For a country of its size, Iran offers a plehora of things to see and do – especially if you love architecture as well as the great outdoors – that it’s probably hard to compartmentalize the country into a short one or two week stretch. Boasting some of the most beautiful cities, atmospheric desert towns, intricately constructed buildings as well as unreal landscapes, Iran is an eye-opening place and definitely has something for everyone.
The classic travel route for Iran is the one that stretches from Tehran to Shiraz, covering other cities such as Kashan, Esfahan and Yazd in between. Given that these cities are well connected, there’s little need to back track so you can either start in the north in Tehran or down south in Shiraz. This itinerary aims to show how you can cover these cities in Iran, starting from Tehran, but you can easily reverse this.
Table of Contents
Day 1 – Tehran (Azadi and Milad Towers, Golestan Palace, Grand Bazaar)
Tehran, the sprawling capital of Iran, is the largest city in Western Asia. For most travelers, the introduction to Iran, is one of congested roads and air pollution. If you happen to visit during a public holiday, it’s a totally different story and you’ll find highways almost empty.
Tehran has quite a number of sights worth visiting and you can easily get around by taxi or hired car. The city also has a metro and is a great alternative for getting around, especially considering the traffic jams. A must visit when in Tehran is the Azadi Tower, an architectural gem that was built to commemorate 2,500 years of the Persian empire. The tower is surrounded by a park which is encircled by a roundabout. It is possible to enter the tower for a fee but in my opinion, you’re better off admiring the curves from the park itself than to be inside the tower.
Another tower you can check out is the Milad Tower, which offers fantastic views of the city as well as the Alborz Mountains in the distance. Compared to Azadi, Milad Tower is a thoroughly modern construct.
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Aside from Azadi Tower and Milad Tower, most of the other sights in Tehran are conveniently located near the stations of the original (red) metro line so it would be practical to group these places together. These attractions include: Saadabad Palace, the former US embassy in Iran, Golestan Palace as well as the Grand Bazaar. Depending on how much time you have left after visiting the towers, you can visit around 1 or 2 other sights along the red metro line before calling it a day. A personal recommendation for an afternoon visit would be the Golestan Palace. This used to be the royal palace when Iran was still a monarchy. Some of the rooms here, including the Mirror Hall, Brilliant Hall and Karim Khani Nook, showcase impressive Persian symmetrical designs. Note that you’d need to purchase separate tickets to enter some of these halls.
Tip: All over Iran, you will get looks walking around as a tourist. The overwhelming majority of these have no malice in them and are just indications of curiosity. A common gesture is to say hello back which in some cases, lead to conversations and even invitations for dinner. It is up to you whether to accept or not. I have accepted one such invitation and some travelers I spoke to did the same. But that doesn’t mean that Iran is scam-free. In a separate incident, a local offered to show me around town as a goodwill gesture and later tried to extort me money for it.
Directly outside the Golestan Palace is Tehran’s Grand Bazaar. You can practically find everything here, from spices to handicrafts, apparel and of course, carpets. While Tehran is still not a touristy place, it’s useful to haggle if you intend to bring a rug back home.
Day 2 – Tehran (Tajrish, Den of Espionage)
Your second day in Tehran can be spent venturing to the sights at the farther reaches of Tehran’s red metro line. A personal favorite spot is Tajrish, where the line ends. The air here is cooler and fresher, and the higher altitude makes for a refreshing change to the grit of downtown Tehran. In autumn, you can visit places such as the Saadabad Royal Complex for a burst of red and yellow foliage. Tajrish also serves as a gateway to the Darband and Tochal mountains, where one could ski during winter.
Further down near Taleghani Station is the former US Embassy in Iran, now called the Den of Espionage and converted into a museum. The site played a particular significance during Iran’s 1979 revolution when students held American diplomats hostage in the embassy for more than a year. The museum grounds offers a colorful throwback to diplomatic life from 40 years ago while the frontage has plenty of colorful anti-American murals, the most famous one depicting the Statue of Liberty with the face of a skull.
After having your fill of Tehran, you can catch a late afternoon or evening bus to the next destination – Kashan, which is around a 3-hour drive. There are plenty of departures each day from the bus terminals and there is no need to book in advance, with the exception of major holidays like Nowruz.
Day 3 – Kashan
A relatively small town, Kashan, is a must visit especially for architecture lovers. The town has plenty of mansions that were built by rich merchant families and gardens offering a calming perspective to Iranian life – a wonderful contrast from the frenetic pace of Tehran.
There are 4 old houses you need to visit in Kashan and these are the Boroujerdi House, Ameriha House, Tabatabaie House and the Abbasian House. All these houses boast of intricate facades but it is the Boroujerdi House which has the more stunning carvings and interiors of four while the Tabatabaie House is probably the biggest. Note that the Ameri House has been converted into a hotel as of late.
Located in the same area as the old houses is the Sultan Amir Ahmad Hammam, also known as Qasemi Hammam. Bathing was an elaborate ritual in old Persia and this is manifested in no small part in the elaborate design of the bathing pool. Covered in turquoise and gold tilework, floral patterns as well as utter symmetry that will delight architectural buffs, the bathhouse is an interesting place to visit even though it is no longer used. You can also check out the rooftop for a view of the hammam’s bulbous domes as well as the windcatchers from the mansions in the distance.
