People call it city of knowledge and civilization and you might hear the local officials address it as Ancient Herat. After all this province boasts thousands of years of history, before and after the invasion of Alexander the Great up to the rule of Ekhamanshi Emperor. Even after decades of war, there are many things to do in Herat, crucial stop of the Silk Road and hub for artists and kings for centuries.
Herat Province itself has been the birthplace of many poets, painters, architects, musicians and, last but not least, of Shah Abbas, the strongest ruler of Iran’s Safavid dynasty. Located in the western part of today’s Afghanistan, Herat Province borders with Iran and Turkmenistan.
With an estimated population of 4 million, Herat is the second most populated city of Afghanistan after Kabul. Its spoken language is Farsi and you will find customs and traditions similar to the Iranian ones. If you have taken the not-so-easy decision to visit Afghanistan, it means you really determined to make the most of your trip, so read on to discover the best things to do in Herat City and fall in love of this country and its people.
***Before you start, to enter most historical sites in Herat, you need an authorization letter issued by the local Tourism Department. At the end of the post you will find a “Practical Tips” section where we explain how to get it and what to write.
Things to do in Herat in three days
Things to do in Herat – Day one
Masjid Jame, Grand Mosque
Among the first things to do in Herat there is certainly the stunning azure-hued Islamic architecture of Masjid Jame, the city’s Great Mosque, located in the heart of a crowded bazaar. You will be already wearing a headscarf, but in case you are not, don’t forget to wear it before entering the mosque (and take off your shoes).
The mosque was first built in 1200 AD by the order of Ghurid ruler Ghiyath al-Din Muhammad b. Sam on the site of two smaller mosques from the Persianate Muslim Ghaznavid dynasty that were destroyed by an earthquake, and renovated and extended by the Timurids later in 1400.
The mosque is open daily from morning to evening. However, visitors better avoid going during the five daily prayers announced by the muezzin with Azan. Depending on the season, the first can be between 4 and 5.30 am, the second between noon and 1.30 pm, the third between 3 to 4 pm, the fourth between 5.30 to 7 pm and the fifth, and longest, between 8 to 10 pm.
If you are out of the mosque before noon, you can visit the antiques shops right in front of the northern gate of the mosque and see some beautiful stones and traditional jewelry. You can even spoil yourself with a full set of Afghan lapis lazuli stones of the finest quality that would cost around 3 USD per gram. Note: I recommend only the stones cut, not the ones already done in the silver metals.
If it’s lunch time, walk north of the mosque for around one kilometer (quite safe, even though avoid displaying expensive camera gear) to Chowk Golha intersection, around which there are a few restaurants where you can enjoy some Herati dishes such as Kichiri, Qaboli or Kebab. After lunch, do order a thermos of green tea and relax on the sofa/table the Afghan way before resuming your journey.
Qala Ikhtyaruddin Citadel
From the restaurant, walk to the west of Chowk Golha intersection towards the Shahr-e Now intersection and from here some 10/15 minutes walk to the Qala Ikhtyaruddin Citadel, alongside the mosque, absolutely one of the things to do in Herat.
Dating back to the 4th century BC, its large towers and walls visible from afar, the Arg (fort/palace) was built by Alexander the Great on the ruins of an already existent fort to protect the Macedonian Empire from people’s revolt.
Open daily from 8.30 am to 4.30 pm. For foreigners, the entry fee to the citadel is 500 Rupees (around 10 USD). After your visit to the Citadel, we suggest you take a taxi and head back to your hotel: we don’t recommend you to stay out until late in the evening for security reasons.
Things to do in Herat – Day two
Tomb of Queen Goharshad Begum
On your second day of adventure in this historical city, take a taxi and head to the Tomb of Queen Goharshad Begum, wife of Timurid emperor Shah Rukh. In the tomb you will be scorted with a guide who is usually there although keep in mind he speaks Farsi.
Goharshad Begum was the wife of Shah Rukh, Timurid emperor. She was a famous politician of the Timurid era, a do-gooder, a generous patron of art who ruled the empire with dignity and wisdom after her husband’s death. She was the daughter of Ghiasudin “Turkhan”, title given to him by Gengis Khan himself, famous fighter and politician of the Timurid era who took part in several wars.
