This country is so diverse that it has something for every type of traveler, no matter what interests you. But the main tourist attractions, Iran bucket list places, have to be Isfahan and Shiraz. The architecture is stunning, the kind that leaves you speechless. Wonder at the incredibly colorful mosques and get the most beautiful pictures of Iran! When you’re there don’t forget to do a day trip to Persepolis and to spend a night in the Varzaneh desert.
Read the other parts of this post here:
Part 1: First stop and my impressions on the country
Part 2: The breathtaking nature
Part 4: Iran’s greatest treasure, its people
Iran Bucket List places
I took a long day bus (600.000 rials, about 9 hours) to work a bit on the way. As usual, they gave me the first seat, just behind the driver. I never knew for sure why, but I guess they want to keep an eye on the foreigners. It was also common that the bus attendant offered me tea when he poured some for the driver. But this time probably he saw the stress on my face and didn’t offer, just put a cup and a candy next to my laptop. I was so grateful I knew how to ‘thank you so much’ in Farsi!
I got to Shiraz later than planned, so the metro was closed. While staring at my map thinking of calling a Snapp, a girl asked me if I needed help. I told her I was expecting to catch the metro, but that I’d get a Snapp, so I was ok. She said she got one with her friends, so I could jump in. I was going much further than them, so I offered to pay. When they got out of the cab she said she paid for the whole trip because I was a guest in her city. Things started amazingly. Iranians never stop surprising me with their level of hospitality.
A lovely couple, Julia from Austria and her Iranian boyfriend, Mohammad, lent me their couch. I kept talking about how excited I was about being in Shiraz. It was one of the places I was looking forward the most. I was daydreaming about the Nasir ol-molk –the Pink mosque. I really had such high expectations about it. So I woke up early and headed straight there. It’s a photographer’s dream. I could not believe the colors! I took a million shots, and sat for a few hours, just to see the reflection of the colored windows spread around the room. Until it hit me. It’s a shame it’s more a runway than a place of worship. You see more girls in big gowns, and crowds out of tour buses than Qurans. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a religious hair in my head, so I visit religious sites for the architecture, history and art, but it surprised me that this particular mosque is not used as a mosque by anyone. Somehow it feels like it lost its spirit. And that’s sad in my book of things.
In search of real place of worship, I ventured into the Shah Cheragh shrine. This is one of the most sacred places in the country –in the whole Shia world, for that matters. But the level of security at the entrance caught me by surprise. After searching if I had something hidden in my clothes, and going through my bag, the lady at security asked me to turn on my phone and camera. She told me to sit down and wait. While waiting I understood it, they ask to turn electronics on to check if they work normally, instead of being a remote control for a bomb. Iranians are as afraid of terrorism as the west is. I was trying to grasp this when a gentleman with a British accent approached me. He was designated to be my guide. Tourist are only allowed in the shrine with a chaperone. Now this is a real religious site! I couldn’t walk freely, nor take all the photos I wanted, but it was Friday and I got to see real Muslims in a holy site. That’s why I travel, to experience different cultures. So I was happy.
The rest of my stay was spent checking other recommended sights: the Vakil bazaar, the Karim Khan citadel, the Naranjestan Qavam mansion and garden, the Tomb of Hafez, and the Quran gate. And drinking tea with strangers that became friends.
I still had another much-anticipated highlight waiting for me, one of Iran bucket list places: Persepolis. The capital of the Achaemenid Empire was not one of the big Persian cities. It was built for ceremonial purposes and to celebrate Nowruz, the Persian New Year, held at the spring equinox. That’s why the main decoration theme is a lion attacking a bull –the symbol of spring triumphs over the symbol of winter. Its earliest remains date back to 515 BC –that’s over 2500 years ago! Not only these structures have endured the passing of time, they’re also the survivors of the destruction Alexander the Great brought with him as he conquered it. When you read the information on-site you notice that he is mentioned only as Alexander. I can easily understand why.
This ancient city was 63 km from my hosts’ place. I wanted to go independently, and there is no public transportation to reach it, so I took a Snapp. I told you how cheap it is, but here’s proof: it was only 31 toman, that’s 2.05€ at my exchange rate, for 63 km!
