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15 Must-see sites in Iran: highlights from an unexpectedly beautiful land

This photo-essay offers a survey of unexpectedly beautiful destinations in Iran. With all this aesthetic temptation, who wants to go to Iran? Thousands are willing and eager to go. Now let's see if the governments (United States and Iranian) are ready to catch up to the good will of their people.

<a>Shaykh Lotfollah Mosque in Esfahan photo</a> courtesy from Shutterstock

Iran has recently elected a moderate president, who has been saying all the right things about promoting a meaningful relationship with the United States.

CNN recently ran an article wondering if it is time to go back to Iran. 

There is even a report from Iranian media that they are open to having direct flights between Iran and United States.

So, what should you see if you get to go to Iran?
Which is to say, what are you missing by not going to Iran?

Iranians are proud of their 5000 years of history, seeing themselves on par with Greece and Rome.    No doubt any such list is bound to leave someone irate that their favorite monument has been left off.    The choice of these sites is also political, as no doubt some will wonder whether it has emphasized too many medieval sites at the expense of “new Iran.”   Still, it would be a cosmic injustice to go to Iran and not see these fifteen sites.


Tehran is the political and intellectual heart of Iran.   It’s not the prettiest city in Iran, the honor belongs to places like Isfahan, Kashan, Yazd, Shiraz, and others.  But it is without a doubt the most important, vibrant, and stimulating city.   You have to begin your journey here to get a pulse of the intersection of religion, politics, modernity, and class conflicts.


<a href=" ">Photo of Tehran Shemran courtesy Wikipedia

Photo of Tehran Shemran courtesy Wikipedia


Travel the city from North to South to get a sense of the class tensions.  The closer to the mountains, the wider the streets, the more expensive the homes.    Northern Tehran feels quite modern in its aesthetic, with fabulously stylish neighborhoods.


1)  Monument of Freedom (Shahyad/Azadi):

Azadi (Shahyad) in Tehran from Shutterstock

Azadi Tower in the light of the setting sun circa August 2012 in Tehran. Azadi Tower and Azadi Squere are some of the most famous places in Tehran visited by tourists. Photo courtesy Shutterstock

A monument to Iranian modernism, designed to commemorate the former Shah of Iran, today renamed as Monument of Freedom.  This has been the site of many of the largest political rallies in Iran.


2)  Northern Tehran mountains/Darband:

Tehran hiking darband mountain from Shutterstock

People visit mountains in Darband quarter on February 22, 2013 in Tehran, Iran. Tehran is Iranian capital with a population of about 8,300,000. Photo courtesy Shutterstock

It’s easy to get lost in the rich history, medieval glory, and modern political excitement of Iran.  But Iran’s natural beauty should not be missed.   You can go from the majestic mountains (Alborz) to the plains of Dasht-e Kavir which recall Arizona and New Mexico to the lush forests north of Iran.    Even if your trip takes you to the massive metropolis of Tehran, do take some time to explore the charming northern mountains of Darband, with its charming restaurants, cafes, and hiking areas.



Isfahan mosque from Shutterstock

Interior and ceiling of historical building Shah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran. Photo courtesy Shutterstock

Where to start with Isfahan, other than to say that it is truly one of the magnificent cities in the world.   The people of this city have referred to their jeweled city as “Isfahan, Nesf-e Jahan”  (“Isfahan is half of the world”), and many of the visitors to this magical city that served as the capital of the Safavid Dynasty agree.   You have to leave Tehran to see the richness of ancient Persian culture, and there is no better place than Isfahan.

You could spend a month in Isfahan, and not tire of sight-seeing, but here are a few musts:

3)  Naqsh-e Jahan:
This was once one of the largest squares in the world, and today it contains the Mosque of the Shah/Imam, the Mosque of Shaykh Lotfollah, and the Palace of Ali Qapu.    It is also the perfect place to begin your exploration of traditional Persian crafts, and wander in the bazaar.

 Isfahan Naqshe jahan wikipedia

Isfahan Naqshe Jahan photo courtesy wikipedia

4)   Mosque of the Shah/Imam (known as both Masjid-e Shah and Masjed-e Emam, another evidence of name changes after the 1978-1979 Revolution).   It is a 17th century masterpiece of Safavid architecture.


5)  Mosque of the Shaykh Lotfollah. 
The Dome of this majestic little jeweled mosque is widely considered one of the great masterpieces of Islamic architecture in the world.

shaykh lotfollah mosque in Esfahan from Shutterstock

Shaykh Lotfollah Mosque in Esfahan photo courtesy from Shutterstock

Dome of the Shaykh Lotfollah Mosque.


6)  Ali Qapu:    The Safavid palace.   While Iranian Islamic architecture saves most of its genius for mosques, here is one palace in Isfahan with much to offer.

Ali Qapu, Isfahan from Shutterstock

Ali Qapu, Isfahan photo courtesy Shutterstock

Especially note-worthy are the delicacy of the dome and the music room.

