There is a Persian saying that ‘Isfahan, Nesf-e Jahan’ or ‘Esfahan is half the world’, and any traveller visiting this glorious city would be hard pressed to dispute it. Set between mountain and desert amidst fruit groves and meadows, Esfahan enjoys mild winters, balmy springs and gentle summers, though the temperature can exceed 35º. Isfahan dates back to the fifth century BC, but its glory days began in 1598 when the Safavids under Shah Abbas I, Shah Abbas the Great, turned it from a trading post into a thriving centre of artisans, architects and architectural splendour. ‘If there is paradise on earth,’ sang the Persian poets, ‘this is it, this is it, this is it.’
Where to Stay
A former two-storey caravanserai built by Shah Abbas to host his mother and royal guests, The Abbasi hotel is the place to stay in Esfahan, if not in the whole of Iran. The best rooms are those surrounding the central courtyard, which has been transformed into an exquisite Persian garden. If you can’t get one of these you may find yourself dissatisfied with the modern rooms in a side courtyard, but take advantage of the garden anyway and sip tea tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the city while enjoying views of the magnificent turquoise dome of the neighbouring Chahar Bagh Madrasa.
For a less grand but more contemporary alternative, the Hotel Kowsar on Mellat Boulevard has fabulous views overlooking the Si-o-Seh Bridge from the top-floor rooms. Another hotel worth mentioning is the Esfahan Traditional Hotel in a lane not far from the Bazar-e-Bozorg. The rooms look out onto hidden courtyards in two adjoining houses – one Safavid and one Qajar. While standards are not reported to be the highest, this hotel offers history, privacy and your own small adventure and is the closest Iran comes to a boutique hotel.
Where to Eat
Best Lunch Spots
The Bastani Restaurant is right next to the Imam Mosque, although you have to go down a side alley to the southeast of Imam Square to find it. Situated in the shadow of the mosque’s minarets, this is a great place to come for some delicious khoresh (stew). Flavours alternate with the seasons but, if they have them, the aubergine, squash and quince stews are highly recommended. If you’d prefer European food, head for the Chehel-sotoon restaurant in the Abbasi hotel. With giant Persian paintings on the walls depicting beautiful girls pouring wine into vessels for their lovers, you could be forgiven for forgetting you are in an Islamic republic. If you would prefer a choice, the Garden Restaurant at the Abbasi (see above) does Iranian and European food (as well as light snacks).
Best Supper Spots
The most popular local restaurant is the exotic Shahrzad, a short walk from the Abassi. As you walk up the stairs, you enter an atmospheric restaurant with painted walls and stained-glass windows offering fabulous Persian specialties such as fesenjan (meat stew with pomegranate and walnut sauce) and the ubiquitous ‘jelly, saffron ice cream and crème caramel’ choice for pudding – delivered to your table on trolleys by the restaurant’s smartly outfitted waiters. Khangostar in the Julfa hotel in Julfa, the city’s Armenian quarter, is popular with both locals and visitors. The portions are huge, the food delicious and the salad bars (a common feature in Iranian restaurants) abundant in their choice. For breathtaking views of the city and tasty traditional food, head to the rooftop Cheshm-Andaz in the Abbasi hotel from where you can see Imam Square, Ali Qapu Palace, the Imam Mosque and, of course, the beautifully lit Chahar Bagh Madrasa next door.
A trip to Esfahan is not complete without a stop at one of the teahouses beneath the city’s renowned bridges. These are a good place to smoke a qalyan (hubble-bubble pipe) and drink sweet dark tea in small glasses while looking out over the wide Zayandeh River. Attractive during the day, they are also a great place to come after dark when the bridges across the river are lit up and the locals rent swan-shaped pedalos for evening fun. An alternative to this river view is a stop at the Qeysarieh teahouse in Imam Square. It’s at the bazaar end with views back towards the Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque, the Ali Qapu Palace and the Imam Mosque; you reach it via a steep set of stairs just to the left of the Qeysarieh Portal of the bazaar. This rooftop café must have one of the best views in Esfahan.
Best of the Rest
If Esfahan is half the world, then half of Esfahan is the Naqsh-e Jahan or Imam Square. This is one of the largest public squares in the world, and European travellers to the Safavid court were overwhelmed by its grandeur and beauty. The trees that lined the square, and the polo games played along its length, are now gone, but the buildings surrounding the square still contribute to its glory. On the west side, the six-storey Ali Qapu Palace is testimony to the lavish era of the Shahs. To the south lies the Imam Mosque, a monument to the grand vision of Shah Abbas the Great who died shortly before its completion. To the east, the Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque is a masterpiece of Safavid artistry – its domed ceiling has the finest tile work of 17th-century Persia, with inscriptions by Ali Reza Abbasi, the greatest calligrapher of the Safavid period. The north of the square gives way to the entrance to Esfahan’s main bazaar.
