Traveling to Iran means immersing yourself in a millenary culture, appreciating some of the finest Islamic architecture on the planet, tasting delicious food, and enjoying heartfelt hospitality.
If you follow a good Iran travel guide, one day you’ll be seeking out hidden gems in the urban jungle of Tehran, then the next you’ll be climbing over sand dunes, touring the ancient ruins of Persepolis, or watching the sunshine stream through the stunning Nasir Ol Molk mosque in Shiraz.
In Iran, you’ll find that the smiles and friendliness of the locals will accompany you anywhere you go, and that the only real danger is not having enough time to accept all the lunch and dinner invitations you’ll no doubt receive. The word mam’noon—thank you—is the most important Farsi word you can learn before you visit.
Iran will surprise and captivate you, perhaps like nowhere else on Earth. Check out our Iran travel guide for our tips on the top 10 places to visit in this ancient land.
The National Jewels Museum (Tehran)
Have you ever been in a museum located in the underbelly of a bank? As soon as you walk through the thick doors of the National Jewels Museum in Tehran, you’ll realize why it’s located within the Central Bank of Iran. The museum showcases the Crown Jewels, a dazzling collection with pieces dating back over 500 years. Some of the most spectacular exhibits include the Pahlavi Crown, the Daria-i-Noor (one of the largest diamonds in the world, with a distinctive pale pink color), and the Great Globe (which is made of solid gold and decorated with rubies, sapphires, and diamonds).
Naqsh-E-Jahan Square (Esfahan)
Also known as Maidan Imam, Naqsh-E-Jahan is a public square in the center of Esfahan, a city known for its architectural wonders. Naqsh-E-Jahan means “Image of the World.” The square was constructed during the 17th century to display the beauty of Safavid architecture. Nowadays, it’s one of Iran’s most popular UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The square is surrounded by exquisite buildings on all sides. There’s the Shah Mosque (the largest in the city, considered by many to be the best example of Safavid architecture), Ali Qapu Palace, and the entrance to the bazaar, which stretches like a maze all around the square.
Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque (Esfahan)
The Shah Mosque definitely dominates Naqsh-E-Jahan square with its huge dome and iwan. But Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, which is located on the eastern side of the square, is no less amazing. Unlike the Shah Mosque, which was meant for the general public, Sheikh Lotfollah was a private mosque for the ladies of the royal court. This explains why it looks almost hidden from the outside. But the tile work found inside is a lot more exquisite than what you’ll find in the larger mosque.
Nasir Ol Molk Mosque (Shiraz)
From the outside, the Nasir Ol Molk Mosque in Shiraz looks just like any other Iranian building. But as soon as you step inside, you’ll feel as if you’ve entered an incredibly vivid kaleidoscope. Every morning, light streams through the stained-glass windows, reflecting colorful shapes onto the carpet-covered floors. Just don’t forget to look up, as the arches and niches are intricately painted and add to the magical feeling of the place.
Shah Cheragh (Shiraz)
After visiting Nasir Ol Molk, you may think that there’s no other building that can even come close to such beauty. That notion will be misspelled immediately as you enter Shah Cheragh, a mosque and funerary monument that is one of the most important places of pilgrimage in Shiraz. There are few images of this mosque available online, as it’s one of the holiest places for Shia Muslims and photography is often forbidden here. This only adds to the amazement you’ll feel when you walk into the mirror-covered halls and spacious courtyard.
Imam Reza Holy Shrine (Mashhad)
The city of Mashhad is a popular destination for Iranians, but few foreigners ever visit due to the city’s remote location in the northeast of Iran. It’s one of the stops on our Iran by Rail adventure, reached after a comfortable night onboard a luxury train. Mashhad is famous for the Imam Reza Shrine, the final resting place of one of the 12 imams of Shia Islam and the largest mosque in the world. You’ll need a few hours to tour the mirror-covered halls, appreciate the colorful tile work, and cross the many courtyards that make up the mosque complex.
Persepolis and Pasargadae
The ancient archaeological site of Persepolis is where the history of Persian civilization truly comes to life. The town was the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire until it was destroyed by Alexander the Great in 330 BC. However, the remains of several buildings survived the millennia, including the Great Temple of Artaxerxes and the Gate of All Nations, which was formerly the entrance to the grandiose city. Nearby Pasargadae is also worth a visit: The city was the Empire’s capital under Cyrus the Great, and still houses his tomb.
Fin Garden (Kashan)
This historic Persian garden, located in Kashan, is a stunning ensemble of symmetric vistas, secular cypresses, and cedar trees. Its fountains and water features symbolize the Persian idea of heaven. It seems incredible that such a place exists in the middle of the vast desert. When the garden was built over 500 years ago, water was channeled from a natural spring via pools and fountains to feed the garden. The two pavilions in the garden are worth a visit, especially the two-story pool house.
On the way between Esfahan and Tehran, our Wonders of Persia adventure stops in Abyaneh, a remote village in the heart of the Karkas mountains. Abyaneh is famous for its unusual architecture, with red-brown houses that look as if they blend into the mountainside. It’s also known for the distinctive dialect spoken by its inhabitants, which is believed to contain elements of the ancient Persian language.
The Windcatchers of Yazd
The city of Yazd is located in the center of Iran, surrounded by a desert, so summers around this area get brutally hot. Long before air conditioning was invented, the people of Yazd kept their homes cool with badgir, or windcatchers. These towers are built to channel air downwards into the house, maintaining a constant airflow and cooling the rooms naturally. Yazd is also worth a visit for its Zoroastrian sites. Check out the Zoroastrian temple, where a flame has been burning non-stop for 1,500 years, and the Towers of Silence, where Zoroastrians used to leave their dead.
Margherita is a freelance writer from Milan, Italy. She is passionate about wildlife, ecotourism, and outdoor adventure activities. She runs the popular nature and adventure travel blog The Crowded Planet with her husband Nick Burns, an Australian travel and wildlife photographer.