If you’ve landed on this page, it means that you’re willing to embrace Iran as a travel destination. Congratulations, you’re about to discover the country that has been greatly misunderstood by the rest of the world. As you trudge into the heart of Iran despite its negative global image and perhaps against the advice of your friends and family, you’ll find a country overwhelming with hospitality and full of surprises.
If you’re not sure where to begin, I’d like to introduce to you six destinations in Iran, all of which I’ve personally visited at least once. This route comprises the places that are typically included in the itinerary of first-time visitors to Iran. Touristy or not, these cities and towns are filled with historical gems and much, much more. You could follow this itinerary if you have around 12 days; otherwise, customise it to fit your schedule and interests.
Number of nights to spend in Tehran: 2
Tehran, the capital of Iran, is often shrugged off as the bustling metropolis that travellers should quickly get out of. While the pollution and choking traffic are nothing to boast about, look deeper and you’ll come to appreciate the wealth of cultural attractions, trendy cafés, and captivating art galleries, all punctuated by serene spots where you can sit back and enjoy nature. Among the must-visit attractions in Tehran are Golestan Palace, Azadi Tower, Grand Bazaar, National Jewelry Treasury, Tabiat Bridge, and Darband.
Getting out: Take an overnight VIP bus departing from Tehran’s Beyhaghi Terminal to Shiraz. This 12-hour bus ride will be the longest overland journey in the itinerary, but the plus point is that you’ll get to save on a night’s worth of accommodation. If the idea of a long bus ride is unbearable, catch one of the many flights from Mehrabad Airport to Shiraz.
Number of nights to spend in Shiraz: 3
The city of gardens and poetry, Shiraz will dance its way into your heart. The kaleidoscope of colours that sweep over the Nasir-ol-molk Mosque each morning forms the backdrop of innumerable photos. In spring, vibrant flowers sprout all over the city and the breeze carries with it the whiffs of orange blossoms. Be dazzled inside Shah Cheragh, a holy shrine with intricate mirrors plastered all over its interior. Then get lost in the Vakil Bazaar or listen to locals reciting poetry in the gardens surrounding the tomb of Hafez, one of the most celebrated Persian poets. Dedicate one of your days to visit Persepolis, the once-grand ancient capital of the Achaemenid Empire.
Getting out: Take a 7-hour VIP bus from Shiraz’s Karandish Bus Terminal to Yazd.
Number of nights to spend in Yazd: 2
A beautiful city in the desert, Yazd has a skyline that’s dominated by mud-brick rooftops and wind catchers. There’s no need for a comprehensive itinerary here; the best way to explore Yazd is to wander along the labyrinthine alleys of the old town. You’ll chance upon mosques, textile and handicraft shops, and residential homes with unique wooden doors. After the sun goes down, get enthralled at the Zurkhaneh, a traditional gymnasium where you can watch local men (and boys) sweat it out with callisthenics and exercises under the trance of deafening music. Yazd is also the jump-off point to experience the Bafgh Desert, the Zoroastrianism fire temple known as Chak Chak, and the ancient city of Meybod.
Getting out: Take a 4.5-hour VIP bus from Yazd Passenger Terminal to Isfahan.
Number of nights to spend in Isfahan: 3
Northwest of Yazd, Isfahan is home to a magnificent architectural jewel: the Naqsh-e Jahan Square. One of the 22 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Iran, this square is flanked on each of its four sides by the Shah Mosque, the Ali Qapu Palace, the Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque, and the Qeysarie Gate which empties into the Isfahan Grand Bazaar. The city is also famed for its historical bridges such as Siosepol and Khaju Bridge, both of which have its arches lit in golden yellow at night. Along the south bank of the Zayandeh River is Jolfa, the Armenian Quarter where you can visit the magnificent Vank Cathedral. In between sightseeing, stop by Azadegan Teahouse to refuel in a rather eclectic space.
Getting out: Take a 2.5-hour bus ride from Isfahan’s Jey Terminal to Varzaneh or arrange a pick-up with your guesthouse.
Number of nights to spend in Varzaneh: 1
Not far from Isfahan, the desert-like landscapes of Varzaneh unfold. The main draw here is the sunset from the golden sand dunes, but if you allow more than a day trip, you’ll have the time to discover plenty of hidden gems. One such place is the Salt Lake, which is dotted with chalky blue pools amid a large expanse of salt-covered polygons. Stay overnight in the little village where you can pop inside a pigeon tower to see how it looks inside.
Getting out: Take the bus back to Isfahan. From Isfahan’s Kaveh Bus Terminal, take a 2.5-hour bus ride to Kashan.
Number of nights to spend here: 1
In between Isfahan and Tehran is a small city, Kashan, that is well-known for its historical houses. Built by wealthy merchants in the 18th and 19th centuries, these historical houses are now museums where you can appreciate the functions of different areas, the overall architecture, and other details like the stucco exterior, patterned tiles, and outstanding murals. Among the historical houses to visit are Borujerdi House, Tabatabaee-ha House, Abasian House, and Ameri-ha House. Also worth the entrance fee is the Sultan Amir Ahmad Bathhouse, an impressive hammam that provides a peek into the gathering spot of locals in the days gone by. Spend the rest of your time in Kashan wandering around the delightful Fin Garden and getting lost in the historic bazaar. You could also step into one of the oldest archaeological sites in central Iran, Tepe Sialk.
Getting out: Take the bus from Kashan Bus Terminal to Tehran. Two hours into the journey, get off at Imam Khomeini International Airport for your flight home.
See you in Iran!
That wraps up what is potentially a fruitful journey to Iran. While I’ve outlined the main cities and attractions, it’s advisable to keep your itinerary flexible to accommodate any last-minute changes in plans. More importantly, come with an open mind and embrace all the interactions you’ll have with the friendly locals — they might just be the conduit to experiences that are more memorable than all the mosques, museums, and palaces you’ll be seeing.