Iran was once the heart of the great Persian Empire that stretched from Greece all the way to China. The cultural sites Iran are full of this rich history, bursting with colourful tiles and fascinating feats of engineering.
While the country has twenty UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Iran is not a top tourist destination due to its political situation, as the country certainly isn’t lacking in attractions. With a civilisation that dates back over 5,000 years and a rich and unique cultural heritage, these jewels of architecture display a mastery over geometry and design that mark them not just as highlights of Iran’s cultural heritage, but of humanity’s.
However, these sites provide an opportunity to learn more about the country than just what we see on the news. Even if you don’t plan to visit, you can still marvel at these 13 amazing cultural sites in Iran.
1. Persepolis, Shiraz
Located to the northeast of Shiraz is the ancient capital of the Achaemenid Empire. Dating to 515 BC, Persepolis (“the city of Persians” in Greek) would have been known as Parsa to the ancient Persians, and is one of the most famous cultural sites In Iran. While the city is now in ruins, you can still marvel at the colossal buildings covered in relief sculptures of bulls, lions, mythical creatures, the enormous columns, and grand marble staircases.
2. Shah Mosque, Isfahan
Also known as the Royal Mosque or the Imam Mosque, this is one of the most recognisable sights in Iran. Built during the Safavid Dynasty in Naghsh-e Jahan Square, its beauty comes from its seven-colour mosaic tiles and calligraphic inscriptions. The Shah Mosque is one of the masterpieces of Islamic architecture in Iran.
2. Nasir Al-Mulk Mosque, Shiraz
This 19th-century mosque is like a jewel box. The tranquil interiors fill with a kaleidoscope of colourful light as the sun rises. While this itself makes it worth visiting, the stained glass windows are not the only unique feature of the mosque. Its rose coloured interior tiles have also given it the nickname Pink Mosque.
3. Imam Reza Shrine, Mashhad
One of the holiest sites in Iran, this is the largest mosque in the world. The mosque houses the tomb of Imam Reza, the eighth Shia Imam, as well as many other important religious figures. Also here are a series of mosques, a madrasa, and a museum containing priceless historical artefacts.
4. Golestan Palace, Tehran
The Golestan Palace was the former royal complex of the Qajar dynasty. The complex was built during the 18th and 19th centuries. It is filled with gardens and various royal buildings that were once contained within the “arg” or citadel walls of Tehran. Sadly, many structures were destroyed by Reza Shah between 1925 and 1945.
5. Shah Cheragh, Shiraz
This building may look like an unsuspecting funerary monument on the outside, but its glittering interior transports you to another world. It’s insides are lined with glass tiles that bounce the light in every direction, and intricate geometric designs that create a stunning otherworldly light show. This monument has been a pilgrimage site since the 14th century.
6. Tower and Fort of Bam, Kerman Province
The ancient desert city of Bam is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the Kerman province. Dating back 2,000 years to the Parthian Empire, the citadel, the Arg-e Bam, is the largest adobe building in the world. While it was abandoned after the Afghan invasions of 1722, the city is slowly being inhabited once more.
7. Eram Garden and Palace, Shiraz
The three-storey Eram Palace and its Persian gardens were built in the mid-13th century. However, the gardens might have been laid out earlier, in the 11th century. The colourful tilework of the palace and the lush greens of the gardens are also reflected in an ornamental pool.
8. Naqsh-e-Rustam Necropolis, Shiraz
Located near the ancient city of Persepolis is a series of enormous monuments carved into the mountains. These are the tombs and final resting places of the Achaemenid kings. While the tombs themselves were raided by Alexander the Great and his army after their conquest of the city, the sheer size of these carvings is magnificent in their own right.
9. Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Isfahan
Dating back to the 17th century, this mosque is covered in delicate tilework and intricate corbeling. Often called a masterpiece of Safavid Iranian architecture, it is known for its harmonious proportions. Like the Shah Mosque, it sits in the Naqsh-e Jahan Square and was one of the first monuments to be built there.
10. Vank Cathedral, Isfahan
Iran may be known for its stunning mosques, but the country also has long traditions of Christianity, especially along the northwestern border. Established in 1606, the Vank Cathedral near Isfahan was built by Armenians who were resettled here by Shah Abbas I of Persia during the Ottoman Wars. The interior is covered in vibrant intricate frescoes and gilded carvings.
11. Ali Qapu Palace, Isfahan
The Ali Qapu Palace is located on the western side of the Naqsh-e-Jahan Square, opposite the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque. Commissioned by Shah Abbas I of the Safavid Dynasty in the early 17th century, it is filled with wall paintings by Reza Abbasi. The palace also has various halls, and a large veranda adorned with wooden columns.
12. Khaju Bridge, Isfahan
Built by the great-grandson of Shah Abbas I, the Khaju Bridge is both a bridge and a dam. It is meant to link the Khaju quarter on the north bank of the Zayanderud, with the Zoroastrian quarter across it. Its 23 decorated arches once served as a tea house and public meeting place. Little water now runs under the bridge, which has been damaged by recent “restorations“.
13. Sultan Amir Ahmad Bathhouse, Kashan
Also known as the Qasemi Bathhouse, this traditional Iranian hammam was originally constructed in the 16th century. It is covered with turquoise and gold tile work and artistic paintings. However, it was damaged by an earthquake in 1778 and renovated during the Qajar era. Today the bathhouse, with its large dressing hall (sarbineh) and hot bathing room (garmkhaneh) is a museum, giving an incredible insight into daily life in ancient Iran.
14. Bazaar, Yazd
Located in the hot desert, Yazd is full of mud-brick buildings “badgir” or “wind-catchers” to provide ventilation and cool air. One of the most unique examples of this is in the city’s historical centre at the bazaar. Constructed from adobe, it has a truly unique system of “badgir”. Outside Yazd, you can also visit the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence.
15. Pasargadae, Shiraz
Built by Cyrus the Great in the 6th century BCE, this distinctive complex of palaces, gardens and waterways was the first capital of the Achaemenid empire. The site covers 1.6 sq km and includes what is believed to be the mausoleum of Cyrus the Great. The Persian Gardens here are one of the oldest of their kind, and are believed to have inspired those at India’s Taj Mahal and Spain’s Alhambra.
16. Tomb of Daniel, Susa
The traditional burial place of the Biblical (and Islamic) prophet Daniel, this tomb is known for its distinctive conical dome. It earliest mentioned come from Benjamin of Tudela who visited the area in the 12th century and it still remains a popular pilgrimage site.
Of course, there are lots of other magnificent cultural sites In Iran, and if we’ve missed any, be sure to share them in the comments below. In the meantime, you can also read about the future of tourism in Iran.