Isfahan is often mentioned as ‘one of the most beautiful cities in the world’. When you arrive it is immediately obvious to see why. The first place I and most other visitors head to in Isfahan is the Naqsh-e Jahan Square. It is located very close to the centre of the city and it is home to the Isfahan Grand Bazaar as well as the famous Shah Mosque and Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque.
You can also read my travel blog post, Beautiful Isfahan, for more pictures and some stories from my time there.
Amir Kabir hostel is definitely the most popular in town. For this reason, if you are looking to meet other travellers, it is the place to stay. I was in a small dorm of 3 beds and the price was a little under 400,000 IRR (10€) per night. The free breakfast available for all guests at Amir Kabir is really nice. It consists of big sheets of Sangak bread with cheese, boiled eggs, carrot jam and tea. Also very centrally located. Catch the 91 bus south from Kaveh Bus station to reach it.
Sights and Highlights
Naqsh-e Jahan Square is located in the centre of Isfahan and to me, also feels like the centre of the country. I had a strong, 'well this is Persia' moment sitting here. The square attracts people from all over Isfahan to walk around, mingle, make friends and relax. While it's worth visiting just for the square alone, the real reason you absolutely must visit is that situated around the perimeter of the square are the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, the Shah Mosque and the Ali Qapu Palace. These three places are all worth visiting. The facades of all three are visible from Naqsh-e Jahan Square and are part of the reason that the square is such a beautiful place to be.
The Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque is located on the eastern side of Naqsh-e Jahan Square and was the first built of the famous buildings bordering the square. The purpose of this mosque was as a private mosque of the royal court, unlike the Shah Mosque, which was meant for the public. For this reason, the mosque does not have any minarets and is of a smaller size. When the doors were opened to the public ,centuries after it was built, ordinary people could finally see the exquisite tile work, which is far superior to those covering the Shah Mosque. Entrance to Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque is 200,000 IRR (5€)
The Shah Mosque, also known as Imam Mosque since the Iranian revolution, is located on the south side of Naqsh-e Jahan Square. Built during the Safavid Empire, it is regarded as one of the masterpieces of Iranian architecture and an excellent example of Islamic era architecture of Iran. Its construction began in 1611 and was completed in 1629. The beauty of the Shah Mosque comes from its seven colour mosaic tiles and the calligraphic inscriptions from the Koran.
From Naqsh-e Jahan Square you can get a great view of the entry portal to the mosque, however if you want to go any further inside, you will need to pay 200,000 IRR (5€)
Ali Qapu, also known as The Great Persian Palace is a grand palace located on the western side of the Naqsh e Jahan Square, opposite to Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque. It is forty-eight meters high and there are six floors, each accessible by a spiral staircase. Ali Qapu was repaired and restored substantially during the reign of Shah Sultan Hussein, the last Safavid ruler, but fell into a dreadful state of dilapidation again during the short reign of invading Afghans. Under the reign of Nasir ol Din Shah e Qajar (1848–96), the Safavid cornices and floral tiles above the portal were replaced by tiles bearing inscriptions. Like the two mosques nearby, entrance to Ali Qapu is 200,000 IRR (5€).
Isfahan is famous for it's many bridges across the Zayande River. The bridges over the river include some of the finest architecture in Isfahan. The oldest bridge is the Shahrestan bridge, whose foundations was built by the Sasanian Empire and has been repaired during the Seljuk period.
The closest bridge to the centre of Isfahan is Si-o-Seh Pol Bridge and it is also the longest. The other bridges worth visiting are all downstream (east) from here. I have placed the bridges on this map.
Jolfa is the Armenian quarter of Isfahan, located along the south bank of the Zayande River. Of particular note is stunning Vank Armenian Cathedral, I have posted a few photos of the Vank Cathedral below. Jolfa has existed as an Armenian quarter for over 400 years and was an important base of operations for Armenian traders on the silk road. Today it is a very stylish and relaxing district with the highest concentration of cafes (with decent WiFi!) that I saw anywhere in Iran.
The Radio Cafe is one that I particularly recommend because of it's close proximity to Amir Kabir hostel. Really good coffee, but with that comes a lot of popularity. Finding a seat can be a little difficult. If you are coming here to for a coffee and some wifi, doing so outside of peak hours is a good idea.
This place is a very upmarket and stylish cafe/restaurant located in the Armenian quarter. It tends to attract what appears to be a wealth young crowd of Iranians and the menu is very western. The main reason I recommend this place is because of the WiFi. The fastest internet I had in all Iran was here.
Gyumri Cafe is located also in the Armenian quarter. There are many other cafes to choose from nearby, all of which are labelled on google maps, but this one in particular was a pleasant place.
Art Cafe Gallery
The Art Cafe Gallery is located perhaps 6km north of the city centre, so not a place you are likely to visit unless you are staying somewhere nearby as I was. Regardless, it's a wonderful café that plays great old school rock music, serves good coffee and tasty cheap food.
I mostly ate cheap food from small restaurants located along the main road through Isfahan along Chahar Bagh Boulevard. There are countless places along here to get kebab, burgers, hot dogs and other dishes. If you want to eat in a sit down restaurant than The Culture Trip has the useful article, Best Restaurants in Isfahan.
There is a very convenient bus way to get around Isfahan with local buses. The route that will be particularly useful to most travellers, especially those reading this guide, is route no 91. I have included a route map for bus 91 below. It convenient connects between Kaveh bus station, Amir Kabir Hostel as well as Jolfa district.
Tickets purchased from the driver are 10,000 IRR (0.25€) however if you purchase a local Isfahan transit card from any of the road side kiosks, the price is only 5,000 IRR. My advice is that if you are staying for any longer than 3-4 days, purchase a card and load it up with about 40,000 IRR.
Getting In and Out
Tehran, Kashan, Yazd and Shiraz can all be reached from Isfahan very easily by VIP bus. All of these buses depart from Kaveh Bus Terminal located just north of the city centre. Just take bus 91 north to get there. I read online that buses to Shiraz terminate at Sofeh bus terminal, however I had no problem at all finding a Shiraz bus at Kaveh. If you do find yourself at Sofeh and want to get into the city, the same local bus 91 mentioned above terminates near there. Convenient!
Tickets to Tehran, Shiraz and Yazd should be around 200,000 IRR (5€). Kashan will be a little cheaper. I never had to book tickets in advance or wait for a long time for my bus. Just walk in and ask around for a bus to your intended location. If the bus they offer doesn't leave for a long time, make sure to check other counters for quicker departure times.