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Iran - When and where to visit
It is difficult to convey the reality of a land mass of 1,650,000km2, but Iran, with its 31 provinces, is three times the size of France, or the size of the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Italy and Switzerland combined. The Zagros Mountains in the west form a natural barrier with Iraq, and to the north are the Caucasian republics and those of central Asia, all of which were once within the territory of the former Soviet Union. To the north the Caspian Sea also marks Iran’s sea border with Russia and Kazakhstan. To the east are Afghanistan and Pakistan, while the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman mark Iran’s southern limits. It is a land of great contrasts, physically and climatically, as mountain ranges push up the mostly desert plateau of the centre. Apart from the green Zagros chain in the west, there are the snowy crags of the Alborz range in the north, the Makran Mountains in the south and the westernmost extension of the Hindu Kush, which force up the landscape of Iran’s eastern provinces.
Iran's landscape is one that is truly diverse, from fragrant meadows to snow-capped peaks © Maria Oleynik
This geological ‘upturned bowl’ effect means that towns on the same latitude but on either side of the same mountain range receive very different amounts of rainfall: Dezful (western Zagros, 143m altitude) gets approximately 358mm a year whereas Esfahan (eastern Zagros, 1,570m altitude) receives a mere 108mm. Much less rain falls in the Great Desert basin, where some areas are pretty much unable to support any life at all. Generally speaking, regions south of latitude 34˚N get rain mainly during January, while those north of this receive most rainfall during the spring, especially April. An exception is the Caspian region, where the heaviest month for rain is October.
Few in the West are likely to associate snow with their mental image of Iran, yet about two-thirds of the Islamic Republic’s land mass usually endures heavy winter snowfalls (January–February) because of the average high altitude throughout the country. More than three-quarters of its territory is located above 1,000m. Tabriz (1,349m) in the northwest has about 30 days of snow a year, about ten days more than Arak (1,753m) to the east, whereas Esfahan, at a higher altitude, gets about seven days and Yazd (1,230m) about half this. Of course, areas of very high altitude, such as 5,610m-high Mount Damavand (known as the roof of Iran) and especially its northeast face, Takht-e Soleyman in the Alborz range, and Sabalan (4,500m) near Ardabil in Iranian Azerbaijan have perennial snow as well as glaciers. Indeed, many Tehranis escape the smog and pressure of life within the overcrowded capital by flocking to the ski runs that drape the mountains, within a few hours’ drive of the city.
There are three if not four distinct climates in Iran: most regions have the continental climate of long, hot summers and short, sharp winters. In the northwest, the Iranian province of Azerbaijan shares a similar climate to that of Switzerland, and further east, along the south shore of the Caspian, it is as humid as the south, but without those gruesome higher temperatures. In August 2015, the town of Bandar Mahshahr in southern Iran recorded a 'heat index' of 74°C, the second highest ever registered.
Visits to the south coast of Iran (eg: Bandar-e Abbas) are best made in the winter months of December, January and February when humidity and heat levels are at their lowest, while spring (March to mid-May) and autumn (mid-September and October) are the best times to travel around central and northern Iran. The summer months of June through to early September are best avoided as the temperature can be in the high 40s (˚C), although it is a dry heat except on the south coast. It is also advisable to avoid visiting northeastern Sistan and Baluchestan province (Zabol and Zahedan) in the summer, as it is the windy season. That said, while winter outdoor temperatures are cool, indoor tempertures (including on trains and buses) tend to be hot as Iranians prefer the warm comfort of blasting heat. So, carrying around a light long-sleeved shirt is a good idea.
Take the numerous public holidays into account if your visit is connected with business and/or your time is limited. Try to avoid Ramadan, the first ten days of Moharram (the sacred month) and the first week of the Nou Rouz celebrations, when staffing in offices and government departments will be minimal and all forms of long-distance transport and hotels will be extremely busy and expensive. However, during the Nou Rouz and throughout the high-season summer months, most historical sites and buildings have extended opening hours (until 20.00 or 23.00 for gardens).
Lake Vadhat is just one of the highlights of Iranian Kurdistan © Maria Oleynik
• Masouleh, Qaleh Rudkhan and mountains of Gilan province, overnighting in a cosy ecolodge amid orange groves and tea plantations
• Shopping in Esfahan bazaar
• The mountain path to Babak Castle
• Nomadic migration (kuch) across the glorious Zagros Mountains with Bakhtiari nomads
• Tehran’s Milad Tower for exhilarating views and an evening meal in one of Tehran's best restaurants
• Iranian Kurdistan with its spectacular mountain villages and serpentine roads
• Spring flower blossom in Shirazi gardens
• The Gate of All Nations in ancient Persepolis
• The architecture of Kashan’s old merchant houses
• Experiencing sunset at one of the Zoroastrian ‘towers of silence’ in Yazd
The following itineraries presuppose all arrangements have been made in advance, or that a taxi or car will be used. If local bus transport is used, extra time will be needed to organise tickets, and journey times will be longer.
Eight to ten days
Two days’ sightseeing and savouring Persian cuisine in Tehran; flight to Esfahan for at least three full days’ city sightseeing; drive to Yazd for one night and a day of sightseeing; then to Shiraz for three nights (if coming by car, a stop in Abarkuh is suggested), including a full day in and around Persepolis, and another day in Bishapur or Firuzabad; flight home from Shiraz.
Ten to 15 days
As above, with the addition of two more nights in Yazd to explore nearby mud villages and two nights in Kerman (or one in Kerman, the other exploring Mahan and surrounds), and if possible, overnighting in Kashan as the first destination after leaving Tehran and heading south.
Before visiting Esfahan and Shiraz, travel to Ardabil from Tehran, stopping for a few hours in Rasht and overnighting in one of the ecolodges at the mountain foothills (or conversely fly from Tehran to Tabriz); one night in Tabriz for city sightseeing and a day trip to Maku (Black Church) and Jolfa; travel south to stay in the Kurdish village of Dowlab outside Sanandaj; then to Qazvin for overnight or to Tehran for Esfahan; then Shiraz.
The shrines of Qom, south of Tehran, and of Mashhad in the northeast will be important visits for any Muslim and will certainly give a wealth of information to any other curious traveller. There are also splendid historic buildings in the vicinity of Mashhad, but these are not located in ‘clusters’ as in Esfahan and Shiraz. Iranians enjoy visiting the coast and forests of the southern Caspian shores and wonderful beaches of the Persian Gulf (especially Kish and Qeshm islands).