Iran map & highlights
MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR TIME
It may not be as vast as in the days of its Imperial glory, but Iran is still the size of the UK, France, Spain and Germany combined, with expanses of desert between its main highlights. Iran Air offers internal flights for those who wish to cover more ground is less time, but it’s recommended to take at least some of the journeys by road; there’s always somewhere to stop off, and it gives a much better insight into Iran. Most highlights are on a roughly north-south line (or vice versa) between Tehran, Esfahan and Shiraz – with Yazd as a detour; flying into Tehran and out of Shiraz is a popular option. Persepolis is an easy daytrip from Shiraz.
While Iran is generally a destination for fans of culture and ancient architecture, the Alborz Mountains certainly give outdoorsy types something to get excited about. Rising up from the Caspian Sea, this range offers fantastic yet little-trodden hiking trails – by modern trekkers at least; the ruined fortresses and nomadic caravans betray the historical human influence on this stunning landscape.
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.
Home to the tomb of the eighth Shia Imam, Imam Reza, Mashad is Iran’s holiest city, and a place of pilgrimage for many millions of Muslims. This is a great place to learn about Shia Islam, with a visit to the Quranic Museum. It’s also an ancient hub for another Persian tradition: rugs. Weavers here have exported high quality rugs around the world for almost 500 years; they’re renowned for their super soft wool.
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.
The desert city of Qom is Iran’s second holiest city. It is the site of the shrine of Fatema, the sister of the eighth Shia Imam, which draws pilgrims from across the Shia world. It is also a centre of Shia scholarship. The Qom Handcraft Museum is worth visiting as much for its beautiful building as the exhibits inside. Don’t miss the Sohan toffees – a traditional sweet from this region.
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.
The almost mythical route that carried goods, people and religion from East to West traversed Iran on its way between Central Asia, Turkey and the Caucasus, just one of the many strands that made up this 4,000 mile thread. Modern travelers can pick up the trail in Iran, skirting around the Caspian Sea, or pass through on epic journeys, in the footsteps of Marco Polo, Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan.
Confusingly, Tabriz sits in the region of Iranian Azerbaijan, with a majority population of Azerbaijanis (Azeris) and a large number of Kurds. Tabriz’s market is phenomenal even by Iranian standards – this 7km2 labyrinth is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Many tours include a daytrip to the nearby village of Kandovan, with troglodyte cave homes that almost resemble giant termite mounds. Some are still inhabited.
More than just a gateway to Iran, Tehran is the site of some of the country’s most impressive monuments. The exquisite Golestan Palace complex is the best example of 19th century Qajari craft and design; its rose garden is a much needed oasis in this sprawling city. The National Museum showcases artifacts dating back over 7,000 years, and the aptly named Grand Bazaar has over 10km of corridors.
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 desert gives way to forests, lush valleys and mountainside villages, and there are opportunities to step inside the tents of the Qashqai nomads who have roamed these lands for centuries.
Yazd is the Iran of storybooks and fables; maze-like mud walls wind through the historic centre, beneath towering bagdirs – ‘ windcatcher’ chimneys – the architectural result of centuries of adaptation to its extreme desert climate. The bazaars are filled with silk – a fabric for which Yazd has been renowned since the times of Marco Polo. The Zoroastrian temple provides a counterpoint to the dominant Islamic architecture.
The Kurdish people hold the Zagros Mountains sacred; this mighty range emerges in their homeland on the Iraq-Turkey border and sweeps right down along the Gulf. Surprisingly lush landscapes nurture walnut and apple trees as well as vineyards. There are numerous walking trails, and opportunities to meet the nomads who live for several months of the year in the sheltered Bavanat Valley.
TRAVEL TIMES IN IRAN
Be aware that trains often take longer than buses – road travel is preferred on tours.
- Tehran – Mashad: 10-14 hours by train, or 90 mins by plane
- Tehran – Isfahan: Overnight train, or 1 hour by plane
- Tehran – Tabriz: 6-8 hours by bus
- Shiraz – Yazd: 6 hours by bus
- Tehran – Yazd: 10 hours by bus
- Shiraz – Persepolis: 1 hour by private taxi
Iran cultural vacation (15 days):
Tehran ► Qom ► Abyaneh ► Yazd ► Zeinodin ► Kerman ► Shiraz ► Persepolis ► Naqsh e Rostam ► Pasargadae ► Esfahan ► Tehran
Western Iran (15 days):
Tehran ► Soltaniyeh ► Takht-e Soleyman ► Marivan ► Lake Zarivar ► Palangan village ► Al Sadr Cave ► Hamadan ► Ganjnameh rock carvings ► Bisotun bas-relief carvings ► Kermanshah ► Khoramabad ► Ziggurat at Choga Zanbil ► Chelgerd to meet Bakhtiari nomads ► Isfahan
Iran walking vacation (14 days):
Tehran ► Alamut “Assassins Castles” ► Alborz Mountains ► Roodkhan Castle ► Masule Village ► Talesh on the Caspian Sea ► Sobatan Village ► Neor Lake ► Mashkin Shahr ► Shabil, home to Shahsevan nomads ► Trek to summit of Mt Sabalan ► Babak mountain fortress ► Tabriz ► Kandovan troglodyte cave homes