Iran is too often overlooked as a travel destination by western tourists. It has a unique culture and rich history. When you visit Iran, here are 7 places to see 8 including a modern ski resort, and ancient markets, mosques, palaces, and gardens.
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The Pink Mosque – Shiraz
Stepping inside the worldly renowned Naser’al Mulk mosque, better known as the Pink mosque, is not so different from falling into a world of rainbow kaleidoscopes. The early morning sun shines through the mosque’s magnificent stained-glass windows each day, changing the halls into a dazzling world of rich hues, shapes, and light that dance on the mosque’s flooring. To catch this mesmerizing sight, you should get up early and visit the Pink Mosque in the early morning, from 8 to 10 am.
A stony frame covers Nasir-al Mulk’s main entrance, which is a wooden gate with a marble engraved plaque on top of it. This plaque has a beautiful poem from the blind Persian poet, Shoorideh Shirazi. The stony frame is also beautified with Islamic architectural elements like muqarnas (ornamented vaulting on the ceiling).
The Pink Mosque’s entrance leads you to a particular space known as the “hashti” or, simply put, a hallway. This section of the mosque is special to Persian Islamic architecture and is literally meant to direct visitors to the hallways in a welcoming and fancy manner.
Nasir al-Mulk Masjid is one of the two-iwan (or two-gate) mosques of Iran, which is one of the two popular structure styles when it comes to Islamic buildings (the other one is a four-iwan style). A two-iwan mosque is a mosque that has two primary gates facing each other on either side of the courtyard. However, a two-iwan mosque doesn’t necessarily have just two iwans, as you will see in the Nasir-al Mulk mosque. Take the pearl iwan as an example, which is another beautiful part of Nasir-al Mulk you must visit, located at the northern wing of this mosque.
This section’s ceiling features five carvings that resemble pearl shells. As a result, this gateway has earned the moniker “Pearl iwan” over time. Its azure and pink color palette only add to the mosque’s beauty. The color scheme isn’t the only thing that leaves a lasting impression, however. The mosque also has other stunning design and architectural aspects like elaborate geometric tile patterns, colorful pillars, niches (mihrab), and beautiful domes.
The Nasir al-Mulk Mosque contains two shabestans (an undergound space), one on the east and one on the west. There is a beautifully tiled altar with twelve pillars in the eastern shabestan, where the famous stained glass windows are also located.
The techniques of tiling and fresco in the eastern shabestan, as well as the magnificent Mihrab embellishments, are quite memorable for every onlooker. Visitors and photographers find the synergy between spectacular geometric patterns and the stunning Muqarnas unique and fresh.
You may find it interesting to know that the Pink mosque has withstood multiple earthquakes, mostly thanks to the use of flexible timber as supports within the walls (look for the hardwood bricks in the iwan columns).
Note: unlike most mosques in Iran, women are not expected to wear a chador in Nasir-al Mulk. Although both men and women entering the mosque must adhere to the standard Persian dress code.
Abyaneh: The Red Village
If you are a fan of getting in touch with the authentic traditions and lifestyle of a nation, then you will definitely enjoy roaming around Abyaneh’s twisting alleyways and admiring the gorgeous view of crimson houses of this village. Each of Abyaneh’s mud-brick houses has wooden windows and doors of various sizes, carved with decorative patterns and phrases from the Quran. Even the door knockers on each of these doors have distinct designs.
Each house or gateway normally has two doors, each with a pair of door knockers with two different styles. One of the door knockers is rectangular, while the other is circular. Simply put, each of these knockers creates different sounds which, once knocked, will alert the host if a male guest or a female guest is waiting behind the door.
What’s the use of that, you might wonder? Well, if a male guest is knocking on the door, then women of the house would know that they should wear their hijabs and be prepared for a namahram (person who mustn’t see a woman’s hair and body uncovered) to enter the house.
While walking down the aged streets of Abyaneh, you should expect to meet a few local ladies roaming about the peaceful village, dressed in their traditional patterned white hijab and pleated skirts. And as aesthetically pleasing as Abyaneh village and its residents are for tourists, it lives up to its reputation as one of the oldest villages in Iran.
