Traveling through Iran is unlike any other experience. It will leave you with a renewed faith in humanity, clothes which somehow will magically not fit anymore (the food is that good), and a sprained neck from looking up at all the fantastic architecture. I hope this ultimate guide of things to do in Isfahan helps you in planning your journey to my favorite city in this magical country.
Isfahan is sometimes referred to as the ‘center of the world’ and while this might not be exactly true from a geographical standpoint, culturally it pretty much hits the mark. The city is the perfect blend between traditional and modern, East and West. It was a very important stop along the silk route meaning foreign faces and ‘tourism’ are a familiar sight in the city, making Isfahan a tourist-friendly yet still endearingly authentic.
It’s safe to say this city will get under the skin of even the most skeptical traveler and wash away all the doubts popular media might have whispered in their ear. The perfect place to start discovering Iran.
Be prepared the be amazed, over and over again.
All prices are in IRR (Iranian Rials) and based upon March 2020 prices.
Please note Iranians will often use Tomans to talk about price and not Rials this can lead to confusion. Just keep in mind that 1 Toman is equal to 10 Rials.
Things to do in Isfahan
Before diving into a full-blown list of things to do in Isfahan, let’s take a step back and introduce the city a little. It grew in importance in the 16th and 17th centuries when it became the capital of the Persian empire under the Safavid era.
To give you an idea, at the height of Safavid’s reign, the Persian empire spanned across modern Iran, Azerbaidjan, Bahrain, Armenia, North Caucasus, Georgia, Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan, and also some parts of Turkey, Syria, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Yep, that big!
Aside from warfare, the Safavids were also focused on architecture, art, and philosophy. Remnants of which can be found all across the city (Naqsh-e Jahan Square, Shah Mosque, Ali Qapu, and so on).
Modern-day Isfahan has 2 million people living in it and is home to no less than two UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The city is pretty big with plenty of things to see! To complete this ultimate guide of things to do in Isfahan at a leisurely pace you would need 3 full days in the city.
Free walking tour of Isfahan
Have to start the list of things to do in Isfahan with this free walking tour.
This 2-hour free walking tour is packed full of history, anecdotes, and tales of the city. It will bring you to most of the cities’ important sites.
Get more info: Read everything about this tour and how to book the tour.
Naghsh – e Jahan Square
Next up on the list of things to do in Isfahan is this impressive UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE square. According to the internet, it is the second-largest square in the world right after Tian An Men. When I read this particular fact it honestly took me by surprise.
Like many of the Isfahan monuments, it was built at the end of the 16th century and beginning of the 17th century under the Shah Abbas during the Safavid Dynasty. The square contains some of the city’s most precious architecture including The Shah Mosque, Ali Qapu and Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque.
The story goes that the square served as a place for the Shah (The King) to meet the people and that the bazaars along this Isfahan Square held treasures from all over the world (thank you silk road). It was the center of Isfahan and always buzzing with excitement.
Some days you could find merchants selling their goods to whoever was buying and other days the square was the scene of the world’s first polo matches. You see this Isfahan square moonlighted as a polo field, in fact, the marble goalposts that were used at these games are still on the square today!
These days, the square is still buzzing with people and merchants are still selling their goods like they did so many centuries ago. This is one of the top things to do in Isfahan and truth be told we visited the square at least 10 times because there is just so much to see.
Tip: Head over to Qeysarieh International Museum & Cafe Gallery for the best views over the square. Pay a fee of IRR250.000 for which you will get the view, a cup of tea and some delicious cake. We went at night to get a view of this Isfahan square lit up. Pure Magic!
The magnificent Shah Mosque is an absolute highlight of Isfahan. It is located on the southern side of the Naghsh – e Jahan square and is also registered as a UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE site. The mosque was built by the same Shah that built the square (Shah Abbas I).
Upon its construction, it replaced the older Jameh Mosque as the mosque for the official Friday Prayer. This mosque was built for the people. It has the largest dome in the city. The entrance is characterized by two large minarets on either side of the main gate.
