Iran is probably one of the most misunderstood countries in the world. Situated on the Persian Gulf, with historical sites dating back to the mighty Persian Empire, it has plenty to offer the adventurous tourist but very few of us put it on our personal map of destinations to visit. For me, having grown up on an endless diet of images depicting Iran as a dark, dangerous place, discovering the real Iran was the most wonderful surprise. During my visit, I was able to dispel a lot of misconceptions about the modern-day republic, while realising a lot of my dreams of its ancient Persian past.
A wholly exotic destination, where I felt surprisingly comfortable, here are some quick facts about the Islamic Republic of Iran. The majority of Iranians associate themselves with the Shi'a branch of Islam but minority religions (Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians) are officially recognised, and have reserved seats in parliament. Women are not required to wear a chador, though they are expected to dress conservatively and wear headscarves in public. Iran is not at war, and it is populated by some of the most welcoming people you could hope to encounter.
Tehran: The modern capital
There's no getting around the pollution and heavy traffic that put many tourists off visiting Tehran, but a short stay in the Iranian capital is an unforgettable experience. While the rest of your tour may be focused on delving into Iran's ancient past, Tehran is your entry into its buzzing present. Its best-known landmark is the gleaming 2007-built, multi-purpose Milad Tower – the sociable locals and exhilarating pace of life are a real eye opener.
Heading straight for the un-touristy Jameh bazaar, a massive Asian flea market packed with exotic treasures, I was prepared to shop 'til I dropped. What I wasn't prepared for was the friendliness with which I was treated by Tehrani shopkeepers and shoppers alike.As I was soon to discover for myself, Iranian hospitality is, in fact, legendary – you'll find locals greeting you as you walk by. Some would even invite you to join their picnic lunch.
Back on the tourist trail, Tehran's National Jewellery Museum houses the dazzling imperial crown jewels, including the 182-carat Darya-ye-Nur, the largest uncut diamond in the world. You'll also want to visit the opulent Golestan Palace and Sa'd Abad Palace, once home to the former Shah, to soak up the lavish interiors.
Further highlights include the Glass and Ceramics Museum, the Carpet Museum of Iran and the Museum of Contemporary Art. The National Museum has Persian exhibits dating back to the 4th millennium BC.
On your last night, the plaza outside the main bazaar is a great spot for people-watching. The streets are teeming with shoppers, and Iranian pop music blares out of crowded, modern-looking malls. Take a taxi to Tehran's fashionable north side and you'll share the road with Porsches, BMWs and Audis – like I said, Iran is nothing if not unexpected.
Yazd: Centre of Zoroastrianism
Most visitors to Iran are intent on seeing the ancient Persian sights, and there's no better place to start than the desert city of Yazd, in the central plateau.
Built on an oasis and surrounded by a mountain range, Yazd has a history of over 5,000 years and it really is the city that time forgot. The houses are still built with mud bricks and straw, keeping the interiors cool. The rooftops are dotted with badgirs, or wind towers – ancient air conditioning systems designed to catch even the lightest breeze and direct it to the rooms below.
Yazd is also the centre of Zoroastrianism, considered the oldest monotheistic religion in the world. Pilgrims flock to the Zoroastrian Fire Temple to see the sacred eternal flame, which is said to have been burning for over 1,500 years. In the eerie, echoing 9th century Zoroastrian Towers of Silence, to the south, the bodies of believers were once left to the vultures after death.
Zein-o-din, situated on the Silk Road which was until 1500 the main trade route between Europe and Asia, lies just 60 kilometres from Yazd. To get a glimpse of the life of travelling tradesmen back then, stay the night in this beautiful and romantic caravanserai. It's the perfect spot for star-gazing.
Shiraz: Poetic capital of Persia
There's an undertone of romance in the ancient Persian city of Shiraz – home to stunning rose gardens and a pink mosque, it's the birthplace of both Hafez and Sa'di, the big names of Persian lyrical poetry. There's a saying that all Iranians have a copy Hafez's poems, as well as the Koran, in their homes. To fully understand the importance of poetry and Hafez in the lives of Iranians, visit his 1935-completed tomb, which positively hums with devotees – and young lovers.
