Things to see and do in Esfahan

Esfahan half of the world

Centrally located, east of the Zagros Mountain range, this former capital of Iran is known for being one of the most beautiful cities in the world, with tree lined boulevards, historical bridges and Islamic architecture. There is a famous rhyme in Persian “Esfahan nesf-e Jahan”, meaning “Esfahan is half of the world”.

Esfahan (Isfahan) is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Iran so we were excited to spend a few days there to explore what the city has to offer. We stayed with a local couple through couchsurfing. We were greeted with warm tea and fresh fruits, but unlike our previous hosts, this was the first time we sat by a dinner table, instead of sitting on the living room carpet.

In Esfahan we felt a bit more close to Europe. It felt a bit more modern. The Naqsh-e Jahan square, a UNESCO site and one of the largest city squares in the world, reminded us of a park in Vienna. It was calm, people were relaxing on the grass, and tourists were circling the square on touristy horse wagons. The scenery is however stunning, on one end you have the famous Shah mosque, the other the imperial bazaar, and in between is the Ali Qapu palace surrounded by buildings from the Safavid era (1501-1736). During this era, under the rule of Shah Abbas, Esfahan flourished and was strategically situated in the center of the country, unreachable by the Ottoman Empire.

The Naqsh-e Jahan square, a UNESCO site and one of the largest city squares in the world The Naqsh-e Jahan square

 The Naqsh-e Jahan square Isfahan People enjoying their afternoon on the square

The music room in Al Qapu palace The music room in Al Qapu palace 

After threading the square and the bazaar, we were starting to get hungry. In Iran you won’t find many restaurants, mainly small coffee shops, but luckily we happened to stumble upon a true gem, Nagash-e-Jahan restaurant. After walking up a pair of stairs you enter a courtyard with a great view over the Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque. This traditional restaurant is lined with colourful tiles and glass windows, and serves amazing chelow Kabab and Iranian black tea.

The Naqsh-e Jahan restaurant Isfahan Nagash-e-Jahan, a traditional Iranian restaurant

The Naqsh-e Jahan restaurant Isfahan Tea-drinking is a big part of Iranian culture

The Naqsh-e Jahan restaurant Isfahan

Unlike the desert cities, the Zayande River flows from the Zagros Mountains through the heart of Esfahan. We really enjoyed walking by the river, stopping at the many teahouses near the ancient Si-o-Seh Pol and Kahju Bridge (over 400 year old). Unfortunately, as a result of drought and badly planned damming, the river water is often non-existent or shallow.

Siosehpol bridge Isfahan Under the Si-o-Seh Pol bridge

Siosehpol bridge Isfahan - Ása Steinarsdóttir This 400 year old bridge is truly unique

Siosehpol bridge Isfahan

In Esfahan you will find a district called the New Jolfa, or the Armenian district, with around 10.000 Iranian citizens who are ethnically Armenians. They were deported to Esfahan from historical Armenia in the 17th century by king of Iran, Shah Abbas. Today, you won’t hear Armenian spoken on the streets, only Persian. Nonetheless, adding to the European character, here you will find Armenian schools and 16 churches, most famously the Vank cathedral, surrounded by well-kept streets with cozy coffee houses with free Wi-fi (one of few in Iran). Today Armenians are Iran’s largest Christian religious minority.

Interior of Vank Cathedral in Isfahan Iran Interior of Vank Cathedral in Isfahan Iran 


Our hosts were curious about Icelandic culture and asked us to prepare a traditional Icelandic dinner for them. Since we don’t cook much at home we had to think for a while. Most of our traditional cuisine consists of third class sheep leftovers, like sheepshead, tongue and blood-filled intestines, which apparently they also eat in Iran. After a trip to the supermarket with a few recipes in mind we felt hopeless. We just couldn’t find the ingredients… no pesto, no croutons, no BBQ, no parmesan, no sugarcane! Due to the sanctions, you only seem to find Iranian products. We couldn’t even find Colgate in the toothpaste department.

Later that evening our host helped us to shop the last ingredients, but not at the supermarket but at the many local corner shops in his neighbourhood. One shop sold only cheese, and after a few tastes we found the best feta cheese. Our host paid for all the ingredients for us, but when he was about to pay for the cheese we noticed the cashier making a gesture; he didn’t want to accept the payment, and said “this is so little, just a bit of cheese”. However, our host insisted on paying, but the cashier replied “Oh be my guest this time, your presence is enough honour for me” but at the same time he took the money from his hand.