The famous architectural features in Herat dating back from the Timurid dynasty are the minarets, the tomb of Goharshad Begum, buried next to her son and husband, the shrine of Khaje Abdul Ansari and Masjid Jame. The mausoleum lies in between the minarets considered the symbol of Herat. To visit and take pictures of Goharshad Begum’s tomb you need to show and give a copy of the authorization you received from Tourism office.
For lunch, head to Girdeh Park, about 10-15 minutes drive. In this neighborhood you will find a good choice of nice restaurants. I recommend Arman restaurant where you can smoke a nice hookah as well.
Gazur Gah Shrine
Among the things to do in Herat, don’t miss Gazur Gah shrine to visit the resting place of the important Sufi figure and poet Khwajah Abdullah Ansari, also known as Pir-i Herat (sage of Herat), who lived in the 11th Century. The site was created as a medieval settlement around a religious site and funerary complex and continued to develop after the death of Ansari also with a religious school built by Ghurid rulers in the 12th century and a more elaborate renovation by the Timurids in the 15th century.
Gazur Gah complex is a pilgrimage beloved by Heratis. Women and men part ways when the alley leading to the green-colored shrine starts and it’s not unusual to see women crying at grave.
To reach Gazur Gah you need a taxi as it lies in the outskirts. Taxi will take 15 to 20 minutes from the city center and will cost around 300 Rupees (around 5 USD), one way.
Things to do in Herat – Day three
Tim Che Bazaar
On the third day of exploring the things to do in Herat, take a taxi to the old city center and walk around the quaint bazaar that spreads from the intersection of Chehar Soo, literally translating into “Four Directions”, each one going towards one of the old gates of the city: Iraq Gate, on the northwest of the city center, Malik Gate, on the southwest of the old city, Khoshk Gate, on the east, and Kandahar Gate, going south. The gates were built all around the bazaar to protect from foreign invasions.
This open market teems with small, old shops where you can buy literally everything. Dusty and messy, you won’t resist the charm of the old. Herat is a very conservative city, and this bazaar is one of the very few places where people were willing to be photographed.
A stone’s throw away, you can visit also Tim Che Arbab Zadeh, an old little covered bazaar that has been rebuilt in the recent years. It’s located 50 meters north of Chehar Soo and is open on public even though not being used for trades except for two shops, one selling burqas and one handmade traditional carpets.
Walk back to the Chehar Soo (2-5 minutes walking), head west for about 5 minutes walking and you will reach fascinating Caravanserai Akhund Zadeh, still in use mainly as a stockhouse of the nearby markets. Even though its appearance is far from its heyday, its traditional, sand-hued Herati architecture is a beautiful reminder of the splendor this ancient forerunner of today’s hotels used to welcome his wandering guests with. The caravanserai comprises also of a little covered bazaar with an inside courtyard where old traders and travelers parked their animals to stay overnight or doing trades. Unfortunately this beautiful historical site is falling apart but from what I heard the Afghan Government is trying to buy the site and renovate it.
When you are out of the caravansary, walk back to Chehar Soo intersection and visit the historical Tim Che Abrisham (Silk Bazaar), quite in a good shape thanks to recent renovation. It is a little beautiful mud-made covered market with round roofs and a few silk shops where old local Heratis sell Kashmir and silk shawls. Here you can also find pashminas/blankets made of what is known as Kashmir “patu kork“, typical Herati. It costs about 200 USD and it’s super warm and pretty large.
When you finish visiting the Silk Bazaar walk to the eastern corner of the Chehar Soo intersection right behind, up to a short fence beyond which you will see a local from the tourism office guarding the city’s old Cistern, the storage for rain water that people used to drink in summer and during droughts, this, too, among the things to do in Herat. To enter, you need to give him a copy of your authorization paper. He will show you around, open the door of the Cistern for you and even take you to the roof of the Cistern and the nearby Silk Bazaar you visited earlier. From here you will have a great view of the old Herat City and its traditional mud houses.
Although you don’t have to give him money, some 50-100 Rupees (1 to 2 USD) tip would be very much appreciated. Now, from Chehar Soo intersection walk another 5-10 minutes toward south to Kandahar Gate to see Caravanserai Zard and the little bazaar next to it. It’s really worth it as this is also an important piece of the historical relics of the city and its crucial role along the Silk Road, even though the little bazaar (tim che) next to it is falling apart. This is why I recommend you DO NOT go to the second floor as it’s really crumbling.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan started in 1979 right from the border with Herat Province, and locals proudly remember how much every single citizen fought off.
