Isfahan is my maternal hometown. I had always heard stories of the beauty of Isfahan and naturally when I planned to go to Iran, the city was very much on top of my list.
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Persians call Isfahan Nesf e Jahan, which translates to half the world. Its beautiful parks, grand boulevards, sprawling gardens, mosques and cathedrals, synagogues and bridges, culinary sophistication and its contribution to the culture of Persia are unimaginably grand. Isfahan was also the capital of the Persian empire twice first in the 11th century (It wasn’t Persian empire then but it was the capital of this region under Seljug dynasty) and then again in the 16th century under Safavid dynasty.
Fun Fact: Naqsh e Jahan square is one of the largest historical city squares in the world. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site along with the 3 grand buildings it hosts, more about that later in the post.
I love Isfahan for another reason as well and that’s the tolerance. I know the image of Iran has been portrayed as that of a hostile, intolerant, fundamentalist society but Isfahan shows the subtle beauty Iran has to offer to religious minorities. The Armenian quarters of Isfahan, The Vank cathedral and the main synagogue of Isfahan are all incredibly beautiful. I have been to hundreds of churches and cathedrals but I have never seen anything like Vank Cathedral ever.
Shopping in Isfahan
If you plan to shop in Iran, Isfahan is your best bet especially for rugs and metalwork, the quality is simply unparalleled. I don’t usually buy stuff on trips to keep my luggage light but I couldn’t stop myself from buying a beautiful marble box with the painting of Shah Mosque. I still have it next to my bed as a reminder.
A special note of thank you to the Isfahan Info which is the best source of up-to-date and precise information as well as a chance to book tours with them.
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Getting to Isfahan
Isfahan is the third biggest city in Iran and very well connected in all directions. It has its own international Airport (Isfahan Shahid Beheshti, IFN), a well-established train and multiple bus stations which serve different parts of the country. You can check how to go about checking schedules of Iranian domestic flights, train and bus departures and tickets through resources on the Iran page here.
I decided to break my 5-hour long car ride between Tehran and Isfahan and spend a day exploring Kashan which was a great idea. We left early morning and arrived in Kashan by 10 am after a 2 and a half-hour drive from Tehran. After spending the day exploring, we left for Isfahan which took another 2 and a half hours.
Bus Stations in Isfahan
The main bus stations of Isfahan are:
- Kaveh Station – Buses to Kashan and Tehran
- Sofeh Station – Buses to South and Shiraz
- Jey Station – Buses to East, Varzaneh and Yazd.
You will need to take a taxi to bus stations as most of them are considerably outside the city centre.
Getting Around in Isfahan
Isfahan has a metro as well as a good bus system but other than a few places like Ateshgah, most places can be done on foot by walking around. I really loved walking around exploring different streets with beautiful buildings and reminiscents of the Imperial Isfahan. The metro can be used with a metro card but the Isfahan Metro website is in Farsi only and not very user friendly. I’d recommend opening it with Google Chrome and use the translate option. I, honestly, didn’t use the metro or bus because the taxi was cheap and easily available.
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Food in Isfahan
I gained 10 kg in 3 weeks I was in Iran despite walking a lot every day. Food is absolutely amazing and it was impossible not to eat. Isfahan is no exception. There is so much to try here and there is no lack of great restaurants. I would also highly recommend trying street food. I had some amazing food in nooks and crannies of the city from vendors.
Some of the must-try items are:
You have to try this at Azam Biryan, the oldest and most famous shop. It is delicious but go early or won’t find space. It is great for lunch.
This dish is made with chickpeas and meat and brought in a sort of pestle and mortar. You mix the meat with the chickpea stew. It is a speciality and good dizzi takes ages to prepare.
Miraz Qasemi and Kashk e Bademjan
Both are aubergine dishes and made either with bulgar wheat or with tomatoes. Absolutely divine and my favourite childhood dishes, I can not imagine summer without them.
It is special ice cream with sour ice cream and vermicelli. It is quite different from normal ice cream. I wasn’t a big fan but worth a try. The best place is Aliqapoo Paloodeh in Naqsh e Jahan square.
If you are in Hasht Behesht park, there is a small BBQ shop that sells a variety of kebab, perfect for a little picnic.
