Isfahan is Iran’s top tourist destination, and it’s easy to see why. Ancient Islamic architecture, three UNESCO world heritage sites, gorgeous bridges, friendly locals, and plenty of hidden locations to discover.
And that’s without even talking about all the food. Oh, the food. Fesenjan (Pomegranate Walnut Stew), Tahdig (Crunchy Fried Rice), Kabab koobideh (Barbecued ground lamb with parsley and onion). The list is endless. It is nothing short of incredible, and Isfahan has them all for you to try.
Read on to find out more about this historic city in central Iran filled with majestic Persian architecture, domes and minarets are covered with mosaic tiles and more markets than we could count.
Esfahan (or Isfahan) is the third biggest city in Iran – and one of it’s most culturally important that served as capital at various times in this nation’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 traveler’s 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!
20 Fun Things To Do In Isfahan Iran: Persian Architecture Extravaganza 🇮🇷
- 1. Wander the Great Expanse of The UNESCO World Heritage Naqsh-e Jahan Square
- 2. Potter Over The Historic Zayandeh River Bridges
- 3. Check Into The Luxurious Attar Hotel In Isfahan
- 4.Climb Up The Isfahan Fire Temple For Incredible Views
- 5. Sample The Traditional Food of Isfahan
- 6. Walk Along the Dried Out Zayandeh Riverbed
- 7. Marvel at the Exterior Of The Grand Masjed-e Shah Mosque
- 8. Learn The Intriguing History of Jolfa: The Armenian Quarter in Isfahan
- 9. Decide If the Shaking Minarets of Monar Jonban Really Defy Physics.
- 10. Enter The Hidden & Secretive Vank Cathedral in Isfahan
- 11. Get Lost On The Depths of The Isfahan Grand Bazaar
- 12. Get Snap Happy At The Photogenic Azadegan Teahouse
- 13. Admire The Stunning Inner Sanctuary of Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfollah
- 14. Find Magic On Friday Nights Under The Khaju Bridge
- 15. Get The Best View of Isfahan At Kakh-e Ali Qapu
- 16. Hunt Out The Burgeoning Isfahan Coffee Scene
- 17. See One Of The Best Remaining Examples Of A Persian Garden At Chehel Sotun Palace
- 18. Let Down Your Guard And Make Friend With The Locals
- 19. Learn The Intricate History Of Isfahan carpet
- 20. Head Back In Time At The Jameh Mosque of Isfahan, The Largest Mosque in Iran
1. Wander the Great Expanse of The UNESCO World Heritage Naqsh-e Jahan Square
While itself home to many of the marvelous attractions of Isfahan, the Naqsh-e Jahan Square deserves mention in its own right – if not because it is one of the biggest public plazas in the world.
Built to symbolize 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.
The best visited in the late afternoon or evening when Iranian families and couples come out to enjoy its splendor, and the light is more mellow.
2. Potter Over The Historic Zayandeh River Bridges
Isfahan is endowed with no less than 11 bridges crisscrossing the dried out Zayandeh River – five of which are protected historical monuments.
These bridges 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 favorite, and the longest, — though nearby Pol-e Khaju may well be the finest bridge in Iran. At least in our humble opinion.
You also won’t want to miss Pol-e Shahrestan, which is the oldest dating back to the 12th century or Pol-e Chubi with its interior parlors used by the shah and his concubines.
3. Check Into The Luxurious Attar Hotel In Isfahan
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 colorful 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 rumored 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).
4.Climb Up The Isfahan Fire Temple For Incredible Views
Dating back to Sassanian times, there is not much left of the crumbling bricks at Ateshkadeh-ye (the Isfahan Fire Temple). Still, the panoramic view from the top over Zayandeh River and the edge of Isfahan make it all worthwhile.
A slippery and treacherous path requires a 20-minute scramble uphill, 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.
5. Sample The Traditional Food of Isfahan
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 casserole), 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. He 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!
6. Walk Along the Dried Out Zayandeh Riverbed
For centuries Isfahan city was an oasis settlement, but a population explosion and industrialization demanded more water, and sadly, the Zayandeh River suffered.
Having seasonal dry-outs, the Zayandeh River has not flown through Isfahan since 2010 due to 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 eight years ago reminds me of a bit of Chernobyl and is quite photogenic.
7. Marvel at the Exterior Of The Grand Masjed-e Shah Mosque
The center point of the city, Masjed-e Shah Mosque, otherwise known as the Abbasi Great Mosque, is elegant and iconic – and by far the most prominent building on the square.
The entrance gate provides plenty of stunning photo opportunities. Still, considering there are many other beautiful mosques 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.
8. Learn The Intriguing History of Jolfa: The Armenian Quarter in Isfahan
Jolfa is the Armenian Quarter in the south of Isfahan.
