Each arch of the bridge is like a little room, with a different story from its previous one. I walk into the first arch. I can hear the sound of Zayandeh Rud passing under my feet. A young couple is sitting close to each other. They don’t even notice me as I walk to the next arch. The bridge has almost twenty arches. There’s a group of older men singing “love songs” in the arch. They are chanting a familiar tune: fall in love; you may never see tomorrow. I sit down for a minute and listen to these jolly older men.
I get up to leave as they finish their song. It’s a strange world nowadays. People can still find happiness in small things, no matter how hard their lives get. The next arch is empty, So I sit down. There have been so many stories under this bridge. I stay quiet so that maybe, the water will whisper some of it to me.
General Facts about Isfahan
“The artistry ranks Isfahan among those rarer places, like Athens or Rome, which are the common refreshment of humanity,” wrote the British globetrotter, Robert Byron, in his book The Road to Oxiana, when he was traveling through Asia in the 1930s. The city’s unique grandeur is rarely matched in the world: vibrant mosaics, picturesque turquoise domes among the khaki-dominant architecture, and the world grandest polo field. It was the richness of Isfahan that inspired people to come up with Isfahan, Nesf-e Jahan, a rhyming proverb meaning Isfahan is half of the world. The city’s most glorious days are well behind it. It was during the 17th century that Isfahan was more significant than London and more multiracial than Paris. Nowadays, Isfahan sits humbly, yet grandly, in central Iran and tells stories of her magnificence to those who are willing to listen. You need more than a typical Isfahan travel guide to really get to know Isfahan.
Population in Isfahan
In the 17th century, during the Safavid dynasty, Isfahan was one of the largest capitals in the world. Visitors have described it as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It still is. With more than 2 million people, contemporary Isfahanis are diverse, educated, and open-minded. The young and bustling population in Isfahan have a knack for arts, music, traditions and are proud of the heritage of their city. Talk to anyone in Isfahan; they will tell you about the beauties, the grandeur, and the rich history of the once-capital, and will kindly explain to you what to see in Isfahan.
One amusing thing about Isfahan’s population is the community of active older people. The city’s senior citizen circles are vibrant, happy, and vigorous. Walking in the streets of Isfahan, you might receive a hello from an older man on a bike, ringing his bells for you. These older men and women are present in all public places of Isfahan. They may be playing chess in Naqsh-e Jahan Square or singing with their fellow friends under the Khaju bridge, or any other Isfahan sightseeing places.
Sitting under the shades of the cypress trees lining up alongside the river, you may not realize how scorching it is. Being in central Iran means having a hot and dry climate, and Isfahan is no exception. But this historical gem has been blessed with fairer weather and a more moderate climate than the surrounding areas; that’s mostly because of the Zayandeh Rud. It’s critical that you wisely decide when to visit Isfahan.
When to visit Isfahan
“Travel to Isfahan, so that you may see secondary heaven,” sang Jalal Taj Esfahani about the beauties of his city in a famous melody. When to visit Isfahan so that you can fully experience the glories of the Safavid capital? The best season is in the spring when the river has more water than other times of the year. It’s during the spring that the city shows her hidden beauties to us: green boulevards with tall cypress trees showcase the green urban scenery of Isfahan. This historical gem also turns extremely beautiful and romantic during autumns, when the weather is fair, and trees change their vibrant color.
But wait, there’s one more vital factor to take into consideration. In the 1960s, big industries like great steelwork and petrochemistry moved to Isfahan. Naturally, these companies consume loads of water, more than Zayandeh Rud has been able to handle. Ever since the water levels in this amazing Isfahan attraction have been dwindling. There’s no regular pattern when the river has water flowing; however, Zayandeh Rud is more likely to have high water levels during spring. The city’s atmosphere changes whenever there’s water in the river. So, back to the question. However, as a general rule, Mid spring (April/May) offer some of the best times to carry out your Isfahan day plans.
History of Isfahan
After having conquered Babylon, Cyrus, the Great fabled proclamation to free the Jews, had a considerable effect on Isfahan’s history. It seems that most of the freed Jews decided to stay in this historical gem, among Zoroastrian Iran. Isfahan was a great example of Cyrus the Great’s religious tolerance. But Isfahan’s history has more story than that.
The city is called half of the world for a reason; it has been the capital of Persia twice in history. Once during the Turco-Persian Seljuk empire in the late 11th century, and once in the Savafid empire from the 17th century to mid-18th. UNESCO world-heritages come out of these two golden eras of Isfahan. Reconstructed in 1086-7 under the Turk rulers, the Grand Jame Mosque showcases how far the richness of Isfahan’s architecture goes back.