Many of the younger residents of Abyaneh and its surrounding villages have moved to bigger and more modern cities in search of their future. The village’s population barely reaches 300 for this reason.
Travelers’ Tip: You will have to walk about 10-15 minutes, across the Barzrud River, to the Palahamoona Tower in the village’s southwest corner, to enjoy the best picturesque view of Abyaneh.
Note: From Kashan or Isfahan, there are no public buses that go to Abyaneh. To reach this historical village, you will have to either book a tour from one of the cities mentioned or rent a car.
Tochal Ski Resort
Imagine a massive gondola that whisks you up to 3,800 meters in 30 minutes…and that’s Tochal for you. Tochal ski resort, located north of Tehran, was built at the end of the 1970s as part of a multi-activity facility. This skiing run is accessible via a four-mile cable car ride that departs from Tehran’s northwest suburbs (from Velenjak Avenue, 10km from the city).
Tochal is a favorite winter destination for many Iranians and tourists. Not only is Tochal one of the most appealing and accessible spots to ski in, but it also has numerous cafes, ice cream parlors, and restaurants frequently visited by hikers of all ages. There is also a famous hotel with the same name, and its lobby is designed for easy ski-in/ski-out access to the piste.
The fact that skiing in Tochal is also quite affordable compared to other major skiing resorts around Tehran is also an important factor for this place’s popularity. To get to Tochal, you can either use the subway system or get a private taxi. You’ll be dropped off near the start of Velenjak Valley if you use the subway, which is one of Tochal’s main entrances. To return to the subway stop, you can hire cabs or shared taxis from the same location you were dropped off at.
The famous Tochal Tele cabin is not far from its entrance, and you can easily reach it after a 30-minute walk up to Station 1, also known as the Tochal Tele cabin. The telecabin line has seven stations, with the Tochal ski resort and Tochal hotel right at the top of the 7th station.
There are foodie places at the first, fifth, and seventh stations you can dine and rest in. The ski season in Iran often begins in November and lasts until April or even June, depending on the weather conditions and amount of snowfall. So, make sure you check your calendar and pack everything you need before boarding a plane to Iran.
Traveler’s note: The telecabins’ operating hours are determined by weather conditions. Before visiting Tochal, make sure to check the working time.
Note: Tochal is the nearest ski resort to Tehran, thus getting there is rather simple. Taking a combination of the subway and a minivan/shared taxi to Tochal is the most cost-effective option.
The Museum of Time – Tehran
The Time Museum in Tehran is Iran’s only time museum, and it houses a magnificent collection of watches and clocks collected from countries like France, Germany, and Switzerland. The beautiful Time Museum is one of the few structures of the Qajar dynasty still surviving in Tehran, gleaming like a gem in the north of the country’s capital, in Zaferanieh Street.
Pendulum clocks, hourglasses, sundial clocks, oil clocks, candle clocks, and rope clocks are on display in this museum’s beautiful outside wing, where visitors could closely engage with them and learn about their shapes and how they function from up close. What’s more, is that visitors can enjoy the sight of the building’s outside exhibition and architecture for free.
There are two levels to the property. The progress of mechanical watches from the 17th century to the 20th century is on display on the first level. One could say that each of the hawk, pendulum, tabletop and wall-mounted clocks exemplifies the art of watchmaking through time on this floor. Some of these watches and clocks depict Greek gods and goddesses while others have Reza Shah illustrated on them, the first Shah of Iran.
On the second level, you can find traditional pocket watches that were held by notable cultural and political figures, like King of Iran Nasser al-Din Shah and Doctor Hesabi, as well as specific clocks which were once used in armies, navies, and battleships are on display. A section of the second floor is also dedicated to the works of Houshang Foroutan, a famous Persian designer and sculptor.
A gorgeous hall called the Isfahani Room is also another part of the Museum of Time’s ground floor. This room’s intricate design is reminiscent of the Ali Qapu palace’s music room in Isfahan. This room’s ceiling is embellished with gold leaf and Persian carpet designs. The crafted gypsum tableaus of Adam, Eve, Abel, and Cain give this room an extraterrestrial atmosphere.
