Iran is a massive country. It will take months to fully discover this Middle Eastern jewel. Travelling in Iran for 2 weeks is pretty standard if you are visiting Iran for the first time, as that's normally the limit for people going to Iran without a visa. This guide will tell you how to plan for your itinerary. Feel free to change the itinerary to suit your own duration of stay.
PS: I am really really glad that you are going to Iran soon.
Arrival: You need to do a few things while you are still at the airport. Claim your luggage and head straight to the money changer located on the first floor of the airport (the departure hall). Exchange just enough money for you to take a taxi to the city centre, which is 1.5 hours away from the airport. It will cost 700,000 rial - 800,000 rial. If you are not ready to pay this, share a taxi with other travellers who are going in the same direction.
Alternatively, you can grab a taxi to Shahed University metro station and it will cost around 400,000 rials. Take the metro (which costs 3000 rials to 7000 rials depending on your journey) to the closest metro station that your accommodation is located.
Remember: Only take an official taxi to the city centre! There'll be a lot of Iranians offering you a ride to the city but at a higher cost.
Check-in and rest: Depending on what time you arrive, you might or might not have enough time or energy to explore the city.
I couchsurfed in Tehran because the prices of the hotel are sky high. There are guesthouses as well but the ones that are centrally located were booked out when I was there. Couchsurfing is a great way to make friends with Iranians and you should totally try it out! Moreover, it's free!
Golestan Palace: If you do have the time and energy, visit the Golestan Palace straight away. This place is easily accessible by metro at Panzdah Khordad metro station.
Golestan is a majestic palace complex with different palaces and museums. Bear in mind entry to every palace/museum costs money. You will need to select which hall you wanna see when you are at the ticket counter which is located at the main entrance of the palace complex.
If you wanna see everything, it costs 940,000 rials and you need a full day for that. If you don't have the money or the time for that, just go to the most beautiful hall which is Talar e Brelian. This famous mirror hall The craftsmanship of this hall will blow your mind.
Grand Bazaar: Grand Bazaar is just right beside Golestan Palace. Visit a souk/market/bazaar is one of my favourite activities while overseas as I can have a closer look to the daily life of a local. Before going into the bazaar, there will be a lot of people asking if you wanna change your USD into rials. Although the rate that they offer can sometimes be better than currency exchange shops, it's still better to change at a proper establishment as these people don't provide any receipt.
After visiting Grand Bazaar, have some tahchin at Moslem restaurant. Tahchin is a really traditional dish whereby the rice is cooked until it's crusty on the side, but not burnt. It's served with chicken with saffron and the rice is amazingly crispy. The serving is huge and it can be shared among 2 people.
Milad Tower: Milad tower is best visited during sunset time. Check what time is the sun setting when you are in Tehran as it's a city with distinct four seasons. Stay till the night to earn yourself a night-view of the expansive Iranian capital.
Pray that you get a clear day though. If not, it's not worth going at all as you can't see anything. Tehran is smoggy almost all the time, especially during winter. You need a taxi to get here. Ticket price is 120,000 rials for the open observatory deck.
Tochal: Tochal is a great day-trip from Tehran. It's at the Alborz mountain range and offers a great view of the city. Station 7 is also frequented by ski connoisseurs for their fluffy snow. Ski season is normally from early November to April or sometimes June.
From the city centre of Tehran, there are three steps you need to do before reaching Station 7, which is the highest peak of Tochal mountain.
- City Centre - Base of Tochal mountain
- The easiest way to get to the base of Tochal mountain is to use Snapp (Uber-equivalent in Tehran) to grab a ride straight to Tochal. Snapp is affordable and trustworthy.
- To be more frugal, you can grab a metro to Tajrish station. From Tajrish station, walk to Tajrish square and grab a Snapp car to the base of Tochal mountain.
- Base of Tochal mountain - Place to ride the cabin car
- Once you are at the base of Tochal mountain, walk through the carpark and there will be a small bus shuttle which takes you to the place to ride a cabin car (it's called telecabin there). A one-way ticket costs 10,000 rials per person.
- You can also choose to walk. Depending on your fitness level, it will take around 30 minutes to 1 hour for you to reach the place to ride the cabin car. You can take a lot of beautiful photos of the city from high when you are walking.
