Do you know anything about modern Tehran? Because I sure didn’t. Aside from brief mentions in political articles I’ve read on the NY Times, or books such as Prisoner of Tehran, I had no clue what awaited me in Iran’s largest city.
As the capital of Iran with over 8 million residents, it will probably be your gateway if you’re flying into Iran. We all know how important first impressions are. So let me be honest with you : it is crowded, it is dusty, the air is polluted, the traffic is next level. What else would you expect from the 3rd largest metropolitan area in the Middle East? However in the midst of the crazy city hustle and bustle… are relics from another era that no longer exists, the friendliest people you will ever meet in a capital city, delicious restaurants, modern architecture as well as hipster cafés and art galleries.
If you’re flying into Tehran, you’ll most likely be landing at the Imam Khomeini Airport like I did. Upon landing, I zoomed straight through customs without anyone giving me a difficult time, I’m not sure if this is the usual drill, I was so prepared to be grilled since getting a visa was such an arduous process (will be making a post about how to apply soon!). Once you get past customs, there are several counters for official taxis as well as phone companies selling SIM cards (if you want to buy one, this is where you should get it : ex. Irancell provides great connection throughout the country, under 10CAD for 1GB).
At the time of writing, the only ways to reach the city were by taxi or shuttle bus, but 2 metro lines connecting to the city are currently under construction. As I arrived after 2 red eye connections, I didn’t even pretend to look for the shuttle bus… nope. A shower, bed, and breakfast were the only things on my mind. A taxi should set you back about 15-20USD if you negotiate, and travel time definitely depends on the traffic. I was lucky to land at 5am (as most international flights land late or early) so it only took 1 hour, but I’ve heard it can easily take up to 2 hours (on my way back out, I left my hotel at 4am and got to the airport in 40 minutes). Also note that hotel choices around the airport are limited to Novotel and Ibis which opened in 2015, the first two international hotel chains to make their way to Iran post 1979.
Transport in the city
Once I got into the city, I was pleasantly surprised by how clean and modern the metro system is. Keep in mind that there are no English signs, and be discreet if you want to take pictures of signs to use on Google translate (got scolded by the ticket lady wooops). Thankfully a local friend I made on Couchsurfing came to my rescue and helped me buy tickets. Be ready to pay under a whopping 10 000 rials (30 cents) per ticket! I didn’t use any city busses since taxis and share taxis are also readily available starting from 20 000 rials (you may have to switch cars once or twice to get to your final destination if you’re in a share taxi, just hop in and ask the driver where they can drop you off to connect).
Where to stay
- Free : Couchsurfing is the best way to make your way around Iran! I can not recommend it enough, the locals go above and beyond to host you never letting you forget that Iranians are famous for their hospitability! Many of them will also take time off to accompany you around the city. You will get invited to family dinners, smothered with food and peppered with curious questions. If you would rather stay in a hotel, you can still meet Iranians on Couchsurfing willing to meet new international friends for tea or a day walking around town.
- Budget : See You in Iran is new concept hostel that recently opened it’s doors in Tehran. It began as a Facebook group like-minded travellers and locals wishing to discuss and share information on Iranian culture (seriously a treasure trove of info), and recently they opened their own hostel of which I’ve only heard good things.
- Mid range : I also stayed at Aramis Hotel and cannot fault their location. They are right smack in the middle of one of the biggest intersections in Tehran on Vali Asr Square surrounded by restaurants and shops (from knock off perfume, to scarves, to electronics…), with easy access to most sights. The rooms range from slightly old and stuffy to clean and modern, I was a bit confused on this as I stayed there twice and my second room was far superior (ask for a room facing the street on the right). However staff spoke very little English, their internet was slow at best (although free) and one of their bellboys was a little too persistent for tips.
- High-end : I did not do much research on luxury hotels as I did not intend to stay at any, however there does seem to be several that are popping up around Iran. Among the recommendations I received were Parsian Azadi Hotel and the recently opened Epsinas Palace Hotel.
