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.
6. You can discover Khorramabad and its ancient fortress
Lorestan’s capital is friendly, small enough to be navigated on foot, and a world away from the chaos of other Iranian cities. Take a stroll along the main road, dominated by the Falak-ol-Aflak cliff-hanging castle, a red Sassanid-era fortress guarding over the city. Don’t be surprised if locals stop their daily business to practise their English with you — foreigners are quite rare around these parts.
Meanwhile, the Zagros mountains, a magnificently rugged backdrop to the city, flare up in reddish hues at sunset, and offer great hiking.
7. It’s home to one of the world’s longest caves
Between Kurdistan and Zanjan is Katale Khor cave, a 30-million-year-old cavern said to be one of the world’s longest. Tourists can visit 3km of stunning stalagmites and stalactites, but there are another staggering six levels below the main tunnel.
Local geologists believe they connect to the Ali Sadr cave in neighbouring Hamedan province, about 100km away. Daring cavers — along with expert local guides — will find a lifetime of adventures here.
8. There are oddities to be discovered around Zanjan
Zanjan, a major city between Tehran and Tabriz, lies next to famous UNESCO World Heritage Site Soltanyeh. It’s the biggest brick dome in the world and the most prominent leftover of the 14th-century Mongol Ilkhanid capital that once thrived here.
But fewer know about the uncanny Salt Men of Zanjan, one of Iran’s most obscure sights: found crystallized in salt in a mine close to the city, these four salted corpses are now exposed in an eerie, yet informative, museum.
9. You can take your time in Irani Kurdistan
Beyond the friendly capital Sanandaj, tucked in a hollow valley dominated by 2550m-high Abidar mountain, you’ll find the tiny town of Marivan. Boasting a stunning lake, it is set right on the border with Iraq.
Meanwhile, the hairpin bends of the Howraman valley make this part of Western Iran a world apart from the nation’s other stereotypical mosque-and-desert experiences. And don’t forget the Kurdish people, some of Iran’s — if not the world’s — friendliest hosts.
Header image: Bruno Vanbesien/Flickr