Don’t let the news headlines trick you. Iranian people are wonderfully warm and welcoming; the perceived hostility towards Westerners simply doesn’t exist. Amid the ruined palaces of Persepolis, temples of Tehran and windcatchers of Yazd, we can appreciate that the empires that rose and fell here, before borders were drawn, shaped our combined histories. This is a country of homely stews, sacred mountains and more manmade beauty that you could think possible – from mind-bending, mirrored mosaicwork to tranquil tea gardens. Evidence, if needed, that amid all the noise, Iranians are simply in search of peace. Find out more in our Iran travel guide.
Our top Iran vacations
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Discover the heart of Iran
Small group2021: 26 Sep, 2022: 17 Apr, 18 Sep
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Journey through the wonders of Iran
Best time to go to Iran
March to May and September to October are the best time to go to Iran – you’ll dodge searing heat and bitter winter cold (and snow-blocked mountain roads). Prices do rise in these months, particularly April. June and October offer slightly better deals as long as you are prepared to dress for the heat or chill. Iran marks a number of festivals nationwide which can disrupt travel. Nowruz (Iranian New Year, two weeks starting 21 March) means price hikes and packed hotels. During the month of Ramadan (dates vary), eating and drinking in public is banned during the day and religious laws are more strictly enforced.
Map & highlightsIran’s capital, Tehran, is home to the Golestan Palace and the labyrinthine Grand Bazaar. Further south, Esfahan is one of the most beautiful cities in the Islamic world, stuffed with mosques, museums and palaces, and thousands of craft workshops. Shiraz was a city of poets, architects and winemakers, and retains many of Iran’s pre-eminent mosques. In the nearby desert lie the well-preserved ruins of Persepolis, once capital of the Persian Empire. Other itineraries may take you to Qom, an important site of Shia pilgrimage and scholarship, or to Yazd, where silk bazaars were renowned even in the days of Marco Polo.
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.
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 center of Shia scholarship. The Qom Handicraft 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 center 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.
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.
Yazd is the Iran of storybooks and fables; maze-like mud walls wind through the historic center, 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.
History & culture
Iran is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world. The vast Persian Empire may be no more, overthrown in the Iranian Revolution of 1979, but Iran continues to exert powerful influence in the region, often viewed malignly by Western powers. Yet Iran is not its government, and everywhere you go you will encounter the warmest of welcomes from open-minded people eager to show you the truth of life in Iran beyond the headlines. Walking and cycling vacations tend to be the best way to join the cultural dots.
Where to go in Iran
If your time in Iran is limited then there are three key cities to explore. Most itineraries will follow a route linking the secular, liberal capital Tehran with Esfahan to the south, adding in Shiraz (from where the ruins of Persepolis are the obvious next step). Esfahan is the most beautiful city in Iran, teeming with small workshops turning out ceramics, woodwork and carpets. Shiraz, once the capital, may not have produced any wine since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, but its exquisite gardens, poets’ tombs and intricate Islamic architecture are just as intoxicating.
Iran’s history is measured not in centuries but in millennia. Once the center of the vast Persian Empire, it was also a key link in the ancient trade routes that made up the Silk Road. Ancient civilizations and cultures spread their art, architecture and ideas, and their presence can still be felt today, with key sites forming parts of modern cities, rather than being fenced off or buried beneath the sands of time. Some of the most magnificent mosques in the Islamic world are found in Iran, including the Pink Mosque of Shiraz and Shah Mosque of Esfahan.
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More about Iran
Independent travel in Iran is difficult, as all visitors require a guide and visa restrictions are complex. Yet visiting Iran is in itself an act of responsible tourism – choosing to discover the country, its people and culture for yourself rather than simply accepting the false image commonly accepted in the West. Responsible vacation companies will ensure that you follow the rules regarding dress and behaviour, and can provide opportunities to meet local people. It is in these instances – whether bumping into a group of students in a park or being invited to a family home for mint tea – that you will meet the real Iran.
Types of vacations
From women only tours to foodie-focused itineraries showcasing the finest Iranian cuisine, small group tours in Iran are for you if you like to go with the flow in the company of like-minded travelers. The logistics, guide and visas are still taken care of for you on tailor made vacations, but you’ll have more flexibility with your itinerary and travel dates. You’ll be accompanied by guides at all times, and the best of them can make cultural vacations in Iran something to really treasure – illuminating ancient civilizations, introducing you to locals, and ensuring that you pay the best price for your rugs in the bazaars.