Dating back to the 16th century when Shah Abbas the First ordered the transportation of the entire population of Jolfa ad hoc, a town boarding Armenia, to Isfahan to help complete his historical architectural works here in record time. These new population’s talents as merchants, entrepreneurs, and artists were needed. So it was ensured their religious freedoms were respected — though at a distance from the Islamic monuments they were 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 travelers who are visiting Isfahan should skip!
9. Decide If the Shaking Minarets of Monar Jonban Really Defy Physics.
A 14th century architecturally undistinguished shrine which covers the grave of Amu Abdollah Soqla, Monar Jonban has become famous for it’s shaking minarets.
Every 1.5 hours one of the minarets 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. Still, in actuality, it is merely an example of couples oscillation given the height of the minarets 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. For this reason alone, it is probably not worth the hefty 200,000 entrance fee – but if you have a local with you, you can possibly negotiate your way in for much less.
Maybe you will get lucky and see the laws of physics defied—but to avoid disappointment, you should at least combine your visit to the nearby Isfahan Fire Temple.
10. Enter The Hidden & Secretive Vank Cathedral in Isfahan
The beautiful Vank Cathedral, formally known as the Holy Savior Cathedral, stands at the heart of the Armenian Quarter, whose entrance is hidden behind 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. Once you are inside, there are plenty of glorious wall paintings and an exciting 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.
11. Get Lost On The Depths of The Isfahan Grand Bazaar
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 till 9 pm – the best time to visit the Isfahan Bazaar is mid-morning if you want to experience the 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 quickly 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!
12. Get Snap Happy At The Photogenic Azadegan Teahouse
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 Square, 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…
13. Admire The Stunning Inner Sanctuary of Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfollah
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 intricate mosaics and a ceiling like no other, it is undoubtedly worth the hefty entrance fee. Be sure to take your time and enjoy this masterpiece of design in Isfahan famed for the shafts of sunlight with peek through the windows in its 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.
14. Find Magic On Friday Nights Under The Khaju Bridge
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 its 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!?
15. Get The Best View of Isfahan At Kakh-e Ali Qapu
While this six-story palace ha a long history dating back to its use as a 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 languishing during Qajar rule – don’t expect to see it completed anytime soon. Still, the wooden ceiling, display of arts and craftsmanship do add a nice bonus to the view.
16. Hunt Out The Burgeoning Isfahan Coffee Scene
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. The Isfahan Coffee Scene is currently rather exciting and innovative — however, just don’t expect it to rival major coffee cities like Singapore, Auckland, Vienna, or Lisbon.
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 coffee shops in Isfahan: Radio Cafe for its warm vibes, WiFi and local atmosphere, Mustache Cafe for its 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, you’re going to need a double-shot espresso just to keep up!
17. See One Of The Best Remaining Examples Of A Persian Garden At Chehel Sotun Palace
Overlooked by many travelers, the Chehel Sotun Palace is actually a UNESCO World Heritage site as it exemplifies Persian garden design and evolution since the 6th century BC.
It was always divided into four sections – following the Zoroastrian 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.
18. Let Down Your Guard And Make Friend With The Locals
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.
Travelers 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 genuinely 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, beautiful 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!
19. Learn The Intricate History Of Isfahan carpet
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 meter. Pop your head into any shop, and the salesperson will happily show you all the different styles and construction techniques — just imagine it 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.
20. Head Back In Time At The Jameh Mosque of Isfahan, The Largest Mosque in Iran
Dating back to 841, the UNESCO World Heritage Listed Jameh Mosque of Isfahan lies in the historic center of Isfahan. It is well worth the entrance fee, showcasing centuries of Islamic architecture.
Also known as the Friday Mosque of Isfahan, the innovative designs and additions undertook roughly every 100 years showcases the 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.
How To Get To Isfahan Iran
Located in the center 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 Turkey/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 it does take longer.
As a major transport hub in Iran and the greater region, you should have no problem getting and out of Isfahan.
The bus station and train station are quite far out of town so you should book at a reputable travel agency in the main street of the Old Town to avoid a taxi trip. Still, if you are heading the Shiraz, Yazd, or Kerman, they might have some interesting – and affordable – day trip options to maximize your time!
Where To Go After Isfahan When You Visit Iran
Were you planning on exploring more than just one city in Iran? Here are some excellent 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 a 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.
Shiraz – Often referred to as the cradle of Persian civilization, explore many 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 an off-the-beaten-track destination. And 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 travelers. Once you get past the smog and traffic, however, you will find a relatively liberal city with the most significant 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 ten amazing things to do in Yazd, Iran.
Further Things To Consider Before Any Adventure
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 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!