Iran is an incredibly underrated country with an immense history, the friendliest people, and the most breathtaking architecture. Having spent two weeks there, I truly believe it should be on every traveler’s bucket list. However, the beauty of this country is rarely shown in the media. This guide on the most beautiful places in Iran aims to show you the side of Iran that rarely — if ever — gets represented in the news, thediaryofanomad.com wrote.
Day 9-11: Isfahan
From Yazd, take a bus to Isfahan — the next stop on your Iran itinerary. The journey is around five hours.
Isfahan, once called ‘Isfahan Nesf-e Jahan’, (Isfahan is half the world) is one of the most fantastic and historically rich cities in Iran. This city has been ruled by 14 empires. It has 162 mosques. It’s no doubt that it will be a highlight of any trip to Iran!
Naqsh-e Jahan Square
The best way to start exploring Isfahan is by spending some time in the magnificent Naqsh-e Jahan Square, the heart and jewel of the city. This UNESCO-registered square totally encapsulates the beauty of Isfahan. Built in 1602 during the Safavid Era, it’s one of the largest squares in the world and hasn’t changed much for the last 400 years.
The atmosphere inside the square is simply incredible; the fountains and gardens in the middle exude calmness and serenity, yet the bazaars on the side are filled with movement and activity. They’re also the perfect place to have a friendly chat with the locals!
Finally, the mosques and palaces surrounding the square will take your breath away. It’s no doubt that Naqsh-e Jahan Square is one of the most beautiful places in Iran, and you can easily spend an entire day here.
For an extra peaceful experience, get to this square early in the morning, as soon as the Sun rises. You can even go for an early morning jog around the gardens and fountains! Why? You’ll get to have one of the biggest and most magnificent historical squares in the world almost all to yourself, with only the sound of birds chirping in the distance. It’s truly an enchanting experience.
Perhaps the biggest gem inside Naqsh-e Jahan Square is the breathtaking Imam Mosque, whose intricate multi-colored mosaic tiles will leave you absolutely speechless. Completed in 1629, this UNESCO-registered mosque is considered the epitome of Persian architecture from the Islamic era, and one of the greatest masterpieces of the Safavid Dynasty (1501-1736). As soon as you see this mosque, you’ll understand why.
One can easily spend hours simply admiring the tilework details on the entrance gate itself. Once you step inside, more stunning patterns and calligraphy will greet your eyes. It’s truly one of the most jaw-dropping things you’ll see.
Underneath the central dome of the mosque, there’s a stone on the ground that marks a key acoustic point in the building. From there, the sound echoes loudly through the rest of the mosque, meaning the imam can speak more quietly while still being heard by everyone inside the structure.
When we were there, there were visitors testing this out themselves by singing in that spot and listening to the sound of their own echoes. It was truly a unique experience!
Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque
Another astonishing place to visit inside Naqsh-e Jahan Square is Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, also a masterpiece from the Safavid Era. Completed in 1619, this mosque took 25 years to build and is said to have exceeded anything ever created in Iran before in terms of beauty and quality.
This mosque used to be reserved for royal use only – in fact, it was closed off to the public for centuries. This is also why it’s a lot smaller and showcases even more splendid tilework than Imam Mosque, which was used by the public. If you were blown away by Imam Mosque’s remarkable mosaic tiles, just wait until you visit Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque!
It’s also said that Shah Abbas (the ruler at the time) had the architect build a tunnel from Aali Qapu Palace (his residence) to this mosque so that the women in his harem could get here without being seen in public.
When we visited, a local man told us that the first-ever foreigner to visit modern-day Iran would come back to the country again and again for the sole purpose of visiting this mosque. He’d stay in this mosque for hours on end each time, and when asked why, he just said, “you see the entire world here.” Despite only being here twice, I wholeheartedly agree.
Aali Qapu Palace
Directly opposite of Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque is Aali Qapu Palace, an incredible UNESCO site, which served as the official residence of the Safavid emperors. Opened in 1597, this palace is six-stories tall and each floor is connected by a spiral staircase.
Inside, you’ll get an interesting glimpse into the life of the imperial families back in the days, and will also see lots of fantastic floral artwork and paintings. The highlights of the place, though, are the elegant stucco decorations of the Music Hall on the top floor. Many singers and ensembles used to perform there, and its ceiling is stenciled with shapes of vases to enhance sound. It’s truly a brilliant example of secular Persian art!
