1. It's home to one of the world's most surreal natural wonders
Very close to the eastern Turkish border is Lake Urmia, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and huge salt lake separating the provinces of East and West Azerbaijan. Sadly, it’s shrinking at an alarming rate: once the biggest lake in the Middle East, Lake Urmia has reduced in size by at least 90 percent since the 1970s.
Still, its surface, punctuated by white salt banks and a peppering of islands big and small, is a sight to behold. It’s especially eerie when it turns blood red because of endemic halophile bacteria, which can turn the salty water from aquamarine to copper-tone.
2. There's a not-so-obvious side to the city of Tabriz
Besides the UNESCO-listed old bazaar and the troglodyte homes of Kandovan that everybody visits, West Azerbaijan's capital has other interesting sights.
The Architecture Faculty of the Islamic Arts University, a short walk from the old bazaar, hides some beautiful 230-year-old traditional mansions adorned with fountains and arabesque inner courtyards. And right behind the city, the Eyn-Ali mountain is a great and very accessible place to get a taste for Iran's peaks, and take in some majestic views over the sprawling city.
Arched corridor in courtyard of Blue Mosque © Elena Odareeva/Shutterstock
3. There's a secret desert here
Less then two hours from famous Isfahan, the sand dunes near Varzaneh, a charming desert town, are Iran's answer to the mighty Sahara.
Very few know about their existence: legends say that once upon a time there was an ancient city of sinners here. God punished them by sending a lethal sandstorm that buried the place. There could be some truth in the myth: archaeologists have found some 5000-year-old pots in the dunes.
And only 30km away, the Gavkhouni wetland, which ends with a salt lake, is an odd find next to a desert.
4. Kermanshah town has not one, but two, UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Kermanshah is home to the Sassanid-era archway Taq-e Bostan, and also to Bisotun, a 25m-wide cuneiform inscription in three ancient languages. It was ordered by Darius the Great somewhere around 520 BC and is literally the Rosetta Stone of the Middle East.
But there’s more to discover in town. Explore a labyrinthine bazaar that's more ancient than Tabriz's, discover hidden Kurdish mosques and sample delicacies such as naan roghani — a type of sweet bread only found in this city.
5. The Zagros mountains are a dream for hikers
Every visitor to Iran stops in Isfahan, and for good reason. But very few take time for a detour west to the suburb of Najafabad, only 30 minutes away. This sleepy but friendly town is possibly the region’s easiest gateway to the red rock cliffs of the Zagros mountains.
Strike off in the early morning armed with a picnic blanket and, upon reaching the summit, chatty and curious locals will invite you to join in for tea and hot sangak — a traditional leavened flatbread.