Iran might not be the first country that comes to mind when you’re planning your next trip, but it might be the one that surprises the most. From metropolitan cities to deserts, green valleys and magnificent architecture, add excellent food and the friendliest people you’ll ever meet to the mix, and Iran has it all. While it’s by no means a mainstream destination and backpacking Iran requires a bit of prepping, that’s the charm of it all. It really is back to basic, and discovering the undiscovered.
Upon arrival, Tehran seems like a typical polluted, congested, noisy capital city. You’ll be tempted to leave Tehran for what it is and maybe give it a single day, but you’d be giving up too quickly. There is so much to do and see!
Visit the Golestan Palace, a UNESCO site and marvel at the richly decorated halls, art and gardens
Wander the Grand Bazaar and get lost in its labyrinth of nearly 7 miles on corridors. It is not the oldest (by far) bazaar, but definitely the busiest one you’ve ever seen
Tour Tehran’s landmarks; the Azadi Tower, Tabiat Bridge and make sure you don’t forget the US Den of Espionage (closed on Fridays).
Got more time? Take a trip up north and visit Darband to hike through the hills of Tehran. There’s a number of cafe’s and restaurants along the trail, all equally pretty and come sunset, looks like a fairytale. Not a hiker? There’s a chairlift as well!
Where to stay
The VIP bus from Tehran will take you to Kashan in about 2 hours. You can opt for a few hours to stop at Qom (Iran’s holiest city) or come straight to Kashan. Admittedly, when I got off the bus in Kashan, I wondered if I had made a mistake and should have skipped it. Don’t skip it!
Visit the bazaar, and get on the rooftops for sunset views and peek down the narrow corridors
Kashan is famous for its traditional houses. The most beautiful ones are Tabatabaei House and Borujerdiha. These houses belonged to some of the wealthiest merchants.
Go into Sultan Amir Ahmad Bathhouse, a traditional public bathhouse. The domes and tiling are beautiful, and again, rooftop views!
Wait for the golden hour and go to the Agha Bozorg Mosque. The architecture is a bit simpler when you compare it with the mosques in Isfahan, but when the fading sunlight hits the stones, its beauty really comes out. It has a courtyard on a lower level and is surrounded by rooms for theological students that reside there.
Where to stay
Amirza Traditional Hotel has a combination of private rooms with ensuites and dorms. They can organize tours as well!
Isfahan is half the world, as they say. Isfahan was the reason I wanted to go to Iran. I had read about the bazaars, the bridges and the mosques, and in my head, it had risen to mythical proportions. It did not disappoint! It’s a fairytale-like place to be. I spent 4 days there, there is so much to see, so much to eat and so much to buy!
Naqsh-e Jahan Square (Imam square) is one of the biggest squares in the world. It’s another UNESCO site, and flanked on all 4 sides. Masjid-e Shah Mosque in the in the south, Ali Qapu palace in the west, Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque in the east and the grand bazaar in the north. The sun rises over Lotfallah mosque in the morning and is truly a sight to see. It’s easy to spend a full day here, visit both mosques and see how different they are, talk to shop vendors who are so happy to make conversation, have tea or do as the Iranians do, have a picknick in the grass.
In the evening, go see Khajoo bridge. It’s beautifully lit and also serves as a meeting place for men who sing together. You might be in luck!
Isfahan has a rather contemporary Armenian Quarter. Main draw here is Vank church, which is covered in frescos and very, very golden. There’s some hipster cafe’s in this area, as well as museums.
My favorite thing to do though, was visit Jameh Mosque in the morning, which was close to my hostel, and from there enter the Grand Bazaar that was still closed, and walk all the way to Naqsh-e Jahan square through the empty corridors. Around noon, the light will shine through the holes in the roof and play with the shadows
Where to stay
I stayed at Howzak House, which they call a boutique hostel. There are a few rooms around a little courtyard, and shared bathrooms. The owners are incredibly nice and will show you around the neighborhood!
