dreamed about visiting Iran for ages; it’s a fertile ground
for cultural heritage and brilliant landscapes. Earlier this year,
the Middle Eastern nation scaled back its nuclear programme in
exchange for the lifting of UN sanctions. With decades of social
and economic isolation reversed, we wanted to explore the country
before it is overrun by tourists.
Iran suffers harsh climates in winter and
summer, so spring seemed an ideal time to go, particularly as it
coincided with Norooz (Persian New Year), Iranians’ most important
and beautiful annual celebration. Our must-see list included cities
such as Tehran, Isfahan, Yazd, Shiraz and Kashan alongside ancient
villages and the unmatchable Persepolis. Yet, in true Iranian
style, not all went as planned: we spontaneously skied the Alborz
mountains and squeezed in an impromptu visit to the Caspian
On our descent to Khomeini International Airport, Tehran appears
a patchwork of earthy colours. Women aboard our flight drape bright
scarves loosely over their hair. Here, it seems, Sharia laws are
merely rules to be bent. Indeed the whole country is a paradox.
Ancient traditions and new customs collide. Democracy and theocracy
rule in tandem. Everything requires a second glance. During an
hour-long journey into the city centre, our taxi driver plays his
favourite Iranian and Turkish songs. In the distance, the majestic
Alborz mountains are capped with the last of the winter snow.
There is so much to see in Tehran: museums housing ancient
treasures, galleries with cutting-edge political art, royal palaces
and parks of bygone eras. We begin early at the stunning Golestan
Palace before getting hopelessly lost in the nearby Grand Bazaar
where we eat a tahchin – cakes of chicken and saffron rice – and
sip Iranian tea under clouds of shisha. A taxi takes us downtown to
Seyhoun Art Gallery, the perfect starting point for an afternoon of
contemporary gallery-hopping. Come dinner time, we head north for
fresh air and food at cafes around Tajrish Square, the beating
heart of the city at night.
Kashan is all about history. Former homes of wealthy families
today serve as museums, restaurants and hotels. Setting off early
to avoid traffic, the journey from Tehran takes just three hours by
taxi. With fascinating domes and rooftop views, Kashan’s Bazaar is
a must-see, especially if you want to stock up on nuts and spices.
We later visit the 2,000 year old Abyaneh village where
traditionally dressed women stew ash (a fermented noodle and
vegetable soup) amid red-hued mud houses.
Isfahan is beautiful. From the splendid Ali Qapu palace, we
overlook Naqsh-e Jahan square and the country’s premier mosques.
After exploring the local bazaar, we visit Chehel Sotoun, a
20-columned Safavid palace. The Jolfa quarter reflects centuries of
cosmopolitanism from its colourful Vank Cathedral to decent cup of
coffee. We walk the Zayandeh river, catching sunset from the Khaju
and Si-o-seh Pol bridges, surrounded by picnicking families and
street performers. Dizzy from all we have seen, we wind down with
doogh, a refreshingly minty yoghurt drink.
From the architecturally beautiful desert city of Yazd, a driver
takes us up through silhouetted mountains to Chak Chak, where
pilgrims flock to the Zoroastrian fire temple. Later we visit two
other villages: Meybod and the 4,000 year old Kharanaq. We arrive
back in the city just in time to catch a ceremonial workout session
at a famous zurkhaneh gym. In a daze, we glide back to our lodgings
and devour more tahchin.
Next stop: Shiraz. It’s Iran’s most westernised city. Streets
buzz with young adults. Clothing is more liberal. Globally, the
area is best known for its resident poets (including Saadi and
Hafez) and its wine, though alcohol has been prohibited in the
country since the late seventies. Owing to Norooz, the crowds
around Persepolis are massive. We find a spot on the hills and soak
up the magnificent Achaemenid city. Despite wear, tear and
ransacking, it’s fascinating. We watch sunset from Eram Garden
before grabbing a kebab from one of the city’s most loved
We’re up at 4AM to breakfast on kale pache, a traditional
sheep’s head stew. It’s intensely meaty and so calorific it keeps
us going all day. Later, a short drive takes us to the ancient
mountain village of Ghalat where we stroll through the lush Shirazi
vineyards, lemon groves and fig trees. The architecture here is
spectacular; flat-roofed mud-brick houses perch on impossibly steep
slopes. As the sun sets, we catch a late flight back to Tehran.
A spontaneous decision to visit the Alborz mountains means we
have to borrow some retro ski gear, all rainbow-hued,
seventies-style and skin tight. We arrive at Dizin – 3,500 metres
above sea level and Iran’s largest ski resort – before the crowds.
The terrain is clear of trees, so we freestyle down to the large
basin below. Cramped in the throwback bubble lifts, we chat to
locals who invite us to an evening barbecue where we get our
dancing shoes on, drink magical sweet teas and feast on local
delicacies while playing darts and pool in a cool basement
Skiing day two. Not ones to be put off by bad weather, we have
to pay the lift attendants a little sweetener before ascending. We
have the slopes to ourselves; even the restaurants are closed. As
the fog thickens, we head back early and pack before a four-hour,
4,000 metre descent to the Caspian Sea. Our driver chain-smokes
Bahman cigarettes as we brace ourselves against his heavy-handed
driving. The customary roadside breaks are very welcome.
After a much-needed rest at our friend’s sea-view villa in
Babolsar, we head to the local early-morning fish market, an orgy
of smells, crowds and haggling. At an out-of-town caviar farm,
beluga sturgeon glide around tanks. Come evening, it’s party time.
With our glammed-up hosts we enter a smart gated community amid
queues of flashy cars blaring Iranian hip-hop. Inside, we could be
partying anywhere in the world; there’s fast food, foolish dancing
and lots of flirting.
With throbbing headaches and heavy hearts, we leave for Tehran
to catch our flight home. All the way to the airport we eulogise
our beautiful encounters, unforgettable impressions and amazing
adventures.This ancient land welcomed us with open arms. Far from
feeling intimidated or unsafe, we were greeted by friendly,
open-minded Iranians keen to share their history, food and
- Bring cash; you can’t withdraw money with foreign cards.
- You must carry your passport at all times.
- Many Iranians don’t speak English, so travel guides and a
Persian phrasebook will come in handy.
- The usual travel essentials apply: camera, sun protection, etc.
If you have a penchant for toilet paper, best bring your own; it’s
scarce in Iranian bathrooms. The same goes for tampons which are
not often available local shops.
- While women don’t need to wear a hijab, they should carry
scarves to cover their hair, wear tops with long or mid-length
sleeves and keep their legs covered. Trousers and jeans are
- Winters are cold and summers super hot, so bear this in mind
How to get there
You can travel to Iran with direct flights from some but not all
cities in Europe or via Istanbul, Dubai or Qatar – and The Republic
of Azerbaijan. It takes a bit more than two hours from Istanbul,
while from Europe it’s around five hours. Take a taxi from the
airport and have your destination written in Farsi or call your
host and let them negotiate. Speak about old Iranian music and
football if you want to homie up with the cab driver.