Set between the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf, and linking Asia with the rest of the Middle East, Iran - formerly known as Persia - has long been a crossroads for travellers. As a vacation destination, it is still well off the beaten track, but - as groundbreaking visitors are discovering - the country contains a wealth of surprises. Historical sites like Persepolis have few equals anywhere in the region, and for outdoor types there's ample opportunity for rock climbing and even skiing. And wherever travellers land up in Iran, they'll be overwhelmed by the courtesy and open-handed hospitality for which Iranians are renowned. Jenny Walker, who authored the special Islamic section in Lonely Planet's 2008 Bluelist, noted: 'Travellers venturing to Iran can enter without fear - you'll make friends, not enemies.' And Bijan Omrani - editor of Iran - Persia: Ancient and Modern, which is generally regarded as the definitive guide to the country - commented: 'Tourism has been developing at a steady rate, thanks to the attraction of Iran's cultural and historical riches. The quality of welcome has lost none of its traditional warmth and modern Iran can be as beguiling as ancient Persia.' As an added bonus, getting around the country (which extends to some 1.6million sqkm) is inexpensive and relatively easy. Iran Air and other domestic carriers cover all the major destinations, cheap petrol means that bus fares are very reasonable, and certain railway routes - especially from the capital Tehran to Tabriz and Gorgan - are incredibly scenic. Most visitors land in Tehran, a dynamic and engaging city whose true heart may be found in its Grand Bazaar, said to be the largest in the world and an economic powerhouse. The shops are grouped by the goods they sell, with alleyways devoted to copper, carpets, gold, paper and spices, and the entire bazaar is a hive of activity as it is as much a social enclave as a commercial entrepot. East of the metropolis, Mount Damavand is a 5,671-metre extinct volcano, plainly visible from the city and popular with climbers and skiers - though the latter sport is still very much in its infancy - while the reservoir at Karage, around 40km to the west, is a popular venue for watersports. Ecotourism is still a fledging market, however specialist agencies run trips to visit nomadic Turks, Kurds and Lurs, in addition to botanical and birdwatching expeditions. Due south of Iran, and roughly in the centre of the country, Esfahan - a strategic and cultural centre for the past 4,000 years - is celebrated for its mosque and its palace. The largest in Iran, the 1,000-year-old Jameh Mosque covers around 20,000 square metres, and embraces a variety of Islamic architectural styles, while the Chehel Sotun Palace, which dates from the early 18th century, is remarkable for a score of statuesque columns which are perfectly reflected in a tranquil pool. While Shiraz is a well-known name, few travellers can be prepared for the city itself, which apart from its magnificent mausoleums and pleasant gardens is one of the most sociable spots in Iran. To stroll the western end of Dr Chamran Boulevard amid hundreds of picnicking friends and families is to be granted an instant entree to life in the city at its most relaxed. Perhaps the most entrancing of Iranian communities is Yazd, the world's largest adobe town which manages to survive despite being surrounded by salt lakes and desert. It is also the centre of Iran's Zoroastrian community, who number about 10,000. Iran's most impressive archaeological site is Persepolis, which is also known as Takht-e Jamshid. The ruins are about 2,500 years old, and remarkable not just for their size but also their many carvings which have survived the onslaught of the elements and time. Enough of Persepolis remains for visitors to get a very good idea of how life went on here. It was built to symbolise the power of the then Achaemenian rulers, and on arrival visitors are faced by a 15-metre-high artificial terrace on which the palaces were constructed. A monumental staircase leads to the great audience hall where rulers would have received guests and tributes from vassal nations. Persepolis surrendered to the invading armies of Alexander the Great in 330BC, and was then sacked and deserted by its inhabitants, leaving an enigmatic historical footnote to future generations until formal archaeological excavations began in the 19th century. Apart from the major sights, one of the great pleasures of Iran is its cuisine. The ubiquitous flat nan bread is served at breakfast with herbs, feta cheese and a variety of jams, and can accompany most meals. Chelo kebab is a staple of many restaurant menus, with the rice and grilled meat enlivened by an array of condiments including butter, grilled tomatoes, spices, raw egg yolk, onion and basil. Soups are a meal in themselves, with the most popular being the vegetarian ash reshteh, made with herbs, chickpeas and thick noodles, and sprinkled with yoghurt and fried onions. And few Iranians pass up the chance to indulge in dessert. Baklava and pistachio nougat are available just about everywhere, and honey saffron is one of many delicious flavours of ice cream. As far as drink is concerned, black tea is the national beverage as alcohol is officially banned; fruit juices are also widely consumed, as is doogh - a mixture of yoghurt, salt and water flavoured with mint that many visitors will find an 'acquired taste'. Visitor numbers to Iran are rising slowly, often drawn by events such as the International Women's Islamic Games, which Tehran hosted in 2005 and featured 1,300 competitors from 43 different countries. Today sees the start of the 26th Fajr Film Festival which includes an Ingmar Bergman retrospective and movies from around the world.