Iran is, first and foremost, a stunning homage to the Persia of old. Though recent history has guided our path towards other shores, it hasn't always been so and nor should it remain so. This too-little-known land, along with its people, has updated and renovated without destroying a magnificent age-old culture, which most are only lucky enough to read about in books.Diverse population
If you are amongst one of the few with an opportunity and desire to visit, now is the time. Today's Iran, with its immense gap between the life of the golden youth of Tehran and that of the rural worker in Balochistan, is often a difficult place to understand for the outsider. Travel is the only way to discover its complex nature and immense landscapes.Shiraz and Isfahan
Shiraz and Isfahan - Iran's two, pulsating cultural hearts - are ancient Persian capitals, both oases to be found buried in the desert along with their architectural marvels and Persian blue decoration. At the foot of the Zagros mountains, Shiraz is home to more than one million inhabitants. It was the Persian capital under the Zand dynasty in the 18th century and is nowadays the capital city of the Fars region - which dates back as far as the 7th century BC.Archaeological sites
With the archaeological sites of Persepolis and Pasargadae just 30 and 55 miles away respectively, the city is a great base for exploring Iran's ancient cultural offerings. But you'll find plenty to fascinate within the city of poets itself, from the gardens of Bagh-e Eram, the Nasir al Molk mosque and the Karim Kahn citadel, to the Vakil Bazar and the Caravanserai Moshir marketplace.The garden-city
Roughly 200 miles to the north, Isfahan is the garden-city. Capital of Persia during the Safavid dynasty from the 16th to the 18th century, the city is a dedicated exhibition to the monuments and relics of this refined era. Amongst the green spaces of this oasis city, you'll find the Naghsh-e Jahan square, the Shah mosque and the Jameh mosque of Isfahan.Yazd
If you have time to spare, add the city of Yazd to your itinerary. One of the oldest cities in the world, Yazd is also home to Zoroastrianism, a little-known religion which follows the teachings of the prophet Zoroaster. The city is also home to one of Iran's most architecturally celebrated mosques and incredible marketplaces known for their silk.
Surface area : 1648000.0 km2
Population : 68000000 inhabitants
Persian carpets, fabrics, musical instruments, marquetry objects, copper plates and chandeliers are among the arts and crafts produced in this country. Visit the bazaars, which are full of a wide range of products - just remember to haggle! If you are tempted to export a rug or some antiques, keep in mind that that there are strict controls when leaving the country. A real sales certificate must be obtained.
To avoid problems, buy articles in shops that have an export licence. If you wish, they can also ship them. Controls of caviar are less strict. Shops are open from Saturday through Thursday. In general, they close at midday and reopen until 8:00pm.
One of the most popular dishes in Iran is the kebab, but not as you'll find it in the UK. Lamb and chicken are served beautifully cooked on skewers with rice and plenty of spices.
Iranians also love stew. Khoresh fesenjan is simmered chicken in a pomegranate and walnut sauce. Take advantage of your stay to try stuffed vine leaves and aubergines. Try the garlic yoghurt, often served in a bowl alongside your main dish.
Soup is particularly popular in winter, whilst summer brings flower cordials. Cakes and tea are enjoyed all year round - just expect a pleasant change from the usual English brew.
Remember that it is forbidden to openly buy alcohol.
Bread, bricks, wine, the guitar, the wheel, writing, the windmill - all are inventions from years and years of Iranian heritage.
Persian culture puts poetry before all else and the country's great poets are held in great esteem. But it's far from the only area admired, with leading Iranians in architecture, theatre, garden design, carpets and even cinema.
The famous Persian blue is a colour you'll find everywhere in Iran, from tiles and other ceramics to buildings and the domes of mosques.
In Iran, as in the rest of the Muslim world, Friday is a day of prayer. Islam provides a rhythm to the day, with five calls to prayer all announced from mosques' minarets by the muezzin. Around 90 percent of the population follows the Shiite branch of Islam.
The left hand is considered impure and should not be used either for eating or for giving and receiving objects from another person.
Trips to Iran, especially those covering the main areas of touristic and cultural interest, are becoming more and more popular. Though attention should be paid to Foreign Office advice before leaving, you'll find plenty of specialist tour companies operating in the region.
First trips to Iran usually consist of a circuit from Tehran to Isfahan and Shiraz. All three are spread out from the north to the south of the country and separated by over 200 miles - as the bird flies - so at least two weeks is recommended to enjoy the sites at a leisurely pace.
Female tourists must wear scarves to cover their head and neck. They can only be removed in private when there is no one around. A chador (headscarf) must be worn to visit certain holy sites and can generally be hired at the entrance. Arms and legs, at least up to the calf, must be covered up. If your ankles and feet are still exposed, you should put on socks or thick tights.
For male tourists, shorts and short-sleeve T-shirts are strongly discouraged. Non-Muslims are generally allowed to enter the mosques (you can keep your shoes on, except when walking on the carpet).
Always ask before taking pictures, especially of women. It is strictly forbidden to take snapshots of administrative and military buildings.
Keep an open mind, the stringency of certain customs and differences in culture can lead to misunderstandings from time to time, but don't let it phase you.
As a final note, a passport with an Israeli visa is never well viewed and could potentially cause you minor problems.