A salted yoghurt drink, best tranquiliser for siestas.
The perfect substitute for alcohol. There’s so much variety you can’t possibly try them all in one trip. My favourite is Khakshir (Flixweed) with chia seeds.
Dates were especially lovely.
These little green mini mango type fruits were slightly sour and perfect for snacking. They come with a sprinkle of salt which lets you enjoy the sourness. I think I just drooled a little on my keyboard.
A few restaurants I enjoyed and would recommend:
Sufrah Khana Sunnati Naqsh e Jahan – The decor is great and the interior is amazing but the food is just above average.
Qayseriye Restaurant – Right next to Naqsh e Jahan square and has great Dizzi.
Sherbet Khana Feroz – Next to Vank cathedral in Jolfa, perfect spot to try some amazing sherbets.
Where to Stay in Isfahan
I will probably not be the best person with this question since I stayed with family but the area around Hesht Behest Park seemed the best place to stay. it is strategically placed so you could easily go to both sides of the side and it is also quite easy to get taxis from there too.
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Best Time to Visit Isfahan
Spring and autumn times are best to visit Isfahan. I visited in mid-April and the weather was perfect. It was nice and sunny and throughout my stay, it didn’t rain.
How Many Days for Isfahan
How many days do you want to reserve to see half the world? I think 4 to 5 days are enough if you want to actually enjoy the charm of this city. You need at least a couple of days to spend in the city centre to see the main attractions, a day or 2 for the bridges and other locations as well as the cathedrals quarter and half a day for the Ateshgah or Fire Temple.
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How to Explore Isfahan
The city centre of Isfahan is consolidated and most places are quite close to Naqsh e Jahan square. This includes the three buildings in the square (Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Ali Qapu Palace and Shah Mosque). Through Qaiseriye Gate you will be able to explore the Grand Bazaar and Jameh mosque ending at Ali Gholi bathhouse.
On the third day, I started headed out to explore the Jolfa Armenian quarter and ended the day with Si o Seh Pol Bridge, the fourth day was a bit of rest with a climb up the Ateshgah (Fire Temple) and Minar e Jomban and ending the day at Khaju bridge.
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Things to do in Isfahan
Naqsh e Jahan Square
Entry Fee – Free
My first morning in Isfahan I rushed to Naqsh e Jahan Square. It is the centre of Isfahan in every sense and an incredibly vast square. There are multiple entrances in all four directions and entry is free.
Every visit to Isfahan brings you to this magnificent square. It is the second-largest historical square in the world and part of UNESCO World Heritage. The square is more than 400 years old and was built in the Safavid era. It represents the four pillars of the state; Government (Ali Qapu Palace), Shah/Imam Mosque (People), Religion (Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque (Religion) and economy (Qaiserye Bazaar/ Grand Bazaar of Isfahan).
Fun Fact: Naqsh e Jahan used to be a polo field and you can still find polo goalposts in the square.
On each side, there were lines of arches leading to shops full of beautiful artefacts but the main attraction are the three magnificent buildings, each stunning in its own way. There were victorias to ride in the square and ice cream to chill in the sun with. I couldn’t believe I was finally in the place of my childhood dreams. We decided to start with the Imam mosque to avoid rush hour during the Prayer times. More about that below.
Naqsh e Jahan Square
There were all sorts of people in the square, tourists, local artists, a woman painting the square on her aisle. I loved the miniature painters. They were the real masters, a guy offered to paint my name of a grain of rice to use. I still have it saved in my bedside table; a precious reminder! The shops in the square are obviously more expensive and you can get the same stuff in the Grand bazaar much cheaper but you will have to hunt it there.
I returned to the square at sunset another day to see the life in Isfahan and it was full of locals, kids and elders alike. I loved how alive and friendly Iranians are and they just need a small reason for a good picnic and great time and they will always invite you if they see a guest.
Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque
Entry Fee – IRR 200,000
The title of the most beautiful mosque in Iran is a highly contested one. There are buildings which make you redefine your definition of beauty and elegance. This mosque wins the title and rightfully so.
Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Naqsh e Jahan Square
Fun Fact: Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque was built specifically for Royal Family which is why there are no minarets and interior is much smaller with no central courtyard. There is also a tunnel that connects the Ali Qapu Palace to the mosque directly.
We headed to see the mosque as the first building in Naqsh e Jahan square. The entrance leading to the prayer hall is lit with different colours with tile work so intricate and elegant it is hard to believe it was human work. The light, design and space around you engulf you. I was stunned and couldn’t walk for minutes. The only reaction was the urge to touch and feel the beautiful feeling on my pores like I was absorbing it.
Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque Entrance
The main prayer hall is empty now because the mosque is no longer in active religious use. The dome is like a golden sun covered in a beautiful display of peacock tails coming down on each side.
The lower half is like a beautiful ocean of blue. Every inch is decorated with calligraphy in incredible detail and hard work.
Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque Interior
I spent an hour here which was very little in hindsight but I am ever so happy I got the honour.
Ali Qapu Palace
Entry Fee – IRR 200,000
Ali Qapu Palace Facade
Ali Qapu palace was the main palace during the Safavid era. It has a presence of its own and it is quite different from a typical palace in Iran. It is quite tall at 48 metres high with 7 floors. The entrance has a beautiful brick dom. The palace was strategically made for 7 floors with a music room on the 6th floor. The King would only invite people up, he was happy with and the visitors had to wait on the floors down. It showed your position in the court; a brilliant idea to keep everyone on their toes!
The entire palace is brilliantly decorated with paintings from the artists in floral patterns and animals.
The staircase was also painted but very narrow, so narrow that only one person can pass at a time. The first spot was the small courtyard/ balcony with a beautifully painted ceiling and a fountain in the middle. There are eighteen arches, each made from a single tree. It is unfortunately not in great shape and needs repair desperately.
The star of the show, however, is on the sixth floor; the music room. The entire palace has been built keeping acoustics in mind but this is another level. The precision is mind-blowing, the design accentuates the music. It is a masterpiece of Gach Bori (a style of plasterwork). I have never seen anything like it but I am incredibly impressed by the love of Safavid kings for beauty and music.
Ali Qapu Palace Interior
It was another 2 hours gone and it was time to get some lunch so we headed down but I returned another time later in the evening just to observe the life in the square below and I’ll let you in; I felt a little Royal too, watching my subjects going about their lives in happiness. All until I was woken up by the guard because it was time to close.
Imam Mosque/ Shah Mosque
Entry Fee – IRR 200,000 (Free if you go in to pray)
The south side of the square hosts the Imam mosque, the largest and most imposing facade in the square. Even before going inside the entrance is so grand your excitement starts to build.
Note: The mosque is in active use and you will need to wait during prayer time, usually it doesn’t last more than 15-20 minutes.
I headed to get the tickets but the booth was closed and my cousin told me the mosque has been closed for 10 days to allow a longer religious break around Nowruz. You can’t go in at all unless you are staying there or heading inside to provide food to anyone staying in the mosque during these days. It was extremely disappointing but there was nothing I could do about it. The mosque looks beautiful even from the gate. I kept it on my list for next time. If you have seen it inside do tell me how you found it.
Shah Mosque Entrance
Qeysariye Bazaar/ Grand Bazar of Isfahan
Entry Fee – Free
The Grand Bazaar of Isfahan is no less in its grandeur to the Bazaars of Istanbul or Tehran. It offers everything you expect and then some more. The bazaar covers a vast area and with such narrow streets it has so many shops, it is impossible not to be lost, which was very welcomed.
A courtyard in Qaiseriye Bazaar
We walked from alley to alley, shop to shop, barely ever getting to the same place again. We discovered beautiful little shops selling everything from artefacts to everyday items. There were streets vendors selling stuff, people buying, selling and just enjoying the atmosphere. The smell changes rapidly based on where you are. Most old bazaars have specific alleys for specific items like cloth merchants, spice merchants and while things are a bit mixed up now, you can still get an idea with the majority of shops selling that item.
I bought myself a beautiful marble box and my sister bought a silverwork mirror. You can spend a day here and not get bored but we were limited with time but still ended up spending about half a day here which was amazing. It is the best place to buy your souvenirs.
