Isfahan was supposed to be my highlight of Iran. Everyone just kept raving about how amazing this place is and I kind of believed them! Isfahan, Iran is often called one of the most beautiful cities you will ever see and its name in Persian means “half the world”. After these recommendations I had my expectations really high! And I enjoyed Isfahan, I really did. But I wasn’t as impressed as the majority of people who have been there before me and wasn’t blown away as I expected. Isfahan was beautiful, that’s for sure, but it definitely wasn’t the best place I visited in Iran.
I arrived from Yazd to Isfahan on sultry afternoon, right in the peak hours. Getting from the bus station to my Couchsurfing hosts’ place was already a challenge in the busy traffic but some hour later I finally arrived. After a short getting to know each other time we’ve decided to go for a walk so I could get a little glimpse of Isfahan. It was early evening and together with Azadeh and Hassan we headed to the Armenian Quarter. I was slightly disappointed, I must admit (after all Armenia has a special place in my heart, for the reason I can’t even recall) but it was still really pleasant and the area was a perfect introduction to great Isfahan. I especially enjoyed a small charming tea house, it was the kind of place I wish I had back at home. From the Armenian quarter it was only few steps to the riverside and famous Isfahan bridges. It was already dark but the park along the Zayanderud river was full of people: walking, cycling or just having a picnic – probably the favorite pastime activity of Iranian people. We walked a lot, enjoying the laid-back atmosphere, admiring beautiful Isfahan bridges and talking about life in Iran and in Poland. My hosts were in the same age as I am, we were at similar stages in life so those conversation let me get to know the country in a best possible way. Like always nothing is black or white… My age-mates like their lives in Iran, they have good jobs, they travel the world but still it’s not easy with all the musts and don’ts that the country is so full of. It was the best evening I’ve had in Iran and it ended with a glass of homemade wine, similar to the one I remember my grandmother used to make.
Highlights of Isfahan, Iran
Next morning my hosts went to work and I set off to discover Isfahan. I needed to cross the incredible Bridge of 33 Arches and it looked even more stunning in the day light. Rows of (what seemed like) countless arches and the water blasting below – this place really deserve all the hype! But still Isfahan was nothing like I imagined. The city was busy, chaotic, reminded me of Shiraz a little bit. However the closer I was getting to the heart of Isfahan – Naqsh-e Jahan Square – the vibe around me was changing. Suddenly it was much calmer and there seemed to be less people. The moment I stepped from one of the narrow streets into the main square of Isfahan I understood why everyone is so crazy about it. Naqsh-e Jahan Square really could take the breath away! The square is enormous (second biggest one in the world after Beijing’s Tiananmen) and its southern side is dominated by beautiful Imam Mosque. The neat row of arches with richly decorated gate topped with minarets and a beautiful dome peaking from behind is probably the most photographed and shared picture of Iran and it surely is so famous for a reason! The building is a true masterpiece of Persian architecture, listed on UNESCO World Heritage List. That’s where I headed first, it was the most obvious choice. The view from the Naqsh-e Jahan Square is just the foretaste! Inside the mosque is just as stunning as from the outside, so abundant with ornaments that you just don’t know where to look, not wanting to miss a single detail. When standing in the middle of the main hall you can play with the voices, the sound is playing around like the echo in the mountains. Unfortunately during my visit the big part of the complex was under renovations so I couldn’t really check every single corner. Still what I’ve managed to see really impressed me, it was probably the biggest mosque I’ve ever seen, but it wasn’t as spectacular as the Pink Mosque in Shiraz.
It could have been the early hour, still before noon, but the square was fairly empty. Few school trips loitered around the Imam Mosque, a handful of tourists were wandering around, taking pictures of this one of a kind place but that’s about it. Probably that’s why the Naqsh-e Jahan Square seemed to be even more enormous, it felt like it’s at least one kilometer long, from the Imam Mosque to the bazaar’s entrance. While walking through the square I was stopping every few steps, taking yet another picture – that’s how picturesque the place was!
When entering the bazaar I was kind of hoping to get lost as it seemed like a perfect place for aimless wandering around. And I almost did it! When I was close to not knowing where exactly I am I suddenly found myself in the Naqsh-e Jahan Square again! As for the bazaar – it was a typical one for Iran. Full of just about everything, with maze of alleys, topped with beautiful high ceilings and heading in all possible directions, small squares with fountains in the middle and shops hidden in the arches. I also came across the part dedicated to tourists only, where you could but some (overpriced) Iran souvenirs. The bazaar was a fairly pleasant place but to be honest the one in Kashan impressed me the most.
