If I could choose only one place in Iran to come back, it would definitely be Esfahan. It’s a chilled-out city with the same feeling as Barcelona. Lovely people, great food, colorful bazaars with stunning handmade products, splendid architecture and perfect weather for most of the year.
Never considered visiting Iran? Check out our 15 reasons why Iran should be on the top of your bucket list!
But let’s go back to Esfahan (or Isfahan), the third biggest city in Iran and probably one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It’s located about 200 miles south of Tehran and 300 miles south of Shiraz.
What to see there?
Esfahan is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, and there is a strong reason for that. Let’s start with the gorgeous Persian architecture. There are dozens of main sights worth visiting and hundreds of other interesting places and details you’ll spot on the streets.
Naqsh-e Jahan Square
This place used to be one of the most important stops on the Silk Road. When Shah Abbas decided to move the Persian capital from Quazvin to Esfahan, he started a massive project of rebuilding the entire city, and Naqsh-e Jahan Square was the central point not only of the city but also of the Persian empire. Constructed between 1598 and 1629 as one of the biggest squares in the world, it gathered the most important parts of power – merchants in it’s Grand Bazaar, the clergy, represented by the Masjed-e Shah, and the sovereign, residing in Ali Quapu Palace.
Today, there are no camping traders, but the square remains one of the most beautiful in the world. It’s hard to say, what made me more amazed. The Grand Bazaar, Persian carpets, incredibly skilled craftsmen and artists? Or the impressive Ali Quapu Palace? The blue decorated Shah Mosque? Or the size of Naqsh-e Jahan Square itself?
This 400 years old bridge is another illustration of the skills and imagination Persian architects had. For most of the year, there is no water in the river, so you can walk next to the bridge and see, how precisely built it is.
When you come during the sunset, you can see locals gathering here for an evening chat with friends, a game of chess or a shisha. Stay there for a while and wait for dusk. Because when they turn on lights in all the 33 arches, you will finally realise how long and beautiful the bridge is.
In Esfahan, you can also find one of the oldest and largest Armenian quarter in the world. When you step in, you’re in a different world. Mosques are replaced by churches, Persian language by Armenian and even the architecture, people and food change. You can even buy here some homemade wine (not officially, of course).
The most famous is probably the Holy Savior Cathedral, commonly called the Vank. It’s one of the most breathtaking churches I’ve ever seen, mostly because of its fine frescos and ornamentation. You’ll be surprised how the stories from the Bible work together with Persian style.
Emamzadeh Esmaeil and Isaiah Mausoleum
Do you want to know a bit more what Islam really is? Did you know it has very strong roots in Judaism? And they worship Jesus as one of the prophets? Go to the Emamzadeh Esmaeil and Isaiah Mausoleum where you’ll find a small museum of Islam history.
And it’s, of course, worth to see just because of its beauty. The complex is located near the Jameh Mosque of Isfahan and contains two mausoleums, one for Esmaeil, and another which is believed to be Isaiah’s.
Jameh Mosque is one of the oldest mosques in Iran. Some parts are probably much older than a thousand years. In this place, you can explore many of the architectonical styles during many centuries, and it’s easy to imagine yourself staying there in the 15th century.
I was amazed by the support system and the main brick domes, as well as the old, cold air reminding all the past years.
Similar to Ali Quapu palace, this beautiful building in the city centre contains many unique frescoes and paintings. It will show you many legends, famous battles and stories from Persian history. Also, the surrounding gardens and small lake are a perfect place to wonder – the whole complex is registered as the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
What to do?
I’m not very into sights, museums and historical buildings, and yet, I enjoyed the city a lot. Why? Esfahan is also a modern city full of life and many cool things to do. For me, the most important are people. And all the people I met in Esfahan were super friendly. They know, how to enjoy life.
Let’s start with the very new part. Isfahan City Center is the largest shopping mall in Iran and an impressive building worth visiting. It’s also one of the biggest shopping mall containing a museum in the world. This is the place where you can finally realise that Iran is a modern, wealthy and developed country. Just the government is kind of strange…
But let’s move back to shopping. You’ve probably heard about the huge markets called bazaars. The Iranian version is way less loud than bazaars in Turkey. No vendors shout their best offers and trying to get you in. In Iran, all the vendors are very nice and they mostly focus on excellent quality.
