Esfahan (or Isfahan) is the third biggest city in Iran – and one of it’s most cultural important. Serving as a capital at various times in Iran’s long past. At one stage Isfahan was the biggest city on Earth but now it is a relevantly quiet town known around the world for its beautiful architecture and breathtaking public spaces. With three UNESCO World Heritage sites, a myriad of food options to explore, some of the biggest and most beautiful mosques in the world and relatively little tourism – Isfahan should be top of every travellers list in Iran. This really is a city for those in the know, and you don’t want to miss any of its hidden treasures so read on to discover the 20 best things to do in Isfahan in this ultimate guide!
While dotted with many of the marvellous attractions of Isfahan, the Naqsh-e Jahan Square deserves a mention in it own right – if not because it is one of the biggest public plaza’s in the world. Built to symbolise the importance of Isfahan in the Safavid Empire – not much has changed except the addition of horse-drawn carriages, a beautiful fountain and hoards of tourist shops. You can’t avoid this square even if you wanted to – but is best visited in the late afternoon or evening when Iranian families and couples come out to enjoy it’s splendour and the light is more mallow.
Isfahan is endowed with no less than 11 bridges criss-crossing the dried out Zayandeh River – five of which are protected historic monuments are are popular places for locals to gather at any time of day, but especially in the evening as the bridges are perfectly lit up. The Si-o-Seh Pol bridge is a perennial favourite – and the longest, though Pol-e Khaju may well be the finest bridge in Iran. Don’t miss Pol-e Shahrestan which is the oldest dating back to the 12th century or Pol-e Chubi with it’s interior parlours used by the shah and his concubines.
Newly opened the opulent Attar Hotel in Isfahan blows every other Isfahan hotel out of the water – and at pretty reasonable prices by western standards. One of the best new hotels in Iran opening to cater to a booming tourism industry – I can think of no better way to enhance a stay in Isfahan that by indulging in their colourful pool, relax in rooms that hark back to the Shah era and take in all of the traditional details. A truly one of a kind hotel in Isfahan – and their traditional Iranian breakfast is rumoured to be the best in the city.
Other great mid-range hotels in Isfahan include Piroozy Hotel and Viana Hotel, both bookable online so you can avoid confusion around price or facilitates when you arrive. If you are really on a budget and need a hostel in Isfahan there is not a great selection but Seven Hostel run out of Orchid Hotel is by far the best bet (but at 15€ per night and no common space, you are better getting one of the mid-range hotels in Isfahan.
Dating back to Sassanian times there is not much left of the crumbling bricks at Ateshkadeh-ye (the Isfahan Fire Temple) but the panoramic view from the top over Zayandeh River and the edge of Isfahan makes it all worth while. A slippery and treacherous path requires a 20 minute scramble up hill, but as long as the weather is good its worth it to wander amongst the ancient (or often rebuilt) ruins and gaze out to the horizon. Not the best example of a Zoroastrian Fire Temple in Iran, but there is still a certain otherworldly charm up here ave it all.
One of the highlights of Iran is the food and Isfahan is no exception. You absolutely must try Biriyani when here, minced lamb served with bread and Faloodeh which is a cold dessert of corn vermicelli noodles in rosewater syrup. I also particularly liked the Dizi stew here ( lamb with assorted vegetables in a stew) but for the most comprehensive food guide to Isfahan you really need to click through to this incredibly lengthy Food guide by The City Lane who does a far better job than I ever could! My recommended approach? Wander the streets and markets until you see a line or something delicious and then just go for it. Ask questions later!
For centuries Isfahan city was an oasis settlement but a population explosion and industrialisation demanded more water and sadly the Zayandeh River suffered. Having seasonal dry-outs, the Zayandeh River has not flown through Isfahan since 2010 due poor environmental policies and rampant mismanagement. A man-made disaster that has left tourists with the bizarre option of walking all over a dried-out riverbed, or wandering the parks either-side which are brightened up by a few pieces of modern art. The sight of swan boats simply left here 8 years ago reminds me a bit of Chernobyl and are quite photogenic.
The centre point of the city, Masjed-e Shah Mosque otherwise known as the Abbasi Great Mosque is elegant and iconic – and by far the biggest building on the square. The entrance gate provides plenty of stunning photo opportunities but considering there are many other beautiful mosque in Isfahan, you can probably skip going in this one if you want to avoid a hefty entrance fee. Simply wander around through the main entrance at sunset and into the internal courtyard – when it is free. Don’t disrupt those going to pray, but you will get an incredible vantage point from which to admire the iconic blue tiling and overwhelming stature of Masjed-e Shah Mosque.
Jolfa is the Armenian quarter in the south of Isfahan. Dating back to the 16th century when Shah Abbas I ordered the transportation of the entire population of Jolfa ad hoc, a town boarding Armenia, to Isfahan to help complete his historic architectural works here in record time. This new populations talents as merchants, entrepreneurs and artists were needed, and it was ensured their religious freedoms where respected…though at quite a distance from the Islamic monuments he was creating. Today Jolfa is a very fashionable and liberal enclave serving the needs of the remaining 6,000 Armenian Christians here – with many beautiful restaurants, cafes, hidden churches and a vibrant feel around the central Jolfa Square. A curiosity deep in the heart of Iran that no travellers who visiting Isfahan should skip!
