When I first told my family and friends that I was planning on backpacking for a month on my own in Iran, they looked at me like I was a bit crazy. Though I could understand their doubts and reluctance (let’s be honest, Iran is generally not on the top of the world’s most touristy places), I was just excited and curious to see for myself what this country was really like. Hardly could I have known, however, that my trip to Iran would soon become one of my best traveling experiences. In case you are contemplating paying Iran a visit any time soon, here is a little guide on how to spend one month in one of the most fascinating places in the Middle East.

The Travelettes Guide to Iran, Itinerary, Route, Must See, Highlights, Iran

Touch-down in Mashhad (3 days)

I landed in the holiest city of Iran. Mashhad is a very important place for Shia Muslims as most of them go there on Pilgrimage to visit Imam Reza’ Shrine – which you should do as well, by the way. It is the largest mosque in the world by dimension and the second largest by capacity. As the site is always crowded with thousands of pilgrims, I advise you to go there at night – the shrine is open 24/7. Tourists are welcome, but you will be asked to leave your bags and cameras at the entrance for security reasons. Although you might find it quite overwhelming (especially on your first day in Iran), visiting this place will immerse you directly in the Iranian culture and give you a better understanding of what is Shia Islam.

The Travelettes Guide to Iran, Itinerary, Route, Must See, Highlights, Iran - Mashhad

While in Mashhad, also make sure to visit the tomb of one of Iran’s greatest poets: Ferdowsi. It is a place of “worship” for many locals because poetry plays a huge role in the Farsi culture. Other worth-visiting sites include the mausoleum of Khajeh Rabi and the neighboring town of Torgabeh. Mashhad is not what I would call a touristy city but staying there for a few days will give a good first impression of the many layers of Iran.

City Trip to Tehran (4 days)

I took a night train from Mashhad to the fascinating Iranian capital and arrived in Tehran in the early morning. The city is huge and vibrant, surrounded by beautiful mountains. To get an overview, quite literally, head to Azadi Tower, which is the longstanding symbol of Tehran and was built to celebrate the 2500th anniversary of the Persian Empire. Another tower that you might like is Milad, the fourth tallest building in the world. You can purchase tickets for its observation lounge if you want to enjoy a 360° view of the city, but make sure to book them well in advance.

The Travelettes Guide to Iran, Itinerary, Route, Must See, Highlights, Iran - Tehran

Shopaholics will find their dreams come true at Tehran’s massive bazaar in the city’s south, where they could spend hours upon hours strolling from shop to shop, bargaining for traditional Iranian crafts, golden jewels and carpets. Shopping makes hungry – make sure to stop by “Sharafol Eslami”, one of the most famous and popular restaurants in Tehran. The place is always noisy and crowded but it is well worth it: the food there is delicious and one of the best examples of Iranian cuisine. I recommend ordering Tahchin (Iranian Rice cake that includes rice, yogurt, saffron, egg, eggplant and chicken fillets) along with a big cup of Doogh (a savory yogurt-based beverage seasoned with mint that accompanies almost every traditional Iranian meal). Meat lovers will also love the restaurant’s Chelo Kabab Koobideh, another great Iranian dish.

The Travelettes Guide to Iran, Itinerary, Route, Must See, Highlights, IranThe Travelettes Guide to Iran, Itinerary, Route, Must See, Highlights, Iran - Tehran

Once you have had enough of the bazaar, head to the neighboring Golestan Palace, located in a peaceful and relaxing garden. Architecture enthusiasts wouldn’t want to miss this place: not only is it one of the oldest monuments in Tehran, this masterpiece mixes early Persian crafts with Western influences and remains a big source of inspiration for Iranian architects and artists to this day. If the weather is not too great, go to the National Museum of Iran. There, you will find a great mix or art and history, including pieces dating back to the seventh millennium BC. If it is sunny outside however, go visit Abo Atash Park with its amazing “Bridge of Freedom” and Baghe Melli, the National Garden. These were my favorite places to take walks, especially in spring (best time of the year to visit Iran). One thing is for sure: no matter your personal taste, you will always find something to do in Tehran.

The Travelettes Guide to Iran, Itinerary, Route, Must See, Highlights, Iran - Tehran

My favourite: Shiraz (4 days)

Since I really enjoyed taking that first night train, I decided to try it again when I heading south to the wonderful city of Shiraz – which became one of the highlights of my trip. Shiraz is both historical and amazingly beautiful and I am sure that it will inspire you in many ways. I advise you to start discovering the city departing from the Arg of Karim Khan, the Citadel, where you’ll find a Tourist Information Point providing you with a free map. From there, walk to the Vakil neighborhood, to wander around its historical baths, mosque and bazaar. To see one of the best examples of Iranian Islamic architecture, check out the neighboring Nasir Al Mulk Mosque, also called “Pink Mosque”.

