Big, sprawling Kerman is something of a cultural melting pot, blending Persians with the more subcontinental Baluchis, who dominate areas east of here. This mix is most evident in the long, ancient covered bazaar, which is the city’s entrancing main highlight. Otherwise the region’s main attractions – notably Mahan, Rayen and the Kaluts – are well out of town. All three can be seen on a long day trip from Kerman, but each now has their own decent accommodation if you’d prefer to escape the city bustle.
Kerman’s magnificent 'Sartasari' ('end-to-end') Bazaar is one of the oldest and most memorable trading centres in Iran. Its main thoroughfare stretches 1200m from Tohid Sq to Shohada Sq, the majority covered with classic vaulting and with several caravanserai courtyards off to the north. Within are several museums, bathhouses and religious structures, while the vivacity of the whole experience is enough in itself to keep visitors interested for at least an hour or two, especially in the morning and late afternoon.
The 'contemporary' section of this wide-ranging gallery is a selection of thought-provoking photographic and illustrative social commentary in the rear halls. There's also an intriguing modern section, including a grasping hand sculpture (credited somewhat questionably to August Rodin), two Béla Kádár watercolours and a small Kandinsky landscape. Some of the Iranian works are more compelling, notably Mohammad Javadipour's semi-cubist rural scene and Rajbali's classic Persian-style rendering of Shah Nematollah Vali.
Where Shohada St approaches the arid crags that abruptly mark the city's eastern edge sits this hefty octagonal structure of mysterious provenance. Some scholars date it to the 2nd century AD and think it may have been an observatory; others say it was a tomb. Whatever its function, it's unusual hereabouts for being constructed mostly of stone – though the double-layered dome, added 150 years ago, is brick.
This historic bathhouse is now a museum in which wax dummies illustrate the workings of a traditional hammam. Signage is a little garbled ('AD' dates actually refer to Persian Calendar years) but gives an idea of each chamber's purpose. Look for the time stones – translucent, 10cm-thick alabaster panels that glow mysteriously when struck by low sunlight filtering through the skylights, giving bathers a rough idea of the time (at least around sunrise or sunset).
With prominent blue-and-white-tiled roofs dating from the late Qajar period, this attractive mausoleum is the last resting place of several Kerman notables, but it's remembered particularly (and named) for the 18th-century minstrel and dervish Moshtaq Ali Shah.
The expansive Imam Mosque courtyard covers 6000sqm with tiled iwans (barrel-vaulted halls) on three sides. But it's the main southwest iwan that's the attraction here, a massive Seljuk structure in mostly uncoloured 10th-century brick. Small remnant sections of original Kufic plasterwork remain. Renovation has added back the missing majority, but in a new style easily differentiated from the original.
As you walk east into the Bazar-e Sartasari from Tohid Sq, turn left at the first 12-sided charsoq (junction) to find shops selling shiny copper-plated vessels. In some you'll find artisans beating metal or engraving pots and trays, but to see the most dramatic coppersmiths' workshop – with flames and scalding-hot pot dousing – turn the other way at the charsoq and then take the first alley to the left.
With an entrance hidden away in the northeastern corner of Ganj Ali Khan Sq, this tiny but lavishly decorated mosque was once the private place of worship of Ganj Ali Khan, the 17th-century local governor who funded much of Kerman's beautiful bazaar.
The Museum of the Holy Defence remembers the eight-year Iran–Iraq War through maps, gruesome photos, weapons, letters and intelligence documents from the war. There are brief summaries in English, but you'll need a guide to really interpret what you're seeing in any depth. That's not the case outside, however, where tanks and missile launchers overlook a mock battlefield complete with bunkers, minefield and pontoon-bridges across a waterway.
This Safavid-era ice house has preserved not just the stepped, conical adobe dome but also the tall mud walls that created winter shade over what would have been shallow ice-making pools. When frozen, chunks of ice would be stacked between layers of straw deep within the yakkchal (ice pit) for use in warmer months.