Known in classical times as Ecbatana, Hamadan was one of the ancient world’s greatest cities. Pitifully little remains from antiquity, but significant parts of the city centre are given over to excavations, and there's a scattering of historical curiosities. Sitting on a high plain, Hamadan is graciously cool in August but snow prone and freezing from December to March.
Long a gateway to the historic cities and dry mountains of eastern Azerbaijan from the low-lying, fecund Caspian, Ardabil makes for an interesting stopover. The Unesco-listed Sheikh Safi-od-Din Mausoleum is by far its greatest attraction, but there’s a scattering of other minor sights.
On a high plain, surrounded by stark, eroded hills, the modest city of Zanjan makes the perfect base for wider explorations. The architectural wonder of Soltaniyeh is nearby, while the battered hoodoos of Behestan Castle and the bizarrely striped Colourful Mountains lie further afield.
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 Marivan, 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.
Most travellers try to pass straight through Khorramabad, but this historic city is scenically located among the sharp, jagged tors of the Zagros mountains, and the superbly picturesque Falak-Ol-Aflak fortress overlooks the city centre. Enjoy the cooler air: it's all downhill from here to Khuzestan.
Scattered like rubble at the bottom of a towering ravine, Maku makes an atmospheric overnight stop and a good base for hunting Armenian churches in the austere, lonely countryside. Long a key fortress guarding the Ottoman–Persian frontier, Maku was one of many Azerbaijani khanates that gained semi-independence in the chaotic period following the death of Nader Shah in 1749.
Susa was among the greatest cities of ancient Persia. Built on its embers, modern-day Shush is modestly small and relaxed, home to a vast Unesco-listed archaeological site, a compact museum, a crowning castle and the enigmatic Tomb of Daniel. An afternoon is usually enough to see all the sights.