Nestled in the Iranian desert is the fabled and sprawling city of Shiraz, which for all intensive purposes is as flat as a pancake. New buildings and mud-bricks dwellings merge together in a glorious contamination of old world and the new.
Shiraz at first glance appears to be a more relaxed city where women are more inclined to wear a headscarf , and young people walk around with selfie sticks. However, as Shiraz was so busy with Iranian tourists due to Norouz (Iranian New Year), it’s tough to know who were the locals from those visiting family and friends.
How to get here
I pre-booked my VIP bus ticket in Yazd a few days beforehand without any issues. There are obvious differences between VIP and public buses, mainly seat space and the latter stops to pick people up wherever and whenever. If money is an issue then personally I found both styles to be fairly decent. They typically give basic snacks and play a highly entertaining Persian movie which is more comical without subtitles.
How to Get around
Public buses are a good and cheap way of travelling around. Keep in mind that women enter from the back of the bus and men at the front, even for couples. Keep small currency handy for the buses. There is no metro system but taxis literally fill the street so you won’t be stuck getting around, just make sure you agree the price before beginning your journey. Failing this, Shiraz is the perfect city to lace up your shoes, hit the streets and explore on foot.
Where to stay?
Due to Norouz, I found all accommodation was either full or ridiculously expensive. I managed to book a hotel with Persian Odyssey (email@example.com) the day before for US$30 per night (double bed) although I had my doubts about the quality. After arriving off the night bus at 6 a.m., I found that the hotel was in the Old City and within the maze of corridors. With no answer on the door, a nearby hotel let me in to wait in their breakfast room until the hotel had woken up.
As fate would have it, I only waited 20 minutes before the owner came to collect me. Turns out they had just opened a few days earlier and I was the only guest staying in this traditional hotel. The place was beautiful, everything was new, beds had never been slept in, Wi-Fi connection was brilliant, it was quiet, and the owner and staff were super friendly. It came as such a welcome surprise having landed in off the night bus and wouldn’t hesitate to stay here again. If you’re looking for something friendly and quieter, this is your place!
Forough Al Molk Hotel / 07132225877 / Namazi Con, Sang Siyah Alley, Right Hand side / firstname.lastname@example.org
Iranian New Year is a wonderful time to travel in Iran but as with everything, there are positives and negatives. People travel from all over Iran to spend the 13 days of New Year with friends and family, so it’s a wonderful chance to meet people from all over the country. However, as a result it’s extremely busy and tourist attractions were mobbed. To save on hotel costs, families pitch tents all over the city on sidewalks and outside main attractions so even if you get there early, you’ll be queueing. I’m pleased I was in Iran for Norouz but it would have been nice to have peace and quiet at attractions.
With two full days in the city I hired a guide for the first day and a driver for the next to explore the attractions further outside of Shiraz, who just happened to be the father of my guide. He spoke no English and I no Persian, but he did bring along sweet tea and cakes to have for lunch which helped to bridge the divide. Keep in mind that most of the tourist hotels can connect you with a public tour, but I find they usually include shopping which isn’t my thing, and I didn’t want to waste time waiting for people so I hired my own driver.
To guide or not to guide?
Shiraz is one of those cities where I could probably have bumbled my way through but I chose to hire a guide to save time, see everything I wanted and learn as much as possible. I don’t see the point of travelling all the way to Iran to leave without a thorough understanding of what I have seen or the country itself. I was lucky enough to be recommended a guide called Azadeh (Tel: 09171052191 / email@example.com) who cost US$60 for the day. She is what I term a modern guide who wears the veil and has strong values, but has embraced the freedom associated with an evolving Iran. She is passionate about what she does, knows her stuff and will gladly tailor the itinerary to suit the person. She recognised early on that I wasn’t the shopping type so didn’t waste my time with this. She is the face of the modern strong Iranian woman but also appreciates its traditional values. She knows her stuff, we had a good laugh and she unlocked the secrets of the city for me over the course of a day.
Day 1 – What is there to see in Shiraz?
There are loads of things to see and do and whilst you should definitely do your own research, here were my top highlights to give you a flavour of the city.
Nasir al-Mulk Mosque
What an unbelievable masterpiece this place truly is. From the second I stepped through the door, I could not help but be overwhelmed by the craftsmanship and artistry that went into this mosque. If you arrive early when the sun is shining through the beautiful stained glass windows, you’ll be rewarded with reds, blues and greens which create patterns on the floor. Be sure to visit the carpets at the end of the mosque to see the detail on the arches, intricate tile work and marvel at how well thought out this building is.
