Poised on trading and diplomatic routes between Asia and the Middle East, Esfahan is 2500 years old but especially flourished during the early 17th century under Shah Abbas the Great, who made it his capital and embarked on building mosques, canals, stone bridges, religious schools, pavilions and parks. A visit provides a fabulous showcase of Islamic architecture, wonderful browsing through bazaars, and a graceful, laidback, civilised urban sojourn that challenges your every assumption about Iran.
The city's oldest mosque and largest in Iran, Jameh Mosque is a repository of Islamic styles over 900 years. Imam Square is surrounded by great historic buildings. Elegant Imam Mosque is covered in sumptuous pale blue and yellow tilework and topped by soaring minarets. More modest Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque is exquisite in blue. Opposite stands Ali Qapu Palace, both a royal residence and monumental gateway leading from square to parklands and other palaces such as Chehel Sotun, a pleasure pavilion shimmering above a rectangular pond.
You can't beat the decor and local liveliness of Chehelsotoun Restaurant (abbasihotel.ir), though food is middle-of-the-road. Shahrzad (shahrzad-restaurant.com) has utterly delicious Iranian classics such as kebabs, pilaf and stews, dished up amid opulent decor inside a 14th-century building. Hit the bazaar in the morning for hot flatbread with honey and cream cheese, and for lunchtime biryani at Haj Mahmood Beryani (beryaniazam.com). Imam Square has several great ice-cream shops.
The vast Bazaar-e Bozorg is another testament to superb Islamic architecture, with its dome-topped, covered passageways punctuated by shafts of sunlight. Some parts of the bazaar date back a millennium, though most survive from the early 17th-century. Still a vibrant part of the city's daily life and shopping needs, it's a fascinating labyrinth in which to wander, nibble on dried fruit and nuts, and seek out handicrafts such as metalwork, miniature paintings and carpets.
Stroll the promenades that line Zayandeh River and admire its five historic bridges. Khaju Bridge is the finest, with a double-tier of arches and locks beneath. It was built in 1650 and retains faded frescoes and tiles, as well as an elegant central pavilion. The local favourite is Si-o-Se Bridge, completed in 1602 and quite the spot for locals in the early evening for its popular teahouse at the northern (city) end.
Esfahan (and Iran) is short of international-standard hotels; expect middling, old-fashioned accommodations. Abbasi Hotel (abbasihotel.ir) benefits from being in an old caravanserai surrounded by lovely gardens, though its new wing is unedifying. The small budget Iran Hotel (iranhotel.biz) in a quiet backstreet has English-speaking management, good rooms and a surprising smattering of style. Dibai Heritage House (dibaihouse.com) inhabits a blue-painted historic courtyard mansion in a convenient location.
Ignore misleading stereotypes of Iran, which receives a steady stream of mostly European travellers and tour groups. Locals are friendly and helpful, and you only have to loiter in Imam Square to strike up conversations with curious students.
Brian Johnston travelled at his own expense but flew courtesy Emirates Airlines.