But most of what we see now in Isfahan, the vibrant colors of the tiles, the beautiful domes, and spectacular mosques around the world-famous Naqsh-e Jahan are from the Safavid dynasty. It was during the 42-years of Shah Abbas’s reign that changed the city forever. He was a visionary. With the help of the best minds of the time, Abbas designed Isfahan’s urban identity. He asked Armenian merchant to come to Isfahan, welcomed Catholic and Protestant traders, and was tolerant of the Jewish and Zoroastrian community. Isfahan was more cosmopolitan than Paris during that time and one of the most beautiful capitals in the world. There are so many things to do in Isfahan from that time. We now see a reflection of that in Isfahan’s attractions: Char Bagh promenade, the numerous bridges, and the exquisite Naqsh-e Jahan Square.
Heart of the city
Let’s imagine a bird’s view of Isfahan. As we fly north from the Soffeh Mountain in the south of the town, we look close. There’s one thing that stands out, one thing that seems like the city is built around it. Isfahan’s Zayandeh Rud is like the pumping heart of the city, as it crosses from east to west, giving life wherever it passes. Green peripheries of the river stand out in the more khaki background of the city. Groups of people sit around the edges of the river. Some families are picnicking, some children are throwing a ball around, a group of young people are singing under the arches of the Khaju Bridge. Life, vigorously, goes on around the river. True, the Naqsh-e Jahan square looks impressive from up here, but it’s the Zayandeh Rud that the city is revolving around.
Jean Chardin, a 17th-century French traveler
Esfahan was expressly made for the delights of love.
On the road from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf, Isfahan has been the midpoint for commerce and trade throughout history. Merchants from all over the world have done business in Isfahan, especially in the Safavid era. But it was during the Pahlavi dynasty that the city saw a dramatic change. Some of Iran’s biggest industries started in Isfahan. They include Iran’s textile industry, mechanical engineering, and petrochemistry, as well as, great steelwork of the country are all located in Isfahan’s outskirts. It’s not industry alone that drives Isfahan, but the traditional bazaar is also still one of the most distinguished marketplaces of central Iran and one of the strangest Isfahan attractions.
Isfahan’s souvenir: Gaz
Known as Persian Nougat in European and American countries, Gaz is probably Isfahan’s most popular souvenirs. Iranians love Gaz: it’s sweet and sticky, it has rosewater in it, and it goes hand in hand with tea. Planning on having a picnic on the banks of the Zayandeh Rud river? Do yourself a favor and bring Gaz with Chai (tea). Listening to the sound of the flowing water and watching the migratory birds swimming, while munching on your Gaz and sipping your tea is a moment you’ll long remember after you have left Isfahan.
Isfahan: the city of older men on rusty bikes passing sites with world heritage status. This gem has a lot to offer for those culturally-sensitive travelers. There are many culturally-potent things to do in Isfahan. Walking from the Naqsh-e Jahan Square to Khaju Bridge, you might run into a couple of cultural phenomena: you will see families and couples sitting on patches of grass, sipping on tea, in the middle of a UNESCO world heritage site; an older man on a bike will ring his bells as a way of saying hello to you; you will sing along a strangely-catchy Persian tune under the Khaju Bridge with cheery strangers. Isfahan’s various faces will show if you’re willing to listen, read, and stay in the city long enough.
Young locals will tell you that the city has a religious theme. And it’s true. Isfahan, compared to other mega-cities of Iran like Shiraz and Tehran, falls under the more Islamic and less liberal categories. Islam might be the majority in Isfahan, but there are other minorities with historical background living in Isfahan. Jews enjoy the free practice of their religion with 13 synagogues in the city. Christians have resided in the Jolfa neighborhood for a long time, which is now home to the Vank Cathedral, one of the most beautiful churches in Iran. Visiting the city’s religious sites should be on anyone’s Isfahan day plans.
Its people are known for
In a less politically-correct generation, Iranian would joke about different cities of Iran. The Isfahani character was the person who wanted to save money. It means that they are able to see down the road, how things will turn out, and to be prepared for the worst to come. But Isfahanis are known for their hospitality, their love for the foreigners, and kindness towards strangers.