The city’s ancient trading district is home to several bazaars, with probably the most famous being Bazar-e Vakil. You’ll find an array of carpet sellers, handicrafts, clothes and spices and I recommend to get as lost as you can and explore as deeply as possible. Bargain hard but be polite as Iranian people have not be spoilt by tourism; keep in mind you’re representing foreigners and it’s not a fight to the death when haggling the price.
Once a place where Shirazis would relax, wash, clean for weddings and catch up on gossip, this hammam has long since ceased to operate in its original function. Although local artisans now work this area to sell their wares, I recommend a visit for a glimpse into what was previously such an integral part of Iranian life.
Sayyed Mir Ahmad, one of Imam Reza’s 17 brothers, was killed by the caliphate here in AD 835 and his remains are housed in this glittering shrine. Inside you’ll find the entire place covered in tiny mirror tiles; it truly is quite spectacular. The outside courtyard is a wonderful area to relax away from the heat, and the blue-tiled dome and gold-topped minarets make it perfect to enjoy downtime in what is said to be one of the holiest Shiite sites in Iran. The usual rules apply with women being required to wear a chador, and cameras are forbidden.
Eram Garden (Baq e Eram)
This is one of the most beautiful gardens in Iran and has numerous species of plants and trees from all around the world. You’ll want to spend time here and it’s worth taking some lunch to actually enjoy the place as opposed to just walking through it. The main building has some beautiful paintings and fantastic architecture. If you don’t have a guide then try visit during the week as weekends can be very busy and you’ll end up queueing.
Tomb of Saadi
By all accounts this place is beautiful and is well known as the greatest Persian poet in Iran. Unfortunately being Narouz, this site was completely packed so I didn’t explore as much as I would have liked. This place will always be popular with the locals so visiting early (like most places) is recommended.
This was the traditional gate to Shiraz city, prior to modern times when 4 lanes of traffic required access and was the official point where people were blessed for their travels, whether they were coming or going. There really isn’t much around here but it gives great views of the city. If you’re visiting Persepolis, you’ll exit and enter this way and could ask your driver to stop for a photo.
By far my favourite place in all of Iran for it’s sheer beauty, Masjed-e Vakil. This mosque is next to the Bazar-e Vakil and has an incredible tiled portal, a recessed entrance decorated with a beautiful courtyard surrounded and a prayer hall supported by 48 carved columns. It is the perfect place for photographers and to really understand how ornate Iranian architecture is. Make sure your camera is fully charged!
Day 2 – Day tripping
Two attractions which came highly recommended to me were Persepolis and Necropolis, so I hired my own driver. There are loads of organized tours you can book on but depends what your time and budget allows. Although the scenery to get there won’t exactly set the world on fire (flat desert), it’s certainly worth venturing outside the city.
Now an archaeological site in Iran, the ancient city of Persepolis was founded by Darius I in 518 BC as the capital of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. On an immense half-artificial, half-natural terrace, the great king created an impressive palace complex inspired by Mesopotamian models. The importance and quality of the ruins at Persepolis led to its recognition by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
I know I’m supposed to say how much I loved this site, especially as there is a movie named after it but I just didn’t, mind you I opted to go without a guide. From a height and overall view of the site, it’s possible to get an idea of how Persepolis looked in its heyday and yes it was impressive, but I didn’t feel the same whilst walking throughout the site. If truth be told, I probably wouldn’t bother again but if you’re visiting Necropolis, then it seems a shame not to.
I did however, enjoy visiting Necropolis. The large bas-reliefs of Necropolis bring history alive more than any other place in Iran. Whilst wandering around the huge rock carvings and tombs I tried to imagine how things would have appeared 2500 years ago. Even though Necropolis has been a sacred area for a long time, Darius the Great was the first to choose it as a burial place. His successors not only imitated his idea of a cliff tomb, but also copied the layout of the tomb itself. It was busy at the site but this was due to Narouz. I highly recommend a visit to anyone coming to Iran.
Shiraz is most definitely a city that should not be left off a visitor’s itinerary to Iran. It’s warm, welcoming and showcases how the cities old and new are merging together seamlessly. I thoroughly enjoyed my time here and met some wonderful people.