As befits a country with an almost unparalleled history, Iran is something of a must for culture vultures. Iranians themselves are intensely proud of their heritage, and the fact that they once had one of the world's biggest empires. Not that this implies some innate warlike instinct - the country's finest poets rank as highly as any generals or Emperors in the pantheon of Persian national heroes. So set aside misconceptions and consider visiting one of the most fascinating countries on the planet.
Few countries have a history as compelling as that of Iran, or Persia as it was known for millennia. Thanks to a strategic position straddling trade routes between Europe and Asia, the country has always been a melting pot of ideas, cultures and crafts. Unique is an over- and misused word, but consider this: Iran is the world's only theocratic state and the world's only Farsi speaking state (yet written in Arabic text). This is also a place of misconceptions - the current ruling regime comes across as aggressive and surly, but the man on the street is, in complete contrast; warm, friendly and eminently hospitable. Then there's the fact that Iranians are often assumed to be Arabs but are actually Aryans. So much we think we know about this country is wrong, which makes it all the more intriguing.
So where to start when you get there? First thing to note is that this is a very big country, but since economic sanctions were imposed, the internal airlines have been unable to get spare parts, so flying between cities is a no-no. This has its advantages, however, as driving or taking a train means you see far more of what is a staggeringly beautiful place, criss-crossed with soaring mountain ranges and desert plains that stretch to the horizon.
In this potentially inhospitable landscape have flourished communities and cities of rare beauty and any itinerary needs to take in the quintessential Persian gems of Yazd, Shiraz and Esfahan - each strikingly different and fiercely partisan, but with stunning architectural history and colourful markets. We also like the desert city of Kerman, way out east towards the border with Afghanistan, and the gateway to the mysterious Kaluts - huge monolithic mounds several storeys high in the desert, and a wonderfully mystical place to visit. Tehran itself has some excellent museums but getting from A to B is such an excruciating slog thanks to the appalling traffic that we would recommend a fleeting visit at most. However when in one of these major cities, make time to see some zurkhaneh - a strange part-weight-lifting, part-live music performance that is peculiar to Persia, and peculiarly Persian.
Finally, for the explorer with more time on their hands, there is skiing in the Alborz Mountains, the intensely holy city of Qom, and myriad other cultural gems that could easily keep one occupied for months on end. For us, however, the highlights are the ancient ruins at Persepolis, the bazaars in Kerman, the Jameh Mosque in Yazd, and seeing the hands of a skilled carpetmaker in a blur of activity. Finally, we can arrange (and would highly recommend) a visit to an Iranian home. The hospitality will be nigh on flawless, and this experience offers the chance to see Persians at their most charming and relaxed.