Isfahan is a classic tourist stop on a travel itinerary from Tehran to the southern city of Shiraz. Even though the name doesn’t say much outside of Iran, Isfahan is actually a rather large city. It is the third biggest city of Iran (after Tehran and Mashhad) and centuries ago it was even one of the largest and most important cities in the world. This status led to the popular Persian saying ‘Esfehan nesf-e jahan ast’ (Isfahan is half the world). Most likely this saying derives from the rich collection of people, cultures, and architecture in this city making Isfahan a magnificent place to visit. In this blog post I will share 5 great things to do in Isfahan, Iran.
5 best things to do in Isfahan
1. Explore every corner of Naqsh-e Jahan square
The Naqsh-e Jahan square is the number one thing to see in Isfahan. You visit this city to set foot on this gigantic (and surprisingly green) square. It is one of the largest squares in the world and its history goes back to the 16th century when Shah Abbas from Savafi declared Isfahan the capital of his Persian empire. The Naqsh-e Jahan square is one of his showcase projects with an aim to present the three powers. Meaning: the power of God (mosque), the merchants (the bazaar), and the Shah himself (his palace). Today, the square is a popular meeting spot for locals. Children love to play around in the central pond.
Downside: touts & horse carriages
The only downside of the square is that it is also used by touts who want to make money from tourists. They approach foreigners, ask where they’re from, then say that they have a nephew/brother/friend in your country, and then ask you to come to their shop for tea. Maybe this doesn’t sound that bad, but I felt that their intentions weren’t genuine (they were not interested in me but in my money). Also, they were behaving a bit pushy. Another thing: the square is also used by horse carriage ride sellers. Personally, I don’t want to take part in any kind of touristic animal entertainment, because nothing good comes out of it for the horses.
How to get here: take the metro to Imam Hussein station. From there it is a 10-minute walk to the square.
2. Visit Shah mosque – the highlight of Isfahan
A visit to Iran’s most important square is not complete with seeing the Shah mosque. It’s hard to miss the tall gate of this mosque on the south side of the Naqsh-e Jahan square. The 16th-century leader Shah Abbas didn’t build this mosque for himself, but for his great grandfather Shah Tahmasb. I truly feel that the Shah mosque is a must-visit in Isfahan. The blue entrance gate is simply stunning, but behind it there’s a lot more to see. Unfortunately, during our visit parts of the mosque were under construction. On top of that, I chose the wrong time of day to visit it because the sunlight was incredibly bright. So taking decent photos of the place was quite the challenge.
In addition to the Shah mosque, there are also two other places you can visit on the square. These are the Ali Qapu palace (entrance fee: 500,000 IR) and the Sheikh Lotfollah mosque (entrance fee: 500,000 IR). We didn’t visit these places, because we ran out of time.
How to get there: if you’re on the Naqsh-e Jahan square, you are already there. Entrance fee for Shah mosque: 500,000 IR per person.
3. Escape the heat and wander the halls of Qeysarie bazaar
Directly across the Shah mosque, you’ll find the entrance gate of the Qeysarie Bazaar/Grand Bazaar. Just like the bazaar in Kashan, this marketplace also has quite a history dating back to the 11th century. Over time the Qeysarie bazaar has seen multiple extensions and a roof has been built. Today it is one of the largest bazaars in Iran and even the Middle East. It is definitely worth your time to talk a walk on this bazaar, buy some delicious nuts and dried fruit and see what else you can find. It is also cooler inside the bazaar if you want to escape Isfahan’s heat.
How to get there: same thing as the Shah mosque, it is located on the Naqsh-e Jahan square. Entrance is free.
4. Listen to traditional Persian songs at Khaju Bridge
Isfahan is not only known for its grand square, but the city also has some spectacular bridges. One of them is Khaju Bridge, which is not only a bridge but also a dam to control the Zayanderud river flow. My photos show a mighty river, but the truth is that Isfahan has a water shortage. In fact, drought is a problem in all of Iran, but in Isfahan it is more visible. From time to time the river dries up completely due to overconsumption by the agricultural sector. So it is kind of a surprise what to expect when visiting Isfahan.
I recommend visiting this bridge during the day to see locals cooling down in the water (if there’s any) and at night when groups of men sing traditional songs under the arches of the bridge.
How to get here: take the metro to Si O Se Pol bridge station and walk along the water to Khaju bridge. Along the way you will also come across two other bridges.
5. Visit Iran’s most beautiful church in the Armenian quarter Jolfa
The 16th century was a golden age for Isfahan. The city was prospering and blooming and that attracted a lot of people. One of these groups was Armenian refugees who had fled the Ottoman empire to escape prosecution and had previously lived in the border town of Jolfa. The Armenians were actually invited to the city by Shah Abbas in the hope that their rich history and commercial drive would benefit his empire. And it did. Thanks to the Armenian community Iran opened its first national theater and received many international sports medals over the years.
Gorgeous Vank Cathedral
The southern district ‘New Jolfa’ (new is often omitted) is the area where the Armenians settled. This neighborhood has more than ten churches, but undoubtedly the most important one is the Vank Cathedral. The interior (with so many detailed frescoes) is truly breathtaking! In addition to the church, there are also two museums. Personally, I liked the Armenian Ethnographic museum more. The other one (Khachatur Kesaratsi) was a bit dated. For us, visiting this special Armenian quarter was even more interesting because we just came from Armenia before going to Iran.
How to get here: take the metro to Si O Se Pol station and walk from there for about 20 minutes. Or even better: arrange a Snapp taxi (with the app). The entrance fee for Vank Cathedral and the museums is 500,000 IR (seems to be the price for everything in Isfahan).
How to get to Isfahan?
Isfahan is located in the middle of Iran, which makes it easily accessible from Tehran, Kashan, Yazd, and Shiraz. The bus is often the best mode of transport. We traveled by bus from Kashan to Isfahan. The ride was 1,5 hours and cost us 195,000 IR per ticket. Isfahan Kaveh Bus Terminal is connected to the metro network of Isfahan, so you could take the metro to the city center (go to Imam Hussein station or Enghelab station). You can also take the train to Isfahan, but the train station is quite far from the city center. I wouldn’t recommend doing this.
Where to stay in Isfahan?
We stayed at Ragrug Hostel and I can highly recommend this place. The owner and staff are amazing and really do their best to let their guests feel welcomed. Moreover, the rooms are nicely styled and every morning they serve a delicious breakfast. They have dorms and privates and offer all guests a guided city tour to get a good first impression. Most of the listed Isfahan things to do in this blog post can be seen during this tour! The only downside of this hostel was the bathroom inside our private room. The walls were all glass, so my partner and I could look at each other while one was on the toilet. Hopefully, they will change this in the future!
Where to eat in Isfahan?
The Ragrug Hostel is not located within walking distance from the city center, but that’s not a huge problem. By using the Snapp taxi app you can easily move around the city. The Jolfa area offers the best options for lunch, dinner, and coffee. Another great district with restaurants is the area between Imam Hossein station and Enghelab square. If you’re near Naqsh-e Jahan square, I recommend Radio Cafe for a cup of coffee. Of course you also have to try the traditional faloodeh desert and compare it with other Iranian cities (my favorite was the one in Kashan). And when you’re looking for a quick bite near Ragrug, I recommend Ace Burger (on Parvin Etesami Street, near a pedestrian crossing). They serve cheap and tasty falafel wraps, one of the best I’ve ever had!
Tip: use the app Maps.me to navigate Iranian cities offline (first download the map of Iran before you travel to the country).
And that was it: a list of great things to do in Isfahan. Do you want to visit this city?
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