A 14th century architecturally undistinguished shrinewhich covers the grave of Amu Abdollah Soqla, Monar Jonban has become famous for it’s shaking minarets. Every 1.5 hours one of the minrarets is shaken and the other minaret should be observed to shake in unison swell. Locals will tell you that science can not explain the miracle of the shaking minarets of Monar Jonban, but in actuality it is simply an example of couples oscillation given the height of the minrets and width of the roof. Regardless, in 2018 when I visited only one minaret would shake and no visible effect could be seen on the other, so it is probably not worth the hefty 200,000 entrance fee – but if you have a local you can probably negotiate your way in for much less and perhaps you will get luck and see the laws of physics defied. Best combined with a trip to the Isfahan Fire Temple.
The beautiful Vank Cathedral, formally known as the The Holy Savior Cathedral, stands at the heart of the Armenian Quarter, which entrance by a discreet wooden door. Hidden away behind high walls to avoid offending the Islamic rulers over the centuries – all can be seen is a small cross on a done similar to a mosque but once inside you there is plenty of glorious wall paintings and a interesting collection of bibles. If you have never been inside an Armenian Church the Vank Cathedral is the perfect place, if you can catch it when it’s open between baptisms and weddings.
Locally known as Bazar-e Bozorg, the historic and seemingly endless Isfahan Grand Bazaar spreads all the way from Naqsh-e Jahan Square through to Masjed-e Jameh…Quite the distance. Open from 8 am til 9pm – the best time to visit the Isfahan Bazaar is mid-morning if you want to experience hustle and bustle, or the evenings for a more subdued experience. Make sure to admire the gorgeous brick-arches, stop by a carpet shop to admire to learn about the ancient history of Persian carpets and pick up some saffron from the spice markets to take home. You can easily lose half a day here, and the best way to see it is to simply wander – though if you are actually looking for something specific, it is best to ask directions!
Possibly one of the best teahouses in Iran, a trip to Isfahan would not be complete without seeking out the Azadegan Teahouse. Located in a hidden alley off the Naqsh-e Jahan Sqaure, this place is insanely popular with locals on the weekend who come for the delicious tea and traditional food. However most tourists go for the ridiculous collection of oddities and curiosities covering almost every single surface, and flowing outside into a courtyard as well. in this cave of wonders service is rushed off their feet, but really you won’t be in a hurry to leave this interesting and utterly unique space…
A harmonious, almost discrete, compliment to the Grand Masjed-e Shah Mosque – the Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfollah is small but packs a big punch. With a twisting hallway leading to an unforgettable inner sanctum, covered in complex mosaics and a ceiling like no other it is surely worth the hefty entrance fee. Be sure to take you time and enjoy this masterpiece of design in Isfahan famed for the shafts of sunlight with peak through the windows in it’s dome – creating a short of light and shadow any photographer will love. Try to visit in the mid-morning for a quiet, almost sacred experience, and stay as long as possible to admire the way changing light changes the space.
Constructed to highlight the natural beauty of a river that no longer exists, the Khakju Bridge , Khaju bridge is “the culminating monument of Persian bridge architecture and one of the most interesting bridges extant…where the whole has rhythm and dignity and combines in the happiest consistency, utility, beauty, and recreation.”. While you should visit during the day as well, on Friday nights young lovers and friends gather under it’s base for picnics and what I can only describe as Iranian glee – a sort of sing off where operatic songs in Persian echo under the arches and everyone competes to out-do each other. One of the best experiences I had in Iran, it is truly enchanting and almost otherworldly so bring a blanket after sunset and settle in. Who said you need alcohol to have fun right!
While this six-story palace ha a long history dating back to its use as residence for Shah Abbas I in the 16h century, today it is perhaps best known for its view of the Isfahan Square and out to the mountains. Slowly being restored after being largely destroyed during Qajar rule – don’t expect to see it completed anytime soon but the wooden ceiling, display of arts and craftsmanship do add a nice bonus to the view.
While tea is traditionally the beverage de jour in Iran, a sub-culture of young caffeine addicted Iranians is popping up and Isfahan is no exception to this trend. While your hotel in Isfahan is likely to have only tea and terrible coffee on offer I did the hard yards drinking and can recommend as the best best coffee shops in Isfahan: Radio Cafe for it’s warm vibes, WiFi and local atmosphere, Mustache Cafe for it’s take-away coffee and central location and Grumri Cafe for its beautiful interior, Instagrammable coffee and warm Armenian hospitality. And trust me, with all of these top things to do in Isfahan your going to need a double-shot expresso just to keep up!
Overlooked by many travellers, the Chehel Sotun Palace is actually a UNESCO World Heritage site as it exemplifies Persian garden design and evolution since the 6th century BC. Always divided into four sections – following the Zoroastriam principles of earth, sky, water and planet coming together to produce Eden. The Chehel Sotun Palace is a perfect representation of this with its beautifully preserved palace, long reflection pool and quiet side gardens. Feel at peace amongst the tranquil – and perfectly symmetrical – gardens and elegant palace terrace. A wonder of the world not to be missed from any list of things to do in isfahan.