The design and decor of this museum are quite remarkable too. One look at the building’s architectural design and you will know that it is the ideal place for those seeking a tranquil atmosphere in Tehran. You can also dine at the famous restaurant-café located at the top of the museum (breakfasts are recommended) for a change of scenery.
Ali Qapu – Isfahan
The Ali Qapu palace stands regal and proud on the western side of the UNESCO-listed Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Isfahan. This Palace is a 400-year-old combination of Persian architectural beauties and elegance from the Safavid Dynasty. This royal palace used to be a symbol of wealth and power, and fittingly so since it is quite literally one of the four corners of the most significant square in Iran.
The name Ali Qapu means “Greatest Gate” in Arabic. Some argue that the word ‘Ali’ alludes to Ali, the first Shia Imam, but that’s one of the more unpopular opinions among scholars. The palace was once merely a two-story structure, whereas a five-story mansion with a terrace and a Music Hall can be seen in its place today. This is the culmination of numerous years of working on Ali Qapu palace and adding more and more features to it.
The architectural characteristics of Ali Qapu are what set it apart. To ascend the palace, there are approximately 114 steps you must climb. Each of these steps is 22 centimeters tall and features excellent tilework, with a beautiful combination of azure blue (Persian blue) and yellow present. The monarch, his consorts, and foreign guests used these steps to climb, which were known as the ‘Shahi’ Steps.
A 94-step spiraling stairway leads to the Music Hall on the top floor. A unique style of Persian plasterwork known as Tong Bori can be found in the music hall. This architectural style created acoustic properties in the room. This was because skilled royal musicians rehearsed and played traditional Persian musical instruments for foreign ministers and important guests in this hall.
Note: Taking the train to Naqsh-e Jahan Square is the ideal route to get there. You can stroll to the Square after getting off at Imam Hossein Station. The palace’s great entrance is located on its western side, directly in front of Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque.
I want to start talking about this UNESCO site by pointing out its symbolic location in Tabriz, enclosed within the urban core of this city. The Grand Mosque of Tabriz is visible from its west, and from the east, Ali Qapu stands tall for every onlooker to gape at.
The architectural plan of the Tabriz bazaar is divided into two covered columns: north-south column and east-west column. The main features of such a bazaar, including Timcheh (passages) and Sarai, are created in the gaps between the auxiliary rows, which link the main columns together. The main entrance to Tabriz’s bazaar is today located on the northern side of Ferdowsi Street.
The Tabriz Grand Bazaar has over 6500 hojrehs (shop niche) and 25 covered portions known as timchehs, each of which is occupied by merchants of some sort. You can spot the timche by its dome-shaped and high ceilings. Among the most well-known are Mozaffariyeh Timcheh, Amir Timcheh, Haji Mohammad Gholi Timcheh, and Ghand Forooshan Timcheh.
Amir Timcheh is the first thing you’ll see after entering Tabriz Bazaar, famous among locals and travelers for its jewelry collection, golden artifacts, and Muqarnas vaults. Mozaffariyeh Timche is also the most famous Timcheh when it comes to Persian Azerbaijani carpets and holding grand religious ceremonies, especially during Muharram.
Garshasb-e Yal Zurkhaneh (traditional wrestling house) is another one of the interesting buildings in Tabriz Bazaar, as well as the oldest zurkhaneh (Persian domed gym) in this city. Many traditional wrestlers started practicing from this zurkhaneh; Where, after several years of renovation and remodeling, now hosts tourists as a beautiful traditional restaurant.
Tabriz’s historic bazaar is easily accessible and close to various Tabriz hotels due to its location in the heart of the city. If you take the metro, the closest stations to Tabriz Bazaar are Shahid Mohaqqeqi and Sa’at Square. You can also take the BRT bus system, which is more convenient if you exit at the bazaar stop. On your trip to Tabriz, don’t miss stopping by this lovely market.
Vank Church – Isfahan
The Vank Cathedral, which is located in Isfahan’s New Jolfa area, is one of the most beautiful and valuable churches in Iran. Vank, which also goes by the name of “Church of the Saintly Sisters”, has seamlessly integrated Islamic and Armenian themes and elements in its building and design. You might also find it interesting to know that Vank is an Armenian word that means “monastery” or “convent” in Persian.
