Shiraz is a key stop on any first-time visit to Iran. It's the gateway to Iran's iconic sites of Persepolis and Pasargadae, but there's plenty more to keep you occupied within this relaxed and friendly city. We recommend at least a full day set aside for enjoying the gardens, mosques, mansions and bazaar.
Our favourite time of year to visit Shiraz is Spring, when the city's air is scented with the sweet, heady notes of bitter orange blossoms. Shirazis drop the dried blossoms in cups of tea, use them to make jam, or scent their homes. You'll find many an entrepreneur selling the blooms they have gathered outside the tomb of the poet Hafez and other sites popular with visitors from near and far.
What to see
Seeing the world-famous city of Darius the Great is an unforgettable experience. As befits the leader of the biggest empire the world had ever seen the site is enormous; what remains today of the grand staircases, towering entrances, and stone carvings show a palace that must have been almost impossibly lavish, leaving Darius' many subjects open-mouthed in wonder 2,500 years ago.
Naqsh-e Rostam (NECROPolis)
Carved high into the rock face, the four Achaemenid tombs here once contained the remains of Darius the Great (d486BC), Darius II (d405BC), Artaxerxes I (d424BC) and Xerxes I (d465BC) or possibly Xerxes II (d423BC). It's just 3kms from Persepolis so this imposing site is easily visited on the same day.
Rows of orange trees create a cool garden in front of the Naranjastan-e Qavam pavilion, built for the powerful Mohammad Ali Khan Qavam ol-Molk around 1880 as the public reception area of his family home. Look out for the interesting ceiling murals on the pavilion's upper floors of European scenes and amply bosomed women.
Enlightened ruler Karim Khan, first ruler of the short-lived Zand dynasty, made Shiraz his capital in 1750. Despite being lord of practically all of Persia, he refused any title other than that of vakil – regent. He commissioned Shiraz's bazaar, the most important bazaar in Persia at the time. There are now several bazaars in Shiraz, each packed with a captivating selection of carpets, handicrafts, spices and clothes.
Constructed in 1773, this quiet mosque was for many years out of bounds to foreign tourists. Now you can view its flamboyant flower motifs in a palette of pastels at your leisure. The structure is organised on a two-ivan plan, with 48 spiralling stone columns supporting the vaulted prayer hall.
Shirazis would once have taken a bath, enjoyed a massage, and generally flopped about in the humid heat of this public bathhouse. Now, this Zand-era hammam is an ethnographic museum with life-sized wax figures showing how the different rooms would have been used. It's an atmospheric space with its vaulted ceilings, columns and pools.
Not much remains of the palace of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian empire. But this Unesco World Heritage site is still a must-see. Started in about 546BC, the city was quickly superseded by Darius' Persepolis. But the smaller, more intimate size and the lonely, windswept feel of Pasargadae make it perhaps more evocative, bringing to mind our own transience in the relentless sweep of time.
Nasir-al-Molk (Pink) Mosque
A B&B favourite, this late-1800s mosque is probably Iran's most feminine. It's prettily decorated ornate geometric patterns and tiles featuring blousy roses, elegant irises and even some European-style mansions. Visit in the morning to see the sun stream bewitchingly through the stained glass windows.
tomb of Hafez
Iranians say that every home must contain two things: a Quran and a Divan-e Hafez, the collected works of the mystical 14th-century poet Hafez. Locals crowd around the tomb of this Shiraz-born national hero to seek insight into their future: open a volume of his poetry here and your future will be apparent in his words.
This lovely garden, one of the nine traditional Persian gardens on the Unesco World Heritage list, is a popular place for young locals to socialise on weekends and evenings. The garden was built on earlier Seljuk foundations and is famous for its towering cypress trees. The gardens surround a Qajar-period palace, which now houses the Shiraz University Law Faculty. The building is not open to the public.
The private home of the Qavam ol-Molk family, this opulent house is just down the road from the orangery. The 20 rooms feature unrestrained mirrorwork, stained glass, paintings and stucco decoration. The museum in the basement has wax figures of important Shirazis through history.
Afif Abad Garden
This former royal mansion now houses an impressive weapons museum. There are attractive gardens surrounding the mansion, where locals enjoy dressing up in traditional outfits and taking photographs. The charming teahouse is a good spot for a soothing cuppa after marvelling at the vast collection of instruments of death housed in the museum.