- 2 Weeks
In two weeks it’s possible to see the jewels of Iran’s rich history, but you'll need to keep moving.
Start in Tehran and spend two days seeing the major sights, including the Golestan Palace, the Treasury of National Jewels and Tehran Bazaar. Take a bus to Kashan, where you can explore the bazaar, check out the Qajar-era traditional houses and chill out in the Fin Garden.
Stop for a couple of hours to check out the mosque and tomb in Natanz en route to architecturally magnificent Esfahan and spend three days exploring the blue-tiled mosques of Naqsh-e Jahan (Imam) Square, the bustling Bazar-e Bozorg, the sublime bridges across the Zayandeh River and the Armenian community at Jolfa.
Head to the desert trading city of Yazd for three days wandering the maze of lanes, gaping at the Masjed-e Jameh (Jameh Mosque) and climbing to the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence. For a change of pace, stop in the desert village of Fahraj before spending a day visiting ancient Pasargadae and Persepolis on the way to Shiraz. Spend two days in Shiraz, where you can see the Zand-era gardens and bazaar, and wander the old city. Fly back to Tehran.
- 1 Month
Travellers with an adventurous bent have been following the overland route from Europe to subcontinental Asia for centuries. While the eastern part is currently off-limits, following as much of it as you can will give you so many insights into Iran’s position as cultural crossroads on the road between West and East. The journey is serviced by regular buses and some trains.
With its soaring canyon, Maku makes a pleasant introduction before hiring a taxi to Jolfa via remote Armenian churches. Make your way down to Tabriz and its magnificent bazaar then on to the troglodyte homes of Kandovan. Take the high scenic route to Takab and the amazing Tahkt-e Soleiman on the way to Zanjan for a look at the remarkable Oljeitu Mausoleum at Soltaniyeh. Continuing east, historic Qazvin is the staging point for excursions into the spectacular Alamut Valleys to walk among the ruined Castles of the Assassins. Head north via sophisticated Rasht to photogenic Masuleh, before chilling out in a homestay in the Ramsar (or Caspian) hinterland and taking in beautiful Kelardasht. Zigzag up through the dramatic Alborz Mountains to Tehran.
Spend three days in Tehran seeing the museums and galleries, and taking in the hustle and bustle, then head south for a couple of days to Kashan with its World Heritage–listed Fin Garden. Bus it to Esfahan where you’ll need three or four days to soak up the sights of the Safavid-era capital, and then venture east for a village homestay in Farahzad or Garmeh in the vast Dasht-e Kavir desert. From the desert turn south to the Silk Road trading city of Yazd, stopping in the spectacular Zoroastrian pilgrimage site at Chak Chak en route.
Plan to spend three days exploring the narrow lanes and desert architecture of Yazd before travelling to Shiraz via Pasargadae and Persepolis. Spend two days in Shiraz taking in the bazaar, gardens and poet’s shrines, and another on a day trip to Bishapur or Firuz Abad. Continue to Kerman, stopping for a night with nomads in Bavanat (during spring or autumn) or in a cave at Meymand. In Kerman visit the remarkable bazaar then nip out to the garden-town of Mahan, superb fortress settlement of Rayen and unforgettable desertscapes of the Kaluts. Return to Kerman as a starting point for your onward journey.
- 21 Days
This intriguing meander west is ideal for those who’ve seen the main desert city sites or are confident in navigating through areas often unaccustomed to foreigners. The route over mountains and valleys boasts nine World Heritage sites. The remotest sections will require charter taxis. Note that in winter, mountain roads can be cut by snow.
Starting in Tehran, head west to Qazvin and spend the afternoon exploring the historic city, before driving into the Alamut Valley and hiking for two days among ruined Castles of the Assassins across to the Caspian, recovering at a homestay near Ramsar, then onto vibrant Rasht, conquering the mountain fortress of Qal'eh Rudkhan before spending a pleasant afternoon strolling the teashops of photogenic Masuleh. Forsake the dull coast and jump a savari inland, up through nomad country to Khal Khal, then onto Ardabil. In Ardabil, visit the magnificent Sheikh Safi-od-Din Mausoleum before savari-hopping the scenic back route to Kaleybar via Meshgin Shahr. Climb the breathtaking Babak Castle then hire a driver for the sublime Aras River Valley run to Jolfa and the magnificent Church of St Stephanos.