- Place to ride the cabin car - Station 7
- Take a telecabin to Station 7 As it's the highest point of Tochal mountain, it is really really snowy. If you love the snow, this will be a winter wonderland for you. A return ticket to Station 7 costs 380,000 rials per person.
- As the temperature can drop to -10 to -20 degree celsius, opt out Station 7 if you don't have enough winter gear. You can stop at Station 2 or 5, although they don't offer as beautiful view as Station 7. Return tickets are cheaper if you are going to Station 2 (150,000 rials) or Station 5 (270,000 rials).
Go to Tochal as early as possible. Check their opening hours here. Avoid going on weekends (which is Friday and Saturday in Iran) to avoid hordes of tourists. Most of the tourists are Iranians themselves.
Tajrish Market: If you haven't had enough of an Iranian bazaar, you can go to Tajrish Market which is a lot less crowded. They sell more fresh produce in Tajrish Market as compared to the Grand Bazaar. You can kindly ask if you can try the fruits or the nuts and I think they are more than happy to let you do so. Things you can get includes:
- Fresh pomegranate for less than 20¢ or fresh pomegranate juice. This is a must-try when you are in Iran as their pomegranate is unbelievably juicy and sweet.
- A lot of nuts for a cheap price which you can binge on
- Some spices if you want to get some home
Emamzadeh Saleh Mosque: This mosque is located in the centre of Tajrish Market. If you don't know how to get here, just as any of the local and most of them are happy to take you there. The architecture of this mosque is impressively majestic. Enter the mosque to admire the interior design of the mosque, which is predominantly made out of glass and mirror. I am not a Muslim and I entered without a problem. Most of the Iranians don't mind you being in the mosque. Females entering any Iranian mosque will require a "chador", which is a big piece of sarong-like clothing covering from head to toe. There will be a place just outside the mosque for you to borrow a "chador" for free. Avoid going at prayer time as it's really, really crowded.
The bus ride from Tehran to Kashan: There are four bus terminals in Tehran so make sure you are going to the right one. The bus terminal for the bus leaving for Kashan is Terminal-e Jonub, which is easily accessible by taking a "Snapp" car or the metro to go to Terminal-e Jonub. Terminal-e Jonub Metro Station is a station located on Tehran Metro Line 1.
Make sure you get a direct bus from Tehran to Kashan (not to Isfahan). If not, you will be dumped beside the highway which is far from the centre of Kashan.
Don't book your tickets online as they are very expensive compared to what you can get when you are at the terminal. There will be a lot of operators stopping you and ask if you've gotten any ticket. Just go straight into the terminal and check for the next bus leaving for Kashan and go with that company. Try to get a VIP bus as it's not much more expensive and the seats are very comfortable. The bus journey takes at least 3 hours depending on traffic.
Check-in: There are not a lot of hotel establishments in Kashan. We stayed in a guesthouse for a super reasonable price as we had the whole house to ourselves.
Sultan Amir Ahmad Bathhouse: Most of the guesthouses in Iran offer tour services. If you are joining a tour, check if the price includes the entrance tickets to the attraction. If you don't want any tour, you can just ask them to arrange a taxi for you to go to the bathhouse (remember, Snapp only works in Tehran). You can buy a ticket at the entrance of the bathhouse which costs 300,000 rials.
Tabatabaei House: This residence belongs to a wealthy merchant. The courtyards and the rooms are luxuriously decorated with mirrors, carvings and gardens. I highly recommend going to Tabatabaei House with a tour guide. Entrance to Tabatabaei House costs 300,000 rials.
If not: The tickets for both attractions are a little bit steep but I think it's really worth it. If you are really low on budget, you can go to Kashan bazaar or Aqa Bozorq mosque instead. Just bear in mind that you don't want to bore yourself out with too many mosques and bazaars in different cities. If you happen to be in Kashan in spring, visit one of the many rose gardens and be amazed by how Iranians make roses survive in this desert town.
Abyanneh: Abyanneh is located 1.5 hours away from the centre of Kashan. It is a thousand-year-old red village surrounded by the mountains. There are only around 300 people living in this town, making it nearly a ghost town/village. Go to Abyanneh in the morning. You will need 2 hours or even more to fully explore this village.
Take a small hike up the hill (10 minutes walk from the village) and you can see the whole village with the mountains as the background. The altitude is so high that you are actually in the midst of clouds.
