The great joy of traveling to Iran doesn't lie just in the country's ancient sites, snowy peaks or lively cities, but in the warmth and generosity of the people. Though Tehran may be the country's cosmopolitan capital, if you want a sense of Iran's human soul, head to the city of Isfahan at the foot of the Zagros Mountains. Home to some of the Islamic world's finest architecture, Isfahan is a living, breathing work of art and a must for first-time visitors to the country.
The city's star attraction is Imam Square. One of the largest in the world, it was originally built as a polo ground for Shah Abbas the Great, a charismatic tyrant who initiated Isfahan's Golden Age in the 16th century with his patronage of the arts. The south side of the square is dominated by the huge Imam Mosque complex, but it's the smaller Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque with its intricately patterned dome that awes visitors into silence. Look up and you may see a shimmering peacock in the center a visual effect created by sunlight hitting the blue, white, turquoise and yellow tiles.
Imam Square is also where you'll find Isfahan's bazaar. Save your rials for miniature paintings, decorative tiles and if you're feeling flush a rug or two. When retail overload hits, head deep into the market and get a table at the delightfully clandestine Azadeghan teahouse for a pot of brew and a plate of sweets. Try the nabat (saffron rock candy) or the Moorish zulbia (twirly, deep-fried dough in syrup).
To experience a uniquely Persian tradition, head over to a Zurkaneh (or House of Strength) and watch a team of men, accompanied by a drummer and singer, perform an ancient sporting ritual that combines wrestling, aerobics, juggling and Sufi whirling.
At dusk, follow the locals down to the Zayandeh River, with its exquisite arched bridges and discreetly entwined couples. A hop, skip and jump away is the Abbasi Hotel, housed in a former caravanserai. With its restaurants, fitness complex and teahouse plus a courtyard styled like a traditional Persian garden it's no wonder the city's beau monde flocks here after dark. Eager to rub shoulders with the all-too-rare tourists in their midst, they'll guarantee you leave Isfahan vowing to return.