Children splash about in the turquoise pool in central Naqsh-e Jahan Square. Families picnic on blankets in the shade of fruit trees in the city's many gardens. Human nightingales burst into song under the arches of the almost-400-year-old Khaju Bridge over the tranquil River Zayandeh. Young couples look in the windows of antique shops stuffed with vintage clocks, glass ornaments and old radios.
Esfahan is, in short, a delight, and it well lives up to its reputation as a living museum of traditional culture. Or as Robert Byron said in Travels to Oxiana: Esfahan is, like Rome and Athens, a "refreshment of humanity". While we agree with Byron's sentiments, at Burrows&Bird we see Esfahan as more akin to Florence with its stunning works of art including exquisite mosques, palaces and churches, its waterways and bridges, and its inhabitants' love of the good life. Either way, the city is a highlight of any trip to Iran.
What to see
Naqsh-e Jahan Square
More like an Italian piazza than anything most foreigners would expect to see in Iran, this Unesco World Heritage Site was begun in 1602. The centrepiece of Shah Abbas the Great's capital, the square is more than 500m long and 163m wide, making it the second biggest square on earth after Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
This Unesco World Heritage Site is Iran's biggest mosque and one of its most beautiful. Two domes from the 11th century remain, while other parts of the complex date from the 12th century, with a number of successive rulers making their own enhancements since. Walking through the mosque is like viewing an exhibition covering 800 years of Islamic design, from the geometric precision of the Seljuks, though the Mongol era, to the ornate style of the Safavids.
Shah (Blue) mosque
Also known as the Imam Mosque, this giant building was started in 1612 and only completed 10 years after Shah Abbas I's death. The tilework is phenomenal, showcasing a huge range of styles and colours. The main prayer hall's bulbous exterior dome is shaped differently inside; it's a splendid example of a double dome, the inner one distributing the structural load while the outer dome has a more appealing shape. The echo inside is impressive; visitors stand on a central platform to clap and hear the noise resound. Don't expect to come here for quiet reflection.
SHEIKH Lotfollah Mosque
The delicacy and mathematical precision of the patterns on the interior dome and exquisite yet restrained tilework throughout make an ideal complement to the overwhelming richness of the Shah Mosque, also on Naqsh-e Jahan Square. This mosque is dedicated to Sheikh Lotfollah, Shah Abbas I's Lebanese father-in-law, an Islamic scholar who oversaw the Shah Mosque and theological school.
Esfahan is bisected by the Zayandeh River, which locals love to stroll along at sunset. Five of the 11 bridges over the river date at least to Safavid times. Walking from the Bridge of 33 Arches (Pol-e Si-o-Seh), which is almost 330m long, to Khaju Bridge (Pol-e Khaju), which at Burrows&Bird we think is Esfahan's finest bridge, is a most relaxing and invigorating experience. It's also one that gives an intimate feel for life in the city.
One of the oldest and largest bazaars in the Middle East, this labyrinthine shoppers' delight links the main square with the Jameh Mosque, almost 2kms away. The oldest parts of the bazaar are more than 1,000 years old, but most of it dates to the building frenzy of the 1600s when Shah Abbas I located his capital at Esfahan.
Shah Abbas I moved an entire colony of Armenian Christians from Jolfa in northern Iran to his capital in Isfahan as he required their talents as merchants, entrepreneurs and artists. Vank Cathedral, or the Church of Saint Joseph of Arimathea, was, and still is, the spiritual centre of the Armenian Church in Iran. The cathedral's interior is lavishly decorated in a style that boldly blends East and West, with golden-winged angels and Christian saints among swirling Islamic decoration.
Chehel Sotoun Palace
The 'Forty Pillar' Palace ('chehel' is 40, 'sotoun' means 'pillar') is a Safavid-era reception hall and pleasure pavilion and the only surviving palace of Isfahan's old royal precinct. The vast entrance terrace is supported by 20 very slim, 16m-tall wooden pillars that are reflected in a still pool. The Great Hall is covered with murals depicting historical scenes of battle and diplomacy. A lush garden, one of the nine Persian gardens on the Unesco World Heritage List, surrounds the palace. The teahouse within the garden is a lovely spot to relax with a cup of sweet tea.
Ali Qapu Palace
This columned building was the entranceway ('qapu' means 'door' or 'gate') to the royal compound, from where the shah and his court viewed the maydan (square). Look out for the old pool made from marble and copper plates on the viewing area, or talar, as well as the music rooms on the top floors with intricate plaster ceilings designed to assist acoustics for court musicians.