Art and architecture in Isfahan
If there’s one thing you’ll long remember from Isfahan is the azure tiles, intricate Islamic design, rich architectural backgrounds, and turquoise domes in a khaki city. Persian art and architecture in Isfahan leave any beholder in bewilderment. The Sheikh Lotfollah mosque alone can attest to that. Entering the mosque, you’ll see an English sign. It reads like this: Welcome to the most beautiful dome in the world. That’s obviously an exaggeration, you think to yourself. And you may very well be right. But standing under the dome, looking up at the intricate shapes. The sun rays coming in from the side windows. You see the peacock in the middle of it all. It’s there, right above your head. You’d heard that if you look at the dome at the right time, and from the right place, you’ll see it. That statement in the front door doesn’t seem far from reality now.
It’s your first day in Isfahan. The tour you booked at home is about to start. You have just met your local tour guide, Sara. You tell her: Please don’t take us to the touristy spots, we’re sick and tired of them. What are some of the real things to do in Isfahan? We don’t want to travel like a tourist; we want to live like a local. Take us to the real deal. Sara is a music student at Isfahan’s prestigious art university. She smiles and tells you not to worry and follow her. You reach a big square which is strangely familiar. You have seen photos of the place: it’s Naqsh-e Jahan. You see an older couple, picnicking on a patch of grass. Some kids are bathing in the pool in the middle of the square, naked. Other kids are throwing balls around the UNESCO world heritage. What makes Isfahan different from other cities, she tells you, is that its tourists’ spots are not devoid of local life. They are built for the locals.
Folktales and traditional music of Isfahan
Head to the Khaju bridge in the evening and you’ll see what we mean when we say that Isfahanis love traditional music; many of them, young or old, are artists they sing and play various instruments. Music is the air in Isfahan; Everything has a rhythm. Isfahan’s Prestigious Art is located adjacent to the Ali Qapu Palace. Walking in the magnificent Naqsh-e Jahan Square, you’re sure to run into some art students here and there. Some of sitting on a patch of grass drawing or designing, some may be playing Dutar and singing traditional love songs.
Isfahanis like to joke about their reputation as bright and “economical,” but when it comes to honoring guests and arranging banquets, they are in never-ending competition with each other. They are famed for preparing extravagant meals, colorful tables, and various desserts and appetizers.
For a long time, Isfahan has been a keystone in handicrafts and the traditional arts of Iran. Various forms of artwork have ruled over the traditional shops of the Imperial Bazaar of Isfahan. Visiting the bazaar’s handicrafts section should be on the top of the list of things to do in Isfahan.
Handicrafts in Isfahan include:
Copper-products: Isfahan’s Imperial bazaar is home to some of the best copper work in Iran, and various products are on display in the section of the bazaar called “Mesgar ha.”
Mina Kari: Or enameling, is the art of painting and ornamenting the surface of metals and decorating them with intricate and beautiful designs. Mina means the azure color of the sky, or, more precisely, the heavens.
Ghalam Zani: or engraving, is the process of hammering down intricate and detailed designs on metal, using a graver. Isfahan has some of the best masters of this ancient art, hidden away in the secret shops of the Imperial bazaar. There are few masters who are relentlessly, yet quietly, continue the traditions of Ghalam Zani.
Khatam Kari: Dating back to the glorious days of the Safavid Empire, Khatam Kari is a form of inlaying technique that decorates the surface of wood, bones, and sometimes metal. Examples of the final products include valuable jewelry or gift boxes.
If you ever had the chance to join an Isfahani family gathering, you will see how much they care about the food they serve and the abundance of things to eat. Aside from the usual Kebab dishes, one of Isfahan popular meals, present in most family parties, and unique to Isfahan is the Biryani. Fried meat, served on a piece of bread with onions and greens on the side, Biryani has mutton which makes it incredibly fatty and rich. It has a crusty and browned surface, but as you fork through, it collapses into soft mined meat.
Read More: The Best Persian Foods You Shouldn’t Miss
Isfahan is incredibly gorgeous autumns; green boulevards turn colorful during the autumns, and the atmosphere of the city turns romantic. Walking down Char Bagh promenade while the leaves fall to the ground, to the Zayandeh Rud won’t make you feel like you’re in downtown Isfahan.
How nature affects their lives
Living in desert areas for centuries demands and grows certain characteristics. First of all, you learn to love, respect, and protect water. The presence of the Zayandeh Rud river in Isfahan is extremely important to the local life. That’s why the drought and shortage of water in Iran has been a critical issue in recent years.
Another side-effect of living in arid desert areas is that becoming more and more conservative with the small resources that you have, and not willing to take risks. That’s why Isfahanis are known for looking to the future, seeing what happens down the road and saving for the rainy day.
