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 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.
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. 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 Mount Damavand (the so-called roof of Iran, 5,610m high) 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 the central desert region it is dry and insanely hot (NASA’s infrared satellites measured the Dasht-e Lut desert at Gandom Beryan cindering at 70.7°C during the summer of 2005). In August 2015, the town of Bandar Mahshahr in southern Iran recorded a ‘heat index’ of 74°C, the second highest ever recorded.
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.
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).
• Masouleh, Qaleh Rudkhan and mountains of Gilan province
• Shopping in Esfahan bazaar
• The mountain path to Babak Castle
• Tehran’s Milad Tower for exhilarating views and an evening meal in one of Tehran’s best restaurants
• The historic red mud village of Abyaneh
• Spring flower blossom in Shirazi gardens
• The Gate of All Nations in ancient Persepolis
• The architecture of Kashan’s old merchant houses
• The Silk Road trail from Hamadan towards the Iraqi border and Kurdish villages
• 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 in Tehran; fly to Esfahan for at least three days’ sightseeing, drive to Yazd for one day and night, a full day in and around Persepolis, and another day in Bishapur or Firuzabad; fly 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.
Before visiting Esfahan and Shiraz, travel to Ardabil from Tehran, overnighting in Bandar-e Anzali (or conversely fly from Tehran to Tabriz); two nights in Tabriz for city sightseeing and a day trip to Maku (Black Church) and Jolfa; return south to stay in Qazvin; then to Hamadan 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 the wonderful beaches of the Persian Gulf (especially Kish and Qeshm).