Complete the Armenian church trifecta of Qareh Kalisa and Dzor Dzor Chapel on your way to Maku, via Khoy and Chaldoran. An easy half day to Tabriz and its incredible bazaar leaves the afternoon for exploring troglodyte Kandovan. More savari-hopping across high, lonely landscapes due south to Takab and the starkly beautiful Takht-e Soleiman, once the world's greatest Zoroastrian fire-temple complex. Continue on across the incredible landscape to Zanjan. Hire a driver for the trip to Hamadan via the magnificent Mongol-era Oljeitu Mausoleum at Soltaniyeh and the remarkable Katale Khor Caves. Stretch you legs with a quick whip-up Mt Alvand before taking a speedy savari to hospitable Sanandaj.
Spend an afternoon in lovely Palangan before heading to Marivan and the incredibly scenic road thru Howraman to Paveh, via Kurdish mountain villages. At Kermanshah, sneak a peak at Taq-e Bustan's stone carvings, then wonder whether the scaffolding at Bisotun will ever be removed before you cross the mighty Zagros Mountains to Khorrammabad and its attractive fortress. Savari on down to Shush to wander ancient Susa, then hire a car to the imposing 3000-year-old brick ziggurat of Choqa Zanbil and the Sassanian-cum-Roman engineering of the Shushtar hydraulic system. Take a savari to Andimeshk and your evening train back to Tehran.
- 10 Days
Take the train or bus from Tehran to Gorgan, nestled attractively in the Alborz Mountains. Gorgan makes a great base for visiting the Turkmen steppe and the remote Mil-e Radkan tower. If you’re impressed by this tower, you’ll want to visit the incredible 1000-year-old tomb-tower of Mil-e Gonbad, in Gonbad-e Kavus, before visiting the forested mountains of Golestan National Park, perhaps staying at the Turkmen Ecolodge.
Next up, travel to Iran’s holiest city of Mashhad, where you can revel in the ecstasy of pilgrims in the stunning and massive Haram-e Razavi complex and visit the beautifully proportioned Boq’eh-ye Khajeh Rabi mausoleum. Mashhad is a great base for exploring the hinterlands by foot, bicycle or horseback. Nearby Kang is a photogenic stepped village of stacked mud-brick homes. The mausoleum of 11th-century poet, Ferdosi is found in Tus, while Omar Khayyam has his tomb in Neishabur. The impressive mountain cliffs of Kalat Naderi lie to the north.
Mashhad is a gateway to Central Asia; otherwise fly back to Tehran or continue south by bus or train into the desert.
- 12 Days
If you’ve ever dreamt of the oasis towns of The Thousand and One Nights or are drawn to hospitable homestays, this trip is for you. It’s doable by taking infrequent buses, but the odd taxi dar bast can reduce waiting time. Avoid the summer heat by travelling between October and April.
Start in Esfahan and take a bus to Toudeshk for a night and a morning in the shifting sands of the Varzaneh Desert, before continuing to see the traditional houses of Na’in. From Na’in take the bus east to Khur, where you get a taxi to Farahzad and/or Garmeh for desert homestays that redefine hospitality; plan for three days all up.
From Garmeh, head west via Tabas and the remarkable ‘forgotten’ villages of Old Deyhuk and Esfandiar, continuing on to Birjand with its impressive fortress-restaurant. From there don’t miss an oasis night at Deh Salm before crossing the Lut Desert with its extraordinaty Kaluts (giant ‘sandcastles’). After bazaaring Kerman and daytripping to Rayen fortress, end your trip in a traditional hotel in Yazd, perhaps with a side trip to the fire temple at Chak Chak.