What to see in Isfahan in two days
Isfahan is the third-largest city in Iran, located about 400 kilometres south of Tehran, with a population of about two million. This city is one of the major cities of Iran, with plenty of tourist attractions and historic monuments. Isfahan is famous for its Persian–Islamic architecture, grand boulevards, covered bridges, palaces, tiled mosques, and minarets. The city was the capital of the Seljuq and Safavid dynasties and is renowned for its beauty, which has given rise to the Iranian saying that “Isfahan is half the world”. Check out my selection of the best sights in Isfahan to add to your travel itinerary.
This beautifully proportioned palace was built as an entertainment pavilion and reception hall in the early 17th century. Twenty slender, ribbed wooden pillars of the palace rise to a superb wooden ceiling with crossbeams and exquisite inlay work. The Great Hall (Throne Hall) is richly decorated with frescoes, miniatures, and ceramics. The upper walls are covered by historic frescoes depicting court life and some of the great battles of the Safavid era. These extraordinary works survived the 18th-century invasion by Afghans, who whitewashed the paintings to show their disapproval of such extravagance. Chehel Sotoun Palace is among nine Iranian Gardens which are collectively inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List under the name of the Persian Garden.
Naghsh-e-Jahan or the Meidan Emam Square Complex
After moving the capital of his empire from Qazvin to Isfahan in the late 16th century, Shah Abbas I established a square in the centre of the city, which served as a completely new imperial and mercantile centre. It was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979. Four buildings listed below are located on the square.
Masjed-e Imam or Shah Mosque is located at the southern end of Naqsh-e Jahan Square. This mosque was built by Shah Abbas I the Great at the beginning of the 17th century, glowing in grandeur with its unique architecture and exceptional tile work among the historic mosques of Isfahan. The rectangular form of most of the mosque (100 by 130 metres) is rotated 45 degrees to orient it towards Mecca. The eight domes in each of the prayer halls adjacent to the domed sanctuary are decorated with mosaic tilework of concentric medallions in floral motifs. The mosque’s interior and exterior walls are fully covered with a polychrome, mostly dark blue, glazed tile. The mosque also serves as a commercial activity centre, thus transcending its principal function as a place for prayer alone.
Ali Qapu Palace
Ali Qapu (Imperial Gate) Palace is a six-storey building on the western side of Naqsh-e Jah a Square. This palace was where the Safavid Shah Abbas I (1571-1629) spent most of his time, received visitors and foreign emissaries and used the upper galleries to watch polo games and military parades. The palace, whose name Ali Qapu is an Azeri word meaning “The Excellent Gate”, was the residence of the Safavid kings.The first three floors of the palace were used as administrative offices. The terrace located on the fourth floor faces the glorious Naqsh-e Jahan Square and two of the top Iranian mosques, Sheikh Lotfollah and Shah. The flower, bird and animal motifs adorning the walls and ceilings of Ali Qapu are the work of painter Reza Abbasi and his apprentices. The palace is depicted on the reverse of the Iranian 20,000 rials banknote.
Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque
Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque was completed in 1619 after nearly 20 years of work. It is a famous masterpiece of Iranian architecture, located on the eastern side of Naqsh-e Jahan Square. The mosque’s rich interior and exterior tile ornaments made it one of the most visited tourist sites in Isfahan. The purpose of this mosque was to be private to the royal court. For this reason, the mosque does not have any minarets. To avoid having to walk across the square to the mosque, Shah Abbas used the tunnel spanning the square from Ali Qapu Palace to the mosque. In contrast to the simple structure of the mosque, the decoration of both interior and exterior is exquisite. Only the finest materials and most talented craftsmen were used to decorate the mosque.
Qeysarriyeh Bazaar or Grand Bazaar
The main commercial activities in the Qeysarriyeh Bazaar are carpet and kilim selling. The bazaar was one of the greatest and most luxurious trading centres in the Safavid era. It was built in 1620 on the northern side of Naqsh-e Jahan Square. The Grand Bazaar of Isfahan itself is like a covered town. Many historic buildings are located in the Qeysarriyeh Bazaar. Its massive brick vaulting connects the Safavid centre to the city’s ancient heart, the Great Mosque or Masjed-e Jāmé of Isfahan.