The old bazar of Isfahan Hunting for the right ingredients

Local shop Iran Typical Iranian shop

This is called “Taarof” a special art of Iranian etiquette or politeness, which encompasses a range of social behaviours, from opening a door for a woman to denying a cup of tea at least three times before accepting the offer. After the third time the host will know whether you seriously don’t want a cup of tea or not. Taarof may sometimes cause misunderstandings between both parties and can be a source for awkward situations in a social setting. For example when a host piles food on a guest’s plate despite the guest’s refusal. The host believes that the guest is Taarofing, but the guest is actually full and satisfied. This can also be confusing for tourists. We met a solo traveller from Brazil in Iran who was telling us how generous the Iranian people are. He told us that, yesterday, he had filled his motorcycle’s gasoline tank but when he asked the attendant “how much?” the attendant replied “ Its not a big deal, please be my guest”. Having never heard of Taarof, our Brazilian friend, thanked him dearly for the free petrol and ran off on his bike, probably leaving the attendant very confused.

Iranian Tarof Iranian Taarof ?

Next our journey continued to the red clay cillage – Abyaneh and Tehran.

Are you thinking about travelling to Iran? Read our Ultimate travel guide to Iran here! 

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  • Reply
    March 9, 2015 at 8:08 pm

    Skemmtilegt blogg! Mér þótti sérstaklega athyglisvert að lesa hvaða matvörur þið tölduð upp fyrir íslenska matargerð…parmesan, brauðteningar og pestó er ekki beint það sem kemur fyrst upp í hugann á mér þegar ég hugsa um íslenskan mat 🙂 …en hvað elduðuð þið fyrir þau?

    • Reply
      March 11, 2015 at 6:35 am

      Takk Kría 🙂
      Haha, eina sem okkur datt í sem íslensk matargerð var þorramatur, hrísgrjónagrautur og kjötsúpa! Enda erum við ekki miklir kokkar heima á Íslandi :’) Allt sem okkur fanst ansi erfitt að útfæra eða óspennandi fyrir þau að prófa. Þannig á endanum ákváðum við að finna uppskrift af kjúklingarétt á íslenskum vefsíðum. Þegar við komum í búðina fundum við ekkert af því sem okkur vantaði. Sama hvað við skiptum oft um uppskrift var aldrei til efni í hana. Við enduðum á því að elda fyrir þau ofnbakaðan kjúkling með hvítlauk, sósu, grænmeti og fetaosti yfir. Við héldum að þetta yrði mjög óspennandi fyrir þau. En þau höfðu aldrei séð neitt í líkingu við þetta! Eiginkonunni fannst þetta svo framandi að hún ákvað að sleppa því að borða. Þau höfðu aldrei séð ofnbakaðann fetaost t.d. Þar sem nánast allir íranirnir borða ansi einhæfan mat, aðalega baunakássur, omulettur og kjötrétti sem eru allir svipaðir. En eiginmanninum og vini hans fanst þetta æði! haha…

  • Reply
    March 12, 2015 at 10:39 am

    Hi dear Asa, Realllyyyyyyyyyyyyy Interesting blog:)))))))))
    Thank you for the nice and honest writings and hope that you enjoyed your trip in Iran,
    Just one point:
    I guess that the first picture in Isfahan part in which you wore hijab is related to Shah-e- Cheragh in Shiraz.
    So I thought maybe you didn’t notice that:)
    Best wishes with you and your trip:)
    Hope to seeeeeeeeeeee you soon again!!!!!!

  • Reply
    September 19, 2015 at 7:07 pm

    I’m so glad that you a great time in Iran . Hope you enjoyed everything .

    Ps: I think the first picture of this post that you wrote on it Esfahan is not Esfahan , It’s Shah Cheragh Shrine in Shiraz . 😉 . Hope to see you guys again in Shiraz 😀

  • Reply
    June 22, 2016 at 6:40 am

    Hi guys,
    Really interesting blog. nice and professional pictures.
    Just the first picture used for Esfahan has taken in Shah-e Cheragh in Shiraz. maybe another picture could introduce Esfahan better 🙂

    Wish you an awesome journey

  • Reply
    December 18, 2016 at 2:10 am

    First picture is shiraz-Iran

  • Reply
    April 13, 2017 at 8:27 am

    Oh, my friend , I enjoyed it so much especially about “taarof” ?
    I’m a girl 20 from Esfahan
    Anyway , I hope see u again in lran ?

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