Highlights: off the beaten track in Iran

Despite the country’s rising popularity, it’s quite easy to get off the beaten track in Iran! Here’s 8 of our favorite off the beaten track places in Iran, plus 5 places we don’t think are worth the trip out.

 

Walking around the central square of Esfahan, Iran, it might be hard to tell that Iran has been closed off from the world in recent decades. Throngs of elderly German and French tour groups cluster around mosque entrances, Chinese teenagers roam through the endless bazaar alleys, and you might even hear the odd Brit or American accompanied by their mandatory guide. Thanks to the country’s liberal new visa on arrival program and its firm spot on many a “Top X places you need to visit ASAP or else you’ll die” listicle, Iran’s popularity is skyrocketing.

But that doesn’t mean you need to suffer perpetual crowds! Despite backpacking in Iran for two months of the high season, we saw almost no foreigners the second we left the tourist track.

Where is the “tourist track” in Iran?

As with any country, there’s a must-see list of cities that most tourists will visit:

  • Tehran
  • Esfahan
  • Yazd
  • Shiraz
  • Kashan and Kerman, for those that have time

All incredible cities,as you can see in our Iran photo itinerary, but also the most frequented. Luckily, for those looking to get away from the sort-of crowds (or those that just really hate other people), it’s quite easy to get off the beaten track in Iran.

 

8 highlights off the beaten track in Iran

Off the beaten track highlights in Iran: the Dorud - Andimeshk train - Lost With Purpose

The Dorud-Andimeshk train

Trains are by far the most pleasant form of travel (short of first class hops on swanky airlines) and the Dorud – Andimeshk train ride was by far one of the most scenic train rides I’ve ever taken. Over the course of six or seven hours the train slowly winds through the mountains of Lorestan, passing through an impressive number of tiny tunnels and chugging by tiny villages with a population so small you could count it on your fingers.

 

Heading to Iran and need some extra help? Check out 1stQuest for all the transport help you need!

Off the beaten track highlights in Iran: The stepped village of Palangan in Kurdistan, Iran - Lost WIth Purpose

The stepped village of Palangan in Kurdistan.

Palangan and Kurdistan

The westernmost region of Iran is known as Kurdistan. A more colorful region of baggy pants and grassy mountains, it was by far the most beautiful region of Iran (in our humble opinions).

Rainbow overload in the bazaar of Sanandaj, Kurdistan, Iran - Lost With Purpose

Rainbow overload in the bazaar of Sanandaj.

The stepped village of Palangan was our favorite place in Kurdistan. Less touristy in feel than the more popular Masuleh, it’s easy to while away the hours walking amongst its earth colored houses (they say one house’s roof is the next house’s garden) and exploring the flowering mountains around the village.

  • Close to: Sanandaj
  • Where to stay: Hotel Kaj in Sanandaj (budget)

 

 

Despite its rising popularity, it's easy to avoid tourists and get off the beaten track in Iran. Read on to learn about 8 off the beaten track highlights in Iran, and 5 places that just weren't worth the trip.

 

 

Off the beaten track highlights of Iran: the Tabriz grand bazaar - Lost With Purpose

One of an endless number of alleys in the Tabriz bazaar

Tabriz

This city should, by all means, be a part of the tourist track, but most people enter via Tehran, so this city close to the Armenian and Azeri borders is simply too far away to be part of the voyage. Their loss, your gain!

Tabriz is home to the world’s largest covered bazaar, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. More importantly, it’s home to some of the friendliest people we encountered in Iran. Considering Iranians are some of the most hospitable people on earth, that’s saying something!

Off the beaten track highlights of Iran: Kandovan, near the city of Tabriz - Lost With Purpose

Pro tip: don’t miss out on a trip to nearby Kandovan when heading to Tabriz. It’s a cave city similar to the more famous Cappadoccia, with a mere fraction of the tourists!

 

 

The epic view from one of the Castles of the Assassins in the Alamut Valley, Iran - Lost With Purpose

The epic view from one of the Castles of the Assassins in the Alamut Valley.

Alamut Valley

Legend has it the Alamut Valley is the birthplace of assassins. Legend or not, it is home to several remote fortresses known as the Castles of the Assassins.

Off the beaten track in Iran: one of the Castles of the Assassins - Lost With Purpose

The fortresses have since been destroyed, though they’re gradually being restored. Nevertheless, the Alamut Valley is home to some of Iran’s most striking landscapes, and is equally as accessible for day trippers as it is for more outdoorsy folk interested in camping and multi day treks.

 

The shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad, Iran

The shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad. Photo from Wikipedia, since cameras aren’t allowed in the shrine!