Surfing in Isfahan
Exploring Isfahan attractions can be as short as one day or as long as two weeks. There’s no shortage of sites or beauties in town, no doubt. But if you wanted to, since most of its prominent attractions are closely-knit around the Naqsh-e Jahan and Zayandeh Rud river, you could visit most of these sites in one day. Want to take a stroll from Chehel Sotun garden to the Square? It will take you 5 minutes to go through the “regal passage” where the Safavid kings entered Ali Qapu Palace. Wish to stay in this glorious city for two weeks to experience its attractions? You can! From visiting the traditional and historic neighborhoods of Isfahan to its grand bazaar to visiting the Jolfa and Jey neighborhood – Christian and Jewish communities, respectively – to taking weekend getaways to more pristine nature of the lowlands of Zayandeh Rud and Gavkhuni wetlands, you have plenty of options. Take a day trip to Abyaneh, an iconic village made from red bricks in northern Isfahan with unique customs and lifestyles. Want something more adventurous? Book a tour to go rafting in Zayandeh Rud or Armand river in Chaharmahal province.
Nightlife in Isfahan
Music and water, lively locals, and the starlit sky: it’s all there at the Khaju bridge every night. Even though the city is not exactly your best nightlife destination, but it does offer some exhilarating activities and there are many things to do in Isfahan at night. Maybe listening to the sound of music and whispering to a Persian love song is your type of nightlife excitement. Who knows?
But one exciting city in terms of nightlife pops out in the north of Isfahan, on the road to Tehran: Shahin Shahr. The citizens of this small city are mostly from the south of Iran, and you know for what southerners in Iran are famously known? Their vigorous nightlife. Take a day trip to Shahin Shahr to see the night market, the spicy street food, and the lively people of south celebrating the night, every night.
Main areas for eating, shopping, and hanging out in Isfahan
Exploring Isfahan and visiting some of the best Islamic architecture in Iran (and maybe the world) is sure to make you hungry. To see the next amazing bridge, or the most beautiful dome in Iran, or the out-of-worldly Music Room in Ali Qapu, you have to eat! Visiting Isfahan’s attractions on an empty stomach is not fun at all.
For more traditional food places in Isfahan, head to Darvazeh Dolat neighborhood, which just above the Naqsh-e Jahan Square. It’s a five-minute walk from the square to the beautiful Chahar Bagh Paeen boulevard. There you have a range of options to choose from: Biryani at the Azam Biryani restaurant, the various forms of Kebab and many more. Walk down the streets to pass multiple restaurants and eateries. However, if you’re in the mood for more western, fast-food restaurants, head to Apadana neighborhood to explore your options in eating high-quality pizza, burgers, and even delicious falafels from the south of Iran.
Off-the-beaten activities of Isfahan
Isfahan’s various natural sceneries offer many off-the-beaten-track activities: From rafting in the Armand river in the neighboring province or the Zayandeh Rud to hiking and skiing the Zagros mountains in Fereydun Shahr, 150 km west of Isfahan. Isfahan’s day plans are as exciting as they sound.
But to experience one of Iran’s most breathtaking deserts, where the sand meets the sky, you have to take a day trip to travel to the north-east of Isfahan to reach Mesr Desert. The mystic characteristics of the natural sceneries are sure to surprise anyone interested in eco-tourism. The sandhills, the azure sky, the Salt Lake, the moonrise and the myriad of the stars, they all speak of a secret lying in the strange shapes of the Mesr desert. You have to travel the area, and listen to the quiet whispers of the desert to hear it.
Located in the midpoint of the road to the Persian Gulf from the Caspian Sea, Isfahan is accessible from everywhere. This historical jewel is the main transportation hub in central Iran. Passengers from all over Iran, as well as neighboring countries like Turkey, UAE, and Qatar, travel to Isfahan.
How to reach Isfahan?
Major cities of Iran have no problem accessing Isfahan. Travelers from all over this vast country visit Isfahan every day. You can directly fly to Isfahan’s International Airport (IFN) through neighboring countries. Also, flying from Tehran, Yazd, Shiraz, Rasht, Mashhad, Abadan, and Tabriz is available.
Isfahan also enjoys being connected to the Iranian railway system. Trains from Tehran leave every other day. However, buses from Tehran leave nearly hourly. You can also travel to Yazd, Shiraz, Rasht, Khuzestan, Bandar Abbas, and many more cities of Iran using the Kaveh Terminal in northern parts of the city.
How to get around in Isfahan?
