The city of poetry, wine, literature, flowers and nightingales has been an unwavering hub for Persian culture for over 2000 years. Since the height of its popularity in the 13th century, romantic poets and educated Persians have been making their way to the city of gardens in the hope of finding inspiration. In fact, 2 of the most famous Persian poets are buried here : Hafez and Saadi. It’s impossible to visit Iran and not hear about these two literary geniuses. Their verses are inscribed on walls, young Iranians quote the poems on a daily basis and every household has a copy of their books. Even in the 21st century, the former capital of Persia still retains the romantic element that has mesmerized the patrons of the arts for centuries… continuing to lure foreign visitors, young educated university students and fashionable Iranians alike.
Shiraz is where I felt the most at home in Iran. This is probably due to the presence of all the liberal-minded young Iranians, making the overall atmosphere of the city similar to that of a relaxed university campus back home… with the added bonus of being surrounded by historical sites. While travelling, it’s always a nice surprise to find a comfort zone amidst the discovery of new places. Coffee shops instead of traditional teahouses and delicious restaurants are also much easier to find than in other cities! Evidently, my inner history geek and foodie had a field day over everything Shiraz had to offer. Exploring the city requires a minumum of 3 days, although I could have easily spent a week here.
How to get there
Shiraz is approximately an 8h drive from both Kerman (where I came from) and Esfahan (my next stop). Like all major cities in Iran, you can arrive by train or bus easily enough. The Karandish bus station is centrally located and is where you can catch all long distance busses to other cities, including the ruins of Persepolis. Although taking the train may be more comfortable, the station in Shiraz is inconveniently located 25km from the city centre. Seeing as I was on a tour at this point, I was fortunate enough to have a private bus to and from the city.
Where to stay
Budget : As previously mentioned in my Tehran city guide, couchsurfing is the best way to travel on a budget in Iran. Otherwise, the Taha Traditional Hostel is a good clean option for budget dorms.
Mid-range : I stayed at the Parsian Shiraz Hotel, which was perfectly situated in central Shiraz. My room was modern with clean bathrooms and newly renovated, but certain rooms are quite old. It depends on your luck! Just down the street are several cafés and shops. The only downside is that wifi isn’t included.
Other options in the mid -range to high-end hotels are Karim Khan and Zandiyeh. I’ve heard good reviews about both, but keep in mind that real luxury hotels are rare in Iran.
What to do
I never lacked for activities or places to visit while in Shiraz. I stayed for 3 days, including a day trip to Persepolis, which was only enough to see the bare minumum.
- Chances are, you might have already seen pictures of the Nasir Ol – Mok Mosque, infamously known as the Pink Mosque, somewhere in the vast archives of the internet. It is the biggest tourist attraction in Shiraz, with reason. Built during the Qajar era in 1876, it features stained glass windows facing east, which transforms the entire room into a pink tinted kaleidoscope in the early morning. From the painted ceilings, to the red Persian carpets, to the outdoor courtyard also decorated with pink tiles, the entire complex is utterly unique and photogenic. My only advice is to arrive early in the morning for two reasons : the windows were built to catch the morning light, and to avoid the dreaded tour busses. The mosque is much smaller than it looks in pictures, so even with 10 other people your experience will be different. I arrived at exactly 7am right after it opened and had the place to myself (plus the caretaker), which was perfect to take some photos and sit down to take it all in. Within 15 minutes, a Chinese tour bus came and the mosque was swarming with snap-happy Chinese tourists posing in the oddest positions and blocking my view… time for me to leave!
- The Persians adore their gardens, and the Eram gardens are a prime example of how important gardens are in their daily lives. Around 4pm is the best time to meander around as that’s also prime time for locals. The gardens contain an old mansion, a rose garden and the botanical gardens of Shiraz University. Since I’m not particularly interested in horticulture, what fascinated me the most was people watching, without being creepy. Iranians of all ages and social classes congregate here; elderly ladies chat and knit, gangs of young boys take selfies, the world’s most photogenic and fashionable couple stroll through, teenage couples hide behind bushes and families with children run about. Nowhere else in the world have I ever seen gardens appreciated to this extent! There is a 10USD entrance fee for foreigners to keep in mind if you plan on visiting.
- The Imamzadeh-ye Ali Ebn-e Hamze shrine may not be as well known as the Pink Mosque or it’s older brother the Shah Cheragh shrine; but in no way, shape or form is it inferior. In fact, I preferred it because the absence of tourists made it a more authentic experience if you want to see what a real place of worship looks like when in use. Women are required to wear a chador given at the entrance before crossing the mediocre courtyard to the mosque. There’s a women’s side and a men’s side with the shrine and a wall separating them. You’ll find people praying, reading or even napping along the walls… and whatever you do, LOOK UP. If the Emerald City from the Wizard of Oz had a mosque, this is what it would look like.
- Much to my chagrin, I didn’t have the chance to visit the Shah Cheragh Shrine. In principle it is similar to the Imamzadeh shrine, except on a much larger and grander scale. Built in 1571, it is a funerary monument to 2 sons of the 7th Shia Imam (also brothers to the 8th Shia Imam) who took refuge in Shiraz during the persecution of Shia Muslims by the Sunni Abbasids.
- Darvazeh Qu’ran or Qu’ran Gate is situated at the northeastern entrance to the city, and is part of a city park where you can find locals having picnics and shisha, because this is Iran. Built in the 10th century, it originally contained 2 calligraphed copies of the Qu’ran weighing 51kg each, which have now been moved to the Pars Museum. It was believed that any traveller who passed under the gate would be blessed by the Qu’rans. The gate itself is exquisitely detailed, with flower tiles and calligraphed Qu’ran scripts running along it. The easiest way to visit is if you’re driving out of Shiraz towards Persepolis and can make a quick stop.
- The tomb of Hafez is well worth a visit, especially after dusk when the gardens light up. Shirazis flock here for a stroll or simply sit with friends and a good book. The marble tomb itself is underneath a small pavilion that was not always there. In fact, Hafez’s tomb has been here since the 14th century, it’s mind boggling to think of how many times it had been destroyed and reconstructed throughout the centuries by various rulers!
- The tomb of Saadi is not as central as that of Hafez, and is quite architecturally different. I chose to visit the Hafez’s tomb over Saadi’s not because I prefer his poems (take a read if you have a chance!), but because the gardens were apparently better.
- Other sights you can visit in Shiraz that I won’t go into detail over are the Karim Khan citadel, the Vakil Mosque and Bazaar, Pars Museum etc…
Where to eat
- Qavam café and restaurant was so delicious I came here twice! The small family-run eatery is just up the street from Parsian hotel, with very limited space, only 4 tables, so make sure to show up early! The meatball stews were the stand out, and you can’t go wrong with their kebabs either.
- Naderi café is just around the block from Qavam. It’s a cozy spot for good coffee (with leaf art in the lattes mind you) and to sit around for a while with the locals. Finally, some real coffee in Iran!
- If you’re looking for a fancy night out, Haft Khan Restaurant is your best bet. Book ahead for a dinner table on the basement floor and get ready to be spoiled! The whole space is completely white, curtained circular beds for big groups are interspersed with smaller tables. We were a group of 6… meaning we took off our shoes and hopped right onto a luxurious bed! The food and service here were second to none, we ordered up a storm of plates to share : fried fish, mutton stew, chicken in pomegranate walnut sauce, fried rice cakes and yogurt dips. Needless to say we all rolled out of there, but not before socializing with other friendly patrons on the beds nearby!
Although the ancient ruins of Persepolis are close by to Shiraz, I thought it deserved it’s own post. Stay tuned!