Where to go in Iran: Tehran, Esfahan and Kashan are great cities for the first time visitor

Visiting Iran? Here's everything you need to know

A Peaceful Persuit

The Iran of popular imagination — a country torn apart by civil strife and the fallout from an eight-year invasion by its neighbour, Iraq in 1980 — does little to reassure would-be visitors to this tract of land formerly known as Persia.

“Iranian people believe guests are a gift from God,” says my guide, Tiam Nikseresht, who has degrees in psychology and archaeology. Yes, all women are required to don a headscarf and dress modestly in this deeply Islamic country, but both women and men are put through the same education system.

This is a legacy of Persian culture, which has influenced civilisations from Italy to Russia and more.

Nikseresht tells me that it’s okay to take photos of the locals, as long as I ask first.

What I didn’t expect was meeting Iranians who wanted to take photos of me — often together with their families! In this still- cloistered country, tourists from Asia are rare. But thanks to the popularity of K-drama, I seemed as exotic as the Iranians seemed to me.

“Exotic” came up again and again during our quick journey through Tehran, Esfahan — the old capital of Persia — and Kashan.

Tehran

The first thing you notice when you arrive in Tehran is the traffic. The sprawling capital on the lower slopes of the Alborz Mountains is teeming with cars almost any time of the day. With 14 million people, it’s not surprising. You know you’re out of Tehran when you pass the Imam Khomeini shrine — the edifice to Iran’s first supreme leader who came to power following the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The shrine isn’t finished yet, but even from the highway you can see the huge dome and four golden minarets surrounded by scaffolding.

But Tehran is also Iran’s most liberal city, though thankfully you won’t find the slew of global brands familiar in major cities here. Instead, the city’s murals and public art commemorate its recent past, depicting revolutionary leaders and, more poignantly, heroes of Iran’s eight-year war with Iraq. Almost every street is named after someone lost in that war. The American Embassy, where 66 Americans were held hostage by Islamist militants and students in 1979, is referred to as“the nest of spies” and “the Argo building”, after the 2012 movie based on the event.

The 400-year-old Golestan Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the heart of old Tehran, offers a step back in time. The five-hectare summer complex of Nassereddin Shah, the 19th-century Qajar king, is famous for its graceful architecture, ceremonial marble throne that was used for special occasions 200 years ago and for its archive of Iranian photography. King Nassereddin introduced photography to Iran and practised by taking photographs of his harem.

For a glimpse into the truly decadent history of Iran, pop by the National Jewelry Museum in the Central Bank of Iran. Surrender all your belongings, including your smartphone, and go on a guided tour of the vault’s priceless archives in numbered glass showcases.

Highlights are the Crown Jewels of Iran, rafts of uncut gemstones, an ornate bejewelled throne and royal headpieces.

Esfahan

About six hours’ drive from Tehran along the Persian Gulf Highway is Esfehan. Also known as Isfahan, most of the city was built during the reign of Shah Abbas in the 17th century. Shah Abbas received guests in the scenic Chehelsotun Palace, whose name in Parsi means “40 columns”, for the 20 wooden columns supporting the entrance to the main hall, which would double in number when reflected in the waters of the fountain in front of it.

In contrast, Niavaran Palace in northern Tehran was completed in 1968 and was the primary residence of the last shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and the imperial family until the Iranian Revolution in 1978. The main palace, designed in 1958 by Iranian architect Mohsen Foroughi, is a time warp of how the shah, his wife Queen Farah Pahvali and their four children lived.

Esfahan is more than 2,500 years old, and historical buildings and spaces abound in the city. Naqsh-e Jahan Square, commonly known as Imam Square, was constructed between 1598 and 1629 and is the central point in town. One of the largest public spaces in the world, this UNESCO World Heritage Site encompasses several buildings: the famed Grand Bazaar, Alighapou Palace and the distinctive blue mosaic-encrusted Imam Mosque.

Iranians live and work in the surrounding neighbourhood. Locals come here to buy spices and jewellery in the old Gheisariyeh bazaar, while the surrounding passageways teem with artisans making handicrafts. Venture a little further to a street of shops showcasing Esfahan’s best artisanal crafts, including miniatures painted by 68-year-old Hossein Falahi, who deftly works freehand with a brush made of cat’s hair, using paint made from fishbone ashes.

Kashan

En route back to Tehran, I stop by the desert town of Kashan, desert region. Traditional desert architecture dating back 5,000 years still stands here but it’s the 19th-century Borujerdi House, built for the wife of the wealthy merchant.

Haji Mehdi Borujerdi, that’s worth a closer look. It’s built into the ground with courtyards and rooms accessible by stone staircases, while vents in the roof circulate the air and keep the buildings cool.

One of the most beautiful places in Kashan is Fin Garden. Built during the reign of Abbas I of Persia between 1588 and 1629, this cool green spot in the desert, with canals and fountains running through the grounds, has a bloody past. Exiled statesman Amir Kabir, who opened the first modern school in Iran, was murdered in the bathhouse in 1851.

Murder, intrigue and politics are inevitably the first impressions we have of Iran. But that would be doing it a disservice. Its architecture, art, gardens and more are reasons to visit — again and again.

Thai Airways flies to Tehran four times a week, with a stopover in Bangkok.

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