Shiraz's shrine of Syed Amir Ahmed is another must see. It boasts a dazzling interior of mirror tiles, plus displays of fine china and glassware and exquisitely inscribed old and modern Korans.
Mosques are another highlight of Shiraz, notably Vakil Mosque and the Pink Mosque. Visit the latter early in the morning when the sun shines through its stained glass, enriches its delicate pink tiles and showcases its intricately carved pillars.
Persepolis: Summer capital of Darius 1
Situated on a vast platform above the plains just outside Shiraz, Persepolis is an imposing monument built by Darius 1, then ruler of the largest empire the world had ever seen. Originally built as a summer capital, subsequent kings, including Xerxes I, added their own palaces over the next 150 years.
Take advantage of the guided tour, which brings to life the history of this magnificent ruin. The Great Porch of Xerxes, flanked by winged bulls of stone, is a highpoint as is the Apadana. Check out the detailed bas-reliefs, which depict envoys, from as far away as Ethiopia, India and Turkey, bearing gifts to their esteemed ruler.
A short drive away, the hauntingly beautiful Naqsh-e Rostam features four rock-cut burial tombs, the final resting places of Darius 1 and his successors.
Esfahan: Capital of Abbas 1
There's a special allure to the city of Esfahan that you won't find anywhere else in Iran. The tree-lined boulevards, the bridges crossing Zayande River, expansive gardens and proliferation of teahouses are just some of the major draws. You could easily spend over a week drinking in the beauty of this pastoral city.
Esfahan was the capital of Persia during the rule of Abbas 1, the greatest of the Safavid kings. His legacies include the majestic Nashq-e Jahan Square, still the centrepiece of the city. Encircling a lake and framed by two mosques, a palace and the entrance to the bazaar, it's one of the biggest and most delightful squares in the world.
A small, private mosque, featuring exquisite tile work, the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque was built for the ladies of Abbas 1's harem. The design is comparatively simple and there are no minarets but the detailing is out of this world. If you stand at the entrance gate of the inner hall and look up at the centre of the dome, you'll see a peacock, whose tail is defined by sun rays coming in from a hole in the ceiling.
Just across the square, Imam Mosque, is an equally impressive testimony to the imagination of Abbas I. It is depicted on the reverse of the Iranian 20,000 rials banknote. The foundation stones are of white marble and the 30-metre entrance is decorated with magnificent mosaics, featuring geometric designs, floral motifs and calligraphy. You will revel in the beauty of its seven-colour mosaic tiles and complex honeycomb mouldings.
Ali Qapu palace is the final highpoint of Naqsh-e Jahan Square. Designed as a vast portal to the palace complex of Shah Abbas 1, it is an imposing, seven-floor citadel, some 48-metres high. While the balcony on the third floor affords an unparalleled view of the entire square, the top floor music room is a destination in itself. Many consider the distinctive craftsmanship, in which the ceiling and walls are cut with ornamental niches to enhance the acoustics, to be one of the finest existing examples of secular Persian art.
Back in Tehran, at the end of your tour, make Darband your last stop. You can access this delightful mountain area to the north of the capital by foot, donkey or chairlift, and it's a delightful place to unwind with the locals before you start on your long journey home.
It's clear that Iran really does have it all – incredible sights, both ancient and modern, and truly welcoming people. Once you learn its full history, from the illustrious past during the rich period of Cyrus the Great to the more recent events of the 1979 Revolution, it will be hard not to admire and respect the people who have gone through so much in their lives. And despite the political upheaval happening in the region, Iran remains safe and peaceful.
MORE INFO ON MY TRIP:
I flew from Hong Kong to Tehran via Doha with Qatar Airways. Other options include flying via Istanbul with Turkish Airlines, or via Dubai with Emirates. And I travelled with G Adventures, a tour company specialising in adventure travel. I highly recommend joining a tour instead, as most of the signs in Iran were in Farsi, and you might struggle getting around without a guide. Here's a link to the exact itinerary of my trip.