The Best Things to do in Isfahan: Iran’s blue city
This post is a travelguide with the best things to do in Isfahan. Isfahan, located in central Iran, is an incredibly beautiful and historically rich city. Iranians say that Isfahan is half of the world. The city with its famous Naqs-e Jahan square was the reason why I wanted to visit Iran in the first place.
The old capital of the Persian empire is still full of history with beautiful Persian Islamic architecture, palaces, mosques, gardens and a lively bazaar famous for their Persian carpets. As you can read there is no shortage of things to do in Isfahan, but unfortunately my timing to visit the city wasn’t that good.
My visit to Isfahan
When I visited the famous Naqs-e Jahan square on my first night, I noticed it was extremely busy. At the entrance of the mosque hundreds of veiled women with their children were lining up to get inside.
There was a festive atmosphere and the women were carrying large bags with blankets, pillows and folded chairs. It was the start of a ritual called Itikaf . For 3 days the people would stay in the mosques to pray and fast for the birthday of Imam Ali.
Unfortunately it also meant that the mosques and the bazaar would be closed for the coming 3 days. Luckily, there are so many things to do in Isfahan that I did not get bored. I can only imagine how rushed my schedule would have been if everything was open.
Every day I left in the morning to walk around town and before I knew it, the sun was setting. Even tough I couldn’t go inside the mosques, the architecture and decorations outside were beautiful enough to impress me. The city is also full of gardens and parks that are a welcome respite from the city’s crazy traffic and a place where I met many interesting and friendly people.
I spent three full days in Isfahan and it was simply not enough for this lovely city. There are still so many things to do in Isfahan that I had no time for. Isfahan is a city that keeps on giving you new surprises and new experiences.
The best things to do in Isfahan
Naqs-e Jahan Square
The Naqs-e Jahan square is for many visitors the first thing to do in Isfahan. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The square is surrounded by beautiful buildings such as the Imam Mosque, Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Ali Qapu Palace, and the Qeysarieh Bazaar, all of which reflect the grandeur of the Safavid era.
The square alone can keep you busy and amazed for a full day. Every time I was there I discovered new details. From the blue tiled entrances of the mosques, the palaces to the shops and restaurants. Time flies when you wander around here.
When you enter the square you can’t miss the stunning view on the Shah mosque. It might look familiar to you, because you have already seen it on the 20,000 rial banknote.
In real life it is much more impressive with its shiny dome, blue tilework and fine Quranic calligraphy. Construction began in 1611 by Shah Abbas who moved the capital to Isfahan. His vision was that the Shah mosque would get the biggest dome in the city and that it would replace the much older Jame mosque
Sheikh Lotfollah mosque
While the Shah mosque was built for the public, king Abbas also ordered the construction of a private mosque for use by his royal court.
It might be small, but entering the inner dome takes your breath away. When the sun sets down and you look above at the center of the dome the light gives you the illusion of seeing a peacock tail.
Ali Qapu palace
The Ali Qapu palace with its forty eight meters high portal is where king Abbas entertained his visitors. The building has 6 floors that are richly decorated with wall paintings. Of particular interest is the pilkared hall on the third floor and the music hall on the sixth floor. Also don’t forget to look up. The ceilings are equally decorated with paintings.
I was lucky to see the bazaar in action on my first night, but also to see the bazaar closed. Strolling through the empty alleyways allowed more focus on the details of the buildings. Hidden domes with tiles, coloured mosaiques and small shrines that are normally obscured from view.
It’s something not many people get to experience, because most of the time Isfahans bazaar is a crowded and busy affair where sight, sound and smell overwhelms your senses.
Isfahans bazaar is among the top things to do in Isfahan. It probably is the best place to buy souvenirs in Iran with some handicrafts being unique to this region. I loved the Qhalam kari art, handprinted fabrics with floral patterns, that I hadn’t seen anywhere else. Most common are the tablecloths, but some shops also sell beddings, bags and cushions.
Other Isfahani handicrafts include minakari (hand printed floral patterns on utensils) and khatamkari (decorating wooden surfaces with tiny pieces of bone and metal). Some more regular souvenirs like metalwork, miniature paintings and of course carpets are of especially good quality in Isfahan.
The Jameh mosque might be less impressive than the Shah mosque, but is much older and used to be the most important mosque in Isfahan. Some even think it was already a place of worship for Zoroastrians when in 771 the first mosque was constructed.
What you see today is the result of many reconstructions, renovations and additions that happened throughout history and it is an interesting mosque to visit.
The Hakim mosque is characterized by its simple structural pattern, but it is the oldest in Isfahan. It is closeby the Jameh mosque and found it interesting for its different style.
Ali mosque and minaret
With so many mosques in Isfahan it is easy to overlook the small Ali mosque, but it is definetly worth a visit. The shrine inside is an active place of worship and has some interesting paintings.
The Ali mosque is most famous for its nearby Ali minaret. The oldest and largest minaret in Isfahan. While most people come to see the minaret I found the mosque more interesting.