If you have more time, you can even visit the ancient Persian castle and fortress on the hill on the way back home. Lunch options are very limited there, so pack lunch instead.
Dinner at Negin Traditional Hotel: Dining in a majestic restaurant is definitely a truly Persian experience. It definitely should be an attraction itself! Surprisingly, the price of the food is not expensive (like 5 USD for a main) as the portion is huge. I had camel meat stew here and it was fantastic!
The bus ride from Kashan to Isfahan: Kashan bus terminal is located on the northern edge of the city. The ticket price for a VIP bus is around 120,000 rials whereas the normal ticket is priced around 80,000 rials. Sometimes, the bus picks up people halfway so there might be a little bit of a delay.
Check-in: Isfahan has a lot of accommodation options. As public transport in Iran is definitely not the easiest to use, just stay in the centre of the city and walk as much as you can.
33 Bridge (Si-o-Seh Pol): Hopefully when you are there, there's gonna be water in the river. Take a lazy stroll at the surrounding parks.
After going to Si-o-seh pol, you can explore the shops nearby and have dinner there.
Naqshe Jahan Square: Go to Naqshe Jahan Square in the morning. This is the second largest public square in the world (after Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China) and it contains a bazaar, a palace and two mosques. Visit some of the shops if you have time as they sell really special handmade goods there! You will probably spend the whole morning here.
8 Heavens Garden: After Naqshe Jahan Square, go to 8 Heavens Garden. The entrance ticket (with audio guide) is 550,000 rials. This garden is so beautiful that people from the past have said, "you've seen half of the world if you've seen 8 Heavens Garden".
Abbasid Hotel: This is an attraction and a restaurant. The food here is glorious and the architecture and the gardens are even better!
Check-in: Varzaneh is a small desert town with only a few guesthouses for you to choose from. We stayed at Yasna traditional guesthouse and it was not as great. I recommend going to Chapaker traditional guesthouse instead as the owner of the guesthouse is a lot nicer and less money-minded.
Sand dunes: Most of the people come to Varzaneh to visit the sand dunes. At the sand dunes, there are a lot of activities that you can do. Just ask for the owner of the guesthouse to arrange it for you. You can sandboard, ride an ATV, enjoy camel riding during sunset when you are at the sand dunes. You can easily spend the whole afternoon/evening here doing these activities. Bear in mind that they have separate prices so just haggle the price down until you are comfortable paying.
Gavkhouni Wetland: Yes, there's a wetland in this untrammelled span of desert. And it's fun to visit it too. Going to Gavkhouni wetland can show you the daily struggles that the deserts nomad have to deal with. You can even see fish! In the middle of a desert!
Black Mountain: Black mountain is not too far from the wetland. Hike up the mountain (takes 30 minutes to 1 hour depending on your fitness level) and you will be rewarded with an amazing view of the sand dunes and the desert.
Camel Mill: On the way back to the town centre, go to the camel mill and watch how Iranians train their camel to mill beans into powder. The camel only moves when the owner starts singing. If the owner is sick, the camel doesn't work at all because it won't listen to other people singing!
Stargazing: If the weather is not too cold, stargaze in the middle of a desert! Even if it's cold, do it still! This is such an amazing experience that I will never forget!
Salt Lake: Imagine a blue sky with a pure white flat of salt, that is Varzaneh Salt Lake. It covers an area more than 15km² and stretches to the wetlands. Take a tour with your guesthouse as you will need a car to come here. The road is not tarred and can be quite bumpy. If you get motion sickness really easily, take a pill before you go.
Citadel: There's an ancient citadel located on the outskirt of the town centre. Take a trip there and see how ancient Iranians build houses thousands of years ago. Their wisdom will blow your mind.
Dovecote: Never seen a dovecote before? I mean I don't even know what's a dovecote before visiting this one here in Varzaneh. There's a dovecote near to the citadel. They collect the droppings of the doves to make fertiliser. The way they manage a dovecote is so amazing. You are more than welcome to visit it. Just leave some tips for the owner when you're about to go.
Bus ride from Varzaneh to Yazd: This is a nightmare and I have dedicated a separate post here.
