Esfahan is ‘half the world’ as the popular rhyme goes and its reputation is not without good reason.
Stunning tile-covered buildings, green parks and relaxing bridges over the river put it at the top of the list of places to see in Iran. Esfahan is also Iran’s most bike-friendly city.
You’ll see plenty of locals out pedalling and even dedicated bicycle lanes on some streets, although predictably you’ll likely have to share these with the occasional motorbike. The very friendly tourist office is in Imam Square, near the entrance Ali Qapu palace. If you want to renew your Iranian visa in Esfahan, click here for more information.
Sleeping: For the number of tourists it receives, Esfahan is rather short on reasonably priced sleeping options. Expect to fork out a bit extra for decent digs here.
Amir Kabir Hostel on Charbagh Street (just north of the centre, near Chahar Rah-e-Takhti) is the budget spot of choice, or rather just about the only backpacker-oriented hotel in Esfahan. It’s reasonably clean and you should meet other travellers here but overall it’s certainly nothing to write home about. Rooms are cramped and can be noisy. If you’re going for a dorm bed, ask to be placed in room 2 because beds in the other dorm actually vibrate from passing traffic. There’s one shared bathroom between 8 beds. A spot in the dorm is 40,000 Rials and double rooms are 150,000 Rials but for private digs you should be able to bargain the price down a bit. Staff speak reasonable English, there’s a cheap laundry service and you can store valuables in a safe. (0311 222 7273 or email mrziaee at hotmail dot com)
A little further down Charbagh Street, just south of Imam Hossein Square, is Iran Hotel. We didn’t stay here but it was recommended by other travellers. Worth checking out as an alternative to Amir Kabir. (0311 220 2692 Chaharbagh Abbasi, Sepahan Lane)
If you want a mid-range option, the Hotel Isfahan gets good reviews. Its atmosphere with a restored courtyard is said to be similar to the popular Silk Road hotel in Yazd.
Self-catering: There are plenty of small convenience stores selling the usual staples all over Esfahan. You’ll also find some fruit and vegetable stands on the south side of Chaharbagh Street, walking away from Si-oh-Se Bridge.
Eating out: You’ll find restaurants, ice cream and juice stands galore on Chaharbagh Street.
Many of these restaurants are nameless but if you walk to around 270 Chaharbagh Street, on the left side going towards the river, you’ll come to a place called Abdoul Vahab (Tel. 0311 222 1975) with two levels and chicken roasting outside. We thought this quite possibly the best roast chicken we’ve had in the Middle East. You can get a half chicken with roasted vegetables, yogurt, bread and drinks for 50,000 Rials. Take it to the nearby park and enjoy an outdoor feast.
Next door is the small and simple Emtehan Kebabi. It only serves ground meat kebabs but it does this one dish very well and cheaply; proven by the fact that its tables are packed with locals. A meal including a drink and yogurt is 15,000 Rials, hard to beat for the price.
Elsewhere, the going rate for a large pizza at any of the fast food joints is about 25,000 Rials. For desert, soft serve ice cream cones are everywhere for 2,000 Rials.
Just off the famous Imam Square is Mikhak Restaurant. We highly recommend it for lunch. This bustling little spot servesall the usual kebabs plus nice variations like koresht, a meat stew with apricots, and fried fish. Meals come with soup and two people can eat very well here for as little as 50,000 Rials. They do take away orders as well. To find it, face the main Qeysarieh gate and look to your right for a small, short alley leading out of the square, briefly through the bazaar and out the other side. As soon as you come out of the bazaar you should see the restaurant on a small side street to your left. Any trader should be able to direct you if you’re lost. (Sofreh Khaneh Naghshe Jahan, 0311 222 3291 or 091 3105 8279)
For a cup of coffee, head towards the Armenian quarter of Jolfa on the south side of the river. Just around the corner from Vank Cathedral you’ll find Shant coffee shop playing 60s hits and serving up a cappuccino to die for. Coffees start from about 15,000 Rials and a slice of chocolate cake goes for 10,000 Rials. They make milkshakes too. Hard choice! Open from 10am. (Jolfa Alley, Vank Church Alley, East Nazar Street, 0311 628 7525)
Esfahan’s famous ash soup is hard to find but definitely try a bowl if you run across it (look for a gigantic pot containing a soup with lentils and noodles). It’s incredibly filling and costs only pennies a serving. A few popular spots that used to serve ash have closed down recently and there don’t appear to be any replacements around the city centre. If you find one, let us know!
What to see: Esfahan isn’t short on sights. There are quite literally dozens in and around the town but if you have to pick just a few make sure you don’t miss:
Imam Square – The second largest square in the world. It’s quite easy to lose yourself here for several hours, taking in the various sights and shops or just people watching from one of the benches.
Imam Mosque and Jameh Mosque – Imam Mosque, off Imam Square, is a flood of blue mosaics. Jameh Mosque, also known as the Friday Mosque, is slightly more subtle but nonetheless beautiful. You can use the alleys of the bazaar to walk between the two.
Ali Qapu Palace – There’s a great view of the square from the top floor of the palace and some nice mosaic work and paintings to admire too. Make sure to try out the whispering wall as you enter the palace. Stand in one corner facing the wall, have a friend stand in the diagonally opposite corner and then try chatting to each other.
Si-o-Se Bridge – Another great place to just sit back and watch the world pass by. Esfahanis like to hide in the arches and chat or dangle their feet over the river. There are some picnic tables at the foot of the bridge, by the water. Bring your lunch and enjoy.
Bethlehem Church – In the Armenian quarter, this is smaller than Vank Cathedral but nonetheless impressive with its beautiful paintings and the entrance fee is considerably lower at 10,000 Rials.
Staying connected: The going rate for most internet cafes is 10,000 Rials an hour and they’re all over the city but the deal of them all is at the Central Library of Esfahan. Buy your tickets on the ground floor for just 6,000 Rials an hour and then sit down at any one of the dozens of high-speed terminals. This was the best internet access we had anywhere in Iran; reliable new computers, very quick and you can work offline for free. There are separate rooms for women (downstairs in the basement) and men (on the ground floor). Couples who want to work together can go to the women’s room. Open from 8am-8pm, Saturday-Thursday. (Bagh-e-Goldasteh Street, across from a main entrance to Shahid Radjai Park)