On the way to the bazaar of Kashan, the 18th century Agha Bozorg Mosque is a recommended stop for its symmetrical design and layered courtyard that extends underground.
Optional: If you have a half-day to spare in your Iran trip, an excursion to the village of Abyaneh is recommended. The town is known for its reddish hue which permeates all the buildings. Visiting here is all about soaking the charming ambiance and interacting with friendly villagers. There is no specific must-see here except for the panorama of the reddish village from afar.
With the exception of Fin Garden, the bulk of Kashan’s tourist spots are within walking distance of each other so my suggestion is to visit the Fin Garden as a stop if you are going on a day trip or excursion to Abyaneh. Otherwise, you can hire a taxi or private car to get you there and back to town. Fin Garden is a typical example of a Persian style garden – characterized by a long water feature that leads to a central structure – and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Day 4 – Isfahan
Catch a morning bus to the city of Isfahan. From Kashan, the trip to Isfahan takes just a little under 3 hours.
Called half the world by Iranians, Isfahan is easily the most touristy city in Iran, and with good reason. Its humongous and spectacular public square – the Imam Square – is one of the highlights of any visit to Iran. Flanked by the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque on one side and the Imam Mosque on the other, as well as well-manicured lawns and horse-drawn carriages going around, this public square is the second largest in the world after Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
Located at the opposite side of the square, the Ali Qapu Palace is another place worth visiting. The highlight here is the music room which have deliberate and attractive holes on the walls to help with the acoustics.
Around a 5 to 10 minute walk to the west of the square is Chehel Sotoun, also called the Palace of 40 Columns. Located in the middle of a park, the interiors of this palace is marked by grand frescoes depicting ancient battles (the Battle of Chaldiran in particular) while the exterior has 20 columns supporting it. Despite only having 20 columns, the 40 columns in the name is brought about by the reflection from the elongated pool in front of the palace, which when reflected shows 40 columns.
Another palace to check out in the area, to the south of Chehel Sotoun, is Hasht Behesht. This is another palace surrounded by a park and is notable for its elaborate ceilings.
If you still have time after this, a walk back to Imam Square is highly suggested. The square takes on a different scene at nightfall, with families out and about and many of the buildings floodlit. The sound of the Islamic call to prayer with the square as backdrop is perhaps one of the most exotic moments one can experience in Iran.
Day 5 – Isfahan
There are plenty of things to see in Isfahan so 2 full days is just about the bare minimum. For the second day, you can check out the attractions farther out from the square – including the Jameh Mosque, Vank Cathedral as well as Sio-se-pol Bridge and Khaju Bridge. The bridges are best visited towards sunset when they’re lighted up so I would suggest starting at the Jameh Mosque.
The Jameh Mosque of Isfahan is the main mosque of the city and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in its own right in 2012. It is the oldest mosque in Iran that still stands to the present day, dating back from the 8th century. Adjacent to the mosque is Isfahan’s own Grand Bazaar. While not as charming as the bazaar around Imam Square, the former presents a more authentic side to local life.
A nice change from the mosques is the Vank Cathedral, a church located in the neighborhood of Jolfa south of the river. The cathedral is a stunning mix of Islamic and Christian architecture, with all the hallmarks of Persian-style symmetry. From the outside, the church actually looks like a mosque with its bulbous dome but once you’re in, you’ll see frescoes depicting Biblical stories such as Adam & Eve as well as events from the life of Jesus Christ. The area surrounding Vank Cathedral in particular, is brimming with cafes, and is a nice place for an afternoon rest especially when it gets very hot.
As night falls, head over to check out the two beautiful bridges – Sio-se-pol as well as Khaju Bridge which are both lit up. Even during the dry months when you can barely see the river, these 17th century bridges still function to transport people between the north and south side of the city.
Day 6 – Yazd
Many travelers tend to bypass Yazd in their Iran trip due to its slightly out-of-the way location from the main north to south route. To do that would be a mistake, in my opinion. Yazd is different from the other cities. There is a romantic, fairy-tale like quality to this town that brings to mind stories such as Aladdin. Think: maze-like alleyways made of clay, bumping into random mansions or historic houses turned hotels and being invited to rooftops to appreciate the windcatcher-dominated skyline of the old town.
Although there are quite a few sights in town, wandering and getting lost inside the old town is perhaps the biggest draw of the city. The most recognized building in town, the Amir Chakmaq Mosque, is worth a visit. The structure is noted for its arched alcoves which get lighted up at night. I visited twice – once during the day, and another time to appreciate it at night. Just next to the Amir Chakmaq complex is a zurkaneh or a house of strength. The Saheb-al-Zaman Zurkaneh (workouts occur Saturday to Thursday from 7 to 8PM) is the place to go to witness men working out using traditional wooden clubs – in sync to the tune of local music and trance-like chanting.
Another interesting place to visit in Yazd is the Atashkadeh or the Zoroastian fire temple. A nice break from Islamic architecture, this is the place to visit to understand more about one of the world’s oldest religions. The temple also contains what is said to be the oldest continuously burning flame.