Entry Fee – IRR 200,000 (Free if you go in to pray)
Through the old bazaar, towards the northside of the Naqsh e Jahan Square, in the old quarters, we discovered this old mosque. It is considered the oldest mosque with the courtyard style of Sassanid palaces.
the mosque was sadly also closed due to the religious holiday but the guy at the entrance saw our sad faces and let us in but only for a few minutes for free. We thanked him ever so much and headed inside. The mosque has different architectural styles encompassing fourteen centuries of change in architecture. By now you must be wondering; What’s so special about this mosque that I couldn’t skip it? The answer lies in its architecture and brickwork.
The Domes of Jameh Mosque
The brickwork domes and the entire area with beautiful arches are markedly different from the usual mosques decorated with tiles. It was another sensory overload and with changing light of the evening, the place looked every more beautiful.
The Brick Archest of Jameh Mosque
Sadly it was time for prayers and we had to leave but this is the second place I have to see properly on my next visit.
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Chehel Satoon Palace
Entry Fee – 200,000
This is the ceremonial palace for the Royalty of Iran. It was used to hold religious festivals and receive foreign and important guests. The name of the palace means ‘The Palace of Forty Columns’.
It is located quite close to Naqsh e Jahan Square and has its own garden. The gardens and the palace both are part of UNESCO World Heritage. The entrance is beautiful with Persian style gardens on each side with the building in the centre.
There are two possible reasons for the name; in Farsi, Chehel represents many while the literal meaning is forty. The other reason is the central area has twenty columns which are reflected in the pond in front and create forty columns. I’ll let you choose whichever version you like more. I liked the second suggestions more because of its romanticism.
The gardens lead me to the palace which has three main areas; The central columned Hall, the Throne Hall and the Mirror Hall. Each of them is more beautiful than the other but I really loved the mirror hall, it reminded me of the Lahore Fort and its mirror hall.
The palace and its gardens and especially devoid of tourists and people in the morning which is when I went. I’d recommend heading there at the same time.
Hammam Ali Gholi
Entry Fee – IRR 300,000
The hammam is part of the entire district by the name of Aqha Ali Gholi who was a well-known benefactor and revered courtier of the time. The hammam has a small entrance and is divided into several areas. If you have been to other hammams in Iran you could possibly skip it. The hammam shows the life in Iran in olden times when hammams and bathhouses were the centres of social life.
The district around is also fun to walk around in, it is quite a typical residential area of this region.
Hasht Behesht Park and Palace
Entry Fee -IRR 150,000
Hasht Behest means eight paradises and the place was built to host the harem of the King or Shah. It was a beautiful building which fell into disrepair and has lost most of its glory. The gardens around are free though and quite impressive. Definitely worth a stroll! I didn’t go inside the palace.
Jolfa – Armenian Quarter
Entry Fee – Free
The Armenian quarters ain Isfahan were reportedly brought over by the Shah when he made Isfahan the capital of his kingdom. He asked the Armenians from the north of the country to populate the New Julfa area. They came and prospered and even today, after 4 centuries their religious right and respected. The area is beautiful with many small and large buildings. It is also home to thirteen Armenian churches that survive today. Jolfa also has some interesting new style boutiques and is sort of the hippie or the art district of the city. I’d highly recommend SherbetKahana Feroz for some great variety of sherbets.
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Entry Fee – IRR 500,000
No trip to Isfahan can be complete without a visit to Vank Cathedral. It is the most beautiful Armenian church I have ever seen (and I am including the ones I saw in Armenia here as well). It is tucked into a seemingly unassuming building in the Jolfa district and from outside I couldn’t figure out why it was so high on the recommendations list.
I got the tickets and headed inside and from the moment I entered a sensory bomb exploded and my eyes split into millions of colours.
The walls are decorated with stories from the Bible and the blue and golden dome depicts the story of creation and man being kicked out of Eden. The paintings are so incredibly rich. I couldn’t help but appreciate the copiousness with which the place engulfs you.
On the other side of the building is a museum holding the smallest scripture as well as a single hair with inscriptions which I had to see using a microscope. It was pretty unremarkable otherwise.
