How to visit Kandovan, Iran and other things to do in Tabriz
Many of us have heard of Cappadocia in Turkey, but few know of Kandovan, Iran, a similar, though smaller village, with far less tourists and less fuss compared to the insta-popular Cappadocia. Indeed, we were not aware that troglodyte villages were part of the Persian Empire at all, before actually exploring the area of Kandovan, Iran, during our time in Tabriz.
We soon discovered that cave-dwellers are very much still alive in Kandovan, Iran, who continue to live within this unusual cluster of rocks.
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Where is Kandovan, Iran?
Kandovan is an ancient troglodyte village, located in the northwesternmost part of Iran, in the East Azerbaijan province, an area which is relatively close to the main city of Tabriz. We used Tabriz as our base for visiting Kandovan, Iran, and it worked out pretty well.
Kandovan is home to 600 plus inhabitants who live in houses called karaan, carved into peculiar conical rocks which are said to have been formed through a volcanic eruption hundreds of years ago. Kandovan is allegedly the only rocky village in the world to be still inhabited, however we are not sure that this information is entirely correct.
The solid mass of stone into which the dwellings are carved, is said to act as an insulator, retaining heat and keeping the cold out in winter, whilst keeping the houses cool in the summer.
Tabriz to Kandovan, Iran
Assuming that you are using Tabriz as your base, as we would recommend, getting from Tabriz to Kandovan is not difficult at all. The easiest way of getting to Kandovan is by booking a private transfer with a driver, who will wait for you whilst you explore the village and then take you back to Tabriz.
Many drivers in Tabriz offer such services, and your hotel or hostel will generally be able to book you a trip from Tabriz to Kandovan (and back). Our hotel was offering the trip for €10 each, and although we had initially thought of getting from Tabriz to Kandovan via public transport, which is the more complicated way of getting there, we eventually decided that we preferred using the private taxi offered by the hotel, given that the price seemed quite affordable for a private trip of this length.
The driver picked us up at the hotel, and drove us straight from Tabriz to Kandovan in about an hour. We stayed in Kandovan for about 2-3 hours (more on that below), and then went back to our starting point to meet the taxi driver who was waiting for us to drive us back. It was just a very easy trip which we feel was worth the cost.
You can also pre-book a private tour starting from Tabriz here.
The alternative way of getting from Tabriz to Kandovan is by using a combination of public bus, as well as a shared public taxi, which is the option we were going to go for initially. Although we never actually got to experience this route, here’s how we planned getting from Tabriz to Kandovan using public transport.
You should start off at the Railway Square in Tabriz from where you can get a bus to Osku, which is located on the way to Kandovan. Once in Osku, you can get a shared taxi or a private taxi to Kandovan, although do keep in mind that shared taxis are rather infrequent.
We think that taking this route is a far more complicated and time consuming option when compared to taking a comfortable private taxi all the way from Tabriz to Kandovan, and at the end of the day would only save you a few euro.
Our experience in Kandovan, Iran
Kandovan village is quite small, so we spent all our time going up and down the houses and peering inside any time we thought it was ok to do so, discovering view points, and generally just observing locals going about their daily chores.
It was drizzling during our time there in late October, so the paths were rather slippery and we were glad to be wearing thick jackets and tough trekking shoes. The donkeys seemed to have absolutely no problems with slippery terrain!
We also crossed to the other side of the little stream, which runs just below Kandovan village, to walk to a viewpoint from where we could take better pictures of Kandovan, even if the visibility wasn’t as great as we had hoped for, due to the light rain!
The shops at the lower end of the village sell all kinds of dried fruit (the apricots are beyond delicious), sweet honey and a very hard, salty, dairy-like product (kashk), a local delicacy which was way too salty for our palate. A bag of dried apricots cost 50,000 rial/ 5,000 toman whilst a bag of kashk cost 100,000 rial/ 10,000 toman.
Where to stay in Kandovan, Iran
That’s right, you can even stay overnight (or longer) in one of Kandovan’s rock dwellings. The Laleh Kandovan Rocky Hotel provides a rather cool experience in a luxury setting. We didn’t stay here ourselves, having gone back to Tabriz after our visit to Kandovan, Iran, due to time constraints, but we both agreed that spending a night in one of the conical stone houses would have been just awesome!
How to get to Tabriz
Tabriz is a major city in Iran and is very accessible from different parts of the country. Flights to Tabriz are available from some of the major cities in Iran, whilst bus connections to the closer cities are frequent.
You can get to Tabriz from Tehran by taking a rather affordable flight, a bus (journey time of about 8 hours) or a train (journey time of about 12 hours), depending on your preference. We broke up this journey in Qazvin, so we didn’t go all the way from Tehran to Tabriz in one journey, however, had we done so, our preference would have probably been the bus.
Bus journeys and flights can be booked on 1st Quest.
Getting from Qazvin to Tabriz is slightly more complicated since buses do not seem to run directly from Qazvin to Tabriz. Instead, you need to stop a bus which is making the journey from Tehran to Tabriz. This is less complicated than it sounds, as these buses typically break the trip at a particular spot on the Tehran-Tabriz highway, (just out of Qazvin) for some refreshments.
Our hosts in Qazvin called a taxi driver to take us straight to the highway spot to wait for the bus. Alternatively, you can also choose to call the taxi using the Snapp! app. Many buses seem to stop here to pick up people from Qazvin, but we had to wait for a while for the one en route to Tabriz. In true Iranian hospitality, our taxi driver stayed with us the whole time, and flagged down the right bus for us. Such is the kindness and hospitality of the people of Iran!