Chehel Sotun Palace
If you have time to visit only one palace in Isfahan make it the beautiful Chehel Sotun palace. It is among the best things to do in Isfahan for its beautiful Persian gardens and the many frescoes, wall paintings and ceiling artworks inside. The palace was built by king Abbas to receive guests and the gardens are now registered as a world heritage site.
Hasht Behesht palace
The 17th century Hasht Behesht pavillion is surrounded by beautiful Persian gardens that are free to visit. I thought it was the perfect place to escape from the city. To enter the Hasht Behest pavillion you need to pay an entrance fee. I didn’t do this because most of the building can be seen from outside.
Gholi Agha Hammam
On my second day I accidentally bumped into a Dutch couple that I met earlier in Kurdistan. They were there with a friend who was showing them around in Isfahan. I decided to join them on a walk to the Ali Gholi Agha Hamam.
I wasn’t planning to go there, because it was a bit far from the centre. For this reason many people overlook this small gem. I was really glad I ended up here and I really enjoyed the beautiful architecture of this historical hammam.
The hammam was built in 1713 during the Safavid empire. It is now a museum open to the occasional visitor.
While the Goli Agha hammam is more like a museum showing you, what going to a bathouse was like, the Qazi hammam is still up and running.
The bridges of Isfahan
One of the top things to do in Isfahan is a visit to the famous bridges over the Zayandeh river. I was lucky, because there was actually water in the River. I was told that this was rare and that most of the time the riverbed is dry. Apparently the municipality is controlling the water flow.
For now, people enjoyed their time at the river banks. My favourite bridge was the beautiful Khaju bridge where I spent two evenings listening to the men that sing here every night.
Also don’t miss the Si-o-se pol bridge. It is the largest of the eleven bridges in Isfahan.
Jolfa: the Armenian quarter
The Armenian quarter in Isfahan is a very interesting place to visit. The christian neighbourhood has a very distinct atmosphere and it shows how tolerant and multicultural the city of Isfahan is.
There are several Armenian churches, but the most beautiful one is the Vank cathedral with its interior mural paintings.
Meeting the friendly people in Isfahan.
I had so many nice encounters with the people in Isfahan. A woman who tried to couple me to her son in Holland, a girl who explained how she had to wear more conservative clothes because she would otherwise lose her job as a teacher, a girl who felt sad she could not go into the mosque for itikaf, the cook of the beryan restaurant that asked my advice in attracting more tourists, students that wanted to interview me for their study projects, the girl that gifted me her manteau because i told her i liked it and a student who was in delft for an exchange project and was now asking me for relationship advice on how to woo his dutch lover.
I can say that my time in Isfahan was mostly about meeting lovely, friendly and inspiring people.
Try Persian food
Isfahan is the third largest city in Iran and it is a great place to try Persian food including some local specialities like beryan and gaz. To learn all the secrets about Isfahani cuisine I can recommend the culinary walking tour of Firstquest. Or you can try some of the Persian foods and restaurants below.
Meraj gaz: Isfahan also has its own regional dishes and specialities. First of all, Isfahan is famous for gaz. A white nougat like sweet. There is the plain variety, but also with nuts, rosewater and saffron. The best place to buy is Meraj gaz that has several shops throughout Isfahan.
Beryan in Hafez street: Isfahan is also famous for beryan. Sometimes misstakenly called beryani, but this translates as a place where you eat beryan. It also has nothing to do with the Indian rice called biryani. Instead it is a dish made of minced sheep’s lungs and intestines. They serve the meat in a rolled bread with some fresh herbs. I had Beryan in a small restaurant in Hafez street just off Naqs-e Jahan square.
The bread and herbs were delicious, but the meat patty was greasy and had an interesting taste. I felt full for the rest of the day and this was not my favourite dish. The cooks were so excited about a foreigner eating Beryan that it was still a memorable experience.
Tea at Azadegan tea house: Azadegan tea house is the most popular tea house in Isfahan and worth a visit, if only for the interior decorations.
Bastani traditional restaurant: Bastani traditional restaurant comes recommended in most guidebooks. The food is ok, but the main attraction is its decor that brings you right to the middle east.
Icecream: Icecream is everywhere in Isfahan, but they are not your regular icecreams at home. Iranians like their things sweet. The popular Faloodeh was a bit too sweet for my liking, but the vermicelli like noodles in sugar and rosewater are a must try. My favourite was the yellow saffron infused icecream.
The best things to do near Isfahan
Soffeh Mountain Park
My hostel owner recommended me to visit Soffeh mountain park at the outskirts of Isfahan. Another popular picnic spot for Iranian families. What makes this place special is the view over the city and it is indeed a great place to visit around sunset.
Ateshgah fire temple
Another thing to do near Isfahan is Ateshgah. On top of a hill at the outskirts of Isfahan stands an ancient Zoroastrian fire temple. It is a steep climb and best done just before sunset to enjoy a beautiful view over Isfahan.
