Destination Places to go for culture

Travel back in time with this round-up of living monuments to bygone eras.

Explore ancient cities in Iran before the heat builds

The land once called Persia is where misconceptions come to die. Political posturing wins column inches, but there are so many treasures that really deserve the headlines: the extraordinary Islamic architecture of Esfahan, with its intricate blue patterned tiles; the huge, bustling bazaars of Tehran, Esfahan, Shiraz or Tabriz; the magnificent remains at Persepolis, dating back two-and-a-half millennia; the deserts; the poems; the food; and – most of all – the warm, welcoming people.

By June the mercury is rising fast at lower altitudes, but prices and crowds are dropping. Summer is also the season for hiking in the Alborz Mountains, particularly the ascent of Mt Damavand, a true icon of Iran.

  • Trip plan: Fly to Tehran, head south to the desert city of Yazd, the ancient ruins at Persepolis, sophisticated Shiraz and majestic Esfahan, before scooting up to the Alborz Mountains to tackle Mt Damavand and roam among the Castles of the Assassins.
  • Need to know: Most visitors require a visa – apply well before you intend to travel. Females over the age of nine should wear a headscarf in visa application photos.
  • Other months: Mar-May – spring, cool, biggest crowds and highest prices; Jun-Aug – hot in lower regions, best for mountains; Sep-Oct – cooler, lower prices; Nov-Feb – cold.

Explore Armenia, the world’s oldest Christian country in the summer

Armenia does ancient like almost nowhere else. This landlocked nation is packed with churches, monasteries and caravanserais dating from the first millennium AD, and with relics stretching back even further, including Karahunj (literally: ‘stone henge’), reputedly constructed 7000 years ago. More than that, the dramatic backdrop of the Caucasus, with snow-capped Mt Ararat peering across the Turkish border, matches Armenia’s turbulent history of invasion, oppression and aggression by neighbouring states.

The weather is most clement in June, after the icy chill of winter and before the mercury soars into the high 30°Cs. From capital Yerevan’s chilled cafe culture to the cave village of Khndzoresk and hilltop monasteries such as Tatev and Noravank, it’s a mesmerising, diverse land that’s not quite like anywhere else. The wine’s not bad, either.

  • Trip plan: Fly to Yerevan and head south to Khor Virap, Noravank, Tatev and Karahunj, then skirt Lake Sevan (stopping to admire the field of Khachkars – engraved cross-stones) to explore the forested hills around Dilijan. Many add a visit to Georgia, just to the north.
  • Need to know: The non-country of Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave of Armenian heritage surrounded by Azerbaijan, is a fascinating coda to Armenia – but check the current safety situation before travelling.
  • Other months: Mar-Jun – pleasant warmth, wildflowers; Jul-Aug – can top 40°C/104°F; Sep-Nov – cooler days; Dec-Feb – very cold.

Discover the ‘pearl of the Adriatic’ in Croatia

A crescent of terracotta roofs curling round to embrace an azure coin of the Adriatic, Dubrovnik has been assaulted many times through the centuries – besieged by Saracens, overtaken by Venetians, devastated by earthquake in 1667, then by Napoleon and the war of 1991–92. Yet it’s emerged more beguiling each time, and never more so than in June, the tipping point between spring’s warmth and summer’s somnolent heat, but before cruise passengers cram every alley.

Once you’ve promenaded a circuit of the Old Town’s walls and roamed the marbled streets (ideally very early in the morning), escape to a nearby island – perhaps Lokrum, Mljet or Šipan – to find a quiet beach, and a taverna serving fine seafood and local wines. Or head around the bay to peaceful Cavtat, founded by Greek settlers who fled Slavic attack to build the more famous Dubrovnik in AD 614.

  • Trip plan: Reasonably priced accommodation in the Old Town is limited; you’ll find more in Lapad, a mile or so to the west, which also has a couple of beaches.
  • Need to know: The best spot from which to admire the city at sunset is the top of Mt Srd’s cable car.
  • Other months: May-Oct – warm, clear days (Jun-Aug: busiest, priciest); Nov-Apr – cool, few tourists, many facilities closed.

Head to St Petersburg to float through the daylight of the White Nights

The great city founded on the Neva River by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703 was always designed to impress. Its palaces, museums and theatres are as grand as its early masters (and mistresses) could imagine, and in midsummer, when the sun never sets and the city is bathed in a luminous glow 24/7, it looks that much more romantic.

During the White Nights, roughly from the second week in June to the start of July, St Petersburg is a whirl of opera, ballet, music and general zhizni radost (joie de vivre). Stroll alongside the Neva or the Summer Garden, watch the bridges open and the ornate fountains of the Peterhof sprinkle.

  • Trip plan: You could spend a week wandering the riverbank, parks and streets, but make time for St Petersburg’s grand palaces and churches, the incredible Hermitage Museum in the white, green and gold Winter Palace, and the monuments of the Peter and Paul Fortress, at least.
  • Need to know: Tourists must obtain a Russian visa, usually through a tour agency or invitation from a hotel, before arriving. Be prepared for high prices during White Nights.
  • Other months: Apr-Sep – warm, bright; Oct-Nov – cold, grey; Dec-Mar – dark, freezing, but magical.