Branded as a member of the ‘axis of evil’, visitors to Iran will find its people are some of the friendliest anywhere, though those who fancy a tipple or insist on overt feminism may feel somewhat out of place. Flexible visitors will be rewarded with ruins of ancient cities, magnificent mosques, mausoleums and museums as well as some hearty outdoor activities.

Why You Should Go

What’s Cool: No one cooks rice like Iranians, ski resorts, Tehran’s museums, tea drinking, tasty kebabs, ancient ruins, limpid thermal springs, world’s largest lake, luxuriant forests in Alborz mountain chain, extinct volcanoes and cheliferous nights.

What’s Not: Coffee is hard to find, open storm water drains, traffic mayhem, gay and lesbian intolerance, sex segregation, no booze, fake cops, no flirting, taking photos can be dangerous, two-tier pricing, aggressive carpet sellers, thumbs up means something else. A belligerent president.

When to Go

The four seasons in Iran are clearly distinct.

Spring (March to May) is at first cold and windy, but later becomes agreeably warm and often sunny.

Summer (June to August) is mostly warm, but sometimes hot, with lots of sunshine interspersed by heavy rains.

Autumn (September to November) is initially warm and generally sunny, later getting cold, damp and foggy.

Winter (December to March) can see considerable snowfall. January and February may be bitterly cold, though daytime is often pleasantly mild, especially in the south.

Getting There & Away

Most visitors arrive at Tehran Airport and affordable domestic flights are the most convenient way to cover the vast distances. There’s a comprehensive rail network and some destinations can only be reached by train. Buses are extensive, cheap and comfortable, though services can be unreliable. Urban taxis (orange or blue) take several passengers at a time and are a great deal cheaper than private taxis, which only carry one passenger.

Health & Safety

Iran is a safer destination than American presidents will have us think, but it’s a good idea to seek advice on which areas may be unwise to visit including those in southeastern Iran. Women travelers should cover up and may be perceived as taking after Pamela Anderson. Gay and lesbian visitors should stay in the closet or they may quickly find themselves on the next flight home, or worse. Tap water is generally safe to drink, and Iranian doctors are sought after worldwide.

Food & Hospitality

Iranians are world champions in rice cooking. Unfortunately, they prefer to eat at home, so restaurants are not as plentiful as the high quality of the cuisine would suggest. Better get used to kebabs! Accommodation ranges from luxurious, if somewhat sleepy, to the small and cheap guesthouses that can be found around most centers. Staff here gladly provide rooms for non-Iranians, since these lodgings have a directive from local governments to accommodate all tourists.

Itineraries

One week is the least you can get away with to enjoy some of the highlights.

  • A day or two to see the capital’s highlights, mainly the impressive museums.
  • Two or three days in Shiraz, with buildings dating back to the 9th century and many excellent parks and gardens. Persepolis is nearby, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
  • Two or three days in Isfahan, the former capital of Persia and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its glorious central square is about seven times larger than San Marco in Venice.

Extra time

  • Four or five days in the Golden Triangle, between Hamadan, Kermanshah and Khorramabad, which are rich in historical links and traversed by the Silk Road in earlier times.
  • A couple of days in Masulé, a traditional and well-preserved mountain village in Gilan province, boasting terraced cream-colored houses.
  • Three or four days in the Alborz mountain chain near Tehran for skiing or hiking among stunning scenery.

Highlights

choqa-zanbil: is a UNESCO World Heritage site featuring a splendid brick temple tower and grand semi-desert isolation.

imam-square: in Isfahan is the second-largest square on earth and home to possibly the grandest collection of buildings in the Islamic world.

kharanaq-village: is believed to be over 1,000 years old in parts and houses a restored mosque, a 17th century trembling minaret and a caravansary.

mil-e-gonbad-tower: in Gonbade Kâvusis is so astonishingly well preserved that it’s hard to believe it’s almost 1,000 years old.

persepolis: the Throne of Jamshid represents the finest achievements of the ancient Achaemenid Empire with colossal staircases, delicate reliefs, gigantic columns and impressive gateways.

Activities

Cultural sightseeing: is a must with all the lovely mosques and museums, stunning scenery and intriguing ancient culture.

Skiing: in the Alborz Mountains from January to March.

Waterskiing: facilities can be found at the Karadj Dam near Tehran.

Fishing: in the many streams that are teeming with trout such as the Djaje-Rud, Karadje and the Lar. The Caspian Sea is home to large numbers of bream, mullet, salmon and sturgeon.

Trekking and climbing: are best done as part of package holidays, which can be booked at any Iran Air office throughout the world.

Shopping: in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, the world’s largest bazaar, to practice your bargaining skills.

Festivals & Events

Iranians are deeply religious and so are their festivals, when almost everything closes.

January: Zoroastrian Midwinter Festival celebrates the element of fire to keep the spirits of darkness at bay.

March: Zoroastrian Spring Festival, or New Year, celebrates the symbolic triumph of light, righteousness and fire, embodied in the shape of the Wise Lord Ahura Mazda.

March: Chahar Shanbeh Suri Bonfire Festival sees people leaping through bonfires to banish the night and the forces of darkness.

December: Yalda Festival marks the longest night of the year and melons are eaten to ward off illness.