|Isfahan is a major destination on the "tourist trail" in Iran, particularly Naqhsh-e Jahan Square, where you'll find typical Persian architecture such as that of the above Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque|
British Airways relaunches flights to Tehran today, four years after the last direct service from the UK took off, and around a year after the UK embassy reopened its doors in the Iranian capital. Both moves are beating a more accessible path to this controversial country for curious travellers, following a thawing of frosty relations between Iran and other world powers thanks to a landmark nuclear deal.
And while Iran often finds itself in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, intrepid globetrotters consistently sing the country formerly known as Persia’s praises, calling it a surprisingly welcoming destination with plenty of untouched treasures to discover. The fact Iran doesn’t exactly top the to-do list of mass tourism means those with an open mind will likely enjoy the nation’s riches largely all to themselves.
|The ancient city of Persepolis is Iran's most famous archaeological site, with its earliest remains dating back to around 515 BC (AFP/Getty Images)|
Visitors heading here will find a country that is as complex, colourful and deeply traditional as the Persian carpets for which it is renowned. History lovers are spoiled for choice when it comes to incredibly preserved archaeological sites (including the ancient city of Persepolis), while the photogenic beauty of classic Persian architecture – usually covered with those famous blue tiles – will please anyone with an eye for design.
Plus, outdoor enthusiasts have a surfeit of mountains to climb and ski, desert landscapes to explore and scenic valleys to trek. All this, combined with ultra-welcoming locals, a refined and delicious cuisine (succulent grilled kebabs, flavourful stews) and an ancient culture steeped in poetry, music and art, mean that Iran is a destination as rewarding as it is revelatory.
British nationals need a visa to travel to Iran. The process can be notoriously long and frustrating, so you should apply well in advance of your planned travel dates. There are also reports of difficulties securing visas through private visa agencies. The Iranian embassy in London has commenced a visa service.
FCO advice warns against all travel to certain parts of Iran. The FCO also claims the risks to tourists in Iran are higher for those travelling independently than for those travelling as part of an organised tour.
£1 is currently worth 40,857 Iranian rials (IR), while US$1 is worth 31,200 rials.
Situated on the lower slopes of the Alborz Mountains, their snow-tipped peaks providing a dramatic backdrop in winter, Tehran should present a pretty picture. However, gridlocked traffic and heavy air pollution are everyday realities in this modern metropolis. The noisy streets of central and southern Tehran, where visitors will spend most of their time, are crowded with shoppers, office workers and students and crackle with energy. The city’s northern suburbs aren’t as frenetic. Though largely residential, they also have upmarket retail strips where affluent locals come to shop, dine and drink coffee in stylish boutiques, restaurants and cafés.
|Tehran's skyline in winter - when not obscured by heavy pollution from its traffic-choked roads (Shutterstock)|
Most visitors forgive Tehran’s aesthetic shortcomings when confronted by the wealth of treasures displayed in the city’s museums. Start by admiring the archaeological artefacts in the National Museum of Iran (Imam Khomeini Avenue; 200,000 rials), which include exquisite inscriptions and friezes from Persepolis; then head to the Treasury of National Jewels (200,000 rials) to ogle its simply extraordinary collection of jewellery made by Persian artisans and acquired by the Safavid shahs. The treasury’s best-known exhibit is the Peacock (Naderi) Throne, encrusted with 26,733 gems.
Those who crave more culture can also visit the Golestan Palace (golestanpalace.ir; 150,000 rials) with its formal garden, dazzling Hall of Mirrors and art gallery filled with portraits of Qajar rulers.
Those keen to see a more exotic Iran than that offered by Tehran's traffic-clogged roads should head for the atmopsheric bazaars of some of the country's most historically significant cities. Tabriz, a former capital, has the most famous. Its sprawling, labyrinthine bazaar – a Unesco World Heritage Site dating back 1,000 years – is replete with ornate, dimly lit timchehs (halls) that immerse you in an almost mystical, back-in-time feel.
South of Tehran, Isfahan’s Bazar-e Bozorg is just as old, and has welcoming teahouses in spades. Its location between Naqsh-e Jahan Square and the Masjed-e Jameh, two of the city’s major attractions, is also supremely convenient.
Tehran’s bazaar is more modern (it’s a mere two centuries old) but is just as maze-like and full of temptations.
|The atmospheric Tabriz Bazaar, a Unesco World Heritage Site with 1,000 years of history|
|The Jameh mosque in Isfahan is one of Iran's most famous sights and shows the evolution of mosque architecture over 12 centuries (Shutterstock / Marcin Szymczak)|
|The Bagh-e Fin garden in Kashan is a historical Persian garden dotted with pools, fountains and decorated pavilions (Ali Reza/Flickr/CC by 2.0)|
|Yazd is a great base from which to mount an off-road adventure into the Iranian desert|