12 years later, I returned to Iran again. The main purpose of my visit was to spend time with my university friend Orod and his family. I started my journey in Esfahan, flying in from Bahrain via Dubai. At the Esfahan Airport, the immigration process took longer than expected. It took more than 45 minutes for 10 foreigners to get our visa on arrival processed, along with the visa payment (50 Euros) and travel insurance (15 Euros). I was surprised to see how disorganized it was, especially because more and more foreigners were visiting day by day and this must be a daily occurrence. You can take a look at the Iran Checklist blog.
I befriended an Iranian named Mohammed (everyone in Iran was named Mohammed or Ali or Hussein or in some kind of variation like that) on the flight and was lucky to get him and his wife to drive me from the airport to downtown, since there was only one taxi waiting outside. While munching on fresh pistachios, Mohammed and I talked about the changes in Iran since my first visit and different facts about the city. I happened to arrive during Muharram, a religious period that mourns Hussain. This was one of the most important religious festivals in Iran, where the entire country dressed in black. 90% of the women wore the black burka, while men were dressed in black from top to bottom. It almost seemed like the men were going out to a club with their ironed black shirt and slacks.
I checked into Ebnesina Hotel (Ebnesina Street 37th alley) and was surprised to see so many foreigners. The last time I visited Esfahan, I stayed in an expensive hotel with Orod and it was roughly $150 USD. This time, it was a shared three person room for only $15 USD including breakfast. The entire hotel was comprised only of foreigners, more than 30 in total. I shared a room with two French lads, whom I toured Esfahan the next day. We woke up early and had a wonderful breakfast. It was nice to have the Iranian breakfast, which usually consisted of bread, cucumber, tomato, eggs, honey, jam, dates, cheese, tea, and some sort of fruit. We devoured our buffet breakfast and went for a long walk all over town.
Introduction on Esfahan
Esfahan is the second largest city with approximately 1.5M people. It was once one of the largest cities in the world when it became the capital of Persia. A lot of tourists flock here to see the famous Persian-Islamic architecture with beautiful palaces, mosques, minarets, bridges, boulevards and houses. This city is definitely a must see stop in Iran.
There are so many places to visit in Esfahan and the list can continue forever, but here are my recommendation for two full days.
This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the square is one of the largest squares in the world. To give you an idea of how big it is, the width is about 160 meters wide and the length is about 560 meters. The square is surrounded by buildings from the Safavid dynasty (one of the dynasties of Iran). The Shah Mosque is situated on the south side, Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque on the east, Ali Qapu Palace on the west and the northern side opens into the Grand Bazaar. You can be stuck in this square for hours or even days, but a few hours will do the job. There are several fountains and grassed area in the middle, benches for picnics and even horse carriages to ride around. Other than the attractions mentioned above, the sides of the square are filled with gift stores, sweet shops, carpet stores, coffee shops, you name it. It can be a pretty busy place on the weekends, but due to the mass size of the place, you will never feel claustrophobic.
This was my second time visiting the Imam Square and I have been inside all the mosques and palaces at the square. Back in 2004, I was able to get the Iranian price with my Iranian friends. I passed as an Afghani, which meant that the price was around 10K Riyals, instead of the hefty 200K Riyals for foreigners. I did not bother going into any of the buildings this time around, since it was not worth paying 150 to 200K Riyals.
I definitely recommend going to the Ali Qapu Palace, which boasts a nice view from the 3rd floor and there is a museum-like exhibit on some things. There used to be a coffee shop up there, but I’m not sure if it still exists.
Besides that, the bazaar is an interesting place to visit. It pretty much sells all kinds of things, but if you have been reading my posts, my favorite section is the dry fruit area. Gosh, I love those dates.
During this visit, I saw a lot of cute coffee shops and tourist friendly Iranian restaurants. There was one that we went to eat and the food was excellent. Just ask around the locals and they can guide you to a proper foreigner friendly restaurant.
Si-o-Seh Pol Bridge
This is one of the eleven bridges of Esfahan and the longest one on the Zayandeh River with a length of more than 295 meters. The bridge consists of 33 arches from either the left or the right hand side. Back in 2004, the river was flowing and the reflection of the bridge on the water at sunset was truly amazing. Imagine having tea right next to the bridge? Well, those days were over. This time around, I was very disappointed to see no water in the river. “What’s going on?”, I thought. I heard that there was a water shortage and a river drought at the same time. It’s still a nice place to hang out during sunrise or sunset.
If you have a chance to go north from this bridge, you will get into the Armenian quarter. As you may know, they are Christians and have different customs with the Persians. I remember walking around that area in 2004 and we saw a big party going on. I was with my friend Orod, who looks very Saudi, an Austrian Iranian who looks Greek, and a pure blonde Austrian. There were no bars or clubs in Iran and the only kind of parties were private ones. We saw a huge outdoor private party (over 500 people or more) with gates and saw women with no head cover and people drinking. Our two friends decided to enter and they got in without a problem. Orod and I got close by to the gate and then we were harassed by the Armenians. They saw Orod’s face and he clearly looked like a Muslim and started yelling and one guy punched Orod in the face. We quickly turned around and ran out of this area. It was a wise decision since we were about to get mobbed by four or five guys. That was a close one and glad that we escaped. For your information, I have been to Armenia before and the people were super friendly. This incident does not imply that Armenians are bad or dangerous.
Further east from the Si-o-Seh Pol Bridge is the Khaju Bridge, which has been described as the finest in the province. It serves as both a bridge and a dam, linking the Khaju Quarter in the north with the Zoroastrian Quarter in the south. The bridge also functions as a building and a place for public meetings. It has 23 arches and is roughly 133 meters long. I have to say that this was my favorite bridge in Esfahan, due to the size, shape, width and the architecture.
So that’s a little glimpse of what Esfahan is, but there is so much more in this city. You can explore this city for days and visit various different mosques, minarets, restaurants, gardens, fire temples and more. The list can honestly go on forever, but I just gave you a brief highlight of the must-sees.
Next up is Yazd.