off the beaten track to one of these.

Garmeh This classic mid-desert oasis village of mud-brick homes and date palms is home to Maziar’s place, Ateshooni, one of Iran’s original and best homestays.

Kandovan One of Iran's most beautiful villages, with troglodyte cliff dwellings and places to sleep overnight.

Toudeshk Experience desert family life with Mohammad and his family in their atmospheric courtyard home.

Bavanat Stay in a living museum of village life where profits return to the community.

Qeshm Island Experience the fast-disappearing Bandari Arab way of life in the coastal villages of Tabl or Shibderaz

Caspian hinterland Numerous homestay opportunities in the Alborz foothills once you finish your trek.

Deh Salm On the eastern edge of the Lut Desert, Deh Salm offers homestays and a uniquely personal oasis experience.

Adventurous Activities

Iran might not be known for its outdoor activities but with time and a little effort there is plenty to get the heart racing. All of the following can be done on your own, or contact an experienced local adventure agency.

Alborz trekking Iran's best hiking with trails possible from both the Karaj and Alamut sides.

Skiing Race down the long downhills at Dizin, the most established of Iran’s 20-plus ski fields.

Mountain climbing Take the three-day trek to the summit of Fuji-esque Mt Damavand, the Middle East’s highest mountain.

Desert trekking Venture into the sands by camel or on foot from the desert villages of Farahzad or Mesr.

Rock climbing Tackle one of the region’s classic climbing challenges at Farhad Tarash, in the shadow of the historic Bisotun rock inscriptions.

Diving Learning how to dive in the Persian Gulf – how cool is that?

Quad Biking Buzz between the surreal Kalut ‘sandcastles’ or through far more inaccessible giant dunes in the Lut Desert.

Museums

Iran has numerous first-rate museums, with Tehran the mother lode when it comes to impressive cultural displays.

Treasury of National Jewels, Tehran Home to the Peacock Throne and a Shah's ransom of bling.

Islamic Museum, Tehran Important examples of Islamic-related arts and crafts from down the ages.

Isfahan Music Museum, Esfahan Stunning new museum that plays to the city's fine musical traditions.

Carpet Museum, Mashhad Admire exquisite carpets while on a pilgrimage to Mashhad's holy shrine.

Iran Holy Defense Museum, Tehran Learn all about the Iran–Iraq War at this epic scale museum.

Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, Tehran Striking piece of modern architecture housing a fabulous but rarely seen collection.

Bazaars

There is no finer way to spend a morning or late afternoon than wandering through one of the country's fabulous bazaars. Shopping is only part of the fun.

Bazar-e Bozorg, Esfahan Sprawling, historic and endlessly fascinating; feels like a Persian fairytale.

Bazar-e Vakil, Shiraz One of Iran's best with brick-vaulted ceilings and a marvellously chaotic early evening vibe.

Tabriz Bazaar, Tabriz Caravanserais, domed halls and the full gamut of Iranian handicrafts and homewares.

Grand Bazaar, Tehran Begin in the copper section, move on to carpets and inhale deeply in the nut-and-spice section.

Grand Bazaar, Kerman Classic east Iranian bazaar with commercial lanes overlooked by mosques and museums.

Kashan Bazaar Nicely compact bazaar with traditional bathhouses, Quranic schools and domed ceilings.

Zanjan Bazaar Appealingly derelict market far enough off the beaten track to feel utterly local.