Tourist trail in Iran (Iran & Iraq part 1)

This report is entirely taken from my trip-report made in a Reddit /r/solotravel report.

Prelude: In november 2018 I made a two week trip to Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan. I did the typical tourist schedule in Iran, then journeyed to the off-the-beaten path destination of Iranian Kurdistan before finally heading to Iraqi Kurdistan. This post will detail the first part of the trek – the tourist trail in Iran (Esfahan, Shiraz & Tehran).


Ive visited Iran twice before, and thus this trip was more of a see-my-friends-again trip than an actual tourist roundtrip. There were still time to visit some major sites though! It was however my first time in both Iranian and Iraqi Kurdistans.

My trip started off with a flight from Copenhagen to Esfahan through Istanbul. I started in Esfahan as it’s where the majority of my friends live, and hands down also my favorite city. I had arranged to stay with a friend of mine and her family, so no need for a hotel. The first thing I noticed upon arrival was the great amount of new construction that had sprung up since my last visit a year ago. It’s great to see Iran blossoming up. Entire new city quarters are quickly rising from the sand.

On the first day, my friend and I revisited my favorite place in Esfahan, the Naqsh-e Jahan square, the second largest open square in the world. It is surrounded by the grand bazaar on all sides as well as two majestic mosques and the grand Ali Qapu palace from the abassid empire. It is always great to return here and marvel at the splendour of the square, meet the friendly locals and embrace the silk road atmosphere.

We then visited the 2 most famous bridges, the si-o-seh pol and Khaju pol. Both bridges are always well visited because of the iconic architecture. Granted for the past many years the river they cross has been completely dried up as the water has been redirected further upstream. It’s a shame.

The following days were just spent catching up and hanging out.

Then my friend and I took a mini vacation to the city of Shiraz, a city she hasn’t visited since she was 4 years old, despite living a mere 6 hours away by bus. The bus tickets costs about 5 euros for a comfortable seat in a so-called VIP bus. Getting around in Iran is really cheap and the bus network is extremely developed and encompassing.

In Shiraz we faced issues right away as we weren’t allowed to stay in the hotel room we had booked. In Iran unrelated males and females can’t share rooms together, which is even strictlier enforced if one part is Iranian. I thought we had gotten a special room that would bypass this rule by putting us in separate rooms within a larger room, but no. So we had to find another room for my friend. Not easy in high season Shiraz. We managed but it really put a damper on the trip right from the get go. And so I was left with a giant 4 bed room all to myself (the “twin room”-room was actually just one big room with 4 single beds in it, and not what I had thought at all).

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That wasn’t the end to our curses. We had planned to take a full-day trip to Persepolis the following day, but upon arrival we were told that everywhere would be closed the following day, as it was the mourning day for prophet Muhammad’s death-day. So we improvised and quickly jumped into a taxi to Persepolis, knowing we would only manage about an hour at the massive site before closing time. We got the most out of it. It was the second time I visited Persepolis, and I saw it all in a calm pace last year, but it was my friends first time so she was significantly more upset. But it was this or nothing at all as we would be returning to Esfahan the day after the big mourning day, and so wouldn’t have time to make the trip later.

Persepolis still gives me goosebumps. The site is so overwhelmingly grand and epic, and you constantly ask yourself how people could’ve possible build and created something like it over 2000 years ago without machines. It’s always an experience!

Returning in the evening we continued on to cover more sights in Shiraz city itself so as to not miss them the following day. We saw the tombs of poets Sa’adi and Hafez. Both very solemn but beautiful, and full of people reciting poetry. Sitting around, drinking tea and observing, even while not understanding Farsi, is a great way to pass time. Persians are the people of poetry.

The next day we tried our luck, checking out a few places that we were told might still be open. Turned out basically everywhere was still open.. The highlight of the day was our morning visit to the Nasir Ol-Molk mosque, also known as the pink mosque due to the large amount of pink colours in the tilework, which is unusual as the dominant colour. It also has a prayer hall with a big stained-glass facade in different colours that faces the early morning sun, creating a magnificent display of light and colours on the floor, attracting many a local and tourist chasing the perfect photo.

Other places we visited included the Shah Cheragh mausoleum, the Vakil bazar and Mosque.

