Travel in Esfahan, Iran – what to expect
I arrived into Esfahan in the afternoon and liked it immediately. It’s the largest and most populated city behind Tehran and wears this badge with an understated righteousness, almost challenging the visitor to dig beneath the surface.
My initial thought was that Esfahan is really busy. People lined the street everywhere although perhaps this had something to do with it being Narouz (Iranian New Year) when Iranians travel to see family and friends over a 13 day period.
For me, the perfect introduction to the city of Esfahan was to head down to Naqsh-e Jahan Square to get a feel for the place. Almost as soon as I arrived a man approached me and wanted to practice his English in exchange for a tour guide — seemed like a fair trade. Around the inside circumference of the square (which is the 2nd largest square in the world behind Tiananmen Square in Beijing) is the Bazaar which is laden with handicrafts, food, finely woven rugs and a sweet noughat specialty of Esfahan called ‘Gaz’.
This square is the social hub of the city with grassy areas to chat, incredible monuments on all four sides and where people can enjoy games of polo. Yes, historically the square was where games of polo were played after the capital of Esfahan was moved to Naqsh-e Jahan Square, and with it being Narouz they laid on a game just for me. OK not just for me but what an introduction to the city!
One thing that became apparent during my time in Iran is the distinct lack of organized events for young people. There are no youth clubs, no bars or nightclubs and alcohol is a banned past time (not to say that it doesn’t happen in private) so friends head out to cafes to eat, meet in public squares and shop. Boy do they shop and eat. The number of shopping centers and eating establishments is phenomenal.
Iranian’s are some of the friendliest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. The number of times I was invited to stay in people’s homes, offered food on train/bus trips, guided around with nothing asked in return and shown genuine kindness is actually quite overwhelming. For this reason it made independent travel in Iran very easy and would encourage anyone to do so, including solo females.
where to stay in Esfahan
I stayed at the Setareh Hotel which is a short walk from the main square. The hotel itself is lovely but the rooms are small and dated. For a single room and a US$30 price tag it’s what I expected however, if your tastes are higher up the food chain, then you may find this hotel a bit rough around the edges. Having said that breakfast and Wi-Fi were included and the checkout was midday so it ticked all the right boxes.
Guided vs. self-guided
I’m well-travelled and more than capable of navigating myself around a new city however, the older I become I prefer to see as much as I can in a short space of time and to understand what I’m seeing from a historical perspective. I hired a guide named Golnaz Musavi / 09131063133 who was recommended and cost 1.7 million rials (US$48) for the day. She had a car which was a necessity for such a big city and as a result I probably saved money on taxi fares, as well as painful taxi negotiations etc. My only criticism was it felt at times that she was just going through the motions, but having said this she did show me everything I wanted to see and I didn’t feel as though I missed out on anything.
what to see in Esfahan, Iran
There are so many options for any visitor to Esfahan so do your research, or speak to you guide about what you do and don’t like. For example I’m not a fan of shopping so this wasn’t part of my itinerary, but do leave time to explore the bazaar, as architecturally it is beautiful. Here are just a few examples below:
33 Bridges – Si-o-seh pol
Si-o-she Pol means 33 bridges, or Bridge of 33 Arches and is one of the eleven bridges of Esfahan. It is totally stunning during the day or after dark and shouldn’t be missed. It was commissioned in 1602 by Shah Abbas I and consists of two layers of 33 arches. Underneath the arches is a hollow which extends the entire way through connecting both banks, where it looks as though the arches cave inwards from both ends. It truly is quite magnificent.
This palace was built at the end of the 16th century as a residence of Scia Abbas. This building has six floors leading up to a palace terrace with wonderful views over the main square. Many of the mosaics and paintings that covered the walls and 52 small rooms have been destroyed or have simply been worn away by the elements however; they are being restored by art students. Top tip is to head inside as the sunsets so amazing views and people watching.
The Jameh Mosque is incredible and my favourite building in Iran. It’s one of the finest examples of architecture in Iran and actually stopped me in my tracks. Aim to arrive early to beat the crowds as you need to be here when it’s peaceful, and there isn’t a gaggle of kids around. At 20000 meter Sq. it’s the largest mosque in all of Iran and showcases around 800 years of additions and modernization to the mosque.
This is one of the oldest and biggest Bazar of all Iran and is well worth spending time inside whether you aim to purchase anything or not. There are loads of entrances in and out of the bazaar with beautiful domes on the ceiling to let the light in.
The Shaking Minarets
The shaking minarets are famous all over Iran and not because of its original reason for building, but that fact that the minarets actually do shake. The shrine was built in 1316 as a shrine to a local holy man and the minarets were added at a later date. Soft sandstone was used for the minarets which contains feldspar, which breaks down over a period of time. This essentially weakens the sandstone which results in; yes you guess it, shaking.
Vank Cathedral – Armenian Quarter
I’ve seen cathedrals all over Europe however; this truly is an extremely beautiful and over-the-top building. Popular with the Armenian community, the museum next to the church is worthy of a visit because I was able to see the Armenian genocide by the Turks.
What to do in the evening?
As I mentioned above, there isn’t a lot to do in the evening but what I can recommend is to head over to Si-o-seh pol Bridge after dark, but be sure to take your camera and tripod. Shortly after the sun has set and the working day ends, the thirty-three arches of this bridge are lit up like a some magnificent pathway over the water. It’s also where people come to socialize and relax after a long day. As a tourist this place offers a few things:
– Its stunningly beautiful and basically a photographers wet dream
– Local people want to chat, practice English, offer advice or bare humble curiosity. Anyone who reads my regular blogs will know this is the best way to dig beneath the superficialities of a new place and find out what makes the people tick, especially in Iran!!
Another thing to do is buy some dinner, head down to the Naqsh-e Jahan Square and take a seat. Not only is it the perfect way to meet the local people, but it’s also a great place to see the people of Esfahan socialise and interact, as well as see young lovers steal the occasional hand hold.
Happy travelling folks!
Fancy reading more of my blogs from Iran? Well here you go!
10 reasons why Iran is the perfect travel destination for Donald Trump
Guide to travelling in Shiraz, Iran
The ultimate guide to travelling in Iran
Yazd city guide, Iran
Iran’s obsession with taking the perfect selfie
Tehran city guide and obtaining an Iranian visa
Bathhouses of Iran – washing away tradition