You can also get a really cool view of Naqsh-e Jahan Square and Imam Mosque from the terrace of the palace and marvel at the fact that around 400 years ago, that’s where the Safavid emperors used to watch horse racing and chowgan, a traditional Iranian horseback team game!
One of the most relaxing things to do in Isfahan is to visit the beautiful Khaju Bridge in the evening. This historical bridge lights up splendidly in the dark, exuding an incredibly magical and peaceful vibe. It’s also the perfect place for photography and a glimpse into local life in Iran, as it’s a popular gathering spot for families and teenagers.
The bridge is also decorated with gorgeous tilework and paintings, and there’s a pavilion in the middle where Shah Abbas II (the 7th Safavid king) used to hang out and admire the beauty of the Zayandehrud River beneath.
The main reason this place is worth visiting, though, is that in the evenings, you can find local singers underneath the bridge performing amazing Persian music. The atmosphere there is unforgettable, and it’s truly an unmissable experience if you’re interested in Iranian culture!
One place you absolutely have to visit during your time in Isfahan is the spectacular Mollabashi House (also known as Mo’tamedi House), the most breathtaking historical mansion I’ve ever stepped foot in. This house gives you a really good idea of how the wealthy in Iran used to live during the Zand (1751–1779) and Qajar (1789–1925) eras.
Mollabashi was the famous 19th-century astronomer of the Shah and used to live in this house, but much of what you see today is thanks to the Mo’tamedi family, who acquired this place in 2000 and spent seven years restoring it.
You can easily spend hours admiring the gorgeous details and patterns that decorate the rooms and courtyards of this historical house. Make sure to visit the fantastic guest room during the day to see the unbelievable colors and lights radiating from the stained-glass windows – one of the most beautiful sights you can witness in Iran!
Exploring this house can also feel like an escape room experience as there are tons of stylish rooms hidden behind a chain of doors, and you can try each door to see which ones open (some are locked).
Visiting this historical house is honestly such a unique experience, and the best part about it is that most tourists don’t visit this place, meaning you get to have the mirrored walls, stucco decorations, and elegant ceilings almost all to yourself!
The stunning Vank Cathedral is a great place to learn about another side of Isfahan’s past.
At the beginning of the 17th century, Shah Abbas the First ordered the transportation of the population of the northern town of Jolfa ad hoc to Isfahan to help complete his historical architectural works. These new population’s talents as merchants, entrepreneurs, and artists were needed. He created an Armenian quarter in Isfahan called New Julfa, and soon after, Vank Cathedral was built there for the Armenian community.
From the outside, the cathedral may look like just another ordinary Islamic building, but the interior is absolutely breathtaking; you’ll see a unique mixture of rich frescoes, gilded carvings, and intricate tilework. These elements represent a mesmerizing blend of Islamic and Armenian architectural styles, and it’s truly a remarkable sight.
The elegant Chehel Sotun is a 17th-century palace located at the end of a long pool inside the UNESCO-registered Chehel Sotun Garden. It was built by Shah Abbas II as a place for entertainment, reception, and ceremonies (such as coronations).
This palace is not only a great place to travel back in time and learn about the history of the Safavid Dynasty in Iran, but also a haven for architecture and photography fanatics. Moreover, the surrounding garden is a great place to go for a peaceful and relaxing stroll.
The interior of the Chehel Sotun palace is ornate with absolutely stunning paintings and frescoes, some of which depict battles won by the Safavid kings to showcase how powerful they were. The ceilings also display incredibly beautiful geometrical patterns and artwork.
The exterior of this palace is just as interesting. The structure is supported by 20 wooden pillars which reflect in the long pool in front of the building – giving the illusion that there are actually 40 pillars in place. In fact, Chehel Sotun means 40 columns.
Isfahan is also home to the oldest Jaame Mosque in Iran – the UNESCO World Heritage Site. No one knows for sure when this mosque was built, although it most likely dates back to the 8th century and started as a place of worship for Zoroastrians.
Jaame Mosque started off as a mere adobe structure, and today, it’s ornate with glazed tilework and muqarnas, largely thanks to the decorative additions of the Safavid Era.