On my way back I asked the Snapp driver to stop at an often-overshadowed place, Naqsh-E Rustam. It’s a necropolis of the Achaemenid dynasty, with tombs cut high into a cliff face. It’s such an interesting site! One of the rock reliefs commemorates the Battle of Edessa, when Valerian became the only Roman Emperor who was captured as a prisoner of war… Can you imagine the humiliation for the Romans to be captured by Persians? Including the waiting time, the ride back to Shiraz was less than 2.4€
I was ready for the next destination, so I boarded a bus to Isfahan (430.000 rials, about 8 hours). I sat next to a woman with the sweetest little girl. Non of them spoke any English, but anyways the girl was asking me the same question over and over. After a little while, when I saw the concern on her face, I google translated her. She was asking where my mommy was. I was about to die of love. These people are amazing, even if they’re only 4 years old.
This city was the capital of the Safavid Empire, and its architecture is said to be the most beautiful in the country. I must admit I was eager but trying to control the expectations. From the bus station to the center I could see that the city was green and clean, a great start! I drop my backpack and headed straight to the Naqsh-e Jahan square, known as the Imam square. Its construction finished in the early 17th century. Its name means ‘pattern of the world’ and it was designed to display the four main pillars of power –politics, religion, economy, and the citizens: the Ali Qapu palace, the Sheikh Lotfollah mosque, the Qeysarieh bazaar and portal, and the Shah mosque, symbolizing each pillar. The lights and reflections make it look jaw dropping at night. I spent hours just taking it in. This city absolutely deserves a place in everyone’s Iran bucket list.
I started next day back at the square. It’s beautiful with daylight too. The mosaic work of the mosques is just spectacular. So are the details of the Ali Qapu palace. I’d recommend spending at least half a day just exploring this square. I spent almost the whole day. Well, this included meeting a lot of people. First it was Ali, a young carpet vendor in the making, looking to practice his English. He offered me a cup of tea and a quick class on carpet making. I told him there was no way I could buy a carpet because I was backpacking, but he insisted. “It’s my culture and I want to share it with you”, he assured me. After half an hour of seeing carpets and learning a ton about them, I continued exploring the bazaar. Until I met Gabriel. I was trying to buy dates, but google translate failed me to find the right word. Immediately a vendor went to get the guy nearby that spoke English. Gabriel helped me getting the dates and invited me for a cup of tea to eat them with. Taking about politics and day-to-day life in Iran, an hour or two went by. I ran into Mohsen and Nadia, from the Lut desert (such a small world!) and slowly I made my way to the Shah mosque.
There I met Mansour, an Allamah with whom I spent about an hour discussing god and politics. My opinions were not shared, but they were respected. We questioned each other, and I think we both learn from the other’s worldview. I’m still not convinced about his god, and probably he won’t become a vegetarian, but it’s refreshing to be able to go over prejudice and learn something from someone you wouldn’t expect to be able to talk freely with. I asked about the necessity of the hijab, and about discrimination against women in general, and I even questioned the hate speech against the US and Israel.
He told me that women have to be covered because they are God’s best creation and, as such, need to be protected. They’re like pearls, he added. I jumped in enquiring why not men. He told me that if a man is beautiful he has to cover himself too. Ugly ones can be uncovered. But as there’re no ugly women, all must cover. It seemed to me that this mentality has more to do with being born before the 21st century than with religion, so I let it go. I went to the hate speech against the US, and especially against Israel. How can you preach about peace and wish the destruction of a whole nation, I asked. God wants us to help everyone to become better persons, he quickly replied, but if someone is cruel and against society, they have to be eradicated. US and Israel are like a disease, like a tumor, so they have to disappear. I can’t imagine how my face looked like hearing such a statement, but he might have sense it was too much. He went on to explain that Allah will guide them to find a way to coexist. That was a bit better. He asked me if I was raised as a Christian, after I told him I don’t follow any religion. As I said I was, he asked how can they think there’re 3 deities. God is one, he assured me. God created everything, so he can’t have a son! After apologizing for not having an answer, I pushed vegetarianism to the conversation. I’ve read that the Prophet Mohammed said “do not allow your stomachs to become animal’s graveyards”, so I asked how Muslims justify eating meat. He said that animals speak to humans and ask to be slaughtered, so we can be stronger. I brought up that quote and he laughed. “You got me there”, he told me. Can you believe the level of humility? I was happy. I thanked him for his time, and he told me he wished for me to find a husband. I told him I have one (long term boyfriend counts, right?) and he said he was very happy for me. Apparently I need a man to be fulfilled… Really, I think the problem goes way beyond religion, it’s just that some people haven’t gotten the women’s rights memo.