The Shah Mosque is a beautiful example of Persian architecture and will have you absolutely gobsmacked. The structure is huge, containing up to 7 different colored tiles and a myriad of calligraphy. Whatever you do, do not forget to look up. What does the top of the archway remind you of? Personally, I found it looks like colorful stalactites? These are called Muqarnas and are a neat little Islamic architectural element.
Upon walking into the mosque you will see that the main square is flanked by four buildings. Head over to the one opposite the entrance. The dome in this particular building has a very cool echo effect. In fact, there is a place marked on the floor. Go and stand there and clap your hands, the echo is pretty neat.
The first time we visited, there was a group of young Iranians visiting the mosque. One of them stood on this stone and was encouraged to sing. His voice was absolutely angelic and the echo carried the voice across the room. It made me stop dead in my tracks, all I could do was listen and feel the hairs on the back of my neck raise.
Entrance fee: IRR500.000
Best time to go: Go early in the morning, this place gets packed!
Length of visit: Two to three hours
The following item on this list of things to do in Isfahan is Ali Qapu, also known as the Palace where the Shahs of the Safavid era resided. It is located on the western side of Naqsh-e Jahan Square.
The building you see from the square is a portal or entranceway to the palace. Basically, it is a very fancy front door, the only thing missing is a doorbell. If you were lucky enough to be born of nobility or happened to be a foreign ambassador, the Shah would entertain you right here. Previously the tallest building in Isfahan, the terrace offered excellent views over the Naqsh-e Jahan Square.
The whole place is decorated with delicate paintings of flowers, animals, and representations of people from far away countries. While each floor is breathtaking, my personal favorite was the music room. It is smaller in size, but goodness knows what it lacks in size it makes up in decoration.
The roof is adorned with the most beautiful stucco which has been cut with perfect precision. One would think that the little alcoves were meant for storage, nothing is further from the truth though. Historians believe that the alcoves were actually cut out to enhance the sound experience and amplify the echo effect in the room.
Speaking of echoes, the entranceway has a very cool feature. If there are two of you, you both pick a corner diagonally from each other and stand there with your face to the wall. Have one person whisper a phrase, because of the echo effect the other person will hear that phrase perfectly from the other side of the room.
Entrance Fee: IRR500.000
Length of visit: One hour
Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque
The smaller Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque was perhaps my favorite thing to see in Isfahan. This mosque is right opposite the palace on the eastern side of the Naqsh-e Jahan Square. The mosque itself has no minarets and no inner courtyard. In fact, compared to the other buildings on the square it is a whole lot less impressive.
Don’t let the size or lack of minarets fool you though. This place is the real deal and my personal favorite building on the entire square. The Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque was built by Shah Abbas as a private mosque for the court, one for his harem to be more precise. It was completely closed off to the public (they would go to the Shah Mosque).
If you look closely, you will notice that the outside is decorated much more intricately than in the Shah Mosque. Once you walk inside, head straight ahead through the corridor. Make your way down the corridor, all the way to the end, and turn right. You are now standing underneath the dome and in a room that can only be described as tile paradise. Each alcove is decorated with many different types of tiles which come together in geometrical patterns.
As impressive as this is, the Persian architects of the time went a step further and incorporated a “peacock” design in the dome. When you walk inside, look up at the center of the dome. The tail of the peacock is made up of the sun rays shining through a hole in the ceiling.
The mosque is very small compared to the Shah Mosque and the Jameh Mosque but because of the intricate designs, you will want to allow enough time to visit so you can really take in everything this place has to offer.
Entrance fee: IRR500.000
Best time to visit: Go around opening time, this place is small and gets packed very quickly.
Length of visit: One hour
Jahem Mosque of Isfahan
Let’s continue the list of things to do in Isfahan with the Jameh Mosque, the oldest mosque in Isfahan dating back to the 8th century. It is believed that this site was actually an important religious site for the Zoroastrians before it became a mosque in the 8th century.