Getting around in Isfahan is also reasonably straightforward. As there are so many things to do in Isfahan, there are many ways to get around the city. The recently-built subway system has one lane, but it is pretty efficient. It connects the Kaveh Bus Terminal to the Kuh Soffeh in the south of the city and goes through the traditional and historic parts of downtown and nearly all of Isfahan’s attractions, as well. However, locals tend to use the extensive bus system of the town, which goes connects all parts of the town.
Top places to visit in Isfahan, and the best things to do in Isfahan
Naqsh-e Jahan Complex
You don’t need to invent the time machine to go back in history. Here’s your time machine: The Naqsh-e Jahan (meaning the Pattern of the World) Square and the surrounding historical sites. It feels as if the time has stopped for these places. To fully appreciate the beauty and the grandeur of the area, you need to visit at least two times: once in the morning and once in the evening. There are four invaluable gems, sitting at each side of this rectangular structure. Ali Qapu Palace with its Game-of-Thrones-like Music Room, The Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque with the single most gorgeous dome in Isfahan – and maybe Iran, the Shah Mosque, nicknamed, the Crown Jewel of the Naqsh-e Jahan, and the entrance to the Imperial Bazaar of Isfahan, the Qeysarie Bazaar. Each has a story of their own, and each whisper of the time when Isfahan was in her golden days during the Safavid Empire.
trituty, from Singapore, on TripAdvisor
Impressive mosaic tile works, we were so mesmerized we forgot to listen to the audio guide that we took with us. Took many photos in the compound. Visited the southern section of the mosque to stand under the dome on a black stone marker, clapped, and listened to the echo. It was even more awesome that a muezzin stood at the same place to do the call to prayer, the ingenuity of the architect was mind blowing. But do take photos of the mosque from the outside at sunset.
Bridges: Sio-Se-Pol and Khaju
In Isfahan, bridges aren’t for passing, or simply connecting one side of the river to the other. They are for staying, playing music, and meeting kind strangers. Head to the Khaju bridge almost any time of the day or night, and you’ll see all sorts of people sitting around the peripheries of the river; they will be singing, laughing, and watching life go by, as the water in Zayandeh Rud goes by. Sio-Se-pol and Khaju are also homes for the outsiders, the retired, and the spontaneous. These bridges provide shelter for artisans, singers, and those interested in music. You may feel at home there, if, at any point in your life, you felt lonely, rejected or strangely sad.
Chehel Sotun Palace
You buy the ticket at the entrance to see the UNESCO-registered Chehel Sotun Palace. Your Isfahani friend told you that the name translates into the Palace of Forty Pillars. Walking into the site, you see a gorgeous pavilion standing graceful at the end of the garden, right behind a large pool. You get in closer. Standing next to these cypress columns, you start counting. Twenty wooden pillars are standing tall with intricate designs. Why is it called the Palace of Forty Pillars, then, if there is only half of the number? You think to yourself. Oh, well, never mind. You go on to see the interior paintings on the walls. Frescos, ceramics, and Persian miniature work show off as you glance through the Great Hall. The artwork depicts the Battle of Chaldiran, a 16th-century battle between the Ottoman and the Safavid Empires; another one shows off how it looked inside of a royal party, with boys and girls dancing around.
You feel overwhelmed by the beauty of the castle. It’s time for lunch. Maybe now you’ll try Isfahan’s famous Biryani. You get out of the palace, take a long slow walk to the entrance, and look back at the pavilion, ready to say goodbye. Now you see it, the reflection of twenty pillars in the clear pool of water: The Palace of Forty Pillars.
The Imperial Bazaar
Isfahan’s Imperial Bazaar, also called the Qeysarie Bazaar, was the grandest and most luxurious market place in central Iran during the Safavid era. The gate of the bazaar in the Naqsh-e Jahan Square opens the door to a world of wonders. Various handicrafts are on display, giving the marketplace an eye-catching look: Mina Kari, Ghalam Zani, Khatam Kari are some of the products you can find in Isfahan’s grand bazaar. One of the most exciting things to do in Isfahan is getting lost in the bazaar. Make sure you put that in your Isfahan day plans.
Neighborhoods: Jolfa and Jey
By the 17th and 18th century standards, Isfahan was an extremely cosmopolitan city. Armenian traders conducted business in town, Jews attended their religious ceremonies freely, Christian priests and Protestant monks were welcomed, British, French, and other European travelers visited the city, and Zoroastrian followers frequented their fire temples. Isfahan was multiracial and multi-religious as any city in the 17th and 18th centuries could get. However, two neighborhoods now remain in Isfahan, still dedicated to religious minorities: Jolfa for the Armenian-Christian community and Jey for the Jewish community.