Esfahan: ‘Half the World’ in One Amazing Day

Esfahan.  Finally.  This is the real reason I am here in Iran.  After years of dreaming about visiting this city, I am actually here, and I couldn’t be more excited.  The ruins of Persepolis were absolutely fascinating, and I’m sure that the big city sights and sounds of Tehran will be exhilarating, but it is Esfahan’s rich history and architectural wonders that made me long so deeply to visit this country.

Esfahan’s nickname, ‘Nesf-e Jahan‘, or ‘Half the World‘, is a fitting one for a city which possesses such exquisite monuments to rival the likes of Rome, Istanbul, Paris or Athens.  And rightfully so.  Walking around and exploring the city’s marvels, I kept asking myself,  “Am I really, actually here?”.  It’s that kind of place.

My guide Ahmad and I began the day at the Hasht Behesht Palace, where we happened to meet Zahra, an Iranian girl from Mashhad, Iran’s second largest city.  We ended up somehow spending the entire day together, laughing while taking selfies everywhere we went.  We each only spoke a few words in each other’s language, so Ahmad served as our constant interpreter.  ‘Selfie’, however, needed no translation.  And this girl was the queen of selfies.

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The painted ‘muqarna’ ceiling details of the Hasht Behesht Palace

After taking a few more selfies at the beautiful Chehel Sotun Palace, we approached Esfahan’s masterpiece, Naqsh-e Jahan Square, the second largest in the world after Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.  The extraordinary beauty of it lies in the combined grandeur of its famous trio of monuments – the Masjed-e Shah, Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfollah, and the Ali Qapu Palace.  The square was undeniably the highlight of this entire trip – and mind you, I’m saying this only 5 days in with 16 left to go.  That’s how amazing it is.  Look at the pictures, but they won’t do it any justice.  The intricate tile, paint and plaster work will blow your mind.  You have to come here to see it.  Just ask Ahmad how hard it was to pull me away from the interior of the Masjed-e Shah’s dome – I didn’t want to leave!

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Interior of the extraordinary dome of the Masjed-e-Shah

After more than an hour sketching the Masjed-e Shah in the scorching afternoon sun, it was time for a break.  We had lunch at a traditional restaurant serving delicious Esfahani beryani, and finished it off with some classic Persian tea, without which no meal in Iran would be truly complete.  But this was not just tea – it can only be described as a tea ‘dessert platter’, complete with various forms of sugar, including rock candy stirrers and ‘ghaz’, Esfahan’s famous nougat candy made with pistachios and rose water.

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Zahra, Ahmad and I enjoying some afternoon tea

In Esfahan’s bustling Bazar-e Bozorg, I (easily) resisted the urge to buy a gorgeous $5000 (!!!) carpet that caught my eye, and bought a few boxes of ghaz to take home for family and friends to try.  Later, we visited the magnificent fresco-covered walls of Vank Cathedral in Jolfa, Esfahan’s Armenian quarter.  Craving coffee after 5 days of withdrawal, we relaxed with a cappuccino at one of Jolfa’s many cafes.  It was a treat in a country where tea is king, and coffee is… well, hard to find.

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Our handcrafted caffeinated concoctions at Cafe Ani, an Armenian coffeeshop in Jolfa

After more than 12 hours of exploring the delights of Esfahan, we should have been tired – but the caffeine must have kicked in, and soon we were on our way to the Pol-e Si-o-Seh, one of many famous bridges spanning the Zayandeh River.  The sun had just set and the beautifully-lit bridge was full of people walking across it and enjoying the views.  The swarms of mosquitoes hovering around the river’s edge made it especially difficult for our selfie-taking, but we persevered and managed a few.

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One of many selfies taken today, this one in front of the Si-o-Seh Bridge

And now that the hungry mosquitoes had had their dinner, it was time for us to have ours, and we decided on the revolving restaurant at the top of the Aseman Hotel, where our new friend Zahra was staying.  She invited us up to her room for tea after dinner, but a firm ‘no’ from the hotel’s reception desk brought us back to the reality of the current Iran.  This kind of thing, though completely innocent, was strictly forbidden.  Shaking it off, we took a few more selfies together and said ‘khoshbakhtam’ (nice to meet you) and ‘khoda hafez’ (goodbye).  After 14 hours and no after-dinner tea, now we were truly exhausted.

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Delicious koobideh kebab, definitely one of my favorite Persian dishes!

Barring the mosquitoes and hotel reception, it was a perfect day in Esfahan, and far better than I could have imagined, even after so many years of anticipation.  New friends, great food, and truly awe-inspiring sights.  With so much to see, do, taste and experience in Esfahan – it’s hard not to feel like you’ve just visited half the world!

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Excited to finally be in Naqsh-e-Jahan Square!

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Naqsh-e-Jahan Square from the Ali Qapu Palace

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The intricate, musically-themed ‘muqarnas’ in the music room of the Ali Qapu Palace

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The lofty façade of the Masjed-e-Shah

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A closer look at the incredible details of the Masjed-e-Shah’s dome

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An elegant arched passageway in one of the Masjed-e-Shah’s inner courtyards

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View of the immense Naqsh-e-Jahan Square, second largest in the world!

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Exterior of the Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfollah

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The exquisite interior of the Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfollah’s dome

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My sketch of the Masjed-e Shah on Naqsh-e Jahan Square

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Delicious Esfahani biryani!

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The art of Persian tea – sugar cubes, honey wafers, rock candy, gaz, and of course.. tea

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Whoever thought to use rock candy stirrers for tea is just brilliant!

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Esfahan’s huge Bazar-e Bozorg, just off of the famous Naqsh-e Jahan Square

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Vank Cathedral in Jolfa, Esfahan’s Armenian quarter

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One of the beautiful frescoes which cover the interior of Vank Cathedral

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Taking a much-needed caffeine break at Cafe Ani

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The coffeehouse-chic interior of Cafe Ani

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The magnificent Pol-e Si-o-Seh in the early evening

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Another view of the beautifully-illuminated Si-o-Seh Bridge

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The peaceful Zayandeh river at dusk, seen through one of the bridge’s 33 arches

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As idyllic as this scene looks, the swarms of mosquitoes made it hard to fully enjoy!

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The revolving restaurant at the top of the Aseman Hotel

For more about Iran, visit the Ancient Persia journey page.

For more photos of Esfahan, check out these Galleries:  Esfahan and Naqsh-e Jahan.