When, to my big surprise, I exited the bazaar to Naqsh-e Jahan Square, I could see huge dark clouds gathering at the horizon. This could mean anything good, I had to quickly find a place to hide. I entered one of the back streets where a recommended ice cream shop was supposed to be only to be forced to stop in the pizza place on the way. The huge rain made me try how the pizza in Iran tastes (it wasn’t that bad!) and the saffron ice-cream I had eventually were pretty delicious too! After this forcible lunch stop I was read to explore Naqsh-e Jahan Square some more! It seemed like even more people are around after the rain, I however headed right to Ali Qapu Palace. I must say I was expecting something better but at least the view all over the Naqsh-e Jahan Square and Imam Mosque was really spectacular. It’s worth to visit the palace just for this sight, only from this perspective you can see how enormous the place is! Too bad part of the balcony with the view was closed for the renovation and I could admire just the southern side of the square. In the hall on the top floor of the palace I could see incredible wooden ornaments, some of the most beautiful I’ve seen in Iran. Not only they are special for the unusual material that was used but the patterns are really beautiful too!
Amazing bridges of Isfahan, Iran
It’s easy to spend the whole day only at Naqsh-e Jahan Square and to get lost in its beauty and atmosphere. The square is especially vibrant at dusk, it becomes a main arena for picnics so beloved by Iranians. Unfortunately I couldn’t stay there that long, I only had one day in the city and there were still plenty of things I wanted to see in Isfahan. From the Naqsh-e Jahan Square I returned to the riverside to properly see two remaining bridges – Khaju Bridge and Joui bridge. And again they impressed me, a lot! Both were a true engineering masterpiece and sitting at the steps of Khaju Bridge and staring at the water below was just enchanting! I’m not surprised Isfahan bridges are so famous and a reason itself to visit the city! It seemed like the bridges and the area around were also the favorite hanging out spots for people of Isfahan. Both in the early afternoon and in the evening the riverside was full of people at all ages, just relaxing there and having a good time. Isfahan is such a vibrant city, no doubts about that!
My only “wow moment” in Iran
For the end I left the icing on the cake (as it turned out later on) – the Armenian quarter. I wanted to see it one more time, without any rushing, in my own way. I headed to the Vank Cathedral and it was the only time during my whole trip to Iran when I had the “wow moment”! My breath was taken away, literally, and it wasn’t for magnificent Persian monuments. This little inconspicuous sanctuary was the most unexpected place I happened to visit in Iran! The numerous churches and monasteries I visited in Armenia were always very modest and even stark inside but Vank Cathedral was different. I wasn’t prepared for what I’m about to see and as soon as I stepped inside I was awestruck, standing with my jaw dropped. The interior looked like from a fairy tale with incredible paintings, carvings and tile work. Even if the cathedral is fairly small I spent at least 15 minutes there, trying to take it all in and to remember every single detail. The place didn’t want to let me go either, the sky just opened and a huge thunderstorm started. I was locked in the Armenian museum next to the cathedral and had more than enough time to read and admire every single artifact collected there. And again I couldn’t be any more prouder when I saw a Polish flag – one of the countries that recognize the Armenian genocide (I was in Iran couple of days after the centennial of these tragic events).
At this point I had to call in a day, all these walking around combined with rain made me just so exhausted. I spent a really lovely evening with my hosts and their friends and in the morning those friends were kind enough to drive me to my last destination in Iran – Kashan.
Is it worth to visit Isfahan, Iran?
Isfahan is stunning and can easily be considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world, there are no doubts about that. But it didn’t impress me as much as I expected. I guess I prepared myself too well for this trip and had the same situation like so many people visiting Paris or New York. They know the place so good from the movies, books and internet that when they finally get there the place looks so familiar the excitement is gone. And that was my problem with Isfahan too. As soon as I saw the famous bridges or Naqsh-e Jahan Square I felt like I’ve been there before. And since Isfahan was my second to last stop in Iran I lacked the novelty, the mosque or bazaar didn’t impress me as much as they should have. What I remember the most from Isfahan were the people. That’s where I met the most friendly and generous people in the whole country! My Couchsurfing hosts, sellers in the shops or just random Iranians met on the streets – all of them were incredibly nice and those meetings and conversations are still very vivid in my memory. And this is why after all Isfahan was a very important place for me, even if for the reasons I didn’t expect at all!
If you think of visiting Iran or want to read more about the country take a look at what else I wrote about the place:
- Solo female travel in Iran
- Visit Iran – practical information
- Yazd, Iran – the most beautiful desert town I’ve seen
- and more!
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