A guest post from the couple behind Dusty Backpacks: 10 things to do in Iran. Once one of the greatest empires in the world, Iran is home to stunning landscapes, breathtaking culture, and some of the warmest people you will ever meet.
We heard so many good things about Iran during our three months of travel in Central Asia. Our fellow travelers gushed with fond memories of Iran, so our expectations were high.
Iran didn’t disappoint.
Iran is a big country with endless things to do, so we put together a short list of the 10 experiences we enjoyed the most. Without further ado, here are 10 things to do in Iran to get you started planning your own Iran adventure.
10 of our favorite things to do in Iran
- Chill on Hormuz Island
- Circle Maranjab Desert
- Roast in the Kalut Desert
- Shop in Nagsh-e-Jahan Square
- Climb to the Castle of the Assassins
- Go down in history at Persepolis
- Get lost in Kashan’s bazaar
- Watch Kashan’s sunset from above
- Explore a US embassy
- Gaze at the Pink Mosque
1. Chill on Hormuz Island
You might have heard of Hormuz Island, but did you know it’s made of nothing but salt? Its colorful landscape gives this island its nickname: Rainbow Island.
The vibe on Hormuz Island is completely different from the rest of Iran. Life is relaxed, slow, and most tourists come to camp and party. All of Iran’s strict rules seem far away on the beautiful island.
Located in the Persian Gulf, the weather is always warm. Instead of using one of the many tuk-tuk tours, we spent two days driving around the island on a beat-up motorcycle. Highly recommended if you want to explore the island by yourself!
Our two days on the island felt like an eternity, in a good way. We saw incredible scenery: salt rocks, red beaches, caves, and even a few gazelles. We met a bunch of fellow travelers en-route, and spent evenings watching the sunset together. Both nights ended with freshly-caught fish.
If we didn’t have a ferry to Dubai to catch, we probably would’ve spent an entire week on Hormuz.
Know before you go: The ferries from Bandar Abbas are often canceled due to rough seas. Keep that in mind if you’re on a tight schedule.
Planning your first trip to Iran? Get started with Elisa and Marc’s 3-week itinerary.
2. Circle the Maranjab Desert
After entering Iran from Turkmenistan, we spent our first night in Mashhad with a lovely family we met through Couchsurfing. They kept talking about how beautiful the Maranjab Desert is, and made us promise to go there if we visited Kashan.
We kept our promise! Upon arriving in Kashan, we ran into a friendly taxi driver willing to take us to the Maranjab Desert.
The Maranjab Desert is part of a standard tour most taxi drivers and hostels in Kashan offer. Most tours include the underground city of Nushabad, the stunning Mohammed Helal Shrine, a stop at a salt lake, and a grand sunset finale atop dunes in the Maranjab Desert.
We arranged everything last minute and had no idea what to expect. To our delight, it was extremely beautiful, isolated, and quiet. Not many tourists or locals, just a few curious camels making their way into the Maranjab Desert.
Know before you go: We saw prices ranging from €30-70 for a half-day trip. We ended up paying €30. Don’t accept the first offer you get; talk to different taxi drivers and hostels, then pick the one you feel most comfortable with.
3. Roast in the hottest place on earth: Kalut Desert
Who wouldn’t want to visit the hottest place on earth?
NASA once recorded a whopping 73°C in the Kalut desert, officially establishing it as the hottest place on earth.
The Kalut desert is easily visited from the desert town of Kerman. Visitors have many options: day trip, multi-day trips, or independent trips. We opted for a day trip, and were stunned by the surreal shapes of the desert sands. Make sure to watch the sunset, since desert sunsets are some of the best in the world.
Our day ended with a campfire and a cup of tea, before we turned our gaze upwards to the sky, enjoying the evening’s show of stars.
Know before you go: Tours are extremely expensive, but worth it in our opinion. If you have a car, you can reach the desert yourself. The road leading to the sand formations is paved. Note from Alex: Be careful if driving deeper into the desert; Balochistan sees periodic violence from separatists and people smuggling contraband across borders.
Read: A guide to crossing the Iran-Pakistan border by land
4. Shop at the Nagsh-e Jahan Square in Isfahan
In 1598, Shah Abbas the Great, ruler of Persia’s Safavid dynasty, made Isfahan his capital. It’s said Isfahan nesfe jahan, Isfahan is half the world. His decision marked the start of Isfahan’s golden age; Shah Abbas turned Isfahan into one of the most beautiful cities in the world at that time.
The famous Naqsh-e Jahan Square, surrounded by shops, and merchants, has long been the central hub for trading in Isfahan. Many shops sell traditional Iranian goods: carpets, bronze ware, camel bone souvenirs, and then some. If you want to buy some souvenirs, this is the place to do it.
Imam Mosque is one of the most beautiful buildings on the square. Ali Qapu Palace offers a grand view of the square from its balcony. Don’t forget to try some saffron ice cream or faloodeh while roaming the main bazaar!
Some say the game of polo was invented in Isfahan, and was played in Naqsh-e Jahan Square before Indian merchants brought the game to India. Whether or not it’s true, it makes for a good story.
