Iran might not seem like your usual tourist destination, and it’s certainly true that theocratic juntas, a fervor for all things nuclear, and tales of autocratic shahs from decades gone by don’t make for the most enticing of travel cocktails. But Iran isn’t like most Middle Eastern countries.
Millennia of rising and falling civilizations – the Persians, the Parthians, the Safavids – have all gone before the modern nation, and their glory and richness have done something to instill today’s country with a pride and stability that’s the envy of many neighbors (even if they won’t admit it). Today, that means Iran is hurtling headlong into the future whilst still clinging steadfastly to its dazzling past – it’s a curious dichotomy that really informs the whole place.
You can flit between boho coffee shops and avant-garde art galleries in Tehran, or seek out majestic madrassahs in cities like Esfahan and Yazd. You can carve the pistes at Dizin or trace the footsteps of Xerxes and Darius at Persepolis.
Gilded with the riches of more kings and sultans and Muslim caliphs than you can shake a cobalt-blue ceramic pot from a Zagros Mountain village at, the glorious city of Esfahan is unquestionably one of the most beautiful in all of Iran.
Its heart is dominated by the colossal Naqsh-e Jahan Square; a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s ringed by ceramic-fronted mosques and gorgeous Safavid palaces.
Elsewhere and babbling fountains give way to tree-dotted avenues, legendary madrassahs pop up on the streets, and arabesque souks burst with multi-coloured stacks of spices and tassel-fringed carpets from the east.
Eulogized and eulogized over and over again by romantic poets and travelers, and revered as the birthplace of the great Persian wordsmiths Hafez and Sa’di, Shiraz is a city steeped in heritage and culture.
Visitors will be able to spot the great tombs of those writers nestled between the palm-dotted, flower-sprouting gardens of Afif abad and Eram, along with the intricate arabesque interiors of the Nasir al-Mulk Mosque and the 1,000-year-old Qor’an Gate.
Rather surprisingly, the town also lends its name to a popular strain of wine, and, despite the cascading vineyards of the Fars Province long since having dried up, it’s thought that some of the world’s earliest white tipples were produced here nearly seven millennia ago!
One’s thing’s for sure: Tehran certainly isn’t a looker like Shiraz or Esfahan.
Apart from the rugged wall of snow-tipped Alborz Mountains that rise like a phalanx on the northern edge of town, the place is largely dominated by concrete and packed with smog-creating traffic jams aplenty.
However, like it or loathe it, this sprawling metropolis is the epicentre of the country’s politics and economy, and that surely counts for something, right? Well, a lot actually.
Great monuments like the Azadi Tower have been raised here, while the glimmering wonders of the Treasury of the National Jewels and the mummified princes of the National Museum of Iran are just some of the awesome relics to see.
Add to that a clutch of stylish teahouses and coffee shops, frantic bazaars and youthful student energy, and Tehran really isn’t all that bad!
Perched nearly 3,000 meters up in the snowy heights of the Alborz Mountains, where the European Caucuses crash into the Asian ranges, the small hill station of Dizin has firmly established itself as one of Iran’s top winter sports destinations.
With a clutch of good groomed pistes ranging from moderate difficulty to challenging runs, and a selection of cableways and chairlifts that were first installed in the 1960s, the soaring resort is one of the top places to don the skis and salopettes here.
There are also some alpine-style hotels, and awesome views of the cone of massive Mount Damavand in the distance.
The adobe warren of the Yazd old town is like something out of Arabian Nights.
Here and there, turrets gilded in intricate geometric designs loft above the mosque domes; the scents of incense and mint tea twist and turn from the cafes.
Meanwhile, the middle of the city is dominated by mysterious Zoroastrian fire temples and the spiked minarets of the Shia hussainia that is the Amir Chakhmakh complex.
And then there are the souks, where dust devils twirl between the cotton and silk emporiums, and shisha pipes puff in the background.
Yep, it’s precisely the sort of place you’d expect to trace the footsteps of one Marco Polo!