AND IRAN, IRAN SO FAR AWAY
When you’re nearing the end of your bucket list, there’s another hot spot to add
Following decades of isolation, Iran is once again open for business and rolling out the red carpet for tourists. Here are 18 reasons to see it now. 1 WORLD HERITAGE BONANZA Iran is home to some of world’s most important historical sites and is home to a remarkable 19 UNESCO World Heritage-Listed sites based on cultural qualifications – more than any other country in Asia after China. Two sites were added to the list only last year: the 6000-yearold Susa archeological mounds and Meymand, a village of troglodytes or cave dwellers who live in homes that were hand-dug into rocks 3000 years ago.
SEE UNESCO.ORG. 2 BIZARRE BAZAARS
From the capital Tehran, to the oases of the central deserts, to the resorts of the Caspian Sea, every town and city in Iran is centred around a bazaar – centuries-old pavilions crisscrossed with labyrinth alleyways where you’ll find shops and stalls selling just about every consumer item imaginable. Iran’s larger bazaars also house mosques, restaurants, teahouses, bathhouses, banks, schools and gardens. 3 SEE HALF THE WORLD IN A DAY At its height, the former Persian
capital of Isfahan in central Iran was larger than London, more cosmopolitan than Paris and grander than Istanbul. “Isfahan is half the world,” says the 16th-century proverb of the city’s resplendent palaces, colossal quadrangles, botanical gardens, ornamental bridges and blue mosques with hundreds of domes and minarets.
SEE TOURISM.ISFAHANCHT.IR. 4 SLEEP AT ONE OF THE WORLD’S OLDEST HOTELS
For more than 300 years, traders and pilgrims visiting Isfahan took shelter at the Madar-Shah “caravanserai” – a courtyard-style inn encircled by two levels of bed chambers. In the 1950s it was rebranded as the Abbasi Hotel, a five-star accommodation property that blends the grace and grandeur of Isfahan’s golden age with modern conveniences.
SEE ABBASIHOTEL.IR. 5 THE RED VILLAGE
Abyaneh is a village in central Iran where every single house and mosque is red. The colour is derived from a mineral called ochre found in the clay from which everything has been built for more than 2500 years. Abyaneh is also classified as a Living Museum of Iran for its residents’ steadfastness in preserving the customs, costumes and dialects of their ancestors. 6 GO GLACIER HUNTING On the high plains of the Zagros Mountains in western Iran are a number of glaciers – the only ones found in the subtropics outside of the Himalayas and Americas. Farshid Zandi is among a handful of guides who knows exactly where to find them, along with an even rarer ice cave. “Most people who come to Iran think Iran is all desert, but when they see this place, they completely change their minds,” he says.
SEE IRANTRAVELERS.ORG. 7 CHILL OUT IN A TEAHOUSE You won’t find any pubs or nightclubs in Iran as alcohol is prohibited. But you will find plenty of atmospheric teahouses where locals lounge around on cushions and
niches in the wall sipping on glasses of sweet chai tea, puffing on water pipes and snacking on pastries and desserts. 8 THE SHRINE OF FATIMA
Rising like a phoenix high above the holy city of Qom, the Shrine of Fatima Masumeh honours a 9thcentury saint who was poisoned and died here. Fatima’s coffin is set inside an extraordinary chamber of mirrors capped with a golden-coloured onionshaped dome. Qom is also famous for a brittle toffee called “sohan”. 9 LOW-COST FLIGHTS
In June, AirAsia launched a new route from Australia to Iran via Kuala Lumpur with fares that undercut those of existing airlines by up to 30 per cent. “With the recent reforms, we thought it would be an ideal opportunity to give more people the chance to explore Iran,” says AirAsia’s head of commercial Arik De.
SEE AIRASIA.COM 10 SCALE THE HIGHEST MOUNTAIN IN THE MIDDLE EAST Shaped like Mt Fuji, Mt Damavand is a 5670m-high snowcapped strata volcano that’s both the tallest mountain in the Middle East and the highest volcano in Asia. Scaling its peak takes three days and requires the assistance of knowledgeable local guides.
11 KABABIS The French have patisseries. In Mexico there are taquerias. In Iran its all about “kababis”, small family-run eateries that specialise in the nation’s national dish. However, cast aside all preconceptions of greasy doner kebabs wrapped in butcher paper. Iranian kebabs comprise skewers of lean lamb mince dusted with Arabic spices flame-grilled to perfection and served with traditional flatbread, roasted tomatoes, raw onion and yogurt. 12 TAKE A STROLL THROUGH ANCIENT PERSIA
The ruins of a massive palace near the city of Shiraz, Persepolis (City of Persia) is Iran’s most important archeological site: a sprawling complex of grand staircases, giant stone bulls with eagle wings and human heads, rock-cut tombs, Romanesque columns and 18m-high rampart walls. Explore it on your own or with Ali Reza, who at 11 years of age is Iran’s youngest accredited tour guide.
CONTACT ALIREZATOURGUIDE@GMAIL.COM. 13 NEST OF SPIES
In 1979, the former US Embassy in Tehran made global headlines when it was stormed by revolutionary students who held diplomats hostage for 444 days. Today, it’s a museum known as the Den of Spies. Access is limited to the
THE FORMER PERSIAN CAPITAL ... WAS LARGER THAN LONDON, MORE COSMOPOLITAN THAN PARIS AND GRANDER THAN ISTANBUL
whims of the guards at the front gate, but just seeing the garish antiAmerican murals on the outer walls makes a visit worthwhile. 14 SKI FOR PEANUTS
Skiing in Iran – who would’ve figured? There are a a dozenodd ski resorts in the country, many of them world class. And with lift passes starting at $20, Iran is also one of the most affordable ski destinations on the planet. The ski season in Iran runs from December to May.
SEE IRANSKITOURS.IR. 15 CASTLE OF THE ASSASSINS
Perched on a steep cliff in the foothills of the Alborz Mountains northwest of Tehran are the ruins of a medieval fortress known as the Castle of the Assassins that features in the video game series Assassin’s Creed. The name originates from a radical 12th-century sect that dispatched expertly trained killers to assassinate political and religious leaders in the region. 16 FOLLOW IN MARCO POLO’S FOOTSTEPS
For nearly 2000 years, the desert city of Yazd was a key trading route for caravans travelling between Central Asia and India. Yazd is “a very fine and splendid city” wrote explorer Marco Polo in the 13th century. Today, Yazd is the best-preserved continuously inhabited old city in Iran and a fascinating place to spend a day or two exploring alleyways. 17 ANCIENT SPORT
It’s not weightlifting nor wrestling nor entertainment nor dance: it’s “zoorkhaneh” or House of Strength, an ancient martial art set to pulsating music that combines all of the above. It takes place in specially built octagonal gyms with sunken pits for the athletes around which spectators sit. Entry to any zoorkhaneh tournament requires a cash donation. 18 WORLD-CLASS HOSPITALITY
“Welcome to Iran! Where do you come from? Did you see Iran play Australia in the World Cup?” Despite what some may believe, Iranians are extremely hospitable and eager to learn more about our lifestyles and beliefs. “We are very patriotic and proud of our country,” says Rasool of the Armani Carpet shop in Isfahan. “But at the same time we love to welcome foreigners, too.”
Mosaic decoration made of tiles inside the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan (main); the mountain village of Abyaneh in central Iran (right); and a shop owner sits in the middle of the antiques and paintings of his shop inside the Imperial Bazaar in...