It was once said that the traveler "who has not been to Isfahan has not seen half the world." While perhaps a bit of an overstatement today, Isfahan still inspires superlatives and it was easily my favorite city in all of Iran.
The centerpiece of the city is the sprawling Imam Square (also known as the "meidan," pronounced "may-DON"), built in the seventeenth century by Shah Abbas and now a World Heritage Site. Imam Square features two wonderful mosques, the finely crafted gem of the Sheikh Loftollah Mosque and the grand spectacle of the Imam Mosque. There is also an entrance to Isfahan's three kilometer long covered bazaar and large open areas with fountains, benches and plenty of people to watch.
The people of Isfahan also proved to be especially friendly toward visitors. A family having a picnic in one of the parks along the Zayendeh-rud (the river that cuts through the city) invited me to join them and offered tea and sugar candies as they asked questions about America. While in Imam Square, several college-aged boys came over and offered to show me around the square.
If Imam Square and friendly people were not enough, Isfahan also offers beautiful parks along the river and ornate pedestrian bridges more than three centuries old, some of which contain teahouses in which to sit and relax. Even though the river was dry during my October 2000 visit (some blame a drought, others blame an ill-conceived water project upstream), this part of Isfahan beckons the traveler to slow down, stroll around, relax and let the charms of this splendid city gradually seep in.
Isfahan also offers the wonderful Abbasi Hotel, which once served as a caravansary to shelter merchants and their animals as they crossed the deserts of Persia. The inner courtyard makes for a charming respite at the end of the day. Of all the areas we visited in Iran, Isfahan remains the place (perhaps along with Yazd) that I would most like to return to someday.
Kashan and Abyaneh: Near Kashan we encountered a pleasant surprise: a field of purple crocuses that will yield a bounty of saffron, said to be the world's most expensive spice. Saffron is made from the stamens of the crocus, picked by hand from each separate blossom. Needless to say, a lot of tedious work yields only a small amount of saffron. Along the way we also made a brief detour to another of Iran's many mountain villages, this one called Abyaneh. The homes are built from mud brick and adobe, the people were friendly and donkeys are still the main form of transportation. (13 photos) [Preview This Slide Show]