While Isfahan is one of the most popular tourist cities in Iran, this still does not stop the locals from showing their world-class hospitality. Travellers who have experienced other parts of the world might be wary of an ulterior agenda – but except for the odd shop-keeper in the bazaar, everyone here is truly concerned and hopeful you have a good time. So take the time to chat, accept their generous offers to join for dinner, tea or a night of sight-seeing and see where it goes. I now have a phone full of contacts in Isfahan, wonderful memories and have seen Isfahan in ways I could never have imagined. Just stay clear of giving your opinion on politics – unless you are quite sure of your company!
Isfahan is famed for its achievement in arts and crafts and today it’s most famous export – the Isfahan carpet – is still world renown in quality and style. You can see artisans at work on these carpets all over the city, and while the price of a Persian Rug is mind-boggling – it’s not hard to see why when it can take up to four months just to produce one square metre. Pop your head into any shop and the sales person will happily show you all the different styles and construction techniques just like a free museum tour. You are by no means obligated to buy anything, but just be upfront if this is the case and he will still proudly show you these beautiful works of art.
Dating back to 841, the UNESCO World Heritage Listed Jameh Mosque of Isfahan lies in the historic centre of Isfahan and is well worth the entrance fee, showcasing centuries of Islamic architecture. Also known as the Friday Mosque of Isfahan, the innovative designs and additions undertaken almost every 100 years showcases stylistic developments over a millennium and provided a prototype all later mosques across Iran and Central Asia. Still functioning as a place of worship, you can respectfully observe muslims praying here as you take in the myriad of design details throughout. Undoubtably one of the top things to do in Isfahan and Iran.
Located in the centre of Iran, getting to Isfahan is easiest via bus, train and flight. There are direct flights to Tehran daily, and weekly flights to Damascus, Dubai, Sharjah, Kuwait and Istanbul. You can also find direct flights to most major cities in Iran at least once a week. From Tehran the bus from Tehran and other cities in Central Iran including Isfahan and Kerman is the best option taking around 5 hours, although there is also a train station if you prefer but it does take longer. As a major transport hub in Iran and the greater region you should have no problem getting and and out of Yazd.
The bus station and train station are quite far out of town so you should book at the reputable travel agency in the main street of the Old Town to avoid a taxi trip, but if you are heading the Shiraz or Kerman they might have some interesting – and affordable – day trip options to maximise your time!
Planning on exploring more than just one city in Iran? Here are some great other guides and cities to continue on your trip around Iran – or you can just check out these top things to do in Iran. And if you want even more adventure – and to get out into nature while exploring off-the-beaten track in Iran – why not consider hiring a rental car in Iran? What could be better right!
Bam – A UNESCO World Heritage Listed Fortress in South Iran. This famous desert castle was devastated by an earthquake in 2003 but after 15 year renovation is now back and open for business. Find out more in this Arg-e Bam Travel Guide 2018: Now The Most Quake-Proof City in Iran
Kerman – A rather plain city surrounded by some of the best desert landscapes in Iran. Get off-the-beaten track and see Iran without the tourists with these 10 Things To See And Do In Kerman Iran.
Shiraz – Often referred to as the cradle of Persian civilisation, explore multiple ancient ruins, beautiful mosques, delicious food and surreal natural landscapes. Intrigued? See these 12 unmissable things to do in Shiraz, Iran.
Shushtar – A hidden gem if ever there was one, Shushtar is really off-the-beaten track but you will be rewarded by some of the friendliest people in Iran, incredible ancient structures and delicious food! Find out everything you need to visit Shushtar in Iran.
Tabriz – The largest city in Northern Iran with unique Azari culture, the most beautiful bazaar in Iran and with a spectacular mountain backdrop. Read these 12 Epic Things to do in Tabriz, the 2018 Tourism Capital City of Islamic Countries
Tehran – The largest city in Iran often skipped over by travellers. Once you get past the smog and traffic however you will find a relatively liberal city with the largest cultural institutions in the country. Click through to the ultimate guide to Tehran to find out more.
Yazd – An ancient city that appears miraculous out of a desert plateau. Yazd is one of Iran’s biggest highlights and one of the most unique cities on Earth. Check out these 10 amazing things to do in Yazd, Iran.
Now you're all set and prepared to explore our big wide world, why not sort out everything else out all in one go? If necessary for your travel plans make sure you have brought proper travel insurance, protected your privacy by getting a secure VPN, compared all the top hotel booking sites to find just what you're after, reserved an unbeatable rental car price and - of course - booked the best flight deals!
Many budget travelers (including me) indulge in worldwide airport lounge access, so we can experience luxury while still slumming it in economy. Naturally, we would never leave home without a more a more general travel guide since we couldn’t possibly cover everything here!
Just add an adventurous attitude and plenty of smiles - they go a long way - and that about covers it all! Now go out, find your own path and don't forget to share your best inspiration stories with me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram...I'd love to hear from you!