Kelisa-ye Vank is a major element in the history of the Armenian Churches in Iran. It was built in the first half of the 17th century with the support of the Safavid monarchs. The cathedral has a domed sanctuary, similar to that of an Iranian mosque, but with the addition of a semi-octagonal portico and raised chancel; typical elements of western churches.
The interior features beautiful frescos and gilded embellishments, as well as a mesmerizing tile wainscot. The Biblical tale of the creation of the world and the fall of man from Eden is depicted in the finely painted blue and gold central dome. The image of a cherub’s head encircled by folded wings, which is distinctive of Armenian art, is painted on the pendentives throughout the cathedral.
The ceiling above the door is painted in Persian miniature style with exquisite floral designs. Murals in two parts run around the inside walls, each telling a different story. The top section shows events from Jesus’ life, while the lower side depicts how the Ottoman Empire tortured Armenian martyrs (The Adana massacre).
The exterior of the cathedral, on the other hand, is constructed with relatively contemporary masonry and is remarkably simple in comparison to the richly ornamented interior. Some believe that the cathedral’s diversity of building styles and contrasts in its external and internal architectural plans may be chronologically connected to Jolfa and its history of Armenian immigrants and residents.
The library at Vank Cathedral houses an Armenian book that was the first book published in Iran, as well as edicts from Abbas I and other kings prohibiting interference with or persecution of Armenians. Vank museum also had an amazing collection of illustrated gospels and Bibles, some of which date back to the 10th century.
Note: Vank cathedral is open to visitors from 9:00 am till 6:30 pm. This church is in the Jolfa area, in the centre of the town, on the southern bank of the Zayandeh rud River. From Vank, it takes 5 minutes to walk to the Isfahan Music Museum, 20 minutes to get to the subway station, and 20 minutes to the Si-o-Se Pol 17th-century dam and bridge.
Eram Garden – Shiraz
Around 1823, a Qashqai clan leader built a mansion with reception rooms, an orangery, stables, and a pavilion, which was later restored by Hali Mohammed Hasan Mi’mar and became what we know today as the Eram Persian garden. The mansion was so beautiful that King Nasser al-din bought the property, destroyed the mud-brick surrounding walls, and replaced them with a fence in 1953 for his own personal use. The University of Shiraz was later granted permission to create a beautiful botanical garden where Eram stood to add to its beauty. After that, the only thing that was different was that after that this iconic garden was open to the public.
The lovely Eram Garden (Bagh-e Eram), located away from the traffic, is named after one of the four gardens of Paradise recorded in the Quran. You may find it interesting to know that, according to a local story, the governor of Shiraz paid a visit to the Louvre Museum in Paris and ordered a price increase for visitors to enter Eram. Despite its beauty, this garden is small and, unlike the Louvre, does not house any world-famous art, so you can see why that plan didn’t last for long.
In front of the building is a portico with a flat roof supported by two pillars. The building is tiled in seven different colors, with motifs depicting Iranian national and religious tales. The building’s columns are clad in monolithic Gandomak marble slabs that are more than two meters high and engraved with verses by great Iranian Poets Hafiz, Saadi, and Shourideh Shirazi.
The garden itself is an ideal setting for more than 45 plant species and numerous plants to flourish and grow. Pomegranates, sour oranges, tangerines, olives, and walnuts are just some of the fruits you can see in this majestic garden.
A vast variety of lovely sub-tropical plants can also be found in the rock garden section. Visitors from all over the world flock to the garden to see the beautiful 200-year-old towering cypress trees known as Sarv-e- naz every year, and most popularly during spring. The majority of plants and trees have Farsi, Latin, and common English labels too, so make sure you put Eram garden on your must-see list in Iran if you are into Botany.
Visitors from all over the world are enchanted by the panoramic views of the garden, the aroma of flowers, the magnificent view of old cypress trees, and the grandeur of ancient buildings, which are just a few of the reasons why this fascinating garden has become one of Shiraz’s most popular attractions and is included in just about all Iran travel itineraries.
Note: Shiraz is at its most beautiful during the spring, and opening hours are 8-13 and 14;30 to 17. Also, if you like roses, you should definitely visit the formal gardens behind the main structure, especially during April.