A first timer’s guide to Iran: A 3 week itinerary

Iran offers intrepid travellers a sensory avalanche filled with turquoise, saffron, sweet tea and a chorus of Welcome to Iran.

But planning a trip to Iran can be daunting. You may wonder how easy it is to get around on public transport and negotiating language barriers; how to experience traditional Iranian hospitality; and if you should stick to the cities or get off the beaten path and explore the natural landscapes.

The following itinerary will help you to plan your trip and figure out what is possible given the time you have in this fascinating country.

You can find more information on what you need to know before you go to Iran here.

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Day 1-2 Tehran

Tehran will most likely be your entry point into Iran – and it’s a good idea to start here. All the hostels are set up to help travellers get what they need for their trip such as SIM cards, exchanging money, setting up the Snapp taxi phone app, and helping you book buses or internal flights.

Tehran is not just a good starting point, but there’s also a few things to see and do, such as Golestan Place, Mt Tochal and Tabiat Bridge. You can get around easily in Tehran on the metro. Tickets cost only 10,000 Rials and can be bought from the ticket office at each station. Stations are announced and written in both Farsi and English.

Golestan Palace was once a royal residence and features beautiful gardens, brightly coloured decorative tiles adorning the inner walls, as well as a wealth of beautiful ornaments from across the world.

You can simply pay to enter the gardens, or pick to enter some or all of the museums housing ornaments, and also beautifully adorned themselves with chandeliers and mosaic mirrored walls.

You can also visit the nearby Masoudieh Palace.

3,964 metre Mt Tochal is a wintertime ski resort and summertime viewpoint. You can reach the summit from Tehran by taking the cable car up. To get to the cable car, you will need to take the metro to Tajrish (also home to a large bazaar) and then a shared taxi to the cable car.

On a clear day, Tabiat Bridge offers a beautiful view of the mountains surrounding Tehran. To get there, take the metro to Shahid Hemmat Station and then walk over to the Taleghani Forest Park and follow the signs to the bridge.

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Day 3-4 Kashan

Depending on the season or weather, you can then choose to head north to Dizin or go south to Kashan from Tehran. Buses run regularly to Kashan from Tehran’s South Bus Station near the Payane-e Jonub metro station.

Kashan is home to the beautiful 18th century Agha Bozorg Mosque as well as several traditional houses turned into museums. It also features a beautiful old bazaar and the Fin Garden.

Kashan’s main sights can be explored in a day, but you may want to hang around an extra day to do a day trip to the Abyaneh village (also known as the red village owing to the colour of the clay used to construct the houses), or a sunrise or sunset tour to the nearby Maranjab Desert and the Namak Salt Lake.

I opted for the latter and the tour also included a visit to the a mud castle and nearby underground city in the town of Noush Abad, the Holy Shrine of Aran va Bidgol  and a caravanserai.

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Day 5-6 Isfahan

From Kashan, your next stop should be Isfahan – which was once among the biggest cities in the world during the times of the Silk Road. Buses run regularly between Kashan and Isfahan.

Most of the main sights in Isfahan are centred around the Naqsh-e Jahan Square, including the Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque, Shah Mosque and the bazaar.

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The bazaar runs around the perimeter of the square and you’ll likely roam for hours in the bazaar as you browse everything from carpets to copper tea cups.

Nearby the square is the Hasht Behesht Palace, which is adorned with a beautiful mosaic interior.

Isfahan is also well known for its beautiful bridges spanning the Zayandeh River – and it’s worth seeing Si-o-Se Pol Bridge and Khajoo Bridge both during the day and night.

Cross one of the bridges and head over to the Armenian Quarter of Isfahan, which was established in the 17th century. Here you’ll find plenty of trendy shops and cafes, as well as the Vank Cathedral.

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Day 7-9 Yazd

There’s a lot to see in and around Yazd and it was my favourite city in Iran.

Not only does the city of Yazd feature beautiful alleyways and viewpoints, but there’s also plenty of easy day trips from Yazd.

Your first day in Yazd should be spent exploring the old town, visiting the Jameh Mosque, the many labyrinth bazaars, and roaming the covered old town streets. You can get a panoramic rooftop view of the old town from the tourist library or the multitude of rooftop cafes such as Yazd Arthouse.

About a 15 minute drive from Yazd town centre is the Towers of Silence. Followers of the Zoroastrian religion would carry their dead to the top of these towers for vultures and the sun to purify the body. These towers were once located far away from the inhabitants of Yazd, but eventually the population spread to encroach on the towers and the practice was abandoned and the Zoroastrians started to bury their dead.

DSC_6300These days, the towers are preserved for tourists. Entry is 200,000 Rials (roughly €1). There’s two towers – with most people going up to the smaller one which has stairs leading all the way to the top. The bigger and higher tower offers a panoramic view of the surrounding area and the adjacent smaller tower. It’s a short hike up to the tower.

Information signs are written in Farsi and English throughout the complex.

Nearby Yazd lies several key attractions. About 30km past the Towers of Silence is the mud brick Saryazd Castle, a maze like castle which was once used to hide precious treasures such as jewels, as well as store grains. You’ll likely spend a few hours exploring the labyrinth, which was designed to make it hard for any thieves to find the treasures stored there.

