Iran has always fascinated me. I had heard amazing things about the culture and people and of course, Iranian cuisine is absolutely delicious. So when I got the chance to visit Isfahan for a weekend, I didn’t think twice. On Friday night, I entered a plane in Vienna and 4.5 hours later arrived in Isfahan, a stunning city surrounded by a desert and mountains in central Iran.
It’s hot. Really hot. If you’re familiar with Iranian dress code, you know that women are required by the law to wear a scarf (or hijab) to cover their hair, as well as a so-called manteau covering the arms and thighs. Most local women wear their scarves loosely with half of their hair showing and look effortlessly stylish. Religion aside, in my opinion we can actually learn a thing or two from them in terms of elegance and fashion.
To my surprise, I didn’t mind the dress code at all because I realized that it doesn’t make any difference how covered you are: You feel equally hot in shorts and long pants, as long as the clothes you're wearing are light-weight and breathable. There's even an upside to being covered: There’s absolutely no chance you’ll catch a sunburn despite being out and about in the sun all day (except on your face). On the other hand, that of course means you won’t get a tan either.
If you choose the material of your scarf wisely, it won’t even bother you. My tip: bring bobby pins. I, typically, didn’t have any, but they would have been a great help in securing my scarf in the windy desert. But let's start from the top. The first thing we did in Isfahan is visiting the city's bazaar, which is among the oldest bazaars in the Middle East. Honestly, it was the coolest one I ever visited. In my experience, a bazaar involves being harassed by sellers and involuntarily touching lots of people while trying to somehow navigate through the masses. The bazaar of Isfahan was nothing like that. There were few people and the sellers mostly only started talking after you approached them and were calm and friendly. Basically, everyone we met on the whole trip was super friendly and helpful. As a fan of Persian cuisine it’s needless to say, I bought LOTS of stuff.
Here’s my top 10 list of things to look for at the Bazaar:
In general, the bazaar is the perfect place to find any kind of amazing, exotic spice and obviously, you can’t return from Iran without a little bit of saffron. It is the most expensive spice in the world and actually costs more than gold by weight. However, you only need tiny amounts to make dishes like Iranian pilau rice savory and tasty. And what better place is there to buy than in the country that’s accountable for around 85% of the world’s production?
Something that I was really surprised by were “Goje Sabz”, sour green plums that haven’t fully ripened yet. They are eaten as a raw snack and have a very distinctive sour and salty taste. I liked them so much I even brought some back home.
I remember picking fresh, white mulberries from trees in my kindergarten, so I was excited to find so many stands selling mulberries in the bazaar. There’s a white and dark blue or black sort and – listen up ladies - they’re a very good source of iron. Vendors will let you taste them before you buy, but be aware the intense juice (popular for food coloring) will stain your fingers.
4. Lemons & limes
Another Persian specialty are lemons. There’s sweet lemons, called “limu shirin” in Farsi, that can be used to make lemonade without sugar, to add a little fruity flavor to your tea, salad dressing or sauce. And then there’s “limu amani”, dried limes with a strong citrusy, earthy flavor which can be bought whole or grounded and are a staple in Iranian cuisine, often added to stews.
Without a doubt, hotly served black tea is THE most popular drink to enjoy in Iran. It is the first thing you are offered when being welcomed in an Iranian home and people have it in the morning, after a meal and throughout the day, sometimes accompanied by traditional pastries. You can find countless different brands of tea at the bazaar in Isfahan and it’s the perfect souvenir to bring home.
Speaking of tea, you can find lots of vendors selling hibiscus at the bazaar that can be used for tea. It tastes like berries and has a slightly sour note. Just look out for bright magenta-colored dried flowers.
7. Rose petals
Something that is also extremely popular across the Middle East are roses. In addition to rose water, many stands sold dried rose petals and I couldn’t resist to bring some with me. I think the ones that I got are even sprayed with rose water to intensify the smell. I’m so glad I bought them, my suitcase literally smells like roses now and you can put them in a small bowl at home and use it as a room fragrance.
