Google “Northern Iran” and, honestly, you won’t find a whole lot.
The region is far removed from the tourist map – you’ll scarcely find anyone that knows what’s there, let alone wants to go. Yet, that’s exactly what makes it so captivating for travellers looking for something a little different. You’ll find volcanic plains, snowy peaks, and dense forests. You’ll find traditional bazaars in small mountain towns, the kindest locals, and none of the jostling crowds you get in similarly stunning parts of the world.
In fact, we’re so passionate about this rugged, historic, awe-inspiring part of Iran that not only can we not stop talking about it, but we created an 8-day expedition trip in homage to it. It’s packed full of insanely cool destinations and authentic experiences: visiting intricately-decorated mosques, exploring ancient UNESCO heritage sites, and so much more.
To illustrate just how unique both region and trip are, here are four reasons why Northern Iran is such a bucket list-worthy spot for adventurous travelers:
The epic, diverse landscapes
We’ve already mentioned a little about the varied, alluring mix of landscapes in Iran, but it’s worth digging a little deeper. After all, there’s so much to see here. One of the most remarkable spots in Northern Iran is Kandovan Volcanic Village. Reachable via a dramatic, mountainous journey, the village is known for its unusual architecture: rock houses carved into the mountain. It’s estimated the village is nearly 3,000 years old, and you can’t fail to be enchanted by this historic energy when you visit.
Kandovan isn’t the only intriguingly diverse locale to be discovered in Northern Iran (and our trip). Another notable site is Masouleh, a town that’s justifiably famous for its unique architecture and dramatic landscapes. Houses here are built into steep cliffs and vehicles are banned completely. Unsurprisingly, it’s the perfect place to explore on foot – especially as under 1,000 people live there. The flat roofs and open courtyards serve as connected pedestrian areas similar to streets. It’s this picturesque nature and its peaceful, small village vibe that explains why it’s Intrepid local leader Nadia’s favourite place to show visitors in Northern Iran.
If you visit Masouleh with Intrepid you stay at a locally-run hotel, have a bunch of opportunities to interact with locals, and are able to explore the abundant UNESCO-registered architecture. The next day you also visit Roodkhan Castle, just outside the town. Not only is the fortress brimming with history (it was constructed during the Sassanian era of 224-651 AD), you drive through rice fields and Perisan tea plantations en-route there. Talk about landscapes that surprise and delight.
The sheer sense of adventure
By now it’s probably clear that few tourists are visiting Northern Iran. This means that if you do visit, you’ll really be ahead of the travel game. There are no selfie-wielding travelers here and no locals that are jaded by hordes of tourists. Instead, there’s a very unique opportunity to explore the north western and northern parts of the country – areas that couldn’t be further from the beaten path.
The fact it was so impossible to find any sort of organised tour here is what motivated us to create our own. And, importantly, the new Northern Iran Expedition can be combined with our 14-day Iran Adventure trip (which goes to Esfahan, Yazd, Shiraz and more). Because, as you’ll find, it’s such a mesmerising country that you need some time to do it justice.
The incredibly warm hospitality
Iranians are eager to share their country with travellers. That’s fact, not opinion – and something that is unwavering whether you’re in chaotic capital Tehran or smaller border cities like Jolfa.
As Jenny Gray, Intrepid’s Product Manager for Africa and the Middle East, put it:
Wherever you go in Iran, you’ll be absolutely blown away by the kindness, generosity and genuine curiosity that Iranians have for foreign travellers. There’s nowhere this is more obvious than off the tourist trail in Northern Iran, a region that makes for the most once-in-a-lifetime trip imaginable.
Part of the way in which Iranians demonstrate their hospitality is through food. This is lucky because Persian cuisine is as delicious as it is served with genuine warmth.
Meals are often a variety of meat (usually lamb or chicken) combined with rice, vegetables, spices and flavourings such as saffron, dried lime and cinnamon. To experience authentic cuisine and Iranian hospitality at its best, the Northern Iran trip lets you have a meal with a local family in the mountain town of Masouleh.
The rich culture and historic sights
So, we’ve touched upon the landscapes, the unique adventures, and the famous hospitality. And even though we’ve mentioned the odd UNESCO site or two, that simply doesn’t do justice to the sheer volume of culture and history that Northern Iran boasts.
Want some examples? Well, you’re in luck. The city of Ardabil, one of the stops on our Iranian Expedition, has an array of fascinating cultures. This is partly because the dominant majority here are ethnic Iranian Azerbaijanis (the province borders Azerbaijan), but also thanks to the peaceful Shorabil Lake and the mosaic tomb of the Sufi master, Sheikh Safi Ardabil.
If you’re all culture-ed out then you’ll also enjoy stopping at the nearby city of Sarein, known for its remedial spas.
Other cultural highlights in the region include Tabriz, the fifth biggest city in Iran and one that dates back a cool 4,500 years. Out of all the places to visit in the country, this has to be one of the most attraction-filled. The bazaar here is a UNESCO site thanks to its unusual dome roof and claim to fame as the longest bazaar in the world. Unsurprisingly, it’s the dream place to fulfill all your jewellery, spice and carpet-buying needs.
There’s plenty else to do in Tabriz, too – from visiting the tomb of Shahryar, the great Azeri poet, to exploring its tea houses, its hammams and the always laid-back Shahgoli Park.
There’s so much more to Northern Iran; we’ve barely scarcely scratched the surface. We could discuss Jolfa, the stronghold of the Armenian Christians, a city filled with the most magnificent churches. Likewise, we could go into the sophisticated cafes and theatres of Tehran. Or even just the scenic vistas as you traverse along the majestic Caspian Sea. But if we start talking about all of Northern Iran’s wonders, we’ll probably be unable to stop.
The solution? Go explore it. Get off that beaten path. Take the leap and discover Northern Iran for yourself. If you would like to find out more read our northern Iran guide.
(Image credits from top to bottom: Nadia Badiee, iStock, Nadia Badiee, iStock, Intrepid Travel, Nadia Badiee x2)