Rapidly expanding Rasht is the capital of Gilan province and by far the largest city of the Shomal (Caspian littoral) region. Gilan has had extended periods of independence and the lispy local Gilaki dialect remains noticeably distinct from Farsi, its reversed adjective-noun order causing much amusement for other Iranians.
Gateway to the sweltering cities of the Iraqi plains, Kermanshah developed in the 4th century AD under the patronage of Sassanian kings and squats astride the former Royal Road to Baghdad – such strategic positioning has brought both prosperity and attack, and Kermanshah suffered brutal damage during the Iran-Iraq War.
Qazvin is famed for carpets and seedless grapes. The city was once capital of all Iran and has a considerable sprinkling of minor sights, but for most Western travellers its foremost role is as a launch point for excursions to the famous Castles of the Assassins in the marvellous Alamut Valley.
Ardabil is a logical stopping point between Tabriz and the upper Caspian coast. Ardabil’s magnificent Sheikh Safi-od-Din Mausoleum is by far its greatest attraction but there’s a fair scattering of other minor sights and a truly superb teahouse restaurant. When the chilly smog clears, Mt Sabalan’s snow-topped peak is dramatically visible from Ardabil’s Shurabil lake.
Even by Iran’s super-hospitable standards, Sanandaj is a remarkably friendly city. It’s the capital of Kordestan province, a good base for visits to Palangan and a great place to learn more about Kurdish history and culture. You’ll see plenty of men wearing traditional cummerbunds and baggy Kurdish trousers.
Little visited by foreigners, Khorramabad is nonetheless scenically appealing and a possible base from which to discover Lorestan province, the glorious Zagros Mountains and the Lori (Lurish) people. Khorramabad lies in a long, wide gorge sandwiched by dry, impressive crags in which have been found at least five Palaeolithic cave-dwelling sites.
Hidden in tiny alleys behind its modern facade, Zanjan retains some attractive mosques, a fantastic bazaar, a plethora of knife-grinders and some delightful teahouse restaurants. The city is a logical base for visiting the impressive Soltaniyeh mausoleum and a good staging point to reach Takht-e Soleiman via the scenic Dandy road.
The deeply historic city of Shushtar lies strategically where the last contoured red ridges of the expiring Zagros Mountains fade into the endless flat watermelon fields of southern Khuzestan. Beneath the initially unexciting surface of today’s low-rise cityscape, there’s lots to discover including a complex of artificial ancient ‘watermills’ and no less than 14 imamzadehs.
Lahijan & Around
Famed for its tea, Lahijan is one of Gilan’s oldest towns with some tree-lined charm to its main streets. Several minor sights are ranged around central Vahdat Sq. These include the Masjed-e Jameh (Jameh Mosque; pierced by a blue-tipped brick minaret) and a charmingly run-down old men-only domed hammam. Across the square is the tile-roofed Chahar Padeshah Mosque.