Along with dried fruits, pistachios are a great souvenir to bring from Iran for your family and friends. They are sold on every corner, quite literally. You can select between raw, salted and roasted sorts. Most vendors will let you try one before you buy.
Who doesn’t love dates? They’re the perfect little sugar fix, rich in vitamins and minerals and fully provided by mother nature. Iran is famous for a special sort of dates called “Mazafati” that grows in an oasis in southern Iran. You can find them in abundance in the bazaar, in fresh as well as in dried form.
I guess by now you can tell I’m into food, there’s no denying that. However, there’s also countless stands selling carpets, silver ware, artisanal objects, clothes and huge rolls of textiles and other things at the bazaar. Something that I was fascinated by was the many stands of perfume. Most stands primarily display cheap imitations of famous perfumes, but ask the vendors for the Persian scents and you’ll be surprised by the amazing fragrances they have. I bought a jasmine perfume that I’ll probably use as a room scent, it's so good!
Some more impressions from the bazaar:
So much for the bazaar. As you can see it's a must-see attraction that you really cannot miss in Isfahan. After thoroughly exploring it, we left for the desert in a van. If you watched my insta stories, you may have seen that the van soon broke down and we were left stranded in the middle of nowhere. However, that’s apparently not a big deal in Iran. Our guide cracked some jokes and arranged for two friendly strangers to give us a lift to the next village. From there on we were picked up by his friends whom he had called on the way and who took us to our destination: the Varzaneh salt lake.
Somehow I had no idea we were going there and was super excited to find myself in front of the prettiest light blue lake, surrounded by salt crystals that almost looked like snow. According to the locals, the lake used to be a lot bigger but a prolonged drought period has resulted in it shrinking. It still is a spectacle, though.
After that, we drove back to the sandy desert and climbed dunes to find the perfect spot to watch the sunset. It was my first time in the desert, you guys! I was so impressed by the landscape. Warm, deep beige as far as the eye can see. It's exactly like I imagined it, maybe even a little more majestic. Watching the sunset in this environment was nothing short of spectacular.
We were then invited for dinner at a local family where the lady of the house showed us how she weaves rugs.
On day two, we spent the morning and early afternoon at the bazaar again to escape the heat. Thanks to the clever architecture, it is surprisingly cool in the small alleys and the more you get into the heart of the market, the more you forget you're actually pretty much in the desert. We also made it a point to visit two of the many beautiful and historic mosques in Isfahan: Shah Mosque, which is located on the huge Naghsh-e Jahan Square and regarded as one of the architectural masterpieces in Iran and Jameh Mosque. Both are UNESCO world heritage sites and absolutely stunning.
Our plan for the afternoon was to visit mount Soffeh, a mountain just south of Isfahan. Due to the heat, we had agreed on taking the cable car to the top and to then walk towards the peak. However, on arrival, we were informed that the cable car was currently under construction and instead decided to hike up a little bit. On our way, we met a surprising number of locals of all ages making their way up to the mountain in the afternoon sun, who happily helped us with directions. We didn’t quite make it to the peak but got to enjoy a very lovely view regardless.
The day ended at the Jarchi Bashi restaurant that used to be a hamam (traditional bath) and convinced with its original interior.
Visiting Isfahan was such an exciting experience. Although a weekend passes by way too quickly, it's enough to see the city's highlights and it was absolutely worth it. Despite expecting Middle Eastern hospitality, I was amazed at how friendly, helpful and genuinely interested many people were. I definitely want to return to Iran – Teheran and Shiraz are still on my list of places I want to see and might have just moved up in my ranking. If you are in Vienna and want to visit Iran, Austrian Airlines currently flies to both Teheran and Isfahan and will expand to Shiraz this summer. Thanks for having me Isfahan!