Mashhad

Mashhad suffers from the same problem as Tabriz: it’s an important destination that’s far too removed from the tourist track to receive many visitors. But no visit to Iran would be complete without visiting this city—it’s only the most holy city in all of Iran!

The city’s only draw is the shrine, but oh, what a shrine it is. It’s a glittering mosaic-covered city, white and shining in the sun, luminescent at night. You can watch people burst into tears, fight like rabid animals, and get lost in prayer at the shrine of Imam Reza, one of the twelve Imams of the Shia sect of Islam (Iran’s major religion). Forget Qom, and head to Mashhad instead.

Pro tip: walk around, be subtly respectful, and you might be allowed to enter the burial tomb of Imam Reza. Prepare to battle for space!

 

 

A mobile panorama of Imam Khomeini shrine in Tehran, Iran - Lost With Purpose

Mobile photo of Imam Khomeini shrine since real cameras are a no-no.

Imam Khomeini shrine

Don’t have time to make it all the way out to Mashhad? Head to the (gloriously free) shrine of Imam Khomeini in the outskirts of Tehran.

The exterior of the Imam Khomeini shrine as seen from the Tehran metro - Lost With Purpose

Though unassuming from the outside as it’s still under construction, the complex is absolutely massive, and is a good first taste of how grand architecture in Iran can be. You can relax on its carpeted floor and observe all sorts of people, from those crying in prayer before the tomb to families taking selfies (despite the ban on photography) as their kids run circles around the room.

  • Close to: Tehran
  • How to get there: Take the metro to Haram-e Motahhar station, then head towards the shiny towers
  • Where to stay: Khazar Sea Hotel

 

 

Off the beaten track highlights of Iran: The horse races in Gonbad-e Kavus, Iran - Lost With Purpose

Gonbad-e Kavus horse races

For an electric crowd and fast-paced action head out to Gonbad-e Kavus to watch horse races at what was once the greatest hippodrome in the Middle East. The crowd is a melting pot of horsemen from countries all over the region, and a ticket to the races is only 50,000 IRR (about $1.50). Races are held every Friday in spring and summer, so check that they’re happening before heading there.

The crowds at the horse races in Gonbad-e Kavus, Iran - Lost With Purpose

Protip: While you’re there, check out the UNESCO listed Mil-e Gonbad.

 

 

Off the beaten track highlights of Iran: Qaleh Rudkhan - Lost With Purpose

Misty and mysterious Qaleh Rudkhan.

Qaleh Rudkhan

Though the theme park-esque atmosphere of the base of the mountain may be concerning, Qaleh Rudkhan itself is well worth the long climb up. An ancient castle deep in the Iranian “jungle”, it’s overgrown yet well-restored. The air is often misty thanks to the rainy climate of the region, which lends a mysterious feel to the sprawling old building.

The climb is equally as beautiful, and a great place to run into jolly Iranian tourists from Tehran seeking cooler temperatures. Never fear, the theme park feel doesn’t continue all the way up the mountain—the castle is very safe from food vendors and tacky souvenir shops.

Fuman klucheh, cookies, the most godly creations in Iran - Lost With Purpose

Pro tip: Don’t forget to stop for the famous Fuman klucheh (cookies) on your way to the castle! Stuffed with ground up walnuts, sugar, and cinnamon, they’re some of the most famous cookies… for good reason.

 

Looking for more on getting off the beaten track in Iran?

Here’s our favorite articles from fellow bloggers about getting off the beaten track in Iran:

You also can get the (somewhat outdated) Lonely Planet Iran guidebook. Or, to save money, just get the Iran chapter from the Lonely Planet Middle East guide.

 

5 off the beaten track places that just weren’t worth it

 

The bas reliefs at Bisotun in Iran - Lost With Purpose

Bisotun

Ancient as it may be, Bisotun is not nearly as cool as the guidebooks make it seem. The most intricate and famous bas relief is situated a good ways up a massive cliff, and is currently covered in scaffolding from a university team doing research… a decade ago. No one is sure when they’ll return, so don’t count on the scaffolding being removed any time soon. The photo above was taken at full zoom from far, far down below.

If relief(s) is what you seek, head to Persepolis and the nearby Necropolis. They have all the bas reliefs your heart could ever desire.

 

 

Masuleh, Iran - Lost With Purpose

Masuleh

Masuleh gets all the love from the guidebooks when it comes to stepped villages, but it doesn’t feel nearly as authentic as others. It’s filled to the brim with local tourists, dress up photo studios, and souvenir shops. Skip it and head to Palangan or Abanyeh instead.

