Travel black book: Iran's many fabled sights

Who: Chang Theng Hwee, 50, is managing director of Country Holidays travel agency

Favourite destination: Iran

Why: This is the heart of the ancient as well as mediaeval Persian civilisation, which ranks with the Chinese, Indian and Turkish civilisations as one of the most sophisticated of its time. Iran's historical cities are superbly preserved and its architecture ranks among the most beautiful in the world.

For all this, the country is still infrequently visited, which is perhaps what makes it so charming. And contrary to the negative publicity Iranians sometimes receive, they are some of the most welcoming people I have come across.

Favourite hotel

The Abbasi Hotel ( in Esfahan. It has been converted into a hotel from a mediaeval caravanserai, a roadside inn built to accommodate travellers along trade routes in the Middle East.

Make sure you get a courtyard-facing junior suite on the second floor. Sitting at the arched balcony and looking down on the courtyard's Persian Garden at twilight is a magical moment.

Favourite restaurant

My favourite restaurant is Divan (www.monsoon- in Teheran. It serves Persian cuisine with a modern twist, such as organic grilled chicken with pomegranate and plum sauce and apricot breaded rack of lamb with saffron sauce and potato cake.

I recommend the oven-roasted quail in lemon marinade served with couscous.

The interior design is stylish, decorated with artwork by Iranian artist Fataneh Dadkhah, and it boasts a stunning view of the Alborz Mountains. A meal here costs about US$40 (S$52) a person.

Favourite museum

I have three favourite museums, all in Teheran. I like the National Museum of Iran ( for its excellent collection of historical artefacts and the Reza Abbasi Museum ( for some of Persia's finest art, such as Islamic miniatures, paintings and calligraphy by renowned Persian calligraphers including Mojtaba Malekzadeh and Yadollah Kaboli Khansari.

I also like the Saadabad Palace Museum ( The Saadabad Palace was a royal summer palace from 1794 till the Iranian Revolution in 1979, after which it was turned into a museum.

I like to go there and imagine the scene of the last shah running away when Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution stormed through the capital.

Favourite tourist site

Persepolis is one of the most impressive archaeological sites I have seen. Equal to Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu, it pre-dates and is even more stunning than the Acropolis of Athens.

It is from here that Persian Emperors such as Darius The Great (550-486BC) and Xerxes The Great (519-465BC) ruled, which gives the ancient city a sense of history.

It is an extensive city and I was most impressed by the throne room, which shows the kings of various states of the ancient world paying tribute to the Persian emperors.

Best shopping destination

Along with Tiananmen Square in Beijing, St Peter's Square in the Vatican and the Red Square in Moscow, I rank Imam Square in Esfahan as one of the four most impressive squares in the world.

There are numerous shops selling Persian carpets, miniature paintings and other crafts. The setting is lovely and being there makes you feel fantastic, as though you are in the story of One Thousand And One Nights.

Favourite bookshop

Yassavoli (junction of Kheradmand Street and Karimkhan Avenue, Teheran), one of the few English bookstores in the country. It was here that I found some books I had been looking for for a long time, such as Shahnameh, The Book Of Kings, a 10th-century epic by Perisan poet Abolqasem Ferdowsi.

It is a literary masterpiece which represents the cultural history of Iran.

Must-try dishes

I love Iran's Ash-e anar, a yellow split pea and pomegranate soup, fish stew and caviar. You can find these dishes at most local restaurants.

Best place to watch the sunset

The Si-o-seh Pol Bridge, also known as the Bridge of 33 Arches, in Esfahan. As the sun sets, the hue of this 400-year-old bridge is lovely and, if the river is calm, its reflection adds more charm.

Along the riverbank, Iranian couples, families and friends relax. It is a scene not many can imagine.

Helpful adviceAvoid going to Iran during Nowruz, the Persian New Year that is celebrated over the 10 days surrounding the Spring equinox, typically in late March. Everything closes and all of the country is on holiday.

Recommended reading

My favourite book is Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face Of Iran by Elaine Sciolino, which explores the complexity of Persian history and society.

Read up on the Zoroastrianism religion, Iran's Islamic Revolution and Persian society. Understanding these aspects of local culture and history will make you appreciate what you experience and make your trip greatly rewarding.

Ideal length of stay

It will take 10 to 14 days to see all of Iran's highlights and another week to experience the more remote destinations.

Best hidden find

As we were walking through the bazaar in Shiraz one night, our guide suddenly turned into the Ali Ebne Hamzeh Mausoleum, a shrine to a local religious figure.

In Hafez Street, near Hamzeh Bridge, it is not very well known and is not listed in most guide books. Inside was a small room with some of the most beautiful reflecting mirror tiles. The faithful were praying and solemnly paying respect in silence.

It was a magical moment and my most memorable moment of the entire trip.

This article was first published on Nov 30, 2014.
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