"Isn't it dangerous?" is likely to be among the first questions asked of a Hong Kong traveller bound for Iran.

Certainly there are a lot of rules to be observed by visitors to the Islamic Republic - holders of British or American passports must engage a guide, for example - and an Iranian visa can be complicated to obtain. But the streets are safe; the people overwhelmingly welcoming; the sites dramatic, historical and beautiful; the food delicious; the transport trustworthy and organised; and the weather good. Furthermore, political tensions with the West appear to be easing.

TEHRAN'S TRAFFIC-CLOGGED streets are framed by the huge snowy massif of Mount Damavand, which, at 5,610 metres, is Iran's highest peak. Climbing the mountain requires equipment and expertise but it's possible to ascend the lower slopes near Mount Tochal by bus and ski lift, for views across the sprawling capital, from the high-rise office and apartment blocks of the north to the low-rise, poorer areas of the south.

It's the centre of the city, though, where the visitor is likely to spend most of their time.

Here is where the royal family built Golestan Palace, within which it's possible to glimpse old Persia in rooms filled with silver, ornately glazed tiles and elaborate gifts from European monarchs: animal skins from Russia, clocks from Britain's Queen Victoria - a not-so-subtle comment on poor Persian punctuality. In the centre of it all is the shah's old Peacock throne, which looks a lot more comfortable than the sword-backed iron monstrosity we've seen in a certain television series - it has a cushion, for a start, and is surrounded by precious jewels.

Outside, in the bazaars, men waving cards in the air shout and lay bets as women, clad in black chador or headscarf, pass from stall to stall, comparing samovars, sticky dates and saffron. It's possible to spend happy hours in a Tehran bazaar, lunching on kebabs and rosewater ice cream and talking with locals who want to invite you to tea, meet their grandmother, stay a while.

Politics remain complicated in the region, of course, and the former US embassy, where 66 American diplomats and citizens were held hostage for 444 days until January 20, 1981, has long been closed for business. The site's new incarnation, as the Den of US Espionage Museum, is not open to the public. The exterior walls bear bright anti-American rhetoric but they feel like a relic of former hostilities, like the Berlin Wall. The murals in many of my photographs are obscured by students, laughing as they walk to school; the girls' headscarves tend to be perched precariously on the back of their heads as dyed hair spills out over their faces.

The most noticeable difference between these students and those in Hong Kong, London or New York are the white plasters stretched across many of their noses. Tehran has become the world's centre for plastic surgery and even those who haven't gone under the knife wear a plaster as a badge of honour and upward social mobility.

Modernity is less apparent at the massive mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, on the outskirts of Tehran. Crowds come to this bombastic and still unfinished structure to pay respects to the deceased former "supreme leader", father of the modern Islamic Republic. The golden minarets and large annex look impressive from a distance but the edifice is being built cheaply and the tacky kebab and souvenir shops within do nothing to enhance the gravitas of the place. Pilgrims consist of country folk from stone villages by the Caspian Sea, the mountains and deserts of the south and the religious centre of Mashhad, in the far east. There are Afghans and Iraqi Shias here, too, the men extravagantly bearded and the women covered in black cloth, all clasping prayer beads and pushing and shoving their way to the shrine, to touch the bars and press their lips to glass as a likeness of the great man glowers down from above, austere and unsmiling, and no doubt disapproving of what Tehran has become.

Here, too, is the gigantic Behesht-e Zahra cemetery, where "martyrs" of the eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s are buried. Each grave is decorated with a glass case into which relatives have placed items of significance - a photo, scraps of uniform, a battered copy of the Koran, stamps, a mug, a tennis racket, a favourite shirt and, in some cases, a toy, because many of the victims of a war in which more than one million died were barely teenagers.

It is difficult to know where to go after Tehran - there is enough variety in Iran for a dozen worthwhile journeys - but most visitors tread similar paths to Shiraz, the city of poetry and gardens in the south, and Esfahan, the cultural, architectural and geographical centre of the country. Distances are long but internal flights are safe, cheap and efficient.

Dusty Shiraz is calm and quiet after frenetic Tehran.

The shrine of Shah Cheragh is famous across Iran and the local university students who have volunteered to serve in its "international information office" are determined to make foreigners feel as welcome as possible. A visit to the elaborate structure of silver and mirrors cannot possibly begin until tea and biscuits have been served, photos taken and the visitors' book signed. The enthusiasm is infectious and a reminder that Islam represents, primarily, peace and love.

It's said that a copy of poet Hafez's collected works is more essential to an Iranian household than even the Koran. His tomb - about 2km from the Shah Cheragh shrine, on the other side of a seasonal river - is crowded with locals laying hands on the marble slab but, as befitting a poet, the atmosphere is less frenzied than at Khomeini's shrine and people are polite and respectful as they wait their turn.

The garden, laid out in rows of bushes, many of which will bear roses - there are always lots of roses in Iran - is bare and brown, but probably looks a lot more vibrant in the wet season. It is alive with the sound of laughter as young couples make wishes and turn to a random page in their copy of the great man's works to see what their future holds, the words revealing, with any luck and some imaginative interpretation, happiness and love, the birth of children and longevity.

The journey from Shiraz to Esfahan should be taken by road, past the ancient Mesopotamian ruins at Persepolis, which predate the Roman and Greek empires and survived the ravages of Alexander the Great.

Iran's highways are dominated by men driving white Paykan cars, many of which are antique and groaning under the weight of tables, spare tyres, leather suitcases tied with rope, scowling grandparents and bicycles - all that is essential for a family day out.

On the road to Esfahan, the Paykans seem to be racing one another, for the city is the place to be during Nowruz - the Iranian new year holiday.

Beneath Esfahan's shady pomegranate and mulberry trees are laid a multitude of woven threadbare Persian picnic carpets stacked with figs, tea, raisins, large flat bread and bubbling shisha pipes.

Esfahan is described as "half the world' in an old Persian saying, and it's not difficult to see why the people of Iran are so captivated by their old capital. The central Unesco-listed Naqsh-e Jahan, surrounded by mosques and palaces, is the second largest square in the world, behind Tiananmen. But unlike in the formal and bleak concrete expanse in Beijing, here fountains dance and couples sit on benches and lounge on the grass while hawkers try to sell them delicious sticky dates and honey toffee sprinkled with cardamom and pistachios.

Every visitor to Esfahan takes home with them these confectionary treats, a memento sweet enough to adequately represent a visit to Iran itself, a land that is neither Middle East not Far East but which is very much misunderstood.

Getting there: Emirates flies daily from Hong Kong to Dubai, and from there to Tehran. Iranian Airlines operates domestic flights.