What to do
Tehran is such a sprawling city that it would be virtually impossible to explore all of it on foot. Even grouping the attractions into neighbourhoods, I had some aching legs by the end of day one. My time in Tehran was limited to 3 days, here is a rough plan of how I tackled the city :
- Northern Tehran : Spend at least a half to full day in Northern Tehran wandering around the beautiful tree-lined streets. Traffic is a lot calmer up here in the neighbourhoods that are considered to belong to the rich and elite. This is where you see fancy cars, fashionable Tehranis and high end shops. Head all the way to the top of Valiasr St and you will reach the beautiful Imamzadeh Saleh (free)… It blows my mind how a beautiful mosque like this is not in any guidebooks. Local families and teens sit around chatting, equipped with snacks and Iphones for selfies; some are sketching or reading a book. If you are a woman, you enter a tent at the front and can borrow a chador to cover yourself; then head straight to the left of the main entrance into the women’s wing for a beautiful mirrored prayer room. Once you’re done, go back out the main entrance and take an immediate right, which will lead you to the Tajrish Bazaar (free). It’s much smaller than the main bazaar so you can take your time without being shoved around. If you still have time, head to the Niavaran Palace (5 USD) a couple km away. I didn’t think it was particularly impressive and is not worth a visit if you aren’t making time for Northern Tehran, though it does offer some insight on how the last royal family lived.
- Central Tehran : The next grouping is a lot easier to navigate : Golestan Palace, National Jewelry Museum, National Museum and Tehran Bazaar are all within 2 km of each other in Central Tehran. The Golestan Palace (5 USD) was the highlight, I mean who can say no to a palace dubbed the Palace of Flowers? Definitely not me, that’s who. The decor and mirror walls of the throne room were exquisite, also make sure to check out the European-influenced flower tiled walls on the opposite side of the entrance. Such a completely unexpected and a refreshing change from all the Islamic art in Iran! Skip the National Museum (5 USD) if you’re going to Persepolis later on, half of the exhibit are artefacts taken from there. As for the Grand Bazaar (free until you want to buy everything)… enter from the main northern entrance and get ready to get lost!!! Even if you’ve memorized every turn you made, the shopkeepers close and open gates shutting off alleyways at random, ensuring you spend more time trapped in there. We learned this the hard way and spent the afternoon comparing it to the changing staircases at Hogwarts, discussing the chances of not making it out alive (drama queen who?). So you might as well let yourself wander around the sections selling specific wares such as copper, clothes, jewelry, carpets etc…. and hope for the best!
- The Carpet Museum (3 USD) is not close to any other sights and is only worth going if you’re particularly interested in old carpets (Ok maybe I’m biaised because I bought a beautiful one from the Bazaar). If you are short on time, don’t go out of your way to visit.
- The former US Embassy (free) aka the infamous Den of Espionage is where all the hostage events of 1979 came cracking down and inspired the Ben Affleck directed movie Argo. Do yourself a favour and educate yourself on the history instead of going as there isn’t much to see. It is closed to the public and the only things of note are the murals on the walls outside depicting the Statue of Liberty as a skull. I didn’t attempt to take a picture as I’ve heard that the police will generally ask you to delete it if they see you, just google the images.
- The Tabi’at Bridge (free) is a newly constructed green footbridge over Tehran’s main highway, connecting two parks on either side. It’s a great place to grab a bite to eat in one of the many restaurants or simply grab some tea and people watch. I passed by in the afternoon but am told that the view is better at night, 1 more reason to go back to Tehran!
- Others : Short on time, I missed the chance to visit the Milad Tower (8 USD, Iran’s CN Tower equivalent) or Azadi Tower (3 USD). From what I’ve heard, the Azadi Tower is more impressive and offers panoramic views of the city at the top, it was built in 1971 to commemorate the 2500th anniversary of the first Persian Empire. My biggest disappointment is the strict opening hours of the Jewelry Museum (5 USD) which caused me to miss my chance to ogle all those oh so shiny diamonds. Last but not least, Darband is also an area I regret not being able to visit. It’s north of the Tajrish bazaar at the foot of the mountain, has great hikes to Mount Tochal (or take a chairlift), hookah lounges, and popular evening cafés.
Where to eat
I’m going to be honest and go ahead and admit that I do not remember the names of most places I ate at in Tehran… so trying to find them again on Google maps is pretty impossible. Here’s what I do remember :
- Don’t eat at the café inside the National Museum, it’s overpriced and the food was nothing exceptional. Instead, head over to the Bazaar and grab some pomegranate juice or fried rice cakes.
- The Iranian Artist’s Forum in Honarmandan Park is a good place to see the young liberal and hipster crowd on weekend nights. They have a downstairs vegetarian Iranian café/restaurant that is to die for and a cool rooftop lounge that offers more international fare, so we opted for dinner downstairs and tea/dessert upstairs afterwards.
- As mentioned above, there are several nice restaurants around and on the Tabi’at Bridge that have lively atmospheres, mostly at night.
- A restaurant serving delicious and generous portions of kebabs in Northern Iran. It was popular with locals as well as tourists (finally an English menu!) and the owner was incredibly friendly. If anyone recognizes it please let me know!
Phew alright then that’s it for Tehran! Please let me know if you have any comments, questions, or anything to add 🙂