Well laid out roads, cobbled pedestrian walkways, gorgeous bridges, bustling bazaars and lots of trade, intricate art work in their mosques, stunningly beautiful gardens, great riverside walks, creative fashion industry, a large public square, great culinary arts and so much more. All this could be seen in Isfahan, many many centuries ago. An ancient city and the capital of Persia from 1598 to 1722, Isfahan is considered to be one of the most beautiful cities of the world.
Located 430 kms south of Tehran at the foot of the Zagros mountain range, Isfahan is one of those cities that has carved an important place for itself in history and that is the reason why it is such a huge favorite of the travelers visiting Iran. Personally, I love its riverside atmosphere and the winding narrow lanes of its markets.
Called by the locals as ‘Nesf-e-Jahan’ or half the world, Isfahan lives true to its name. When in Isfahan, you will feel like you are in a 21st century European city in terms of layout and organization, but the difference is that you are in the heart of the Middle East and the people look so vastly different. That is the charm of this ancient city.
Whether you are chatting with the locals, walking the amazing bridges on the Zayanderud river, soaking in the colors, smells and noises of the grand bazaar, having a sunny picnic on the lawns of the Naqsh-e-Jahan square or losing yourself in its beautifully decorated mosques, palaces and churches, this city certainly offers the world to you in terms of experience.
Isfahan is a city meant for walking in ways similar to that of Paris. When I spent a week in this city, I never once took any public transport or taxi. Rather, I absolutely enjoyed exploring this city by foot. Each lane and by lane offered me a great insight into the city. And as I spoke some broken Persian, I always managed to find my bearings even when I did somehow get lost.
The bridges and the gardens are the highlights of this walking experience. The Si-O-Seh Pol (The Bridge of 33 arches), an example of Safavid bridge design, is quite a sight when you walk close to it. And the Pol-e-Khaju (Khaju bridge)’s colorful tiles are quite a work. Then, there is the Pol-e-Shahrestan and Pol-e-Joui are another 2 old and exquisite bridges. One can experience all these bridges as they keep walking down the Zayenderrud river.
The bridges along with the flowers garden is a great place to go for a walk, meet interesting locals, see local traditions and customs and more importantly helps find a cool place to escape from the hot mid day sun.
A lot of people action can be seen on the bridges during the evening hours and on weekends. As the young people of Iran love to chat up with tourists, don’t be surprised if someone introduces themselves and tries to have a conversation with you. Some of my best people interactions in Isfahan were on these bridges.
While the riverside offers one walking trail, the Naqsh-e-Jahan square (a UNESCO World Heritage site), the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Masjid-e-Jame, the grand bazaar and the spice market offer another walking trail. This trail does not have the nature component like the previous riverside trail, but it offers a view into one of the largest public squares in the world along with my favorite mosque from Iran.
The blue Sheikh Lotfollah mosque is appealing both from outside and inside. This Safavid Iranian masterpiece is definitely one of the highlights of a Isfahan holiday along with the Naqsh-e-Jahan square. The Imam mosque, a UNESCO world heritage site is another splendid place of worship located in this square.
The locals love this square and this is where they come to have their kebabs, ice-cream, exotic fruit drinks and basically a gala time. As the markets are next door, one can do their shopping, eating and exploring all in one place. No wonder, this square is such a huge favorite with both locals and tourists, alike.
You will not lose your way in the square even though it is big, but once you enter the domed narrow pathways of the market, it is a different story altogether.
Personally, I love to lose myself in places where there is lots of action. Technically, you can’t totally lose your way as helpful people are always around. From spices to clothes, from exotic hand made Persian carpets to ancient copper ware and from miniature art on camel bones to Khattam Khari (patterned handicrafts), there will not be one moment when you will be bored in the markets of Isfahan.
Personally, I should have spent more than 20 hours in these markets soaking in these ambiance and striking conversations with various people.
The Chehal Sotoun Palace (Palace of Forty columns), the Hasht Behesht, Ali Qapu, Madreseye Shah and the Charbagh boulevard offer a walking trail that encompasses the famous palaces, harems and clerical schools of ancient Isfahan.
Ali Qapu is quite a magnificent sight, the paintings of ancient life inside the Chehel Sotoun palace is something to look forward to and the ice cream shops at Charbagh boulevard are my favorite experiences from this trail.
If you cross the Pol-e-Khaju and walk towards the Jolfa area, you will slowly arrive at the slightly posher and more modern part of Isfahan. While this area is a far cry from the Naqsh-e-Jahan square and the bazaars, it is home to the amazingly beautiful Vank Cathedral, a church that I absolutely love.
Built by slaves from Armenia in the 17th century, this church of the saintly sisters looks very Islamic and Safanid from the outside, but inside it is a beautifully decorated orthodox church with so many colorful stories portrayed from the Bible.
Even though this place is far away from the city center and requires quite a long walk, the Vank cathedral makes it totally worth the hard work. On the way back before you hit the bridge, there are famous stores selling desserts and sweet stuff that you should definitely try out. My favorites are Gaz, Khoresht Masht, Fereni and the local saffron ice cream.
Wherever you go in Isfahan, you will never be far away from miniature art, rich history, lovely people and sensational architecture.
I absolutely love this city and that is why I totally agree with the locals who call this city as ‘Nesf-e-Jahan’ or half the world. Wait till you discover it for yourself.