After that delightful conversation I headed to the palace. At the entrance I met Hami, an architecture student that showed me all the details of this superb building. He offered to show me a bit of the city on his motorbike. What a fun experience it was! You either hold on to the driver (not too much, though, because Iran) or you hold on to your hijab. Somehow I managed to do both while constantly asking him to stop laughing at me (yes, I can really multitask). Helmets, you ask? Lots of the bikes don’t even have rear-view mirrors xD In Hami’s defense, we met a few days later and he brought a helmet for me. I was the only person in Isfahan, probably in the whole country, wearing one.
He drove me to the office of TAP Persia, where I had a meeting with the cool founders of the company. Hadi, Rasool and Amir were super welcoming, and we ended up recording a vlog about my experiences in their beautiful country while drinking carrot juice with saffron ice cream. Yes, I’m fully aware of how weird that sounds, but it tastes surprisingly good.
The bridges of Isfahan are another important feature of the city, with SioSe and Khaju bridges as the kings. Not only they are an impressive sight, they’re also a reunion point. The park that embellishes both banks of the Zayandeh river is full of families enjoying the outdoors. It’s a lovely place to relax and do some people watching, after you had you fix of striking architecture that is. Jolfa, the Armenian district, a simple 20 minutes walk form the SioSe pol, it’s the other place in town that’s recommended as a must-see. In all honesty, I wasn’t too impressed. Probably because I knew I was heading to Armenia later on the trip, so I expected the real thing to be better.
I left my last day in town to go for a hike in the mountains. The Soffeh park was the place. I went up the cable car to escape quickly from all the families that were strolling around the main part of the park, but when I got up a big dark cloud was there waiting. I went for tea to wait it out, but 20 minutes later the waiter told me there were going to close the cable car because of the weather. So that was it. I couldn’t even see a good panorama of the city. When I reached the bottom it was raining cats and dogs. A local, Amir, asked me if I needed any help. I told him that I’d call a Snapp, and he assured me that I’d find none with that weather. It was true. So he and his brother offered me a ride. I told him I was going to the city center, but that wherever they were going would be find, I could figure it out from there, and he looked at me with surprise. 15 minutes later he tried to drop me off at a mall. This is City Center, he said. I laughed and told him that I meant the center of the city. They laughed too and continue driving. I looked at the map and realized they went to the opposite side of town, just to help a stranger. Iran is a wonderful place!
After all the wonders Isfahan shared with me, I was ready for one more desert.
After so much time in cities, I was craving a nature fix. So I headed to yet another desert. Varzaneh is a quick-ish bus ride away from Isfahan (2:30 hours, 50.000 rials) and the photos I’ve seen of the sand dunes were enough reason to board it. I stayed in a guest house that offered to organize a night camping in the desert. The owner, Mohammad, also offers a class on Persian medicine. We spent a few hours drinking tea, while he explained how there’re 4 elements in everything, and how everything is prone to one more than the rest. It made so much sense! There’re 4 seasons, 4 times of the day, 4 basic elements for plants to live, 4 climates, 4 tastes, 4 stages in the cycle of human life. It even applies to architecture –if you use all 4 your house will be more balanced. He went on to explain how to create an equilibrium between these elements on the food we eat, and the moment we eat it, to have a healthier life. I felt relaxed and full of new knowledge, ready for a night in the desert.
Sajad went with me and helped me set everything up. He made a fire, put some potatoes to roast, and a kettle to brew tea. The setting was wonderful, and to top it all a handsome but shy sand fox tried to approach us. There’re few things that I enjoy more than seeing wild animals in their natural habitat, so this fox made my day!
I woke up next day to see the sunrise over the dunes. I can’t tell you enough how magical the colors in the desert are, and how stunning it looks when the sun appears. It was a windy night, so the dunes were waiting for me with beautiful shapes, completely untouched, except for the footprints of my furry friend. What a lovely sight to wake up to!
After going up and down the dunes, and taking a hundred million photos, I came back to the city. A hammam was waiting for me. Mohammad sent me to Fatime. She didn’t speak any English, and it was wonderful to see how non-verbal communication can be so enjoyable. I spent a few hours “talking” to her, without using any words. Varzaneh was a great discovery, and it was incredible to see its angels walking around, but I was ready to venture into Kurdistan.