The cool thing about this mosque is that walking around, you’ll see rooms showcasing many different architectural styles. In fact, this mosque has evolved a lot over 12 centuries, with a series of remodelings and renovations by different dynasties.
Wandering around the complex, you can learn a lot about the evolution of Iranian architecture in the course of history. You’ll also get to see countless decorative elements that demonstrate how Islamic art evolved over the last 1,000 years! If you’re a big fan of art, history, and architecture, then make sure this mosque is on your Isfahan to-see-list.
Days 12-13: Kashan
From Isfahan, take a bus to Kashan on the evening of day 11 so that you can have two full days to enjoy the beauty of this city – my personal favorite in Iran. Kashan truly stands out for its unique architecture, laid-back vibes, and the friendliest locals. The bus ride from Isfahan takes three hours.
Sultan Amir Ahmad Bathhouse
Start your visit to Kashan by exploring one of the most spectacular bathhouses in the country. The 16th-century Sultan Amir Ahmad Bathhouse is an exemplary ancient Persian spa and gives you an insightful glimpse into what local life was like back in the days.
Bathing was a long and important process for Iranians; it wasn’t just a quick wash. Bathhouses were where people gathered to relax together, socialize, gossip, and even pray. It was a big part of social life in Iran and still is today.
Walking inside Sultan Amir Ahmad Bathhouse, you’ll be mesmerized by the exquisite decorations on the walls and ceilings. You’ll see tons of colorful mosaics, intricate gold and turquoise tiles, and brilliant paintings all around you.
The exterior of the bathhouse is perhaps even more intriguing. You can walk on the roof, which is made of numerous domes with convex glasses that bring light into the bathhouse.
What I liked most about this place is its calm and soothing atmosphere. Once you wait for the occasional tour group to leave, the bathhouse gets almost completely quiet, leaving you alone with one of the best architectural masterpieces of ancient Persia.
The magnificent Kashan Bazaar is not only a great place to shop for souvenirs, but also one of the most stunning cultural and architectural sites in Iran. Its main caravanserai is topped with a domed roof that showcases some incredible kaleidoscopic patterns and decorations – it’s truly a remarkable sight.
Underneath the dome, there are plenty of places to sit down, people-watch, and have a friendly chat with a local. The relaxing atmosphere only makes it more enticing, and there’s even a local teashop in the corner if you want to try some Persian tea.
The bazaar has been a trading hub in Kashan for almost 800 years and houses several small mosques, and bathhouses amid its rows of busy stores. You can find everything from handicrafts to spices and fruits in the shops.
Be sure to check out some of the fantastic local restaurants around – especially the unique Hammam-e Khan Teahouse. This cozy family-owned restaurant used to be a traditional bathhouse. Today, they give you the authentic experience of sitting on a cushion on the floor while enjoying some very tasty local dishes.
Aqa Bozorg Mosque
The 18th-century Aqa Bozorg Mosque is a lot more simple and modest in appearance than most other famous mosques in Iran. It may not be as ornate or embellished as the Imam Mosque in Isfahan or the Nasir-ol-Molk Mosque in Shiraz, but that’s exactly what drew me to it the most.
This mosque was actually my favorite place in Iran, mostly because of its humble facade, the pleasant symmetry of its architecture, and the incredibly peaceful vibes it exudes. Many local families visit this place, creating a great laid-back and vibrant atmosphere.
Get here right before sunset to see the mosque both in the daylight and in the dark. It’s particularly peaceful during that time, and you can simply sit down and listen to the soothing call to prayers while watching the mosque slowly light up in different colors as the sky dims. It’s an absolutely mesmerizing experience that’s impossible to put into words – you simply have to see it for yourself.
The historical Fin Garden is an absolutely gorgeous place to go for a relaxing stroll. Built in 1590, it’s one of the oldest gardens in the country and used to be where the kings hung out to rest.
Today, Fin Garden is home to lots of fruit trees, pools, fountains, blossoms, canals, and as with most attractions in Iran – remarkable architecture. In fact, there’s a stunning blend of Safavid, Zand, and Qajar-era architectural styles inside the complex, and the pavilion in the middle has a magnificent dome ornate with colorful patterns – it’s truly the highlight of the garden!
So grab your camera and make sure to not miss out on this place, especially if you enjoy a mix of serene nature and splendid architecture.
To be continued