1. Meet the People
From watching the TV you could be forgiven for thinking Iranians are scary, America-hating fundamentalists bent on destroying the world. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, it’s the people that leave the most lasting impressions from any journey to Iran. You will regularly be asked ‘What do you think of Iran?’, and be bought tea and food with intonations that ‘You are our guest’. The people (Click here) are, quite simply, the best experience in Iran.
2. Esfahan, Half of the World
There are moments in travel that will long stay with you, and your first sight of Esfahan’s majestic Naqsh-e Jahan (Imam) Square (Click here) is one of them. For this square is home to arguably the most majestic collection of buildings in the Islamic world: the perfectly proportioned blue-tiled dome of the Masjed-e Shah, the supremely elegant Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfollah and the indulgent and lavishly decorated Ali Qapu Palace. Robert Byron ranked ‘…Isfahan among those rarer places, like Athens or Rome, which are the common refreshment of humanity’.
Few places have adapted to their environment as well as the desert city of Yazd (Click here). It’s a gem of winding lanes, blue-tiled domes, soaring minarets, covered bazaars, and fine old courtyard homes topped by Badgirs (wind-towers) and watered by ingenious qanats (underground water channels). Several of these homes have been restored and converted into marvelously evocative traditional hotels.
4. More than Kabab
Like peeling the layers of the ubiquitous lunchtime raw onion (which tastes pretty good and keeps nasty bugs at bay), Iranian food is one delicious surprise after another (Click here). Once you’ve tried several varieties of kabab, Khoresht (stew), ash (soup) and flat-bread, ask for Fesenjun (chicken in walnut and pomegranate sauce) or anything with Bademjan (eggplant). Then you can try the Shirini (sweets)… And if you get invited to eat in someone’s home, say yes.
5. Ancient Persepolis
The artistic harmony of the monumental staircases, imposing gateways and exquisite reliefs leaves you in little doubt that in its prime Persepolis (Click here) was at the center of the known world. Built by kings Darius and Xerxes as the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire, a visit to the World Heritage–listed ruins of the city also testify to Alexander the Great’s merciless destruction of that empire. Don’t miss the monolithic tombs at nearby Naqsh-e Rostam (Click here).
6. Nomads of the Zagros
About 2 million Iranians from several different ethnic groups still live a nomadic existence, traveling with their goats in spring and autumn in search of pasture. Qashqa’i and Bakhtiyari nomads spend the summer months in the Zagros Mountains, before heading down to the coast for the winter. You can get a taste of nomad life on a day trip from Shiraz (Click here), or stay with the Khamseh (and eat their delicious hand-made yogurt) in the hills above Bavanat (Click here).
7. The Islamic Republic
Iran is an Islamic Republic and while most travelers find Islam is not nearly as all-pervasive as they had expected, the Shiite faith remains an important part of Iranian life. It is at its most obvious in the passionate devotion seen at monuments such as the huge Haram-e Razavi in Mashhad (Click here). The main draw there is the Holy Shrine of Imam Reza, the only Shiite imam buried in Iran.
8. Choqa Zanbil
Even if you don’t like ancient ruins, the great bulk, semidesert isolation and fascinating back story make the Choqa Zanbil ziggurat (Click here) one of the most impressive historical sites in a region full of them. Built by the Elamites in the 13th century BC, it was ‘lost’ under the sands in the 7th century BC and only rediscovered during a 1935 aerial survey by a British oil company. Now excavated, some of the bricks look as if they came out of the kiln last week.