Ali Qapu dome reduced shutterstock

Ali Qapu dome photo courtesy Shutterstock


7)  Vank Cathedral (Armenian Church):
Given the prominence of Islam, it is easy to overlook the fact that Iran has a rich Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, Baha’i, and Buddhist heritage as well.  The Christian heritage of Iran is best seen through the Armenian population, such as the 17th century Vank Cathedral in Isfahan.



And while we could make up the whole list with sites from Isfahan, here is one more bonus site, the magnificent Chehel Sotoun palace/garden, which reveals one of the key insights of Islamic architecture.  The name Chehel Sotoun means “forty columns”, but there are only twenty columns in view.   The “other” twenty are the reflections of the columns in the water, making up a total of forty.    It is a reminder that in Islamic aesthetics,  earthly beauty is always a reminder of divine splendor.

As tempting as it is, do wander away from Isfahan, to see other beauties in Iran.
There best next destination is Shiraz, the universally acknowledged city of “poets and saints.”

8)  Tomb of Sa’di, ethicist of Shiraz
Here is one measure of Persian emphasis on literature:   Iranian children are introduced to their 13th century masterpiece in elementary school. It would be akin to teaching American third graders to Chaucer.   Sa’di’s Rose Garden (Golestan) is considered an ethical gem, and a humanist marvel.    It is Sa’di’s words that have summed up the highest ethical aspirations of Iranians in acknowledging the innate dignity of all humanity.

shiraz Sa'di tomb from Shutterstock

Shiraz Sa’di tomb photo courtesy Shutterstock


9)  Tomb of Hafez, master of the love lyric.

There is no shortage of great poets in the Persian pantheon, and yet Hafez stands alone as master of the ghazal (the short love lyric).    Ferdowsi is the master of the nationalistic epic, Sa’di the master of prose, but if one’s taste is that of the mystical/sensual love lyric, Hafez is your poet.

Hafez's tomb in Shiraz shutterstock

Hafez’s tomb in Shiraz photo courtesy Shutterstock

How many places on earth have the tomb of a poet featured as a top honeymoon destination?  Here you will see

hafez at night shutterstock

People visit tomb of poet Hafez on February 26, 2013 in Shiraz, Iran. Hafez lived in 14th century and is the most famous poet in Iran. Photo courtesy Shutterstock


10)  Tomb of Cyrus the Great
Cyrus is commemorated in the Bible as a messiah (“anointed”) due to the report of having freed Jews from the Babylonian captivity.    Iranians look back to the Achemenid Dynasty as a highlight of pre-Islamic Persian glory.

Tomb of Cyrus the Great, from Shutterstock

Tomb of Cyrus the Great photo courtesy Shutterstock

11) Persepolis:

The great palace complex of the pre-Islamic Persian empire was one of the great empire capitals of the world.     Located outside of Shiraz, it is well worth viewing.


It would be a shame to leave off one more bonus site, the Naqsh-e rostam.  This site is approximately 3000 years old, and offers some of the first examples of divinely sanctioned rule in Iranian history.

Naqshe_Rostam courtesy Wikipedia  Naqsh-e Rostam

Naqshe_Rostam courtesy Wikipedia



12)  Tomb of Imam Reza
Iran was not always a Shi’i-majority country. That distinction came after the establishment of the Safavid Dynasty.  There are a few varieties of Shi’i Islam, but the most prominent is the Twelver branch, named after the twelve descendants of the Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatima and her husband Imam Ali.    It is the eighth of these Imams, Imam Reza, who was martyred and buried in the city of Mashhad, whose very name means “place of martyrdom.”    A visit to this shrine-city is essential for understand the centrality of pilgrimage to Iranian religiosity.


13)  Ferdowsi’s tomb:
Ferdowsi is the national (and nationalistic) poet of Iran, whose Shah-nameh (“The Book of Kings”) is widely considered the mythic poem at the heart of Iranian consciousness.    Much more than a book about kings, it is really an essential read for understanding the Iranian obsessions with heroes and chivalry, and the cosmic struggle between good and evil.     Under the Shah and his father (Reza Shah), Ferdowsi was patronized to embody the resurrection of a new Iranian nationalistic consciousness that tapped back into pre-Islamic glory.

Ferdowsi tomb from Wikipedia

Ferdowsi tomb photo courtesy Wikipedia



14)  Mosque/Madrasa of Agha Bozorg.  This is a lovely example of later Islamic architecture.


15)  Fin Garden:

Fin Garden In Kashan from Shutterstock

Fin Garden In Kashan courtesy Shutterstock


A group of Iranian students in Pennsylvania have put together a clever Youtube video that gives a virtual tour of Iran, complete with a GPS map and regional music matched to each of the regions.

With Iranians being such a fiercely patriotic (and nationalistic) people, no list could be comprehensive.  No doubt friends from Yazd , Tabriz, Caspian sea, and other regions will wonder why their lovely regions have been left off of such a list.  Tehran friends will lament the lack of many of the modernist architecture in the capital city.   All we can say is that this list is merely an invitation for an initial exploration, and hopefully will foster the cause of mutual understanding and intimacy.

With all this aesthetic temptation, who wants to go to Iran?
Thousands are willing and eager to go.  Now let’s see if the governments (United States and Iranian) are ready to catch up to the good will of their people.