Vank Cathedral Dome and Paintings
Like most places in Iran, I had to go back to take another look and saw some more beautiful now that my senses were a bit settled. I spent an hour in there appreciating the building and the mix of Persian and Armenian as well as Muslim and Christian symbiosis.
Bethlehem Armenian Church
Entry Fee – IRR 500,000
A five minutes walk from Vank cathedral brought me to this church. I would highly recommend visiting this before Vank cathedral so you can enjoy its relative simplicity in comparison to Vank cathedral. I made the mistake of heading to Vank cathedral first and then this church seems nothing special.
Even then it has a beautiful dome with intricate design. Definitely worth a visit even if it just to see the dome. Unfortunately, it is also in quite a state of disrepair and needs urgent attention.
Nearby: Pigeon Tower
Si o Seh Pol
Entry Fee – Free
Zayandeh Rood river runs through Isfahan and has some of the most beautiful bridges in the world. There are more than 10 bridges within Isfahan and most of them are incredibly beautiful. I only got the chance to check out two and I was recommended Si o Seh Pol and Khaju pol. (Pol means bridge in Farsi so I won’t be calling them Pol bridge because that’s stupid).
Si o Seh means 33 in Farsi and obviously, this bridge has 33 arches, hence the name. I would highly recommend going there in the evening. I visited on the way back from Ateshgah (Fire Temple). The bridge is lit very nicely and there are a lot of locals which come for their evening stroll, a few love birds as well as kids playing around the arches. It is one of the best-known bridges from the Safavid era and it is the longest bridge out of all bridges in Isfahan.
Entry Fee – Free
Khaju Bridge is another not-to-be-missed attraction in Isfahan. It is a double-decker bridge with the upper half open to caravan traffic and the bottom half for pedestrian use. It is close to Jolfa and I visited after spending sometime loitering around in Jolfa till it got dark.
The bridge is also beautifully lit in the evening. The centre of the bridge has a special Royal Pavillion which was used by the Shah and his family for special occasions and fireworks. It is a very lively place for the evenings.
Monar e Jonban
Entry Fee -IRR 200,000
I read bout this place in a travelogue when I was quite young and despite not knowing where Isfahan or Iran was, it became part of my bucket list. It is quite outside the city and you will need to take a taxi there, there are also shared taxis that can take you there. We got a taxi that took us to the Monar e Jomban and then dropped us at the Ateshgah. He brought us back as well because taxis weren’t very readily available there.
Note: The minarets are shaken only at certain times, you can check the schedule here.
The building is very unremarkable and simple. It is the mausoleum of a Sufi Amu Abdollah. The special part of the building is the shaking minarets. When one minaret is shaken, the other one starts shaking with the same frequency. Can you imagine something so ingenious from the fourteenth century?
The minarets were badly damaged when they were being renovated but the shaking still works although now they have tied bells to give you an idea of shaking. It is no longer visible but still quite amazing. Check out the video below for an idea.
Atesh Gah – Zoroastrian Fire Temple
Entry Fee – IRR 150,000
Note: You definitely need comfortable shoes with good grip. The slopes are quite steep and there is no active monitoring of the site or aides available to help you.
The worship of fire or Zoroastrianism was the main religion of this region (along with a minority of Jewish people) before the Muslims conquered and converted people to Islam. The fire temples were the place of worship and in most of them, a fire was lit at all times. Even today, Zoroastrians or Parsi people consider it a sin to put out the fire and there’s always a flame kept alive at home.
After the shaking minarets, we headed to the Ateshgah. It is some eight kilometres out of the city and you cannot walk there. We got the tickets and headed inside. The climb up was challenging but the view at the top was amazing. We could see most of Isfahan from here even if it was a bit dusty.
The temple is made up of different era structures and most of them are just ruins now. The main temple is located on the top. It is the best place to see a sunset over Isfahan. It was our last evening in Isfahan and we were a mix of happy and sad because we didn’t want to leave but Isfahan kept showing its generosity. We headed to Si o Seh Pol for our last visit.
There’s a lot more Isfahan has to offer, many beautiful houses, gardens, boulevards, palaces, mosques, taste and smells but our time was up and it was time to see the Rose of Persia; Shiraz as well as the world-famous Persepolis and Necropolis.
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