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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Meanwhile, the Zagros mountains, a magnificently rugged backdrop to the city, flare up in reddish hues at sunset, and offer great hiking.
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.
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.
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