When my friend and I were walking through the most touristic bazaar surrounding the Naqsh-e Jahan Square. Just next to the main entrance to the Shah Mosque, one guy invited us to his carpet shop for a glass of tea, and he wanted to tell us a bit more about Persian carpets. Of course, we were suspicious. But he resisted even after we explained we don’t have money to buy an $500 plus carpet nor room in our baggage.
So we followed him in, got some tea, and he explain us all about the nomad tribes and their handmade carpets, the ways they make so called „city carpets” with large sewing machines or how the flying carpet legend can be true. He even let us touch the $5000 handmade pure silk carpet. And in the end? He offered us one more glass of tea.
It’s not the only story like this one I have from there. We were invited to see how they make a handmade ice-cream (and they let us try it for free), how they decorate copper, bronze and silver bowls or plates with small hammers, or how they carve beautiful wooden statues.
I highly recommend you to reserve at least one afternoon just for wandering around the bazaars, meeting people, trying the food and taking great pictures. If you want to buy some souvenirs, this is the right place and time.
If I should choose just one thing I would do for the rest of my life, it would be traveling the world and trying all different kinds of local food. And I would probably spend a lot of time in Iran. I’ve spent most of my time in Esfahan with locals and I could try some of the most famous restaurants as well as the very hidden local spots where I was the first tourist ever.
Probably the fanciest place you can visit is the five star Abassi Hotel. It used to be the place where the caravans stopped for a few nights, but then they rebuilt it to a stunning complex of gardens, tearooms, restaurants, halls and expensive rooms. We went there as a group of nine people so we could try most of the dishes they cook there.
Many different kinds of kebab, stewed beef herb sabzi, tasty vegetable salads, saffron rice with butter, Persian flat bread, homemade fruit ice cream and fresh fruits. It was probably one of the best dinners in my life, and we only paid around $25 USD per person.
The other great restaurant was called Shahrzad, and our local friend told us it used to be the place for intellectuals and artists, and even after the Islamic revolution they still held there half-secret intellectual meetings. Today, it is very charming and beautiful place with great food and I highly recommend you going there for lunch or dinner. We tried there the dessert called Khoresh-e mast. It looks and even tastes like a pudding, but it’s actually a lamb meat stew with yoghurt, orange juice and zest, saffron and sugar. Sounds weird, tastes delicious.
You can also try some traditional Armenian food in the New Julfa quarter. You can ask some locals where they usually go, or you can try a place called Romanos. This whole building used to be a traditional spa called hammam, and eating there in places where people used to go to have a bath is an unusual experience.
Shisha and Tea
There are two things common for whole the Middle East and Northern Africa – drinking super sweet black tea and smoking shisha. Some people say that the Persian shisha tobacco is the best in the world – they just don’t export it. I haven’t been to Africa, but I can say all the shishas in Iran were (literally) mind-blowing.
You should try it at least once. Join the locals, sit, relax, smoke and drink tea. One shisha can last for hours and it’s absolutely worth the time.
Are you bored of the city, but don’t have time to travel further to the countryside? Take a cab to Soffeh Mountain not further than 20 minutes from the city centre. It’s a perfect place to relax and meet other locals. There is a ropeway to the peak, but you can easily trek there as well. You can even do rock climbing! But the main reason to go there is probably the view over the city.
- You need a visa for Iran. US, UK and Canadian citizens have to travel with a private guide or group tour all the time. Most of the other nations can get an invitation letter (usual price between $30 and $40 USD, don’t pay more) and then a visa on arrival ($60 to $100 USD – check out this list).
- Girls have to cover their hair and shoulders in public. It’s law for everyone.
- From Tehran, Shiraz or Yazd take one of the VIP buses, doesn’t matter which company. The buses are very comfortable (just 32 seats in the proper highway bus!), but still fairly cheap. Always ask from what terminal your bus leaves, there are more of them in every bigger city.
- There is an international airport in Esfahan, serving flights to the capital and most of the surroundings countries like UAE or Turkey.
- Unfortunately, you cannot use Airbnb nor booking.com (yet). But I highly recommend you trying Couchsurfing – if they couldn’t host you, they would at least help you to find the best hotel.
- Couchsurfing is also the best way for connecting with locals. Couchsurfers will be excited to show you around and tell you more about the history and actual political situation. Just invite a few of them for some tea and I can guarantee you the best travel experience.
- The best time to go is April to mid-October. The city is situated 1,590 metres (5,217 ft) above sea level and winters can get quite cold, especially at nights.
- Learn a few words in Farsi – it will make local people even more friendly and hospitable. But in most places you will find someone speaking English.