In memory of those scary moments, Herat municipality built a Jihad Museum where you can see remains of soviet military tanks and helicopters, alongside a reconstruction of the battles.
The Jihad Museum, located north of the city next to the mountains between Takht-e Safar street and Bagh Mellat street, is definitely one of the things to do in Herat if you wish to dig deeper into the country’s modern history. The entrance fee with permission to photograph is 300 rupees (5 USD).
Where to stay?
There aren’t many hotels in Herat so you don’t have too many options. Most of all, remember that when it comes to Afghanistan you want both somewhere safe and comfortable with good services.
Nazary Hotel, Tejarat Hotel and Marco Polo Hotel are your best options and if you reserve and tell them the time of your arrival, they will arrange the pick up from the airport. Nazary and Tejarat hotels are the best and most expensive ones, with some 150 USD per night per double room, while Marco Polo hotel is cheaper, around 40 USD per night, mainly because it lies around 2 km from the city center and you would need a taxi to go everywhere.
Get a tour guide
If you are planning to go and visit this historical city and don’t speak Farsi, it’s better you hire a guide/interpreter to both show you around and translate for you. We can introduce you to a university student who speaks good English, lives in Herat and knows the city very well who would do it for as little as 30 USD per day. If you are interested contact us and we’ll give you his number.
As I mentioned earlier, most sites to enter and photograph require an authorization letter. The Tourism Office is located right in front of Nazary Hotel, if you hired an interpreter/guide go with him and ask him to write the request for entering historical places in Herat. Nothing fancy on the request, just a handwritten request on a A4 paper for entering and taking pictures will be enough. Mention your name and your purpose for being in Herat (you can say simply tourism).
The officials in the tourism office are very cooperative and helpful. The young officer responsible will stamp it right away and it’s all free. The authorization doesn’t take more than 20 minutes and you are good to go. Make copies of this letter once it’s stamped because at every historical place they will ask you one. The only place you are due to pay money for entering and taking picture is Qala Ikhtyaruddin Citadel.
Start your days after 8.30 am and finish them before 4 pm, especially when days are shorter, both for safety reason and because historical places close around 4 pm.
Try to blend in as much as possible with locals, also dressing like one, and don’t follow every day the same timetable such as going out and coming back at the same time, or even going to the same restaurants. Being a foreigner in Afghanistan puts you already at risk so following some security measures won’t harm.
If you want an Afghan SIM Card, you can buy an already registered one directly at the airport for about 1 USD, or in any phone shop. For both calls and internet traffic, the best brand is Etisalat. The prices are for 1 GB about 4 USD, while for 4 GB it’s only 9 USD, so better value.
You can both withdraw with your debit card from banks’ ATMs or you can exchange your cash either at the banks and exchange agencies or at every intersection of the city center you will see plenty of locals exchanging US dollars, and Euros. The rate is usually 1 USD=65 to 67 Afghan rupees, 1 euro=70 to 72 rupees.
Solo women safety in Afghanistan
I personally do not recommend to go alone to Afghanistan if you are a woman. The country has the reputation of being the worst in the world for women, and this is not an exaggeration. Hire a trusted guide so you won’t be wandering by yourself the streets of what still is a war zone, you will have someone who speaks in Farsi for you and who will know where it’s better you don’t go. It takes less than no time to Afghans to understand when someone is not a local, so never be too over-confident and keep low profile.
Taxis in Herat are yellow and white. Going any of the destinations inside the city I mentioned shouldn’t cost you more than 300 Rupees 5 USD, while from Herat airport the fee goes from 300 to 500 rupees (5 to 8 USD) depending on where you are going.
***Disclaimer*** While we love Afghanistan, we don’t encourage anyone to go at least for now. It’s been a war zone for almost 40 years and from 2016 ISIS/Daesh terrorists have been actively gaining ground, carrying out attacks targeting both Afghans and foreigners, and recruiting new terrorists. If you still want to travel to Afghanistan, please do take the necessary security measures. To know more about this read our article on security in Afghanistan.