Isfahan is very close to the desert and Varzaneh is the best desert getaway close to Isfahan. If you are looking for solitude and sand dunes, Varzaneh is the place to go. Also, culturally it is an interesting place to visit. Rather than wearing a black chador, women in Varzaneh traditionally wear a white chador.
How to get there:Varzaneh is 105 kilometer south east of Isfahan and buses leave from Isfahan’s Jey terminal.
Nain is an old desert city halfway between Isfahan and Yazd. It makes a convenient short stop to see one of the oldest mosques in Iran. It is two hours from Isfahan and also possible as a day trip by bus.
How to get there:From Jay terminal there are frequent buses to Nain.
For a true desert adventure head to Mesr, also known as Dasht-e Kavir in Persian. With zero light pollution, the desert is the perfect place to watch stars. From Isfahan it is very easy to arrange a star gazing tour with the proffesional astronomy tour from 1stQuest.
From Isfahan it is possible to visit the beautiful Zagros mountains in spring and summer. These mountains are famous for their nomadic villages. It would be difficult to visit this area on your own, but there are several tours out there that include hiking through the mountains while visiting several villages including the scenic stepped village of Sar Agha Seyed.
Isfahan Travel tips
The best places to stay in Isfahan
Booking hostels in Iran online is rather difficult. Because of the sanctions, most regular sites like Booking.com or Airbnb won’t work. To book your hotel beforehand you either need to contact them directly or use 1stQuest
How long to visit Isfahan?
There are so many things to do in Isfahan that you need at least 3 days to explore the city. However, this will only allow you to see the major highlights such as the square, the bazaar, the bridges and Jolfa.
Personally I felt 3 days were not enough for me. But then I am a slow traveller and one thing I really liked about Isfahan was meeting the friendly people. I wished I had one or two more extra days to get a better feel for the city and its people.
The best time to visit Isfahan?
The best time to visit Isfahan in Iran is during the spring (March to May) and fall (September to November) months when the temperatures are milder and more pleasant for outdoor activities. During these seasons, the weather is generally mild, with average temperatures ranging from 20 to 25 degrees Celsius, and there is less rain than during the winter months.
In contrast, summer (June to August) can be extremely hot, with temperatures regularly exceeding 35 degrees Celsius, making it difficult to explore the city and its attractions during the day. Winter (December to February) can also be quite cold, with temperatures sometimes dropping below freezing and occasional snowfall.
Money matters in Isfahan
Due to the sanctions, Iran has been cut off from the international money transfer system. There are no ATM’s in Isfahan that will work with a foreign bank card. You will have to bring all your money in cash (euro’s or dollars).
Safety in Isfahan
Iran, including Isfahan, is generally a safe destination for travelers, and millions of tourists visit Iran each year. The city has low crime levels. However, it is always important to exercise caution and take necessary safety precautions while traveling.
Update 2023: A wave of protests erupted throughout Iran in 2022 and 2023. Although this is not a reason to avoid Iran, it is good to know that these protests can become violent. Due to the political situation, it is even more important to be aware of your surroundings. Avoid political demonstrations, expressing strong political opinions and respect the local rules of law. As a foreigner it is better to be safe than sorry.
For solo female travellers I wrote a post with tips and advice about traveling as a woman in Iran.
How to get around in Isfahan?
Isfahan on foot: Isfahan is a large city, so expect to walk a lot. Still, this is a good way to get to know Isfahan. It is a nice walk from the Naqs-e Jahan square through the bazaar to the Jame mosque. Another scenic walk is along the Zayandeh river to check out the bridges of Isfahan.
Isfahan by bus: Isfahan has a good public transport network by bus. If you plan to stay a long time in Isfahan or travel a lot by bus you can buy the Isfahan card.
Good buslines to remember are bus 91 that brings you from the Kaveh bus terminal north of the city to the centre and finally the Soffeh bus terminal in the south of the city.
The train station is in the southern part of Isfahan. You can take bus 37 to Soffeh bus terminal and then change to bus 91 to bring you to the centre.
Isfahan by metro: Isfahan’s metro opened in 2016 and is still extending. The current stations are unfortunately not very close to most of the things to do in Isfahan for tourists.
There is still only one line that goes from northwest via Kaveh bus terminal to Soffeh bus terminal in the south
Isfahan by taxi: Taxi’s are not expensive in Isfahan and like anywhere in Iran you have shared taxi’s and taxi’s dar bast (door closed). If you want to get somewhere quick it is best to take a taxi dar bast (private). Always negotiate the price beforehand.
How to get to Isfahan
Soffeh bus terminal is in the south and has services to most destinations in the south of Iran including Shiraz
The Jey terminal is best for the desert cities east of Isfahan like Varzaneh, Nain and Yazd
You can check the bus times and book your bus tickets on the 1stQuest booking system.
Isfahan has a train station with daily night trains to Tehran and Mashad. You can check the latest timetables at Iranrail.
Disclaimer: This post about the best things to do in Isfahan Iran contains affiliate links. If you buy any service through any of my links, I will get a small commission at no extra cost to you. These earnings help me to keep Backpack Adventures alive! Thanks for your support!