 

 

The ruins of the Arg-e Bam in Bam, Iran - Lost With Purpose

Bam citadel

Bam citadel used to be one of Iran’s most popular destinations until the majority of it was felled by a massive, deadly earthquake in 2003. The people of Bam are incredibly sweet and eager to prove the citadel’s worth, but I’m afraid to say that the city is just too far out of the way to merit visiting a large pile of rubble. Though the citadel is being rebuilt, much of it is off limits and/or still just a pile of rocks, so you’re better off visiting the marginally closer and much more reconstructed Rayen citadel near Kerman.

 

 

The dome of Soltaniyeh in Soltaniyeh, Iran - Lost With Purpose

Soltaniyeh

I’m on the fence about this one. Soltaniyeh is a small village with several significant historical sights, namely it’s UNESCO listed dome, the largest brick dome in the world. What loses it points is the fact that the entire interior of the dome is covered in scaffolding to the point that you can’t really see anything inside.

The scaffolding inside the dome of Soltaniyeh in Iran - Lost With Purpose

The interior of the dome of Soltaniyeh

However, it could be worth the trip from Zanjan as there are several other mausoleums and burial grounds in the area that you can visit. If you do go, take a peek inside to see if there’s still scaffolding. If there is, just walk around the exterior to save money, then head to the rest of the town’s historical sites.

 

 

The inscriptions at Ganjameh near Hamedan, Iran - Lost With Purpose

The only inscriptions at Ganjameh.

Hamedan and the Ganjnameh inscriptions

Sorry Hamedan, but despite the fact that you were one of the great cities in ancient Persia, you’re really just not that exciting these days. Your modern monuments look like a cross between a concrete spaceship and a vibrator, the ruins of the ancient city require too much imagination, and the Ganjnameh inscription is basically a ye olde billboard on the side of a cliff… with a busted theme park at the bottom of it.

Concrete monument in Hamedan, Iran - Lost With Purpose

Our recommendation? Skip Hamedan’s inner city and spend more time exploring Kurdistan’s natural sights and mountain villages.

 

Despite its rising popularity, it's easy to avoid tourists and get off the beaten track in Iran. Read on to learn about 8 off the beaten track highlights in Iran, and 5 places that just weren't worth the trip.

 

Planning your Iranian adventure? Don’t forget to get a VPN before leaving so you can still access social media while traveling in Iran.

 

Alex

American by birth, British by passport, Filipina by appearance. Addicted to ice cream. Enjoys climbing trees, dislikes falling out. Has great fondness for goats which is usually not reciprocated.

More about Alex

27 thoughts on “Highlights: off the beaten track in Iran

    Thanks for the heads up on this article guys! Exactly what we were looking for 🙂 Also I’m really in love with your website design… Great work!

    We’re glad to hear you found it useful. Hopefully you can visit some of these beautiful places. Have fun!

    RoarLoud says:

    What amazing photos! This is gorgeous and not what I’d expect for scenery in Iran.

    Thank you, glad you liked it. Iran really has something for everyone.

    FullSuitcase says:

    Iran looks amazing! I only started hearing about it as a tourist destination recently, somehow it was always below the radar for me. How about safety or facilities, like roads and hotels? Is it easy to travel around without a guide or a group?

    Iran scores high when it comes to safety. Violent crime and theft really isn’t a problem; we actually had someone run down the street after us to say that money fell out of our pocket! The only downside regarding safety is that men harassing women is a recurring problem in Iran. However, this can vary based on where you are, who you’re traveling with, etc.

    Roads: awesome. They also have super pimpin’ buses that go everywhere you’d ever need to go! It makes traveling across the country very easy, and there are bus ticket offices everywhere.

    I’d say overall the center of Iran is quite easy to travel through. Iranians are immensely helpful and hospitable, and someone will always make sure you find your way 🙂 There’s also a decent number of tourists in the central tourist track, so you can swap a bit of information here and there as well.

    Julian says:

    Beautiful sights and nice post! We thought of going and now have a nice trail away from the masses. Thank you for that! Nice blog, guys. Many greetings from another ‘interracial travel couple’ 🙂 Love to get some inspirations.

    Glad you like it. Iran is a great country, we’re sure you guys will enjoy it. Cheers!

    Liliia Sokotun says:

    thats’s cool! I liked especially 5 places not worth visiting! We almost went to Bam but decided to skip it, thanks god! We went instead to Rayen citadel, really awesome place!

    Thank you. We figured we’d save people from the same disapointment we faced when we visited those places. Glad you liked it!

    Liliia Sokotun says:

    yeaaaah we liked few places in Iran, mostly off the beaten track, however the country in general rather disappointed us and by the end i hated it. Definitely wont come back and wont recommend to my friends.