If you are feeling adventurous, a walk northeast through the bazaar to its end will eventually bring you out at the Jame or Friday Mosque, which is like a museum of decorative techniques bringing together a thousand years of Persian religious architecture. Its cool dark vaults, unbroken brick arches and plays of light are a miracle of construction and architectural vision, which justify the pilgrimage to get there (for the less active, a taxi is the other option). While you are there, don’t forget to seek out the exquisite Oljeitu mihrab, which shows the Mongol influence on Persian architecture at its best and dates back to AD 1310.
If you head west from Imam Square, rather than north, you will come to Chehel-Sotun, or the Palace of Forty Columns. Twenty of the columns are reflected in a long pool that leads from the palace gates up to the wooden iwan that they support. With its beautifully painted wood-panelled ceiling, intricately carved doors, stucco decorations and extraordinary frescoes, this gilded and mirrored palace houses fascinating paintings of battles, court scenes and pastoral life. A short walk away is the Hasht Behesht Palace, famed for its magnificent marble slabs and decor.
Across the river are the city’s Armenian and Jewish quarters, well worth a visit. Make sure you visit Vank Cathedral in Julfa, one of several churches in the Armenian district, which is also home to an interesting museum.
Esfahan’s bridges have long lured visitors with their sheer beauty and exceptional architecture. Pol-e Shahrestan, the most ancient, dates back to the Sassanid period and stands on massive stone piers in the riverbed. Si-o-Seh Bridge’s 33 spectacular arches stare down, like Narcissus, at their reflection in the river as a constant flow of Esfahanis walks backwards and forwards along their length. The 17th-century two-storey Khaju Bridge with its arched arcades, hexagonal pavilions and tiled alcoves is Isfahan’s most exquisite – a place where Shah Abbas II and his court would come to enjoy themselves. Nowadays, the bridges are busy night and day as Esfahanis take their leisure in the teahouses below the bridges or simply walk across them.
From the beautiful vaulted Safavid Bazaar-e-Honar to Qasariyeh Bazaar, it’s the extraordinary souks that beguile visitors to this city. The mural across the front of the Qasariyeh Bazaar led Alexander Pope to declare it ‘the handsomest bazaar of all’. Once inside, lose yourself in labyrinthine galleries chock-full of expertly handcrafted antiques, jewellery, enamelwork, miniatures, carpets, qalamkar (block-printed calico), textiles and embroidery. Watch as master craftsmen engrave silver, brass and copper, or miniaturists, working with a single brush hair, paint camel bones, ivory or Khatam-Kari jewellery boxes.
Surrounding Imam Square you will also find a number of really good carpet shops (Nomad, Alladin, Paradise). Linger for a moment near a window and you will be actively encouraged to come inside, sit down, drink tea and talk carpets. While there is no pressure to buy, don’t forget that Persian carpets are some of the finest in the world and Esfahan is an ancient centre of the art. Also of interest is the fruit market in Imam Square, overflowing with produce from Esfahan’s bounteous orchards including golden pears, rosewater apples, aromatic quinces, melons, dried fruit and a bewildering variety of nuts and berries.
Kashan (approximately 125 miles from Esfahan) makes for a wonderful day trip. It’s worth the drive to see the fabled Fin Gardens and splendid heritage homes, but perhaps best is to visit Kashan on your way north to Tehran, if you are going by road.
Best Secret Agent
Simoon Travel is a small and specialist tour operator who offer a very personalised view of Iran.Travel in their expert arms and you can experience all the glories of Tehran, Shiraz, Persepolis, Esfahan, Yazd and the desert and mountains. Their expert local guides and insider knowledge help you to get under the skin of Iran. You will more than likely be invited to eat with families, and their strong connection with the Zoroastrian community in Yazd can sometimes get you a private viewing at a fire temple.
Portrait Photographs from Isfahan: Faces in Transition by Parisa Damandan is a unique view into the early 20th-century (pre-revolution) world of Esfahan. Islamic Art and Architecture: From Isfahan to the Taj Mahal by Henri Stierlin gives great background to the startling man-made beauty of the city and Persia: Through Writers’ Eyes by David Blow is an intriguing selection of writings on Persia taken from its three thousand years of history.
Best Insider Tip
Make sure that you visit Esfahan on a Friday. As in the rest of the Middle East, Friday is the day that families get together and green spaces all over the city fill up with chador-clad women and their husbands and children picnicking and playing football. The atmosphere is always vibrant – follow your nose to a local bread shop, buy some tomatoes and fruit and join in.
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