Check-in: Yazd is one of the twelve UNESCO heritage sites. If you want to experience the most of Yazd, stay in the old town of Yazd where you can walk to most of the attractions. The old town is a maze (like Venice), so make sure that you have a map (even if you have a map, you might still get lost).
Amir Chakhmakh Complex: This is the icon of Yazd. If you are lucky, you can climb up to the top although it's not always possible. There are a lot of shops selling handmade souvenirs near by for cheap so make sure you check them out.
Explore the city: Yazd is a charming city where almost everywhere is walkable (if the weather is pleasant). From Amir Chakhmakh complex, you can go to Khan Bazaar and visit the mosques.
Tower of Silence: It's like a mortuary of the people of Zoroastrian belief. Back in the days, when a person is very ill or dying, they would be moved out of the town area so that the citizens wouldn't catch the disease. Hence, the tower of silence is located out of the city. There are a few houses at its surrounding for these people, and when they were dead, their bodies will be carried up to the Dakhmeh (the tower) for the vultures to eat. It's no longer used anymore and is open to the public. Climb up the small hill to get a great view of the city!
Masjid e-Jame: This is the most significant mosque in Yazd. It's located in the heart of Yazd and all the museums are walkable. Visit the water museum and you can see how the people back in the days ensured that they have clean water supply all year round despite living in the desert.
If you are not a fan of museum, you can go and explore the chic cafes and the restaurants. There are a lot of sweet/dessert shop there. Take a seat and watch the world goes by!
Bus ride from Yazd to Shiraz: I recommend taking a night bus from Yazd to Shiraz. The one we took was 11:55 pm, and we reached Shiraz at 6:00 am. Take the VIP bus so that you can sleep on the bus. Reclining seats are really a godsend when you are taking a night bus.
Eram Garden: Rest up if you didn't have enough sleep. If you are well-rested, take a taxi and visit Eram Garden. The admission ticket for foreigners is priced at 200,000 rials. Eram Garden is best visited in spring as the flowers will be blooming like crazy. Even if you are not visiting in spring, Eram Garden will still be amazing with the super tall trees. There are some jewellery and gem collections in the building and you can check them out for free.
Shahcheragh Holy Shrine: Have some food near Eram Garden. If not, take a taxi to Shahcheragh Holy Shrine and you can have some food near there (although there are fewer options). A visit to this holy shrine requires a tour guide, which can be arranged for free when you arrive at the entrance of the shrine. They will provide a chador for the females to cover themselves prior to entering the holy site. The tour guide will give you a brief tour of the site for free. After that, you can just stay as long as you want.
This site is really underrated. It's not a tourist destination and it's so beautiful! First, you can visit it for free and secondly, it's so grandiose and the place is so peaceful. The square is so huge and everyone is just chilling there and chit-chatting. I highly recommend visiting this shrine.
Persepolis and Necropolis: People visit Shiraz for 3 reasons: Persepolis, Necropolis and finding out if the name of the wine Shiraz actually acquired its name because of this city.
There are three different ways (cheap, moderate, expensive) to go to Persepolis and Necropolis from the city centre of Shiraz. I have dedicated a detailed post about here.
Nasir al-Mulk Mosque: Come to this mosque as early as you can to avoid tourists. There are a lot of sources for the opening hours. I went there at 8 am in January and there are already a lot of people there. I then realise that it opens at 7:30 am. Another reason to go early is because the direction of the sunshine will complement the coloured glasses in the most amazing way.
Vekil Bazaar: Vekil Bazaar is a lot smaller than most bazaars in other Iranian cities. However, we found a lot of goodies which are small and easy to bring home as souvenirs. Do check it out if you are after something small as gifts to friends and family as your Iranian adventure is also approaching an end.
Explore the city: I love Shiraz a lot. Make sure you check out the city as much as you can. There are a lot of cafes and bakeries. Check out the dessert shops and have some authentic Iranian sweets. Have some Iranian ice-cream. Or just sit down with some locals and have some Iranian tea. Visit an Iranian teahouse in the evening and be amazed by how much respect Iranians have for their tea!
Flight home: Shiraz has an international airport so just check if any airline serves the route from Shiraz to your next destination.
If not, you can just book a flight from Shiraz to Tehran, and fly out from Tehran. I flew with Mahan Air and I think the service was pretty okay. There was 30 minutes delay but we were well informed about it when we were at the airport and all the staff are helpful.