I love deserts. The quiet and the vastness of them always baffle me. Varzaneh is easily doable in a day trip from Isfahan at an hour and a half by car. It’s your ‘typical’ sand desert, but has a salt lake, caravanserais and camels wandering about!
It’s about 3 hours from Isfahan to Yazd by bus. Yazd is a desert city, and famous for its windcatchers. I loved wandering around the narrow sandstone streets, discovering rooftop cafe’s and talking to shop owners.
Visit Jameh Mosque, which has the highest minarets in Iran. Especially in the evening the lighting is very pretty
The Amir Chakhmaq Complex at the beginning of the city centre, houses a mosque, a bathhouse, caravanserai and a huge confectionary shop, that is very popular with Iranian tourists. I bought a pound of cookies there and worked myself through it in less than a week!
Yazd is full of rooftop cafe’s, little coffee houses and art galleries.
Where to stay
2 recommendations: The Oasis Hostel in Yazd is a hostel run by a bunch of young Iranians and a good place to meet fellow travelers. I paid about $10 for a private room including wifi!
I didn’t stay at the Yazd RestUp Hostel, but friends did and I visited them a few times. The owner and his wife are fun people, young and create a really cool atmosphere. We loved hanging out there. Plus; awesome rooftop views!
I spent half a day in Yazd working out how to get to Dasht-e Lut, or Lut desert. I had heard about this Mars-like landscape and wanted to go for myself. Typically you would travel to Kerman and have this be your base as it is much closer to the desert, but for some reason Kerman didn’t appeal to me and I was worried about time.
I found a guide that would take me, and we spent 2 days in the desert. We spent the night at the most fantastic family he knew. They lived in a small desert village, gave us a home cooked meal and were just the sweetest people. Their son had a 4×4 so that the next day, we could go further into the desert.
We visited the kaluts of Shahdad area, the magnificent rock formations that have been formed by wind, sand turbulence and dust, and lava plateaus. Some dune buggying to complete it, and there you have a perfect desert getaway!
Shiraz is most famous for being the birthplace of Iran’s most famous poet, Hafez, and for the pink mosque. It’s a city of gardens, flowers and literature. There is so much to do I could have easily spent a few days more.
Shiraz’ most famous attraction, Nasir Ol Mulk Mosque, or the pink mosque, basks itself in a kaleidoscope of colors and light upon sunrise. The courtyard is pretty, and houses the workplace of the tile master where you can see him at work, but the inside of the mosque is the real attraction. Go early in the morning.
The tomb of Hafez is a bit out of the way, but worth a visit. If you’re there in spring time, the surrounding rose gardens will be in bloom.
A short drive out of the city will land you at Maharloo pink lake. It’s a shallow salt lake, that turns pink in summer due to the red tide in the water. You won’t need much time here, but it’s fun to splash around for a while and get your Insta fill.
You cannot miss Persepolis, the ancient capital of Iran and some of the oldest ruins in the world. The ruins, as well preserved as they are don’t even begin to convey the sheer size and magnitude of what Persepolis was. Get yourself a guide that speaks good English, and it is a masterclass in ancient and Persian history. You won’t be disappointed.
Where to stay
I stayed Darb-e Shazdeh Boutique Hotel. They are quite big, and have a traditional part as well as modernised rooms. The traditional ones come with beautiful glass stained windows.
The above is an easy to arrange itinerary. It covers all of Irans main sights and is a well traveled route. Because I took my time and my pace was quite slow, I had to make decisions. If you have more time or are a quicker traveler, consider adding these to your trip:
- Tabriz. A mountainous city in the north with the oldest bazaar in the world
- Alamut Valley, famous for hiking, green and mountainous.
- Mashhad, Iran’s second most holy city. Named after Imam Reza’s shrine.
- Hormuz island, where you can find rainbow mountains and experience a different side of Iran
- Masuleh, a very picturesque village, built up against the mountains
Before you travel, make sure to have done your research. I’ve written this piece in the past to list a few things that need consideration. Backpacking Iran is not the most intuitive and Iran might not be a country for everyone, but if it is a country for you, you will not be disappointed.
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