The Travelettes Guide to Iran, Itinerary, Route, Must See, Highlights, Iran - ShirazThe Travelettes Guide to Iran, Itinerary, Route, Must See, Highlights, Iran - Shiraz

Shiraz boasts plenty of gardens, my absolute favorite being the Eram Garden, which is just as its Persian name describes it: a little piece of “Heaven”. Among the most popular sights are the tomb of Hafez, a Persian master of lyrical poetry and literature, and Shah Cheragh, the shrine dedicated to Imam Reza’s brother. Every Iranian visitor will go there to see the breathtaking architecture – and so should you. Last but not least, a visit to Shiraz is not complete without a day trip to the sites of Pasargadae and Persepolis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, approximately 70km from Shiraz. The best way to get there is by taxi (extremely cheap in Iran), as public transportation between these two places is not what I would call reliable…

The Travelettes Guide to Iran, Itinerary, Route, Must See, Highlights, Iran - Shiraz

Witness cultural diversity in Yazd (3 days)

Initially, Yazd was not part of my rough itinerary, but I surely do not regret stopping in this city. Lost in the desert, Yazd is unique. It is not as touristy as Shiraz or Esfahan, although more and more foreigners seem to be visiting it. One of the landmarks of the city is the Masjid Jame, a mosque built in the 14th Century. It is located in the center, in the middle of a little labyrinth created by the narrow streets around it.

The Travelettes Guide to Iran, Itinerary, Route, Must See, Highlights, Iran - Yazd

What fascinated me the most about Yazd was the fact that only here I learnt about Zoroastrianism. Most people think that all Iranian are Muslims, but you can also find several religious minorities in this country. The Zoroastrians form one of them and are especially known for their fire temples. If you’re interested in learning more about Zoroastrianism, make sure to visit at least one of the “towers of silence”. Though there is a renowned one in Yazd itself, I advise you to head to the neighboring village of Cham. There, you will find a much bigger and quieter tower, and you won’t need to pay an entrance fee to enjoy the site. Back in the city, head to Dowlat Abad for sunset. Walking around this authentic Iranian garden is the perfect way to end the day, to watch the sky turn pink and the stars slowly set on the horizon.

The Travelettes Guide to Iran, Itinerary, Route, Must See, Highlights, Iran - Yazd

From Yazd it is worth renting a car and drive to Falashah Islamyie, a charming village in the desert, surrounded by mountains. If you are lucky, you might be able to attend a “Zurkaneh” session, a kind of religious gymnastics class designed to stimulate soul, mind and body.

Onwards to Esfahan (4 days)

After a few days in quiet and beautiful Yazd, I took a bus to what has to be one of the most famous Iranian cities: Esfahan. The foreigners traveling through generally describe it as their “favorite place in the country”, so my expectations were high. Though I have to admit that I personally preferred Shiraz and Yazd, Esfahan is another historical Iranian city which has a lot to offer. Most of the Esfahan’s attractions are located around the “Naqsh-e-Jahan” square, classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There, you’ll find the amazing Shah & Sheikh LoftAllah Mosques, the Grand Palace of Ali Qapu as well as the city Grand Bazaar.

Esfahan is also known for its many bridges, where the locals like to hang out. My favorite is the Khaju Bridge but the Pol-e-Jubi is also worth visiting. If you liked learning more about religious minorities in Iran while in Yazd, make sure to visit the wonderful Vank Cathdral in the Armenian neighborhood, which is truly a piece of art. Another very beautiful place in Esfahan is Chehel Sotoun, located in a peaceful garden. Don’t forget to also go to the outstanding Jame Mosque, one of the oldest in Iran. On your last day, before leaving Esfahan, you should head towards the Iran – Iraq War Cemetery. This site is part of the country’s recent history and though the atmosphere can sometimes be hard to handle, it will give you an idea of how the locals mourn their martyrs and a better understanding of the Iranian culture in general.

The Travelettes Guide to Iran, Itinerary, Route, Must See, Highlights, Iran - Esfahan

A real-life oasis: Kashan (3 days)

Not too far from Esfahan lies Kashan, the first town of its kind, an oasis along the Qom – Karman road which runs along the edge of the central desert of Iran. The archaeological site in the Sialk Hills, west of the city, is proof for the region’s central role in pre-historic civilization. Though located in the desert, there are also plenty of green areas in Kashan, such as the breathtaking Fin Garden, which is by far one of the most beautiful in Iran and in the Middle East in general.

The must-sees of the city are Sultan Amir Ahmad Bathhouse (make sure to visit its roof!), the Abassian, Boroujerdi and Tabatabaie residences and the Agha Bozorg Mosque. Close to Kashan, if you have a spare day, head to the neighboring salt desert or visit the red village of Abyaneh.