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Many tourists to Yazd do the organised day trip to the Chak Chak village to see a Zoroastrian fire temple, Narin Castle in Meybod and the abandoned mud brick town of Kharanaq. This can also be done by getting a Snapp taxi (you can download the app on your phone and it works similar to Uber) from Yazd to Meybod and then negotiating with the taxi drivers to take you to Chaq Chaq and Kharanaq. I highly recommend the fascinating village of Kharanaq – but Narin Castle and Chak Chak can be skipped if you are time poor as they are similar to other sights you will likely come across in Iran.

Days 9-11 Kerman and the Kalut desert

From Yazd, take the bus to Kerman to see more castles and you can also take a tour out to the Kalut desert – described as the hottest place on Earth.

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Days 12-14 Shiraz and Persepolis

There’s a lot to see in Shiraz and it’s worth at least a full day to see the city and then a half day to see the ruins of the ancient city of Persepolis.

Highlights in Shiraz include the Nasir-Al-Molk – better known as the Pink Mosque. It’s best to go here in the morning to see the sunlight projected in a colourful display inside the prayer hall through the stained glass windows. The mosque opens at 8am – but the best time to go is between 9-11am – but be ready for the crowds. When the mosque opens, you also get a nice reflection on the courtyard pond – and likely no one else will be out there!

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Other must see sights include the Karim Khan Citadel – the outside is far more spectacular than the inside so no need to go in; the Vakil Mosque, Vakil Bathhouse and the Vakil Bazaar, which are all conveniently located close to each other.

The Vakil Bazaar was one of the my favourite bazaars in Iran owing to it’s beautiful coloured vaulted ceilings.

It’s also worth a visit to the Shah-e Cheragh Holy Shrine in the late afternoon so you can see the mosque during the day and night. A guide is mandatory for tourists and will be provided on entry, and no cameras are allowed – only phone cameras. Women will be required to wear a chador, which you can get for free at the entrance.

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The ancient city of Persepolis is located about a 45 minute drive from Shiraz. You can opt to book a guided tour, or simply get a Snapp taxi to take you there. You can then negotiate a price for the return trip – expect to pay about 800,000 Rials (about €7).

Day 14 – Rasht, Masouleh and Rudkhan Castle

From Shiraz, you can fly back to Tehran with Iran Air or Mahan Air or take an overnight bus or train, then make your way over to Rasht, about a three hour drive to Rasht. Buses depart for Rasht from Tehran’s West Bus Station near Azadi Square.

While there’s not much to see in Rasht, it’s a good base to reach the picturesque highland town of Masouleh and the moody Rudkhan Castle.

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I did both as a day trip from Rasht. To get out there, I took a shared taxi to Fuman, about a 30 minute drive from Rasht, for 40,000 Rials. From Fuman, I bargained with a taxi driver to take me out to both Rudkhan Castle and Masouleh. The cost was 1,000,000 Rials which included waiting time at both stops.

No matter the weather, Rudkhan Castle is beautiful. Rasht receives a lot of rain, and while luckily it didn’t rain the particular day, the castle was shrouded in mist, but this added to its magic.

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Day 15-17 Alamut Valley

From Rasht, you can take a bus to Qazvin, and organise a tour to the Castles of the Assassins in the beautiful Alamut Valley.

The Castles of the Assassins date back to the 12th century and were home to the followers of the infamous Hasan-e Sabbah. The Mongols fought for the castles for many years, with one of the Castles of the Assassins said to have held out from siege for 17 years – it was that well fortified. The castles were all infiltrated by 1256 and destroyed.

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The most popular castles to visit are Alamut Castle, which has a spectacular position on a mountain and offers panoramic views to a village below and the surrounding mountains – but unfortunately what remains of the castle is held up by scaffolding. Not much is left of Lambasar Castle located to the west of Alamut Castle, but again it’s location makes it worth the visit with its equally spectacular views of the valley and coloured mountains surrounding the castle.

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There’s many tour operators but I recommend Alamut Eagle Tours. My guide Farzad is from Qazvin, speaks English and offers a wealth of knowledge about the area. You can also include a tour of Qazvin to see the caravanserai, bazaar and local mosques, as well as a hike to a waterfall near Qazvin.

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Days 17-20 Dizin

Dizin Ski Resort is Iran’s largest and attracts people from all over the world.

From Qazvin, you can get to Dizin by catching a Tehran bound bus and asking to be dropped off at Karaj at the shared taxi stand bordering Chalus Road.

Depending on the time, you may be able to get a shared taxi or taxi up to Dizin. The price should be no more than 1,000,000 Rials.

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Make sure you stay at Dizin Joyja Hostel! Abbas and Shoukoo are the most amazing hosts and will show you genuine Iranian hospitality.

The Dizin Ski Resort offers piste runs for all levels, and advanced skiers and snowboarders can take advantage of the good off piste runs.

If you’re visiting Dizin in the warmer months, there’s also hiking opportunities in the area.


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Day 21 Tehran

You will likely finish your Iran trip in Tehran unless you are exiting Iran via the Armenian or Turkish borders.

Got more time? Consider visiting Tabriz and seeing the world’s largest covered bazaar. You can also do a day trip to the Colourful Mountains and Kandovan, which is similar to Turkey’s Cappadocia.

If you’re seeking waterfalls, head over to the Golestan province and explore the forests and villages of this province near the Turkmenistan border.

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