Trips to Iran will become easier now that the British government considers the vast majority of the country safe for travellers. Here are the country’s highlights
The ruined city of Persepolis, which dates from 515BC, is one of the world’s finest examples of ancient architecture, and was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1979. It was discovered in the 1930s by Andre Godard, a French archaeologist. Today, it is one of the major draws for tourists to Iran. Jonny Bealby, of tour operator Wild Frontiers, said: “There is a lot of pent-up demand to explore the unrivalled Islamic architecture of cities like Isfahan and Shiraz, and discover the world-class archaeological site of Persepolis.”
Imam Square, Isfahan
Robert Byron, the travel writer, in The Road to Oxiana, wrote that, “Isfahan [is] among those rarer places, like Athens or Rome, which are the common refreshment of humanity”. The city, which was once the capital of Persia, holds the mighty 60m x 508m Imam Square, bounded by the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, the Shah Mosque, the Ali Qapu Palace and the Isfahan Grand Bazaar (one of the best places in the country to buy Persian rugs).
Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Isfahan
Indeed, the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque is worth a closer look, such is its splendour. Built in the early 17th-century under Shah Abbas I, the dome is covered in cream tiles that appear to change colour over the course of the day, glowing pink at sunset. The mosque does not have a courtyard or minaret, making it architecturally unusual: this is said to be because the mosque was never intended for public use, but for prayer by members of the Shah’s harem.
Eram Garden, Shiraz
This attraction is named after one of the four gardens of paradise described in the Quran, and visitors will enjoy wandering among the rose garden, which was entirely replanted in 2010. The grand house within has beautiful 19th century tiling, and a depiction of a Sassanid king stumbling upon an Armenian princess as she bathes.
This small village of approximately 305 residents, at an altitude of 2,500m, is composed of small red mud brick houses with decorated entrance ways. At the centre of the village lies a ruined fire temple, thought to date from the 3rd century AD. Women here still wear traditional dress of a long white scarf with a colourful pattern.
Golestan Palace, Tehran
This large complex of 12 museums shows the wealth of successive Persian rulers – although the fact that many of the original buildings are no longer standing, having been torn down by various vying parties, also shows the tension between them. Highlights here include the Hall of Mirrors, inspired by the Shah’s 1873 visit to Versailles in France, and the Marble Throne veranda.
The Towers of Silence, Yazd
These burial towers outside the desert city of Yazd were used by the adherents of Zoroastrianism, an ancient Iranian religion, to “purify” bodies before burial. Until just 40 years ago, corpses were placed on the towers in the belief that exposure to elements would prevent their contamination by demons. The bones were then taken to an ossuary for burial. The practice is now illegal, but the towers are a fascinating, if rather morbid, attraction.
Ancient cities and rich culture aside, Iran has – perhaps surprisingly – high mountains and ski resorts. Tochal, known as the “roof of Tehran”, lies at 3,964 metres and offers good skiing seven to eight months of the year.
Milad Tower, Tehran
Built in 2007, this tower is the tallest in Iran, and while it does not rival any of Dubai’s monoliths, it stands taller than the Shard, at 435 metres. Climb to one of its viewing platforms at sunset for great views of the mountains that surround Tehran.
Merchant houses, Kashan
Known for its high quality ceramics and silk work, Kashan, like other Iranian cities, is home to caravanserais, mosques and hammams. It stands out for its merchant houses, however, including the Khaneh Tabatabiyeh, which dates from 1881, where public rooms, family space and servants’ quarters are clearly demarcated.
Tour the Bavanat Valley
The long, narrow Bavanat Valley lies in the heart of the Zagros Mountains, and is home to Qashqai nomads in the summer. People here make a living from agriculture and growing walnut trees, and the valley offers excellent guided trekking opportunities.