The Travelettes Guide to Iran, Itinerary, Route, Must See, Highlights, Iran - Kashan

Iran’s other side: Tabriz (3 days)

My last stop in Iran was the city of Tabriz. Since the journey from Kashan was quite long, you could decide for an additional layover on the way. Here are three suggestions:

– Come back to Tehran – this is what I did – and explore the Imam Khomeiny house and mausoleum, the big cathedral of Tehran, the Tajrish bazaar and more.

– Stop by Qom for a day or two. This is the second holy city in Iran.

– Visit the small mountain village of Masouleh, a unique place in Iran due to its uncommon architecture.

Once you get to Tabriz, you will soon notice, that is differs quite a lot from the rest of Iran. Here, most locals do not speak Farsi, but refer to themselves as Azerbaijanis or Azeri. The atmosphere and culture are completely different, and that is just one reason why it is so worth visiting. While in Tabriz, stroll around Shah Guli, an artificial lake which became the city’s landmark, visit the Blue and the Jame Mosques, and buy your last Iranian souvenirs in one of Iran’s most beautiful bazaars.

The Travelettes Guide to Iran, Itinerary, Route, Must See, Highlights, Iran - Tabriz

If you still have time after that, you should definitely move on to Kandovan, a village located 50km from Tabriz. Its cone-shaped houses were originally carved into the rock face of the mountain nearly 3,000 years ago. Only few other villages in the world have this kind of architecture, the most popular place being Cappadocia, in Turkey.

Practical Travel Tips

Before heading to Iran, here are some basics you should know about:

– Getting a tourist visa can be easy or hard – depending on your nationality, your travel conditions and the time you decide to travel. The only way to obtain a tourist visa involves using an authorized Iranian travel agent who acts as a “sponsor” to process the paperwork in order for you to receive an approval number.  However, you can pay the travel agent only for the number without committing to any excursion or hotel booking. Some nationalities are also entitled to a 15-day VOA (Visa On Arrival) but I would not try it as I have met people who have been randomly sent back to their country once they arrived to the airport – for no valuable reason. Here is a little more information on how to get an Iranian visa.

– Though it might change soon with the recent signing of the Iran Nuclear Deal (as of July 2015), it is currently IMPOSSIBLE for any foreigner to withdraw cash out of a local ATM or pay by credit card in Iran due to the global sanctions in place. You will need to budget your trip beforehand and bring cash with you.

The Travelettes Guide to Iran, Itinerary, Route, Must See, Highlights, Iran - Tehran

– Women need to wear a headscarf and loose-fitting clothes which cover most of the arms and the waistline at all times in any public place.

– It is extremely easy to travel throughout Iran as there is an extensive bus and train network connecting most cities. You generally don’t need to book in advance. I would recommend buses for short distances (faster and cheaper) and night trains for long distances. As for inside Iranian cities, taxis are affordable and public transport, though quite complicated sometimes, is manageable.

– Even if housing is cheap in Iran, I recommend using CouchSurfing as much as possible. Iranians are extremely hospitable and happy to meet foreigners as it is quite hard for them to travel abroad themselves.

The Travelettes Guide to Iran, Itinerary, Route, Must See, Highlights, IranThe Travelettes Guide to Iran, Itinerary, Route, Must See, Highlights, Iran - Tehran

When discovering all these places, time flies by, and your month in Iran will be over sooner than you imagined. Even more than the diversity and beauty of its landscapes and cities, what makes the country such a special place is its people. Every backpacker who has been to Iran will confirm: Iranians are amongst the kindest people in the world. I used Couchsurfing throughout the country and I have been welcomed by people like a long-lost family member from the second they met me. Even in the streets, when I was telling people that I was a foreigner, they would always greet me with a huge smile and a “welcome to my country”, usually inviting me into their home for a cup of tea.

I learned a lot in Iran, about history, architecture, politics, food, geography but above all, about humanity. And you probably will too, should you find yourself visiting this country as well. By the way, here are 5 reasons why every woman should visit Iran.

Did you enjoy this post? Never miss an awesome read, monthly give-aways and much more by joining our newsletter!

All photos by Elisa Fourt.

_____________________________

This post was written by Elisa Fourt.
Elisa Fourt was part of the Travelettes team from 2015 to 2017.  Elisa usually describes herself as a world citizen. She has lived, studied, worked and traveled in more than 60 countries throughout her life and she loves to share her passion for the world with others. When she is not planning her next trip or writing about the last one, Elisa likes to help people in need and get involved in various not-for-profit projects. She currently works for a NGO in the Middle-East. Follow her on Instagram @lisou.me