A mere hour's flight south from Tehran, a visit to Esfahan could alone justify a trip to Iran. It is hard to say whether the city's immense charm lies in its aquamarine-tiled mosques and elegant gardens and palaces; in its location at the foot of the snow-capped Zagros mountains and along the curve of the Zayandeh river with its fairytale arched bridges; in its unique, majestic urban plaza and its evocative bazaar; or, year-round clear blue skies. Winters here are crisp and cool, summers sizzling, and spring balmy.
Undoubtedly the most elegant city in Iran, Esfahan was the Persian capital for a hundred-year period from 1588, when it flourished under the rule of the arts-loving despot Shah Abbas I. Traditionally a crossroads for international trade and diplomacy, the city has never ceased to wow visitors. A famous rhyme - 'Esfahan nesf-e Jahan' meaning 'Esfahan is half the world' - was even coined in its honour.
However, Esfahan is more than a living, breathing work of art: it is an industrial supremo, a modern, cosmopolitan city, with a population of over 1.5 million. Ethnically diverse - the Christian and Jewish minority live alongside the Muslims in peace - the streets are alive with the irrepressible vitality of its youthful residents. Whether you strike up a conversation with a local, lose yourself in the winding alleys of the old quarter or relax in one of the city's cosy teahouses, you too will fall under Esfahan's spell.
What to do
First stop has to be Imam Square also known as Naqsh-e Jahan Square, in the centre of town. Begun in 1602 and originally used as a polo ground, it's one of the world's largest - beating Russia's Red Square - and is now a Unesco world heritage site. The grassy fountain-filled courtyard is the perfect spot for people-watching, a picnic or simply soaking up the splendid monuments that surround it, such as the massive Imam Mosque complex. Adjacent to the Imam Mosque is the more intimate Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque - its intricately tiled dome never fails to mesmerise visitors. Opposite it, is the Ali Qapu Palace, one time roost of the Safavid rulers, and at the far end is the entrance to the Grand Bazaar. It, like the covered arcade that runs around the square, is your best bet for booty: miniature paintings, decorative tiles, enamel vases and plates, jewellery, carpets, clothes and accessories - from colourful scarves, to fake designer handbags, rupushes, a type of long coat, and hijabs - as well as nuts and sweets. The city is famous for gaz, a type of nougat. Drag yourself away, if you can for another opportunity to savour high Persian culture in the form of Chehel Sotun Palace, with its mirror work, pillared hall and landscaped gardens, now filled with gaggles of friendly students. Conveniently, it's also in the vicinity of the Museum of Contemporary Art, which exhibits works by both local and international artists. Don't forget to check out Jolfa, the Armenian quarter, south of the Zayandeh River. It's dotted with churches, including Vank Cathedral which is famous for its striking religious tableaux. Whatever you do, be sure to take a sunset stroll along the banks of the river to the striking Khaju bridge, a discreet haunt for courting couples. After dark, visit a Zurkaneh or 'House of Strength'. Here you'll witness a centuries-old sporting ritual that fuses wrestling, aerobics, juggling, Sufi-whirling, music and drumming which is both arcane and amazing.
Where to stay
Many a visitor has accidentally stumbled upon the Isfahan Traditional Hotel whilst traipsing around the bazaar and vowed to stay here. It's easy to see why: the hotel, the antithesis of a functional guesthouse is made up of two restored houses dating back from the Safavid era. The sixteen rooms with ensuite bathrooms are spacious, characterful, comfortable and surround a pretty courtyard. Expect to pay around US$62 (Dh228) for a double room. Isfahan Traditional Hotel, Baghghalandariha Alley, off Hakim Street (www.isfahanhotel.com; 0098 311 223 6677). Mid-range Dibai House Hotel is a gem, tucked away in an alley, next door to a mosque and the city's oldest minaret. Just a ten minute walk from Imam Square, the 17th-century mansion has been lovingly restored and boasts an ornamental pool house. Of the ten rooms, only two have ensuite bathrooms which makes the twin room rate - around $86 (Dh316) per night - seem a trifle steep, but with a divan-strewn chaikhana or tea room in which to partake of the time-honoured brew and shisha ritual, dining room, two airy courtyards, and kind, helpful staff, you'll be more than happy to fork out. Dibai House Hotel, 1 Masjid Ali Alley, Harunie(www.dibaihouse.com; 0098 311 220 9787). Luxury The five-star Abbasi is one of the most photogenic hotels in Iran - and certainly the flashiest. Housed in a former 17th-century caravanserai, its interiors feature gilt-encrusted ceilings, walls, frescoes and giant crystal chandeliers, so weighty that you wonder how they stay up. If you're seeking fairytale opulence, this is the place to stay in town. Be sure to ask for a suite overlooking the vast orchard and flower-filled gardens (as some of the doubles can be surprisingly modest.) There's a decent bookshop, boutique and giftshop in the marble lobby, but best of all is the health club, with pool, gym, sauna and steam room. The hotel is a magnet to the city's sociable in-crowd, who gravitate towards its restaurants, and the lively chaikhana and outdoor café after dark - so it's a great place to meet the locals. Expect to pay from around $210 (Dh770) for a suite. Abbasi Hotel, Amadegah Avenue (www.abbasihotel.com; 0098 311 222 6010).
