It’s worth tearing yourself away from the sparkling jewellery boxes of cities such as Shiraz and Esfahan to spend a few days in Iran’s mountains. The Alborz Mountains rise up from the Caspian Sea, filled with hidden hiking trails. The Kurdish people hold the mighty Zagros Mountains sacred, and tucked beneath their 4,000m peaks, the Bavanat Valley is the summer home of tent-dwelling nomads.
Nomads may not be what you would expect to find in modern, tightly controlled Iran – but semi-nomadic people do still live here, traveling hundreds of kilometres between the mountains in summer and the warmer south in winter. Responsible tours give you the opportunity to meet them, but hurry – the government is trying to “assimilate” them into mainstream society.
Iran not quite off-the beaten-track for you? Then head west, far from the popular mosaic-draped cities, to a rural region where headscarves have not yet slipped back and tourists are rarer than Asiatic cheetahs. The harshness of the desert gives way to surprising landscapes of forests, lush valleys and mountainside villages, and you’ll have UNESCO sites such as Choga Zanbil all to yourself.
Iran’s mosques are awe-inspiring; yet sometimes the lower-key monuments can be just as moving. In Shiraz, the tomb of Iran’s much loved poet, Hafez, who died in 1390, is a place for poignant contemplation. Visit the softly-lit tomb in the evening as Iranians come to pay tribute, to hold hands under cover of darkness, and to recite his verses about love, and wine, remembering Iran’s more artistic and liberal past.
Dating back to around 515 BC, the UNESCO site of Persepolis was founded in a remote valley by Darius the Great as the capital of the vast Persian Empire. Despite being ransacked by Alexander the Great in 330 BC, it retained the mighty monuments built by successive rulers, including the colossal columns of the Apadana Palace and Gate of Xerxes, stunning bas-reliefs and the Naqsh-e Rostam tombs.
One of Iran’s three big “must sees”, Esfahan, the former capital of Persia, is considered by many to be its most beautiful city, brimming with mosques, a bazaar and the huge Kakh-e Ali Qapu palace, all conveniently clustered around one of the largest squares in the world. Save space for photos of the striking blue tile work – plus the sunsets over the river, best viewed from one of the historic bridges.
If much of Iran is an open air museum, Tehran brings it back indoors, with a vast concentration of artwork, manuscripts, jewellery, rugs, Qurans and more sourced from across the Persian Empire. This is a great start to your vacation as you learn about Iran’s rich history before visiting the sites. The Cinema and Contemporary Art Museums reveal the country’s continuing love affair with art in all its forms.
Set in a lush valley, Shiraz has been the beloved centre of Persian culture for two millennia, and contains the tombs of many famed poets. It was one of the most important Islamic cities in the world in medieval times, and its glorious mosques include the Shah-e-Cheragh, with its mosaic-mirrored interior . Don’t miss the striking Arg-e Karim Khan fortress, before taking tea in the aptly named Garden of Paradise.
Independent travel is possible in Iran – but as visitors are required to have their own private guide and visa applications are extremely difficult without a reference from a licensed travel agent, it’s tough – not to mention risky. A good vacation company will also ensure you are aware of local laws and etiquette – and you won’t be reliant on reckless bus drivers or painfully slow trains to get around.
With so much fascinating history on show in its museums, mosques and palaces, those in charge clearly decided that Tehran needed a more “contemporary” attraction, too. Enter the world’s highest dolphinarium, at the top of Tehran’s Milad Tower, where dolphins and sea lions perform for visitors four times a day to the sound of pounding Persian pop. We’ll stick with the archaeology, thanks.
Kish is a beach-ringed resort island in the Persian Gulf, where no Iranian visa is required. But that really is all it has going for it. It was created in 1989 by the government in an attempt to lure tourists to Iran – a Sharia version of Las Vegas-style debauchery where you can – gasp! – swim and dance (gender-segregated), a little hair can be revealed beneath the hijab, and , yes, booze is still banned. Knock yourself out.
These days, many tourists choose the ease of simply withdrawing cash once they arrive in a country. Unfortunately, Iranian ATMS do not work with foreign bank cards, meaning you’ll need to take a stack of money with you – US dollars being the safest option. And unlike clothes, you’ll always need to take more than you think, in case of emergencies – or in case you find the perfect Persian rug.