This year UNESCO named Rio de Janeiro the world capital of architecture in 2020, making it the first city to ever receive such a title. If such a prize existed 400 years ago, Iran’s Isfahan would surely be named the winner. With architectural gems demonstrating Islamic, Christian and traditional Persian styles, Isfahan’s history and diversity will amaze travellers.
After whittling down the contenders, I managed to finally compile a list of five architectural sites and landmarks that visitors to Isfahan shouldn’t miss.
Naqsh-e Jahan Square
Isfahan’s most iconic architectural triumph, Naqsh e Jahan Square (also known as Imam Square), expands almost nine hectares and is the second largest square in the world, only lesser to Tiananmen Square in China. The UNESCO listed square was built in the early 17th century by the Safavid dynasty at a time when Isfahan was Iran’s capital.
Nowadays, Naqsh e Jahan Square is bordered by the stone and mosaic tiled bazaar, selling beautiful carpets, gemstones and local handicrafts. Facing into the square on all four directions are magnificent buildings: to the east, the Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque; to the west, the pavilion of Ali Qapu; to the north, the portico of Qeyssariyeh; and to the south, the Royal Mosque. These bordering buildings are perfectly balanced and harmonise with the square itself. The vast, open design of the square is unusual for Iranian architecture, lending its importance and significance as a historic landmark.
Grassy areas and fountains fill in the center of the square, with horse and carriages looping the perimeter. Outside the walls of the square, you will find more parks, various museums and the winding alleys of the bazaar.
Naqsh e Jahan, meaning “image of the world”, was built at the center of the Persian empire and aimed to embody the essence of the empire at that time. Tourists will easily fill an entire day visiting the square and surrounding sites. As evening comes, locals will flock into the square to picnic and soak up the surrounds. The best photo opportunities will be early in the morning (before 9 am) when the square will be virtually empty apart from a few locals enjoying their morning exercise. you can book luxury hotels in Isfahan easily with 1stQuest.
Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque
Situated on the easterly side of the Naqsh e Jahan Square, is the 15th-century masterpiece: Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque. Formally the private mosque of the king and his harem, the mosaics, calligraphy, and painted domes are extremely detailed and, to this day, remain extraordinary.
The entryway and hallways are beautifully painted, however, the interior of the dome steals the show. With its 13-meter diameter, it has been said that it is the finest example of Persian Islamic genius. The design of the dome is a comment on “the unity of existence”, a fundamental concept of Sufi philosophy. Iconic is the best word to describe this dome. It replicated on world-famous carpets, Tehran’s Azadi Square as well as all Isfahani souvenirs! you can book cheap hotels in Isfahan with 1stQuest.
Iranian artists, ensuring that the mosque retains its true character, have championed modern day restorative projects. Although sections of the mosque seem to be under perpetual restoration, most areas have been restored and can be enjoyed by visitors. Due to its perfect environmental symmetry, the light in the mosque is best in the morning or the afternoon. For more local tips and knowledge, you can book a local guide in Isfahan.
Built more than 350 years ago, the Vank Cathedral is a testament to both Iranian architecture and continuous religious diversity in Isfahan.
Yet another Safavid project, the Vank Cathedral was established for the tens of thousands of Armenian refugees who fled their homeland and relocated to Iran in the early 17th century. The construction of the cathedral took place over 50 years whilst the Armenians resettled, under the protection of the Shah. if you are looking for 3 days itinerary in Isfahan check out this article: 3 days itinerary of Isfahan
Like Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Vank Cathedral boasts an impressively painted dome. However, in contrast to Islamic art where intricate patterns are preferred over the depiction of people, the Christians depicted scenes from the Garden of Eden on the church’s dome. Vank’s intricate gilded carvings, tiles, and frescos show other well-told Bible stories. Although not accessible to visitors, there are around 700 handwritten books onsite recording Armenian folklore and memoirs of the Safavid era.
Vank Cathedral is in Jolfa, the Armenian Christian Quarter of Isfahan. Cobblestoned streets, boutiques and popular eateries are additional features of the neighborhood.
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Si o Se Pol Bridge
The Zayanderud River is dotted with five spectacular bridges from the Safavid period. The most celebrated of those bridges, and arguably the most famous bridge in the Middle East, is Si o Se Pol. Translating to the “Bridge of 33 Arches” Si o Se Pol is in many ways, the epicenter of Esfahan. With Naqsh e Jahan Square located only a short walk from the northern shore and the Armenian Quarter on the southern side, Si o Se Pol has always been a central meeting place. The banks on both sides of the river are lined with parklands where locals barbeque and play. if you didn’t visit Isfahan yet, check out this article: first travel to Isfahan
Built as a bridge and a weir, Si o Se Pol’s design is both unique and innovative. Spanning almost 300 meters, Si o Se Pol was designed for more than transportation, it was crafted as a community and contemplative area. The double-layered archways create private alcoves for sitting. The legs of the lower arches are almost triangular in shape, allowing the oncoming water to flow through flawlessly.
Si o Se Pol is beautifully lit, and best visited at night when you are likely to hear buskers perform. Be sure to sit down and soak up the atmosphere, it is the perfect place to take a minute to write a postcard or do a sketch. Only a short walk downstream is the equally beautiful Khaju Bridge where you can check out the traditional tea house with views of Si O Se Pol. Nowadays the Zayanderud River is seasonal and only fortunate visitors will witness it flowing.
Last but not least is Menar Jonban. This 14th century site is a little hard to describe, due to its peculiar nature. What meets the eye is a monument over a tomb, however, the secret of this site remains unexplained by architects, engineers, and scientists alike.
Menar Jonban literally translates to “shaking minarets” and basically, shake is what it does. The site is a small pavilion with two minarets (brick towers) measuring 7.5 meters in height. If one of the minarets is shaken (using the minimal force of a human hand), the other minaret will shake in unison. if you are looking for traditional hotels in Isfahan, check out this article: traditional hotels in Isfahan
Some locals suppose the Sufi who is buried under the monument was a powerful magician who controls the minaret while others reason that the designer of the monument simply had a good understanding of structural dynamic concepts and vibration control. Menar Jonban just is one of Iran’s countless mysteries, waiting for travellers to discover.
Getting to Isfahan
Located in Central Iran, Isfahan is approximately 500 kilometers south of Tehran. Flights (1 hour) and buses (6 hours) from Tehran to Esfahan run multiple times daily. Domestic flights and buses from all major Iranian cities can be booked online via 1stQuest.
Start planning your trip today!