Where to eat
Breakfast Traditionally Iranians breakfast on flatbread (freshly baked and hot from the oven) chai, butter, cheese (like feta), a variety of jams, honey and eggs. People usually eat the first meal of the day at home, and Esfahanis are no exception. The vast majority of visitors will do the equivalent, tucking into a buffet in whatever hotel or guesthouse they're staying at. For a repast worthy of a Safavid royal, try the Chehel-sotoon Restaurant on the second floor of the Abbasi Hotel. Here you can breakfast to your heart's content on the usual suspects: flatbread, toast, croissants, brioche, eggs (every which way), bacon, sausages, beans; but also, specialities such as asheh, or ash soup, made from lentils and noodles, and fereni, a yoghurt-like dessert made with rice flour, milk, sugar and rose water. As an added bonus, it's all laid out in a grand, high-ceilinged hall, with tall windows, which overlooks the gardens. Chehel-sotoon Restaurant, Abbasi Hotel Amadegah Avenue (www.abbasihotel.com; 0098 311 222 6010). If you're south of the river, in the Armenian quarter, and can't stomach a full breakfast, but require liquid refreshment head to the Shant Coffee shop, around the corner from Vank Cathedral, where the espresso and cappuccino come highly recommended. Shant, Vank Church Alley East Nazar Street (0098 311 628 7525). Lunch The Safreh Khaneh Naqsh-e-Jahan, a traditional restaurant close to the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, off Imam Square, is lively, fun and popular with locals. Through a courtyard, and up a flight of stairs (look for the neon sign), you'll find a rooftop eyrie decorated with colourful tiles, stained-glass windows and divans. Try the dizi, a tasty stew of lamb, chickpeas and flatbread cooked and served in a stone jar or khoresht-e bademjan (aubergine stew). Safreh Khaneh Naqsh-e Jahan, off Imam Square (0098 311 222 3291). When you've finished eating, you may want to head over to the Azadeghan tea house nearby. Decked out like an Aladdin's cave, it's popular with students and Bazaris - stallholders - alike, who flock here for the chai (served in small glasses and sucked through a cube of sugar), saffron-flavoured rock candy, pastries and a flavoured-tobacco shisha pipe. Azadegan, off Haj Mirza, off Mir-emad St. near Imam Square (0098 311 221 1225). Dinner Esfahan is known for its beryani, a dish of ground lamb, fried and then topped with spices. Try it, and the traditional Persian favourite, fesenjan, a rich, fragrant stew made from pomegranates, walnuts and chicken, at Shahrzad restaurant. Smart and elegant, with attentive staff, it's just down the road from the Abbasi Hotel. Shahrzad Restaurant, Abbas Abad Road (0098 311 220 4490). Bastani in Imam Square boasts fewer frills but its khoresht beh or quince stew, made with chunks of lamb, the fruit and yellow split peas, makes a pleasant change from the ubiquitous chelo-kebab - rice with meat or chicken kebabs - a culinary offering that you can't easily escape from in Iran. Bastani, southeast corner of Imam Square (0098 311 222 0374). For a more informal meal, head to Abdoul Vahab, towards the Zayandeh River for roast chicken and vegetables - you can either eat it on the premises or order it to go, and enjoy a picnic in the park on the riverbank. Abdoul Vahab, 270 Chaharbagh Street, (0098 311 222 1975).
How to get there
A return flight to Tehran including tax costs from: $368 (Dh1,350), flying from Abu Dhabi on Etihad Airways (www.etihad.com); $517 (Dh1,900), flying from Dubai on Emirates (www.emirates.com); and, $180 (Dh660) flying from Sharjah on Air Arabia (www.airarabia.com). Iran Air flies direct from Dubai to Esfahan twice a week for $310 (Dh1,140) return (www.iranair.com).
Lipstick Jihad by Iranian-American journalist Azadeh Moaveni is a compelling tale about life in post-Revolutionary Iran. Christiane Bird's Neither East nor West debunks popular misconceptions of Iran. For a classic Iran primer, there is arguably no equal to Robert Byron's Road to Oxiana - the author's passion for Islamic architecture alone merits a read.