We were a little concerned that the bus might be full, but thankfully this was not the case, and we were on our way to Tabriz in good time. The bus ticket cost 500,000 rial / 50,000 toman each.
Things to do in Tabriz
We found out that Tabriz is a walkable and generally likeable city. We thought that the vibe here was both easy and urban, so that we thoroughly enjoyed our time in Tabriz.
Tabriz is very often used as a gateway into Iran for those coming in overland through Armenia, so there’s the slightest hint of a backpacker scene in some parts of it, which we found most welcoming.
Here are a few things to do in Tabriz which you should not miss.
The Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar of Tabriz, a UNESCO world heritage site, is the largest covered bazaar in the world and one of the oldest markets in the Middle East. Wandering along the bazaar and observing daily life and trade going on within its walls and inter-connected structures, is easily one of the best things to do in Tabriz.
The bazaar is divided into sections dedicated to different products such a sweets, spices, gold and of course Persian rugs. You might be tempted to buy some local produce from the bazaar, but even if you don’t, experiencing bazaar life is quite fascinating! Be sure to keep your bearing so as to avoid getting lost in the maze of pathways (or enjoy the experience if you do!)
The Blue Mosque
A visit to the ancient Blue Mosque of Tabriz should definitely be on your list of top things to do in Tabriz. The mosque was badly damaged during a large earthquake which occurred centuries ago, and whilst reconstruction is still incomplete, it remains a special place and a worthy attraction.
Its former splendour is evident, and whilst the missing tiles and faded sections are abundant, the architecture is magnificent, as is the use of lights and shadows throughout the mosque.
The entrance fee to the Blue Mosque is 500,000 rial / 50,000 toman each and the site closes at 5.30pm, so be sure to arrive there at least an hour earlier to fully enjoy a visit. Guides are available at the entrance if you need a more detailed explanation.
The Jameh Mosque
This mosque is actually a section within the Grand Bazaar and it is perfectly possible to enter and exit the bazaar through its courtyard, which is what we actually did, before we realised that the bazaar exit was also the site of the Jameh Mosque.
We did not feel the need to actually enter the mosque but admired its tall minarets from the outside, although it is possible to enter if you so wish. Do keep in mind that women will need to wear a chador, and respectful behaviour is expected.
El-Goli (Shah Goli) Park
This gem of a park was one of the most pleasant attractions in Tabriz and we totally recommend you schedule a visit there if you’re looking for the best things to do in Tabriz, especially if you are blessed with good weather.
The park sports a lake at its centre, which is flanked by different stalls and bright flowers, as well as an outdoor gym where Tabrizians were enthusiastically keeping up with their fitness routines.
There’s also a restaurant at the centre of the lake, and although the park feels very modern, we were surprised to learn that it was built almost 500 years ago. If you feel the need to get away from the city, EL-Goli park is just perfect!
The Arg of Tabriz
When researching for the best things to do in Tabriz, the Arg of Tabriz kept popping up in our searches, so we were a little disappointed when we saw how dilapidated it looked. The Arg of Tabriz is one of the oldest walls in Iran, and is all that remains of a large fortification, which must have been pretty imposing at one time.
Unfortunately, the rather-abandoned structure is just a shadow of the former fortification, and the nearby ground seems to be used as a dusty car park.
Take a day trip to St. Stepanos Monastery
If you have the time for a second day trip out of Tabriz (assuming that you would first take a day trip to Kandovan as described above), you would do well to consider going on a day trip to the Armenian St. Stepanos Monastery near Jolfa, close to the Aras River and the border with Armenia.
Because we were short on time and also because we had visited our fair share of Armenian Monasteries during our time in Armenia, we decided to skip this one, but we hear that the scenery in the area is as beautiful as the monastery itself.
Admire the Persian Rugs
Tabriz is famous for its high-quality Persian carpets, and if you intend buying a Persian carpet (or two) you would do well to buy them here. Persian carpets are some of the best and most beautiful on the planet, and carpet shops in Tabriz cater to all different kinds of taste and budget.
There are plenty of carpet shops in the Grand Bazaar of Tabriz, and even if you do not intend making a purchase, you can wander around and admire the beautiful workmanship that goes into making the artistic products.
A walking tour of Tabriz can be booked here.
Where to stay in Tabriz
We stayed at the very popular Darya Guesthouse (Whatsapp +98 914 615 7444) for €15/ room including a private bathroom. The rooms are rather small but comfortable enough, well-heated, and the staff was super friendly. If you’re looking for centrally located accommodation on a similar budget, Darya works very well.
Other hotels can be booked on 1st Quest.
Where to eat in Tabriz
The best meal we had in Tabriz was probably from a little stall in the Grand Bazaar where we had a an absolutely amazing date and nut omelette, and a meat and lentil soup. Sadly, we never got the name of either of the dishes, or the stall.
During our time in Tabriz, we had Tabrizi kofta (large meatballs) and Khoresh Bademjan at Tabriz Modern Restaurant, both of which were rather tasty, and shark kebabs as well as a dish of fish patties at Baliq restaurant which were ok but did somehow not meet our high expectations of the restaurant, considering how highly rated the restaurant is. The free tea and baklava offered at the end of the meal were a nice touch though.
Our favourite food item in Tabriz was without doubt, a creamy, almost decadent date and banana shake topped with toasted nuts, available from many shops and stalls in Tabriz. Read more about the food in Iran in this dedicated post.