Know before you go: Don’t be scared of forward salesmen. They are genuinely friendly and want to show you their products. Even if you only go for a cup of tea, they will still be kind hosts.
Read: Lost With Purpose’s guide to female travel in Iran
5. Climb to the Castle of Assassins in the Alamut Valley
With a name like the Castle of Assassins, we had to visit this place.
Alamut, the official name of the castle, means Eagles Nest. A logical name given its location atop a peak overlooking the valley.
The first buildings of the castle were constructed in the 9th century. Two centuries later, an Ismaili Shia missionary named Hassan-i Sabbah took control of the castle, as part of a campaign to spread Ismailism in Northern Iran.
Hassan’s followers were named Hashshashin… or, as you might recognize, assassins. The Alamut Castle was his stronghold in the region; from there, Hassan and his assassins gained control over the region.
The Castle is located in the Alamut Valley, which is a beautiful region worth exploring in itself. Make sure to give yourself a full day to explore the castle and the surrounding valley.
Know before you go: See Alex’s post on visiting the Castle of the Assassins and the Alamut Valley for more information about planning your trip.
6. Go down in history at Persepolis
Persepolis is Iran’s most well-known historical site, though not everyone realizes it’s in Iran!
Built around 515 BC, it was the capital of the first and largest Persian empire: the Achaemenid Empire. One of the biggest empires Eurasia has ever seen, it stretched from modern-day Greece and Egypt in the west to India in the east.
Give yourself a full day at Persepolis to really grasp its size. We don’t usually take tours, but we’re glad we took a guided tour of the complex. The local tour guide took us back in time, helping us understand the significance of Persepolis and just how powerful the Persian empire was.
Know before you go: You can use Snapp, Iran’s Uber equivalent, to get to Persepolis and back! No need to book an expensive bus tour to get there; those “tours” are often just a bus ride there and back.
7. Get lost in the Kashan bazaar
Every Iranian city has a bazaar, but some are more beautiful than others. The Kashan bazaar was by far one of our favorites; we felt like we were the only foreigners there, and locals were particularly welcoming.
Kashan’s bazaar follows one long street, eventually leading toward stunningly decorated open with tiled dome roofs. The bazaar’s ways are filled with shops selling carpets, herbs, and other necessities in between. You can easily spend a full day browsing all the little shops and streets.
Know before you go: Be open to anything, talk to everyone, and taste everything!
Read:My favorite off the beaten track places in Iran
8. Enjoy a sunset from above in Kashan
After arriving in Kashan in the late afternoon, we headed towards the old center. We read about the Sultan Amir Ahmad Bathhouse rooftop, and decided to make our way there for sunset. The domed bathhouse features against Kashan’s skyline made for one of the most beautiful sunsets we saw in Iran.
Even then, the highlight of our evening were the ruins of Jalali Castle. Only the castle walls remain intact; there, you’ll find examples of “natural refrigerators”. Once used to store ice and vegetables, they used evaporating water to cool down the structure, which was also insulated to trap cool air inside.
One of the biggest refrigerators is within the walls; you can climb to it as Elisa did. Arriving just after sunset was perfect: the scenery was beautiful, and the views over Kashan were stunning.
Know before you go: If you’re traveling Iran on a budget, head to the Jalali Castle right away. Jalali has no entrance fee and sees fewer people, unlike the bathhouse.
9. Enter a den of espionage at the former US embassy
One of the most controversial places to visit in Iran, the embassy is loaded with historical conflict and differing perspectives. It played a vital role in the Iran-US conflict that still goes on today.
Street art portraying a critical view of the USA greets visitors. The interior is still in its original state, with anti-US posters and information about each room. You can explore many rooms, see old equipment such as document burners, and see some original documents. It’s worth a visit if you like history and want to better understand the tense relationship between Iran and the US.
Know there’s a lot of anti-US sentiment in the museum. Whether or not you agree, remember this is their view of what is/was going on, and respect it. Keep an open mind.
Know before you go: We recommend watching the movie Argo before visiting. Our guide said it offers a fairly accurate depiction of what went on at the embassy.
10. Gaze in wonder at the Pink Mosque
Visiting the Nasir-ol-Molk Mosque in Shiraz is one of the most famous things to do in Iran.
Better known as the Pink Mosque, it was built in the late 19th century. It’s not old compared to most mosques in Iran, but it’s one of the most beautiful nevertheless. Its famous stained-glass windows and bright pink interior cast technicolored rays in the early morning.
We were conflicted about visiting the Pink Mosque, as these days its extremely busy, expensive, and overrun by Instagram tourists. But ultimately, we couldn’t deny the beauty of the glass stained windows in the morning light. It’s worth the visit, despite the crowds.
Know before you go: This is one of those experiences you get up early for. Go as early as possible to avoid the crowds.
So ends our list of 10 things to do in Iran. Hopefully you’ve got a good idea of some experiences to have in Iran! Don’t forget that this is just a guide, not an end-all list: there is much more to see, do, and eat in Iran!
Traveling to Iran? Here’s everything you need to know before visiting Iran.