    Really? You’re the first person we know to say that. Anything in particular that made you feel this way?

    Liliia Sokotun says:

    oh, it was a combination i guess of everything. I hated being a women in Iran, especially if by myself. And it is not even talking about wearing hidjab all the time. Plus all this helpfulness of Iranian people is a bit too much, it felt like it is their duty to be hospitable and helpful where most of their cases (at least for us) they were not helpful at all. Also we figured that Iranians just cant stand criticism, what they want is just compliment…well excuse me but the country has a looooot to work on. And other stuff such as lack of supermarkets ( I believe there were some we just didnt happen to find one in 2 months), lack of baby food, lack of restaurants with normal food ( once again there are of course, but whether it is a tourist trap oooor fast food), overpriced entrance fees because you are a foreigner…and an overall feeling of people being oppressed.

    Interesting. We totally get what you’re saying on some points. Although we found the hospitality to be brilliant, we’ve heard more people say it almost seemed sarcastic to them at times.

    Alex feels you on the women thing, she even wrote an article for an Australian news site about harassment she faced.

    We still really loved Iran though, and for the us the negatives were far outweighed by the positives. It’s a shame that they didn’t for you, but to each her own. Thanks for being honest, we really appreciate it.

    Liliia Sokotun says:

    It’s okay, a part of traveling 🙂 some countries you love and some not. And it was not all nightmare hahah we still spent there almost 2 months 😀

    Matt says:

    Hi Alex, love this blog … especially where you also recommend/unrecommend recommendations! Agree with you as well on train travel, always my prefeered option. I hope to visit Iran soon and follow some of your advice. In the mean time I’m happy to have mapped out your thoughts and shared on my website, feel free to check it out if you like, http://www.thetravelblogs.com/asia/western-asia/

    Happy travels!

    Joan Torres says:

    Hey Alex! This post is great! I wish I had time to see and visit all of these places, especially the Dorud-Andimeshk train. Unfortunately, I didn’t stay in Iran for very long, so I had to visit everything in a super rush! I also liked the article about the Gonbad-e Kavus thing. In Dubai, horse racing is the national sport, so I used to go to the hipodrom pretty often! Unlike in some Western countries, in Dubai people watch horse-racing because they love it. No one is betting money or anything like that. But it seems that the one in Iran is even more off-beat!

    The only thing I don’t agree with you is Masuleh. Whereas it’s true that souvenir shops are found in every corner, the green mountains around Masuleh are home of the best hikes in the country. Besides that, like most of the people in the Middle East, Iranians don’t like hiking, so I had all those mountains for myself. In my opinion, it was one of the highlights of Iran!

    I would also add to the list the Qashqai Nomads of the Zagros mountains. I visited a couple of Nomadic camps and they told me that the last tourist they saw before me was more than 3 months ago! It was a great experience to see how these people actually live! Great post Alex! Always a pleasure to read your articles 🙂

    Fair enough! You saw more of Masuleh than we did—we were there for a couple of days, but in typical Masuleh style it was so rainy and cloudy that we couldn’t see more than a couple of meters in front of us most of the time!

    I’ve read your post on the Qashqai nomads, and was all sorts of jealous! Definitely something I’d like to see if Iran ever lets me back in (probably blacklisted at this point for writing about skirting their visa rules…).

    Maria M says:

    I can’t wait to visit Iran! I might live in Armenia or Georgia for a year, August 2017-2018, and if so, besides obviously discovering Armenia and/or Georgia I hope to go to Iran for a couple weeks! I have been wanting to go for quite some time now, but I haven’t had the chance, now I might finally go AND I won’t be restricted to July/August summer vacation, AAH! No one my age will understand my excitement though, lol, most people just want to go hang by the beach (or at least be able to drink alcohol on vacation), but I don’t care!

    I would recommend to check out travestyle.com too, if anyone reading this wants to go to Iran. It’s written by an young Iranian woman and I love it!

    We’re sure you’ll have a great time. Iran is a special country.

    FabGreg says:

    Not very far from the Armenian border, I suggest you to give a short visit to Ushtebin, a white Masuleh without any tourist, not even iranian tourist.

    This is really out of the beaten track. No accommodation here.

    Don’t miss the excellent water spring.

    Fabrice

    Sophie and Manolo says:

    Hi Sebastiaan,
    Just wanted to say thank you for all your articles on Iran. We are right now in Kurdistan, and your blog has been a great help, it’s some of the most up to date, correct and practical information for traveling in Iran out there!

    Alex says:

    Thanks guys! I’m glad the blog has been of use, and that you guys made it to Kurdistan. Still my favorite region of Iran! Hope your trip came to a successful conclusion.

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