Masjed-e Jamé of Isfahan
Masjed-e Jamé was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2012. The mosque’s core structure dates from the 11th century when the Seljuk Turks established Isfahan as their capital. It is the oldest preserved construction of this kind in Iran and has served as a prototype for later mosque designs throughout Central Asia. The mosque illustrates a sequence of architectural construction and decorative styles of different periods in Iranian Islamic architecture, covering 12 centuries. With over 20,000 square metres, this unique complex is one of the most important mosques in Iran and Islamic art. Rumour has it that this place might have been a Zoroastrian temple before a mosque was erected.This exceptional masterpiece has not only different architecture and decoration styles but also several outstanding inscriptions in Arabic and Farsi calligraphy. The mosque was the city’s most important religious place, where all inhabitants would gather on Friday to join the prayer. Because of its central location, at the heart of one of Persia’s greatest capital, it was not only a religious place but also a centre of the political, commercial, and social life of Isfahan.
Moshir al-Molk house
Moshir al-Molk is a beautiful historic Iranian house. The family of house owners Moshir Ansari were officials of the Safavid government who came to Isfahan from Shiraz during the ruling time of Shah Abbas. The mansion has a unique and royal architecture and avant-garde structure. The house has the largest and most historical sash window in Iran and was officially registered as a national heritage site in 2009. Admire beautifully carved and decorated ceilings with Persian calligraphy، mirrorwork and paintings and the richly ornamental walls. The Islamic heritage museum located in this building; includes a library, gallery, and halls.
One room of the house is dedicated to the traditional music of Iran played on old historic radios.
Vank Cathedral, also known as the Holy Saviour Cathedral, is the largest and most visited cathedral in Isfahan’s Julfa. The name “Vank” means “monastery” in Armenian. After the Ottoman war in 1603–1605, and upon returning to Iran, Shah Abbas I forced the Armenians to move to the Jolfa area of Isfahan. The small cathedral in Isfahan built by Armenians in the early 17th century was later expanded and turned into the magnificent Vank Cathedral. The cathedral combines two architectural styles: its interior presents a sample of Armenian architecture, and its exterior facade has a touch of Iranian architecture. With stunning paintings, carvings and tilings, the interior of Vank Cathedral is a true masterpiece of art. The paintings include Bible stories on the dome, Persian floral ornaments on the ceilings, and Armenian national motifs on the walls.
Vank Cathedral complex also has a library and museum, which includes an Armenian book that was the first book ever printed in Iran. Visiting this place is a great pleasure as you get to see the collection of old manuscripts, bibles, and other objects relating to Armenians.
Address: Vank Cathedral alley, Eastern Nazar Street, Hakim Nezami intersection.
One of the reasons Isfahan was chosen as the capital city of the Safavid Empire was the largest river on the Iranian plateau, the Zayanderud River. Khaju Bridge is one of eleven bridges built across the river. tt was built on the order of Shah Abbas the second in 1650. 137 metres long and 12 metres wide Khaju Bridge is the only bridge decorated with polychrome tilework in Iran. Visiting Kaju bridge during nighttime when it is beautifully lit up is a sight that should not be missed. Khaju Bridge is one of the most famous places in Isfahan where people tend to gather, where they get inspired by the architecture of the bridge and sing for the rest of the night.
Menar Jonban, literally meaning shaking minarets, is a historic monument and the burial place of Amu Abdollah Soqlabi, who was a mystic in the 14th century. Archaeological studies suggest that the two brick minarets were added to his mausoleum later. The interesting fact about these minarets is not their simultaneously shake, but the mystery behind the shaking. Since the minarets are identical, the movement of one will cause the same effect on the other. Once you shake one of the minarets, the other minarets, along with the whole building, start shaking.
Atashgah Fire Temple
Atashgah Zoroastrian Fire Temple is located on a rocky hill of 100 metres in the Marbin district of Isfahan. Atashgah Fire Temple is made of red clay. When you reach the top of the hill, you will be able to see a spectacular view over Isfahan. Also, an admirable landscape of groves and farms can be seen from up there. The circular tower at the top of the Maras or Marbin hill is the signature monument of this place. This circular fire altar is five metres in diameter and is surrounded by a wall with eight windows.
Where to stay
I would recommend one of the oldest and biggest hotels in Iran, the 5-star hotel Abbasi. Built during the 18th-century, the hotel is located in the historic part of the city. The Abbasi’s main building was once the caravanserai placed around a spacious garden of ponds and towering cedars. Abbasi hotel has 225 double rooms and suites spread across three floors.
For a deeper understanding of the history of Isfahan, I recommend hiring a tour guide. I have had a great experience with Mohammad Maradi. I highly recommend him and his company.
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Author: Anita Sāne