Esfahan nesf-e jahan. Esfahan is half the world.
That’s the old adage you’ll hear thrown around within minutes of entering Iran’s cultural hub–the treasure-filled, but surprisingly modernized city of Esfahan. Like Samarkand in Uzbekistan, Esfahan is more than a historic city, it is a commercial hub and one of the largest cities in the country. So, without further adieu, here are eight awesome things to see in Esfahan!
Naqsh-e Jahan Square
The second largest square in the world (right behind Tiananmen Square in Beijing), Naqsh-e Jahan is a huge, sprawling space in the middle of Esfahan. It’s surrounded by many of the key sights in the city, so it makes for a convenient meeting place.
Persian architecture is well-known for being mathematically designed, featuring perfect domes and minarets decorated with complex geometric patterns. Interestingly enough, one of the more famous Persian mosques, the Masjed-e Shah in Esfahan, was deliberately constructed with flaws in its symmetry. The architect’s intent was to show his humility and to acknowledge that no one is perfect except for God.
The mosque is also positioned in a unique way. The facade is angled flush with the rest of the square, but since a true mosque must face Mecca, the actual mosque was built at an angle to the facade. The result is a short, wedge-shaped entrance. Inside, the beautiful courtyard of the mosque awaits.
Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfollah
On the eastern side of the courtyard is the relatively small (compared to the Jameh and Shah mosques) Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque. Set behind fountains, it is particularly beautiful at dusk when the sun is setting.
The exterior of the mosque is not its main attraction, however. Step inside the sanctuary to see brilliant shafts of sunlight streaming through the grates covering the windows. Combined with the stunning interior decorations, the overall effect is that of jaws hitting the floor.
Esfahan’s Bazar-e Bozorg is one of Iran’s best bazaars, twisting passages winding and shooting off in strange directions. The age of this place is felt in layers. Around the corner from a stall selling Hello Kitty plush toys you may find someone selling the herbs and spices traders bickered over ages ago. Duck down a dimly lit set of stairs and you could find yourself in a dusty alley surrounded by crumbling buildings as flags flutter and snap in the wind.
Lonely Planet has a fantastic walking tour of the market, though we were unable to find the teahouse mentioned and think it has closed.
If you love mosques and history, Masjed-e Jameh, or the Jameh Mosque, is your place. It’s the largest mosque in Iran and was built over hundreds of years. As a result, different styles of architecture are visible throughout.
Here is a place you simply must try to get lost in. Each iwan (wing) is like a world unto itself, different in style and in function. Marvel at the practically perfect Taj al-Molk Dome, the pigeons circling the ablutions fountain, the maze of pillars in the north iwan.
The exterior of Vank Cathedral is a bizarre blend of Persian and European architecture. Built in the early 17th century by Armenian refugees, it sports a very mosque-like dome in addition to a very European steeple. The architecture, however, is not the reason people visit Kelisa-ye Vank.
Inside the dome is perhaps the most exquisitely painted room I’ve ever seen. Covered from floor to ceiling in brilliant frescoes, gilded in gold, it is a jaw-dropping sight.
Bridges over the River Zayandeh
The Zayandeh bisects Esfahan, winding through the city like a meandering serpent. A total of eleven bridges span it, many strictly for the use of pedestrians. Little alcoves line the walking bridges, the perfect spots for couples and small groups of friends to gather and sit with their legs dangling over the rushing water below. They also provide some of the best spots in the city to catch a sunset.
After visiting the Vank Cathedral, we made our way through the coffee shop lined streets of Jolfa to the Zayandeh. A large park borders the river; we walked along the banks and nodded greetings at the people who called out to us.
After a long day exploring the city, it was the perfect way to call it a night.
Wander the Streets
Finally, just explore the city. There is so much to see, endless amounts of people to meet; you could easily spend a week soaking in the city. Savor it.