A friend of mine described this mosque as ‘walking in the footsteps of history’ and he hit the nail on the head. The individual parts of the mosque were built during different era’s resulting in an interesting eclectic mixture of architecture. It has elements of no less than four different architectural styles (Mongols, Muzzafarids, Timurids, and Safavids) which somehow blend together and form the largest mosque of Iran.
Whatever the case may be, this place is an absolute must-see. We went in the middle of the day and were met by a virtually empty mosque. It felt like we had the place to ourselves! I encourage you to really explore because each door will lead you down a different path to this mosque’s rich history.
Entrance fee: IRR500.000
Where is it located: 30-minute walk from the Shah Mosque
Best time to go: We went late afternoon around golden hour
Length of visit: Two hours
Motamedi (Mollabashi) Historical House
Something a little different on this list of things to do in Isfahan is the Motamedi (Mollabashi) Historical House. Another quintessential example of eclectic Iranian architecture. Come with an open mind, the house has a lot of elements packed into a relatively small space. Think stained glass windows, stucco decorations, mirrors galore, and of course a million different kinds of tiles.
The name of the house comes from one of its owners, Mollabashi who was a famous astronomer during the 19th century (the Qajar era). The house fell in disrepair after the death of Mollabashi and it was not until 2001 that it would receive a loving hand in the form of a full renovation.
Please note, taking pictures inside the alcove is allowed however please do not venture into the sectioned-off area unless you have asked permission from one of the staff.
Entrance fee: IRR155.000
Where is it located: 16-minute walk from the Shah Mosque
Length of visit: One hour
Opening hours: Daily 09.00 AM to 17.00 PM except for Friday when the site closes at 15.00
Chehal Sotoun Palace
This palace was built in the … yep once again the Safavid dynasty, around the 17th century. It was built specifically for receptions and entertainment purposes and is surrounded by a magnificent garden. In fact, the gardens surrounding the Chehal Sotoun Palace are one of the nine Traditional Persian Gardens that have been registered as UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE.
The name of the palace means 40 columns and refers to the wooden column that supports the entrance pavilion. In fact, there are only 20 of them, but they reflect beautifully in the water giving the illusion of 40 columns. The inside of the palace is adorned with many frescoes and paintings. Some of which were rather bloodthirsty depictions of battle scenes.
Entrance fee: IRR500.000
Where is it located: 11-minute walk from the Shah Mosque
Best time to go: We went in the afternoon and it was busy. It was fine to visit, however, if you would like to take pictures perhaps it is best to go earlier during the day.
Length of visit: One hour
The Kahju Bridge
The last item on this list of things to do in Isfahan might seem a little odd but trust me on this one. The Kahju bridge is another Safavid design and spans about 150 meters. There is a neat little pavilion in the middle from which the family of the Shah had a nice view over the people swimming in the river.
The bridge itself was built perfectly symmetrical and thus great for photography. But the real reason I marked it as an attraction to see in Isfahan is not so much because of the history but more because of one of the other functions that it serves today. You see, it is a popular meeting point for the local youth and a prime spot for some people watching.
Keep in mind Iran is an Islamic country, which means that casual dating between men and women is not the norm. Going to a bar or a club and picking up a member of the opposite sex is not an option. However, do not be fooled because the local youth knows a thing or two about flirting. Venture out, pick a good vantage point, and feast your eyes because this here, is how the Iranian Youth rolls.
Where is it located: 36-minute walk from the Shah Mosque
Best time to go: For photography try and aim for golden hour. If you are looking for more of a cultural experience, try going on a Thursday evening (the Persian version of a Saturday night).
Where to stay in Isfahan, Iran
We stayed in the beautiful Ghasr Monshi hotel.
A palace dating back to the 19th century. It is fully renovated with the utmost respect to the historical architecture and character of the building. It has an awesome breakfast and dinner buffet and the beds are nice and comfortable.
Important to note, you will need to email or call the property directly for a booking. Alternatively, ask a local tour agency to book the hotel for you.
Hope this insider guide of things to do in Isfahan was useful and has convinced you to visit this beautiful part of the world.
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