The following day, our last, we went around visiting the gardens of the city. There are a handful to pick from, as the city is not just famous for its poets but also it’s gardens. We saw the Naranjestan garden and palace, the Jahanam garden and the Delgosha garden. We tried to visit the grandest garden of them all, the Eram garden, but the line to buy a ticket was ridiculous. All the gardens were of course mostly dead at this time of year, but they still offered a nice break from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Finally we took a bus back to Esfahan in the afternoon arriving in the late evening. Since some family of my friend had arrived during our trip, there wasn’t room at their place for me anymore. Instead I checked into the Julfa Hotel in the Julfa Armenian Christian district of town, scoring a great room with a direct view of the armenian Vank Cathedral. The following morning I explored Julfa for a bit, seeing the cathedral and 2 other Armenian churches. I then had brunch with another friend, before taking a bus to Tehran in the afternoon.

It was actually my first time in Tehran! It’s such a massive city with so much traffic and so different and modern compared to any other city in Iran I’ve visited. In Tehran I stayed with the parents of my Farsi teacher from back in Denmark. It was a great way to get a local touch on Tehran.

My first day went by just exploring the downtown area, including the grand bazar, and spending 1,5 hours in the post office to ship myself various goods. The same evening friends of my Farsi teacher invited me to join them at a concert, and so I got to experience the underground scene in Iran with the liberal youths. It was a great experience, seeing the modern experimentalist Makan Ashgvari perform, despite not understanding much. The atmosphere and groove made it all worth it.

The following day i was taken around to a few of the main sights of the city by my teachers sister. We started by exploring the late Shah Reza Pahlavis summer residence, the Niavaran Palace. A grand and extremely posh palace. Using fractured mirrors as wall-paper, something that seems to be very popular among the shahs, despite not being very pretty. Guess reputation is more important than actual beauty.

After battling traffic for a while we made it to the Milad Tower, a 420 meter high space needle, opened in 2009. It provides splendid 360 degree views of Tehran and the surrounding Alborz mountains. The city scape of Tehran just stretches out as far as the eye can see, and it is massively impressive to get just a sense of the sheer scale of this metropolis. Beyond the viewing platform, the tower also hosts a small wax museum showcasing famous Iranians, and a Tehran municipality museum. Neither are really interesting however, the view is by far the best part. A ticket for all 3 places costs less than 10 euros.

After Milad Tower we went to the Tehran Book Complex. A giant bookshop selling everything. I got myself a grand version of the Persian epic, Shahnameh.

The final stop, after battling traffic for over an hour again, was the Tabiat bridge. A modern bridge offering great views of the city lights after darkness falls. Here we had dinner at the Burger Project place at the nearby food court. Can’t recommend.

The next day was to be my final day in Tehran and it was even more affected by traffic. The day started out very rainy, and actually stayed rainy the whole day. I went with my teachers dad on a small “america” tour, seeing the infamous giant American flag mural with falling bombs for stripes with “Down with the usa” printed across it, snapped pictures of it in secrecy as apparently the building it’s printed on is a military base.

Then we went and saw the former American embassy, now labelled “spy den” on the sign out front, and with a bunch of anti-American art on the walls around the complex.

Next up we visited every part of Golestan palace, a grandiose museum of multiple wings and buildings showcasing multiple shahs additions to the palace. It was ok but it’s not really worth going through every part of the place, many of them are similar or frankly not very interesting.

After Golestan we were tired and wet from the rain and so went home to rest and get some lunch. We decided we would venture to the Azadi bus terminal in the evening to ask for tickets to Suleymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan as we couldn’t find them online, otherwise I would just get a ticket to Sanandaj, the capital of Iranian Kurdistan, and go from there somehow. At the same time we would knock the iconic Azadi tower off the list as it’s right next to the terminal.

At 5pm we set out, it’s a drive of about 15 kms across the city, but because we were so foolish to go during rush-hour it took us an incredibly tedious full 4 hours to arrive. And it was still pouring down. Then at the terminal we were told there’s no direct link between Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan anymore (due to difference in gas prices they said?) so the whole trip there had been unnecessary. Fuming with annoyance I got a ticket to Sanandaj for the next day instead. After checking out the Azadi tower, which is delightfully simple in design but very pretty, in still pouring rain, we went home, which only took 30 mins, and had some delicious homemade dinner.

Next morning we took the metro to be sure to make it in time to the station. We made it perfectly in time, we had our goodbyes and soon I was on my way. A 7 hour bus trip through the Markazi, Hamedan and Kurdistan regions, all of which are very rugged with mountains and beautiful. It was a joy sitting 7 hours looking out on the wild nature rolling past my eyes. Especially the last 20-30 kms before Sanandaj as you descend the mountains down into the valley is unbelievable.

More coming in the next post!

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