After a week in Tehran we flew into the historic town of Shiraz. Despite being the birthplace of one of our favourite wine blends, the 2,000 year old centre of Persian civilisation is still subject to the nation-wide prohibition of alcohol. Although we couldn’t indulge in the city’s liquid namesake there is still more than enough to keep travellers busy and satiated.
With a much slower and more rural feel than Tehran, the desert town is a perfect place to relax and establish a base for visiting the surrounding area.
Where to Stay in Shiraz
For €15 per night we got a large, clean double (twin) room with shared bathroom and free breakfast. The hostel had a lovely courtyard with Persian lounges and a small fountain, and tea (complementary) and snacks (for a fee) were available from our dedicated host, who ensured that we wanted for nothing and greeted us every morning with the widest grin and friendliest “hello!” that we have ever received.
The Best Things to do in Shiraz
The Pink Mosque
Pink Mosque Entry tickets: 200,000 IRR per person
Shiraz is home to arguably the most photogenic religious site in the world, the Nasir-Ol-Molk (or Pink) Mosque. Strategically constructed to catch the morning sunlight through its beautiful stained glass windows, the result is a stunning array of refracted rainbow light spilling across the floor of the mosque.
The ideal time to visit is between 7.30am and 9am, when the sun is at a perfect angle to stream gorgeous colours and patterns into the main prayer hall. Unsurprisingly, this is also the busiest time to visit the mosque, but you will be so caught up in the beautiful colours you’ll hardly notice everyone else. Even if you hate crowds, don’t miss experiencing these beautiful stained glass windows at their finest.
We were advised to arrive early to try and avoid the crowd (however due to illness slept in a bit) and found 8.30 to be not too busy. By this time a lot of the other tourists had already been in and taken all their photos, and were on their way back to the hotel for breakfast.
Despite the crowds, everyone during our visit was respectful of one another. We all took turns sitting and standing in various locations and offering suggestions for the perfect Instagram photos.
Please be respectful: While the caretakers of the mosque understand its tourist appeal and allow photos, it is still a place of worship.
No visit to any Iranian city would be complete without a visit to the local bazaar. Even with my notorious dislike of shopping expeditions, I still enjoyed the challenge that is Vakil Bazaar.
Dating back to the 11th Century, a visit here is one of those rare experiences that you get to indulge every one of the five senses. Never pay the initial asking price, and try not to lose sight of your travelling companion. Otherwise, good luck!
Vakil Mosque & Square
Once you’ve finished shopping in the bazaar (or if you’re taking a break to get some peace and quiet), you should exit onto the picturesque Vakil Square, with the ornate Vakil Mosque dominating the Western side of the square.
Many great coffee shops and cafes dot the square, along with musicians, old gentlemen playing hyper-competitive backgammon (often with quite a crowd of spectators).
Our favourite cafe by far was the cosmopolitan and artistic Vakil Culture House. With a fantastic second-story view of the square, modern paintings by local artists available for purchase, and a truly international menu (including the ‘Australian Breakfast’ – which was pretty bang on, except for the lack of avocado), this place was a great find and we strongly recommend it to anyone travelling to Shiraz.
Arg of Karim Khan
This former prison is found in the middle of downtown Shiraz, and looks like a sandcastle writ-large. While the exterior of the citadel makes for a great backdrop, the interior of a garden and several rooms with Qajar-styled mannequins was far less impressive, and not worth the entry cost of around 200,000 IRR per person.
Nonetheless the external and gardens surrounding the Arg the perfect place to spend a weekend afternoon people watching (for free). It’s an incredibly popular place for locals to meet, young couples to date, families to gather and children to play.
A Daytrip to Persepolis and Necropolis
Shiraz is a gateway to Persepolis, the 2,500 year old capital of the mighty Achaemenid Empire. These days most Westerners may recognise the empire and the armies of Xerxes from the incredibly realistic documentary 300, (or Darius the Great for fans of Civilisation) but at its height, the Achaemenid empire was the largest the world had ever seen. Spanning over 8 million kilometres, it spread from Tajikistan in the East to Libya in the West, and as far North as modern-day Greece and Ukraine.
How to Get to Persepolis
We arranged a guided tour including transportation from Shiraz to Persepolis through our hostel for €18 per person, though honestly it’s not necessary.
Step onto any main road in the city and you’ll be met by a cacophony of taxi drivers shouting “Persepolis?!” and you can negotiate with them a fair price.
To ensure you are not being ripped off, you can download the Snapp application (Iranian version of Uber), which provides fixed prices for taxi trips before you start your journey, and use this as a guide when bargaining with the drivers. Also ask your hotel and other travellers what an appropriate price range is before starting your negotiations.
Unfortunately during our visit in March 2019, Snapp was only available on Android, as Apple has removed it from the App Store due to the US economic sanctions on Iran.
Should you get a guide for Persepolis?
We don’t often take guided tours, however I honestly don’t feel that we could have appreciated the site without the incredible knowledge and experience of our tour guide.
There are no shortage of tour guides willing to lead visitors around the ancient city, however make sure yours in reputable. Ash and I were incredibly fortunate to have a former university lecturer of Persian history, whose professorial traits certainly came through during the excursion (complete with pop quizzes).
If you choose not to get a guide, at the very least read up on Persepolis so that you can appreciate the history and context of exactly what you are walking past.
Sites of Persepolis
Upon entering Persepolis, you are immediately transported back to the height of the Achaemenid Empire. You access the ancient Persian capital by climbing the same Grand Staircase visiting dignitaries used 2,500 years ago (made from shallow steps, so as not to disturb the flowing robes worn by nobles at the time).
At the top of the stairs you are met by the same imposing Gate of All Nations, and get a sense of the same awe visitors to this magnificent city would have experienced when coming to pay tribute to the God-King Xerxes, unrivalled in all the known world.
Perhaps the most remarkable part of Persepolis is just how intact the city remains. Despite being pillaged by Alexander the Great, and being exposed to the elements for more than two millennia, so many of the intricate details of the ancient capital still survive.
While a guardian statue may be missing a nose, or a particular column no longer its original height, more than enough of the city is preserved to fully appreciate its former (and current) magnificence.
My favourite site was undoubtedly the Apadana of the North stairs; a huge carved mural depicting a procession of citizens from all over the Empire delivering gifts from their homeland. Both the condition and detail of the wall is unbelievable.
Craftsmen spent years perfecting everything from an Ethiopian noble’s hairstyle, to the exact musculature of a lion, and meticulously recording it in stone that survives to this day.
Our tour also took us ten minutes drive down the road to Necropolis, the burial site of ancient Persian Kings. After wandering through the splendour of Persepolis however, it was somewhat underwhelming to only be able to view the cliff-side tombs from a stationary location at the base of the mountain.
The carvings and scale of the place are certainly impressive, however as you can only view the site from one angle and can’t walk amongst it (unlike Persepolis) we felt that simply seeing a photo of Necropolis would have been enough to get a feel for the place.
Tips for Visiting Persepolis
- Base yourself in Shiraz – Only an hour away from Persepolis, most tours leave from here and it’s a beautiful place to spend a few days
- Get a guide – they will help you fully appreciate the history of the city
- Bring water, a hat and sunscreen – you’ll be there for a few hours and there’s very little shade
- Necropolis isn’t as impressive – it might be worth a quick visit if you’ve got transport sorted, but in our opinion it’s not worth its own individual trip