Iran is a big country and while cheap, efficient transport means nowhere is beyond reach, few people make it to all corners in a single trip. Almost everyone spends time in Tehran, the bustling capital, en route to or from the historic cities of Esfahan, Shiraz and Yazd in central Iran. These cities, and the mountain and desert towns around them, rank among Iran's main attractions.
Western Iran is also popular, with mountains in the north ideal for trekking and a spread of ancient sites and ethnic groups keeping things interesting. More remote and less travelled are the Persian Gulf coast, with its Arabian feel, and the deserts and Silk Road trading cities of northeastern Iran. Much of southeastern Iran is currently off-limits – check before setting out.
Let modern Iran trump preconceptions by sipping tea with students, seeing fine contemporary art, joining pilgrims at the shrine of Ayatollah Khomeini and walkers on a trail from Darband.
Windows on the Past
Highlights include the National Museum, the last shah’s Niyavaran Palace, the Qajars’ Golestan Palace and the National Jewels Museum, where diamonds (and rubies, emeralds etc) are indeed forever.
Depending on the time of year Tehran’s proximity to the Alborz Mountains provides the option for either skiing or hiking. At any time you can ride the cable car to near the summit of Mt Tochal or arrange a fascinating cultural cooking experience with Persian Food Tours.
Cradle of Civilisation
This region was the cradle of many civilisations. See the Elamites’ Choqa Zanbil, the Achaemenid legacy at Shush and Hamadan, the Sassanian water mills at Shushtar and the massive Mongol mausoleum at Soltaniyeh.
Azari Turks, Kurds, Lors, Assyrians and nomad groups share western Iran with the Persians. Feel Turkish nationalism at Babak Castle or visit Kurdish villages in the Howraman Valley.
Wind through the sublime Aras River Valley, hunt lost Armenian churches and Assassin castles, explore hoodoo'd badlands and cling precariously to Howraman mountainsides on the wildest roads in the country.
Footsteps of Empire
Empires have bloomed and withered here. Top sights are the Achaemenid capitol of Persepolis, the Sassanian centre at Firuz Abad, Safavid glories in Esfahan and the preserved desert city of Yazd.
Architectural gems include: Esfahan’s wondrous Naqshe Jahan (Imam) Square, the Jameh Mosque and bridges; Kashan boasts extravagant Qajar mansions; and in Yazd there are courtyard homes turned hotels.
Experience desert hospitality: Garmeh is a classic oasis, Zein-o-din a restored caravanserai and Bavanat a somnolent town. Or stay with a family in Farahzad.
Dolphin-shaped Qeshm is home to 60 Bandari villages, including photogenic Laft with its wind towers and minarets, and homestays in Tabl and Shibderaz.
Geology & Wildlife
Qeshm’s geology is so exotic it’s recognised as a Unesco Geopark, and in season you can spot hawksbill and green turtles at Shibderaz village and migrating birds in the Harra Sea Forest. Go to Hengham Island for dolphins and gazelles.
Up the heart rate by diving the reefs around Larak, taking a boat tour through the Harra Sea Forest, cycling around Kish and taking a ferry to Hormoz.
Tracing Trade Routes
The ancient Silk Route city of Kerman is a big draw. Kerman’s bazaar, with its teahouse and caravanserai, evokes millennia of trade and is bathed in the clear light of Iran's southeast.
The whole southeast is desert or semidesert. Highlights include the huge natural ‘sandcastles’ of the Kaluts, nearby desert campsites and Mahan’s famous gardens at Bagh-e Shahzde.
This is frontier territory and it’s easy to get off the beaten track. Stay in a centuries old cave village at Meymand or explore the careworn but rather beautiful mud-built villages of South Khorasan.
The Haram-e Razavi shrine has a profusion of architectural styles and the 1000-year-old brick tower at Gonbad-e Kavus is magnificent and a hugely significant architectural landmark. Watch also for fine caravanserais dating back to the Silk Road's heyday.
In Iran, getting there is often half the fun. Take a 4WD over mountain roads to the ‘secret valley’ hiding Mil-e Radkan or hike over the Binalud mountains to the stepped village of Kang.
Tus is linked with epic poet Abulqasim Ferdosi, while Neishabur is the birthplace of poet and mathematician Omar Khayyam. At their tombs, expect Iranian pilgrims to recite poems of their heroes.