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Highlights of Iran

Iran - an ancient land filled with bustling bazaars, historic sights, superb architecture, parched deserts and beautiful, snow-capped mountains. 

With no less than 12 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, few countries have a history that can compete with Iran, from the ancient gems of Persepolis, and Yazd - declared the second most historic city in the world by UNESCO - to wonderful museums, glorious mosques and mausoleums, and impressive ruins with exquisite stone carvings. 

Despite Iran's wealth of antiquities, perhaps Iran's greatest attraction is the warmth and generosity of it's people. Making you feel genuinely welcome in their country comes naturally to the Iranians. 

There is generally no problem for non-Muslims to visit mosques in Iran, except perhaps during Friday prayer. Shoes can be worn inside the mosques but should be taken off where carpets have been laid down, usually in front of the mehrab. However, in the imamzadeh (mausoleums of the descendants of Imams), it is necessary to take one's shoes off before entering the building. Remember to ask permission to take photographs inside the imamzadeh even if there are no signs expressly forbidding it. In some imamzadeh, such as Abdol Azim's in Rey, women must wear a chador, which can be hired at the entrance.

At Qom and Mashhad, the most important pilgrimage centres in Iran, entrance to the holy shrine is forbidden to non-Muslims (with the exception of certain areas in Mashhad).

The opening times and days of museums and historical sites is often one of the most frustrating problems for the tourist in Iran. Most museums have fixed opening times, with one closing day a week, usually a Monday. Unfortunately, these times can change suddenly and those tourists with itineraries fixed in advance may have to cancel some visits or replace them.

At the most important sites, such as Persepolis, Pasargadae, or Susa, tickets are sold at the entrance, but some sites, particularly those away from the major towns, are unfenced and do not even have a guardian. Occasionally, it will be necessary to find the guardian and get him to unlock the gate. Should he be absent, you may even have to come back later or the next day. It is therefore recommended to have as flexible an itinerary as possible if you are determined to see a particular place, or to telephone in advance to be sure of getting in. Sites well away from large cities are often impossible or extremely difficult to get to by public transport; for these, it is best to hire a car and a driver if you are not travelling with an organized tour.

As Iran makes a push to increase inbound tourism, we take a look at its top destinations – from ancient cities and beach resorts, to its modern capital and skiing destinations.

As Iran makes a push to increase inbound tourism, we take a look at its top destinations - from ancient cities and beach resorts, to its modern capital and skiing destinations.

1. Persepolis (Takht-e-Jamshid), the capital of the Achaemid empire and one of the world's most magnificient ancient sites, was declared a world heritage site in 1979 by Unesco

2. Amir Chakhmaq Square, built in the ninth century in Yazd. The desert city, famous for its windcatchers [ventilators], is located in the middle of Iran and is the centre of Zoroastrian culture

3. View of cupolas of the bazaars, a minaret and a windcatcher in Yazd province

4. The Eram garden (Garden of Paradise) in Shiraz is a typical Persian garden. This waterway leads towards the historic Qavam house. Shiraz is the city of love and Persian poetry, and home to many touristic sites including the tome of Hafez, a well-known Persian poet from the 14th century. Saadi, another celebrated poet of the 13th century, is also buried in Shiraz

5. Evening prayers at the ninth century shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad. The city in east Iran close to the border with Afghanistan is a popular destination for religious tourists and pilgrims. The shrine of Imam Reza, the eighth imam in Shia Islam, is the largest mosque in the world. Mashdad is also home to the tomb of Ferdowsi, the Persian poet behind the Shahnameh, a national epic

6. Iranian girls take a break from skiing at the Shemshak ski resort about 35 miles from Tehran. Shemshak and Dizin, situated in the Alborz mountain range close to the capital, are favourite getaways for wealthy Tehranis during the winter and spring months

7. To be inside Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan. The city nicknamed Half the World is perhaps Iran's best known touristic city. Naqsh-e Jahan Square, a square at the centre of the city, is also a Unesco world heritage site

8. Dome of the mosque in Hamadan. The capital of Iran's Hamedan province is one of the oldest cities in the world. The internationally known Iranian scientist Avicenna is buried here

9. View of Tehran with Milad Tower at sunset. The Iranian capital is a modern metropolis which also boasts a number of palaces belonging to the Pahlavi dynasty and dozens of museums

10. Check Tehran's Museum of Contemporary Art, which has the finest collection of modern art anywhere outside Europe and the US, boasting works by Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, Edvard Munch, Rene Magritte and Mark Rothko

11. The carpet section of Tehran's Grand Bazaar

12. Check Kish, a resort island in the south of Iran in the Persian Gulf, unthinkable a few years ago. Women must wear a nylon chador, supplied by the club. The inhabitants of the island, a free trade zone surrounded by shopping malls and tourist attractions, consider their island as a sort of experiment for a future Iran

13. Sunset on a beach at Ramsar, a popular resort on the Caspian Sea

Highlights of Iran