Esfahan is the third-largest city of Iran and one of the most beautiful cities in the world. In ancient times, there used to be a popular belief, that if you have seen Esfahan, then you have experienced half of the world. Resplendent with beautiful monuments, gardens, boulevards, and bridges, it is indeed a jewel in the Persian crown. The true connoisseurs of all branches of beauty, Iranians love bridges, tunnels, gardens, and camping, and Esfahan’s architectural jewels comprised of them all. The city, however, in spite of its formidable beauty let me down in a big way, and apart from Tehran, it is an Iranian city, where I was badly fleeced. Esfahan is perhaps the most visited city in Iran and its residents make full use of the heavy volume of eager-eyed, culturally awed travelers who arrive there in hordes. Hiking of prices, scams, and aggressive hustling are problems there and I blame these on Esfahan’s tourist circuit popularity.

All roads in Esfahan leads to carpet shops

Thus the spectacularly beautiful ancient city has its share of little amusing foibles too and all roads in Esfahan (for foreigners) lead to carpet shops. The suave Esfahanis are more commercially progressive than the rest of their Iranian counterparts and they unload you out of your money in style. Friendly and full of panache, you kind of find it easy to fork out more than necessary when your smiling Esfahani guide takes you to a shop, attraction, or restaurant, and sooner than later, you will be on your way home, loaded with shopping you really didn’t need. Needless to say, by the time you realize that you have paid triple the price for all your Esfahani pleasures, the magnificent Persian city leaves you numb with beautiful memories of a stunning destination of smiling people. But, keeping in mind that Iran is one of the most pocket-friendly destinations in the world, Esfahan doesn’t leave a bad aftertaste, unless honesty and fairness are high on your travel priority list.

Watch out for the tourist traps

My previous two Esfahan experiences were not very monetarily pleasant and I was unfortunate enough to fall into a couple of touristy traps there. The first was my “nice” Esfahani guide, Ms. Mozhgan Mohameddi, who later turned out to be “not so nice” after all. Not only did she lead me to a carpet and souvenir shop of her”relative”, but also charged me double the regular guiding fee. My first-timer excitement and a language barrier too did not work in my favour and she managed to make me pay me around 25 Usd at Naqsh-e-Jahan restaurant for lunch, which on my next solo visit turned out to be for only 9 Usd. Inflation works in funny ways for wide-eyed tourists in Esfahan and in that regard, it resembles any other beautiful, touristy city, a real half of the world.

Be wary in Esfahan

Esfahan is absolutely DIY kind of a place and the help of a guide is required only if you want to know about the monuments’ historical significance in detail. 25 Usd is the regular guiding fee and the price starts from 20. Lunch is included and even if you gorge (like me and Ashkan), you cannot spend more than 9 Usd and you will end up wasting a lot of food. Beware of scammers and hustlers, (like my guide) and it is recommended that you hand out cash for bill payments, attraction fees, etc in Iranian currency (after double confirming it in tomans) directly to the vendors. Please note that these prices quoted are from 2011-2013 and at the moment Iran, is a tad bit more expensive.

Naqsh-e-Jahan Square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

My third Esfahan visit, thanks to my very honest and non-English speaking driver friend Ashkan was the best. Post breakfast, we went for a walk to the awesome Naqsh-e-Jahan square which was 2 minutes away from the Setarah hotel, and the area was Esfahan’s most popular tourist beat. A Unesco World Heritage Site, Naqsh-e-Jahan is famous for impressive mosques, palaces, and bazaars. Even though I have visited the square twice before, its sheer size and grandeur never fail to take my breath away. We started with the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque. Exquisite and intimate, it is my favourite place to feel blue. The private mosque of the Safavid dynasty rulers, Lotfollah literally makes you feel happily blue and Esfahan’s tile work is famously aqua-toned.

The charming Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque

More exquisite, intimate, and detailed than the towering Shah mosque, I love watching light filtering through its blue tiles and trellises. The breathtaking central golden peacock dome never fails to mesmerize and during all my visits, I lost many hours counting time on its splendid sundial. Lotfollah’s beauty is easy, unassuming, and mortal in temperament. Unlike the massive Shah mosque, its relaxed fluidity is like poetry and the beauty always makes me feel warm and homey, rather than awe-struck. The congregational Shah mosque, however, is a completely different story, and its grandeur is designed to stun the viewers. But, in spite of its intimidating beauty, Shah Mosque is one of the most magnificent monuments I have ever seen and it had derived its power from the sheer size and powerful acoustic effect. Apart from being connoisseurs of beauty, ancient Persians were clever architects and sound engineers too, and the interiors of Shah Mosque have the most resounding acoustic qualities.

The stupendous Shah Mosque

It adds depths to its cavernous interiors and everything, including the Zagros Mountains, seems small in comparison. One of my most beautiful Esfahani memories is that of the Shah Mosque at sunrise, with the Zagros Mountains misting in the background. At that time of the day, the blue and gold decorated monument truly resembles the glittering dawn sky. Shah Mosque is spectacular throughout the day and I always feel drowned inside its infinite blue interiors. Richly covered with exquisite signature Esfahani “blue” tiles, the monument is a powerful mix of flowers, calligraphy, quotes from the Koran, and tall shadows. The highlight of the stunning Naqsh-e-Jahan Square, the massive congregational Mosque is an architectural gem, and in the olden times, the booming surround sound effect of the main dome helped the imam call the far-flung masses for their spiritual obeisance.

People watching at the lively square

I can write at least a dozen posts on the grandeur of Esfahan and it is exactly for the same reason that the “half of the world” city is very exhausting. Ashkan and I stayed in Esfahan for two days and we dedicated the first whole day to the gorgeous Naqsh-e-Jahan Square. Shopping and people-watching were great fun at the square and we spent hours browsing through the cavernous bazaars. Fountain, flowers, jingling horse carts and hordes of merrymakers filled the “meydan” with laughter, energetic rush and it felt good to be in midst of so many infectious happy vibes. We concluded our first Esfahan day with a good lunch of Dizi and doog and it was once again at the beautiful Naqsh-e-Jahan restaurant, where I was badly scammed by my guide on my first Esfahan visit. However, all’s well, that ends well, and Dizi lunch was the best possible way to conclude an Esfahani day.

Eating Dizi at Esfahan

A wholesome and artistic meal, Dizi is a healthy vegetable and meat stew, served along with olives (marinated in pomegranate paste), freshly sliced onion, herbs, grapefruit slices, and grainy sesame bread. The presentation of the meal at the Naqsh-e-Jahan restaurant was dramatic and the mirror and stained glass interiors of the restaurant added to the experience. The stew was brought in ceremoniously by waiters dressed as genies, and it was then pounded into pulp with mortar. I stared at the entire preparation with bated excitement and diligently followed Ashkan’s Dizi eating etiquette. Pooled on my plate, the mash looked unappetizing until a dash of fragrant grapefruit juice changed all that for good. Suddenly, Dizi burst on my tongue with an explosion of flavours, and I scooped out entire the mash using the bread as a spoon. Although a little weird sounding, the end result was simply divine and it was a dish befitting a city of unparalleled beauty and fame, a city confidently crowned as “half of the world”.

Something to remember

Do try the amazing Dizi at the Naqsh-e-Jahan restaurant. Carpets, calico, silver filigree work, enamel-coated pottery, etc are Esfahani specialties and you can shop there till you drop. The shops at Naqsh-e-Jahan Square, like all tourist places, are overpriced and you can take local help, using your discretion, to guide you to another fair-priced bazaar.

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