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Arguably the most open and outward-looking city in Iran, a visit to Shiraz reveals the true diversity of the country. While Tehran is a frenetic, thriving metropolis and Isfahan is almost sealed in the sphere of its own beauty, Shiraz is a different story altogether. It was Iran’s central trade hub on the Silk Road and has drawn people from all parts of the Middle East for centuries. It’s the beating heartland of Persian culture, with a rich poetic, mystical and philosophical history. While the first thing that many Tehranis will quiz you about is your conceptions of their country, in Shiraz they’ll want to know about your world views. Some of Iran’s most venerated poets were inspired by journeys through the surrounding desert or while walking the city’s lush walled gardens… A trip to Shiraz will stay with you forever.
The perfect day
Anyone worth their salt should begin the day by devouring some sheep-head stew, known locally as kale pache. Not for the faint-hearted, this hearty breakfast is the go-to for labourers who need to be sustained all day, so the cafés serving it are only open from 4-7AM – make like a true Shiraz local and rise with the sun to be sure not to miss out.
With your stomach filled, head out of town into the stunning mountains surrounding the city, towards Ghalat. This area is famous for its rich agriculture; vineyards and citrus groves stretch in every direction, scattered with blossoming fig and walnut trees. Although wine is strictly prohibited, grapes themselves are not and you might just get your hands on some home brew if you’re invited into a friend’s house (but don’t tell). Ghalat itself is a fascinating mixture of winding lanes, small bridges, waterfalls and ancient architecture, while the fertile land and abundance of farmers have recently earned it the nickname of ‘Little Amsterdam‘.
In the evening, head to the tombs of Hafez and Saadi before making your way to the famous Eram Garden, where you can stroll along pine-tree-lined paths listening to Persian poetry emanating from speakers hidden among the trees. Get a guide to explain the meaning behind some of these famous verses – think on it for a while – and then ask another guide for their explanation. It’s fascinating (and rather amusing) to compare the totally conflicting answers that you will no doubt receive.
This is the place for a down to earth, relaxed stay. A boutique hotel housed in a splendid 19th-century mansion, it’s tucked away down a side street but is still just a few minutes walk from the main sights. Most rooms lead off from an amazing central courtyard which is a mix flowers, orange trees, comfy seating areas and fountains which you can lounge around and pick up tips from fellow travellers.
- +98 71 3223 3623
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The advantage of this more upmarket option is the incredible view from the top-floor restaurant. The hotel towers over the rest of the city so you can see the Zagros mountains which vanish into darkness over dinner. Rooms are top-notch, but steeper prices give it a more corporate atmosphere which may not be to everyone’s taste.
- + 98 71 1626 2000
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Aryo Barzan Hotel
Benefits of the Aryo are its easy-to-use English website and English-speaking staff. If you’re looking for a central location and an uncomplicated solution to travel headaches in a country which is not always easy to navigate, this is a good bet.
- +98 71 3224 7182
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This minute restaurant has people queueing round the block. Run by three sisters, a menu packed with truly unique dishes makes a welcome change from the more formulaic offerings you’ll find elsewhere. The lamb cutlets in plum sauce are glorious, while there are also some great vegetarian options – and at about $15 a head you get a lot of bang for your buck.
- +98 713 235 9271
This is the place to try the Shirazi speciality, faloodeh. A cold dessert made from corn-starch vermicelli noodles, immersed in semi-frozen rosewater sugar syrup and scattered with pistachios. Totally delicious, just beware the brain freeze. Equally more-ish is ab havij bastani – a carrot juice float made with saffron ice cream.
You could feast here for a whole week if you wanted – if not, a visit after a day trip to Persepolis is an absolute must. The restaurant’s name alludes to renowned Persian poet Ferdowsi’s epic poem, Shahnameh, and the seven tasks undertaken by its hero, Rostam. Thus, the complex has no less than seven separate dining options to choose from: sample local Iranian fare before moving onto some European food next door (schnitzel anyone?), then drop into a café for shisha and tea.
- +98 91 7787 8400
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It’s a mission to find this authentic little tea house in the middle of the main bazaar – but well worth it when you do. Adorned with traditional carpets and paintings, the super cosy atmosphere is welcome respite from the madness outside. Tuck into delicious homemade dizi, a traditional Iranian stew which varies everywhere you go; here, it’s a delicious combination of lamb and chickpeas.
- +98 71 1222 9572
Trip to Persepolis
Persepolis needs no introduction; a sprawling architectural site also known as Takht-e-Jamshid, this ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire has ruins dating back to 515 BC. It’s about a 30-minute cab ride from Shiraz and a surefire way to appreciate ancient Persia in all its glory. Get a guide because it can be overwhelming without, while the region’s imperial history really comes to life with a little explanation. Don’t miss the Tomb of Cyrus the Great near the palaces of Pasargadae, while it’s fascinating to learn about Zoroastrian traditions of just rulership – it’s no wonder people say this was the first empire to have human rights.
Shiraz is known for its good weather and there is no better place to while away a day than in the Eram Garden. It’s several little gardens all leading onto a beautiful canal and a palace full of impressive architecture and stunning mirror work. The rest of the complex is traversed by man-made rivers and blooms with beautiful flora. Many local tourists like to make a real effort by dressing up in full Persian attire for their visit, which further adds to the idyll.
- +98 71 3227 2538
Visit the mosques
Similar to Isfahan, Shiraz is known for its mind-blowing mosques. Vakil mosque a firm favourite due to its ornate tilework and the large fountain in the middle which makes it somewhat resemble a sort of Iranian Taj Mahal, while Nasir-Ol-Molk is often used as an iconic image in Iranian guidebooks, thanks to incredible window work in the right wing. Visit at the right time and the sun will shine through, reflecting jewelled colours and patterns on the floor. Shah Cheragh is also a very important site for Iranians, with thousands of visitors praying at the tomb of Ahmad and Muhammad (descendants of the Twelve Imams) everyday. Women must wear a chador if they are to enter the glittering, mirrored-glass interior.
Aryo Barzan Hotel
Tour of Persepolis
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