Iran is no longer the scary and inaccessible place it is often made out to be. True, relations with the US are taut and the visa process for UK citizens travelling to Iran is long and complicated. But with the introduction of visas on arrival for most Europeans and Australians, travellers are starting to trickle to the main cities of northern and central Iran. And it's easy to see why.
Western Iran, however, still sees few visitors. But it has sights and landscapes to match – and even beat – those of the northern and central parts. Here are nine reasons you should give magical Western Iran a chance.
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.
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.
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.
Top image © Martin Canek/Shutterstock