Insiders guide of things to do in Isfahan Iran
Travel through Iran is unlike any other experience. It will leave you with a renewed faith in humanity, clothes which somehow 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 favourite city in this magical country.
Isfahan is sometimes referred to as the ‘centre 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. Due to it’s location, it was a very important stop along the silk route. This means that foreign faces and ‘tourism’ are an inherent part of the cities DNA making the city very tourist friendly yet still endearingly authentic. It’s safe to say this city will get under the skin of even the most sceptic traveller and wash away all the doubts popular media might have whispered in their ear. Be prepared the be amazed, over and over again.
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 century when it became the capital of the Persian empire under the Safavid era. To give you an idea, at the height of Safavid 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.
Please note all prices are in IRR and are based upon the information available in March 2020.
Things to do in Isfahan, Iran
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.
Read everything about this tour here.
Naghsh – e Jahan Square
Next up on the list of things to do in Isfahan with anything else than 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. Having seen both squares, Tian An Men definitely feels a while lot bigger. It was not until I had the chance to view to square from above (read on to find exactly where) that the vastness of it hit me. Better put on a pair of comfortable shoes, because you are going to be burning calories walking up and down this Isfahan square.
Like many of the Isfahan monuments, it was built at the end of the 16th century 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 centre 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.
Practical details for visiting Naqsh- e Jahan Square
When to go: The square has no enclosure so you can happily visit whenever works best for you. If you are looking to shoot content, go in the early morning to get the best light and to avoid the crowds. You can easily shoot with a tripod, it might result in a few curious stares but for the most part you will be left totally to your own devices.
Best Views: Remember I mentioned a rooftop view of the city? Well it can be found at the Qeysarieh International Museum & Cafe Gallery. Head up the stairs (warning they are pretty steep but hang in there it’s worth it) and over to the reservation desk. Here you 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!
Entrance Fee: Free
Next up in this list of things to do in Isfahan is the magnificent Shah Mosque. It is located on the South side of the Naghsh – e Jahan square and also registered as a UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE site. The mosque was built by the same Shah that built the square (Shah Abbas I).
Upon it’s 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 characterised 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. Standing in front of the main gate, you will feel very small indeed. The structure is absolutely huge and contains up to 7 different colored tiles and a myrad of calligraphy. Whatever you do, do not forget to look up. What does top of the archway remind you of? Personally I found it looks like colorfour 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.
Practical details for visiting the Shah Mosque
When to go: Go early in the morning, this place gets packed!
Entrance fee IRR500.000
Time to explore: We went twice, both times spending a good 3 hour taking pictures and people watching
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 the Naqsh-e Jahan Square.
The building you see from the square is a portal, or entrance way 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. It used to be the tallest building in Isfahan and the wide terrace offered excellent views over the Naqsh-e Jahan Square (perfect for watching polo matches).
The whole place is decorated with a 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 entrance way has a very cool feature. If there is 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 off the room. It had us in fits of giggles! Imagine the conversations the guards had while on duty. If only these walls could talk!
Practical details for visiting Ali Qapu
Entrance Fee: 500.000
Time to explore: At least one hour
Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque
The fourth item on our list of things to do in Isfahan is this Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque. 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 for the public (they would go to the Shah Mosque).
If you look closely, you will notice that the outside is decorate much more intricately than 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 centre 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 allot enough time to visit so you can really take in everything this place has to offer.
Practical details for visiting the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque
Entrance fee: IRR 500.000
When to go: Go around opening time, this place is small and gets packed very quickly.
Time needed to visit: We spent two hours (but took a lot of time for photography)
Jameh 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 Zorastrians 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. In my personal opinion, it is a place very uncharacteristic of Persian architecture which usually has perfect symmetry and a coherent design. But then I am far on the subject.
Whatever the case may be, this place is 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 of this mosques rich history.
Practical details for visiting the Jameh Mosque
When to go: We went late afternoon around golden hour
Entrance fee: IRR500.000
Time to explore: We spent 3 hours exploring and taking pictures
Getting there: 30 minute walk from the Shah Mosque
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 it’s 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.
Practical details for visiting the Mollabashi house
Entrance fee: IRR155.000
Time spent there: One hour
Best time to go: We went in the middle of the day and there were not many people. Thanks to the stained glass in the alcove the bright light was not too harsh for photography.
Location: استان اصفهان اصفهان استان اصفهان، اصفهان،،
Opening hours: Every day from 09.00 to 17.00 except Friday when the site closes at 15.00
Getting there: 16 minute walk from the Shah Mosque
Cool feature: They have their own Instagram page @motamedi_house
Chehal Sotoon 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 Sotoon 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 support 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.
Practical details for visiting the Chehal Sotoon Palace
Entrance fee: IRR500.000
Time spent there: One Hour
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.
Getting there: 11 minute walk from the Shah Mosque
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 function that is 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 yours eyes because this here, is how the Iranian Youth rolls.
Practical details for visiting the Kahju Bridge
Getting there: 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 Gash 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.