The ancient city of Persepolis, 'half the world' in Esfehan, and some of the friendliest people in the world await the intrepid visitor to ancient Persia
One of the first things to check when planning when and where to go in Iran is the multitude of religious and national holidays, and particularly Ramazan (Ramadan), when eating in daylight can be a real challenge – though one which we managed without too much difficulty, not least because Iranians love to feed visitors. As one businessman said to us: "We will never be as successful as you in Britain, as my staff only work half the year"! Personally, I’m not sure we have the better deal!
‘Half the world’ is the sobriquet given to Esfehan and, though this is mainly because of an old Hafez poem, you can forgive the marketing, because the old town really is one of the most stunning places you will ever see.
The famous bridges over the Si-oh-Seh river, the teashops scattered around the town, good restaurants brimming with Iranian holidaymakers (rooms may be difficult to find, despite the fact that there are a LOT of hotels), and the jewel in the crown – Imam Square. Here you can take more tea and smoke a pipe overlooking the Imam and Lotfollah mosques, as horse drawn carriages trot past. It’s a great place to take some shade from the sun, or watch the sun set.
Strolling along the banks of the Si-oh-Seh, criss-crossing the illuminated bridges as you go, is one of the great evening pastimes of Esfehan, and you’re likely to be periodically approached and engaged in English practice with the locals as you go – their English is often surprisingly good, their knowledge of the West is, unsurprisingly, not. You’re far more likely to be asked how you met your girlfriend, and what westerners really think of Iran, than you are about English grammar.
Jolfa, just over the Si-oh-Seh bridge, is the old Christian area of town and you can take in some wonderful frescoes in the Bethlehem church and Vank cathedral, which are a match for many of the finest Italian artworks - though considerably bloodier in their biblical depictions! Jolfa is now the ‘happening’ area of Esfehan, and at night is filled with late night shoppers and people visiting things that look suspiciously like bars (there is, of course, no alcohol-though the lemon malt drink isn’t a bad shandy substitute – but that really is as near as you’re going to get!). The Julfa Hotel has a fantastic salad bar as well as humungous grills, and the Indian Maitre’d will descend on you for a chat about his days in the Midlands and to help with the menu.
In deepest Iran, in the middle of a vast desert, you come across Shiraz, a city centred around a medieval castle and a very modern pedestrianised thoroughfare, where floating/flying plastic bags or cardboard on top of the ventilation pipes from the underpass below is a pastime the local children will train you in if you loiter long enough! We stayed in the comfortable Sasan Hotel, where the manager will take a typically Iranian interest in you and all you do - prizing yourself out of the conversation to actually do some sightseeing requires considerable guile. Nearby the Eram Hotel should just have been refurbished and could now be a better bet for comfort. Hafez’s tomb is worth a visit, as much for Iranians' behaviour around it as the place itself, and there are several good restaurants in town – our favourite was Sharzeh, though I suspect this was partially as a wedding reception was going on whilst we were there and the jovial mood carried across, though the food is excellent. Haji Baba is a good, more informal place for a bite to eat and offers superb Persian dishes.
A taxi or bus ride from Shiraz is the ancient city of Persepolis. Despite this being as important and beautiful as Petra or Efes in Turkey, the site is quiet and you can roam alone between temples, museum and surrounding hillsides. The bas-reliefs and statues give some idea of what Persepolis was like in its prime, as does the excellent display in the British Museum in London, which is well worth a visit before or after you go. On your way to or from the city, the Naqsh-e-Rostan tombs are worth a look, though this will require a taxi as they really are in the middle of nowhere.
Yazd is without doubt the sleepiest city I have ever been. Some of the traditional stone houses have been deserted in favour of modern homes, and clambering through the ruins gives something of the feel of Indiana Jones. The Silk Road Hotel offers rooms around a traditional courtyard; fantastic set evening meals make slipping into the soporific vibe of the city very tempting. If you feel you must do some sightseeing, the mosques are amazing, and the view from the city mosque in the square, of the vast city arrayed out on all sides and endless desert beyond is awe-inspiring.
The Silk Road chaps also own a small guesthouse in nearby Kharanagh, which is well worth a visit for a real taste of Iranian village life. Wandering through the countryside, clambering through more deserted traditional mud houses and eating pomegranates straight from the trees is all there is to do here – and that’s no criticism!
Other places to visit
The final places I’d consider visiting around Iran are Kashan for its vast and wonderful vaulted souqs and old mansion houses, and Mashad, for the Imam Reza shrine. This is a significant holy site, where we worried about how western visitors would be received. Having been allocated our own guide at the shrine, who spoke perfect English and was surprisingly content to engage on the motivations behind the pilgrims and issues in modern Iran, we needn’t have worried. There’s clearly an element of ‘managing’ your visit to the shrine, but our afternoon with our (female) guide really was one of the highlights of the trip. Both towns are pretty much one site places, though, and we took overnight trains in and out of Mashad to avoid staying the night.
For getting to and into Iran, see my other guide on Tehran.