Day 7 – Yazd
Your second day in Yazd can be spent visiting attractions you did not manage to cover the previous day. While there are still more to see in Yazd such as the Dowlatabad Gardens (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), the Water Museum for a fascinating peek of how water is distributed in this desert city and Yazd’s own Friday Mosque, I would recommend spending a couple of hours just getting lost in the old town. Perhaps you can stumble upon a nice-looking old house or two. Compared to the ones in Kashan, some of the traditional houses in Yazd have been converted into restaurants and cafes. It’s a highly atmospheric affair sipping on a cup of tea (or two) and downing a hot stew especially on a cold day.
The afternoon can be spent catching a bus to the next destination – Shiraz. The Yazd to Shiraz bus ride is the longest in this trip and takes over 5 hours. It will be well into the evening once you arrive in Shiraz.
Day 8 – Shiraz
There is probably no other city in Iran that conjures romantic images as much as the city of Shiraz. The city of poets as well as wine. This city is undoubtedly the premier city in the southern part of Iran and the well-developed infrastructure attests to this. Despite the city’s size, many of the sights are actually within walking distance from the main street – Zand Boulevard.
Start your day at the Arg of Karim Khan, an 18th century brick citadel typical in the Middle East. Its location and traditional appearance near a busy roundabout in downtown Shiraz makes for an interesting contrast.
Turn right and walk through Vakil Bazaar where you can make a stop at the Vakil Mosque with its spectacular columns. Next, make your way to Lotf Ali Khan Zand Street which is parallel to Zand Boulevard. Your priority in the morning should be to visit Nasir-ol-Molk Mosque. Just another mosque you say? If you are active in social media, especially instagram, this is one place you must check out in Shiraz. Within walking distance from the mosque is the Narenjestan Garden, the first of many gardens you will encounter in Shiraz. The gardens and the house within the compound were built by the wealthy Qavam family in the 1800s. The gardens are known for its tile work depicting 3 figures from the Qajar Dynasty.
The rest of the day should be spent visiting sights that are further afield. The Eram Garden, is in my view, the most impressive among Iran’s gardens. The building fronting it, is painted in a soothing white and is decked with numerous paintings. From Narenjestan, allow around 15 minutes drive.
Day 9 – Persepolis
Allow around half a day to venture out of Shiraz to visit the biblical city of Persepolis. One of the great wonders of the world, ranking up there with Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu, the Forbidden City and Taj Mahal; this ancient city embodies Persian heritage so much so that the last Shah of Iran used it as a site for his coronation in the 1970s.
Although laying in ruins, there is still quite a bit of structure left to allow visitors to imagine what it must have looked like back in the day. Bas reliefs on the walls show how various civilizations paid tribute to the Persian empire, bringing gifts to the king. To reach Persepolis, you can book a private tour which includes a visit to Naqsh-e-Rustam as well.
With a morning departure, you can expect to be back in Shiraz by earl afternoon, after which you can spend the rest of the day doing some last minute souvenir shopping or catching your flight out of Iran.
Tips for Visiting Iran
- Many nationalities can obtain a visa-on-arrival for Iran, but there are cases where having a pre-arranged visa or visa authorization code makes sense such as for avoiding long waits at the airport for getting the visa. You can get a pre-arranged visa authorization code here if you prefer to avoid that risk.
- Iran is still mainly a cash society. You’ll find that your Visa, Mastercard and American Express credit cards don’t work. Euros and US Dollars work best for changing money. Many merchants even accept direct payment in these currencies over the ever-depreciating Iranian Rial.
- Many merchants have the habit of quoting prices in tomans rather than Rial, which is the official currency. As a rule of thumb, 1 toman = 10 Rial.
Where to Stay in Iran
Tehran – Pretty much a budget option, Firouzeh Hotel has been a favorite among intrepid travelers particularly due to its very helpful receptionist/s who can give plenty of tips on Tehran.
Kashan – One of the city’s tourist attractions, the Ameriha House, has been turned into a hotel called Saraye Ameriha Boutique Hotel and is currently the top-ranked hotel in Kashan. I personally stayed at the Ehsan House just a few blocks down the road. It’s clean, adequate and also presented in the Persian style, though with less character than its top-ranked rival.
Yazd – Hidden within the snaking alleys of the old town, Kohan Hotel is a charming option with its traditional courtyard typical of houses in Yazd as well as Persian style rooms. If the caretaker is feeling extra friendly, you might be invited up to the rooftop to check out the hotel’s windcatcher as well as admire the ones from the neighboring houses.
Esfahan – For unabashed Persian splendor, the palatial Abbasi Hotel is generally considered the most luxurious hotel in Esfahan though newer boutique options such as Ghasr Monshi Hotel are taking market share away from the Abbasi.
Shiraz – Darbe Shazdeh is a beautiful boutique hotel located not far from Vakil Mosque. Some rooms come with glass stained windows similar to the ones in Nasir ol Molk Mosque. For a more budget option, Sasan Hotel is a reliable hotel just off Zand Boulevard