For most people, the name of Tehran is only a tragic reminder of the political events that happened not so long ago. Few are willing to spend a few days in this huge tentacular metropolis where 15 millions Iranians are living. A pity, really… We do think that for a successful trip in Iran, it is indeed essential to spend some time in Tehran, perfect place to capture the soul of this complex multi-faced country. Imagine that in only one day in Tehran, you can chill in the enchanting gardens of the palace of the last Shah, dive in the crowd of the bazaars, rave about the cleanliness of the subway, eat dates and cakes in the courtyard of a mosque, risk your life taking a taxi, enjoy a tchoï (tea) in an old house or a frappé in a trendy coffee shop with all the fashionable youth… Visiting Tehran means traveling from surprise to surprise. Doesn’t it sound tempting?
Tehran, the start of an Iranian trip
To be honest, we didn’t expect anything special about the Iranian capital. Our stay in Tehran had another purpose than visiting the city. We came there first to visit a dear friend of us. Beautiful, charming, smart, with a sharp mind and a strong personality, Maryam is Iranian at heart. She is going to take us through the streets of her city and will host us in her family’s house, allowing us to have an insight of Iranian life (and also of fine Iranian gastronomy). What we’ll first note is the use of fascinating and complex taarof, or the refined art of politeness and hospitality in Iran.
Also, for once we will not be traveling alone but with a couple of good friends from France, Adrien and Emilie.
Of course Tehran is a 100% Iranian and it means that you can find very beautiful mosques there, as well as wonderful palaces, and colourful bazaars. They are scattered all across the city but fortunately, the well developed and super clean subway allows us to travel fast from one place to another. And if the subway doesn’t go where you want to go, you can still take an affordable taxi, at your own risk though…
Bāzār e Bozorg, Tehran Bazaar
Freshly arrived in Iran, we only had one thing in mind: to get lost in the craziness of the bazaars. For that Bāzār e Bozorg (in farsi : بازار بزرگ ) is the perfect place. You can find pretty much everything within its old district displaying a well preserved Persian architecture and its less charming modern district: phones, gadgets, fruits and vegetables, cosmetics, clothes, sexy underwears, and of course carpets!
Going in the Bāzār e Bozorg is like rushing in a labyrinth : you can spend hours inside ! Personally we really loved the amazing ambiance there. The crowd is moving under the high ceilings in large dark alleys lighten by weak skylight and flickering light bulbs. Severe women wrapped in black tchadors (a veil that covers women from head to feet) are walking aside casual women wearing make-up and colourful hijab (classic veil, like a light scarf). Most of the men elegantly wear suits and moustaches, but the well shaved young ones are proud to show around their fashion haircuts. Parisians hipsters are facing serious competitors there!
Unlike the bazaars in Istanbul or in Maghreb, nobody in Iranian bazaars will try to sell you this or that or a full cattle of camels (to do in clichés). Sellers are not at all invasive, so visitors can freely and peacefully enjoy the place. Goods are moving from one shop to another with the bazaar own transportation system which consists in men and young boys pushing or pulling heavily loaded trolleys through the corridors. Nothing can stop them. Dreamers, watch your back! It’s also possible to stop at anytime to drink a tchoï or to chat with people or just to chill a bit in the relaxing atmosphere of a mosque (the Imam mosque for example, but you’ll have a large choice, there is no less than a dozen of them in the Bāzār e Bozorg!).
Tajrish bazaar and Imamzadeh Saleh mosque
Next to Tajrish place in the north of Tehran, this bazaar is a lot smaller than Bāzār e Bozorg but seduced us nonetheless with its beautiful arches and its relative quietness.
Just outside of it, our eyes were immediately drawned to a persian blue building. A wonderful mosque stood in front of us, exposing proudly its imposing blue bulb to the sun. This is the Imamzadeh Saleh mosque ( امامزاده صالح ), of whom you can admire the tomb inside. If you’re a woman, a tchador is required to enter the evan (the courtyard). To hide your indecent curves, a kind employee in a giant fitting room at the entrance will help you put on colourful-and-full-of-flowers large pieces of cloth.
This mosque is as interesting from the inside as it is from the outside. Shiny mosaics of mirrors cover walls and ceilings, reflecting the low ambient light around. Comfy persian carpets allow visitors to relax, read, chat quietly while sharing a few pistachios, and of course to pray. As one may expect, one side is reserved for men and the other for women.
All the district around the mosque is also really nice, offering beautiful views on the Albroz, the snowy mountains behind Tehran. Not far from the Imamzadeh Saleh mosque you can also find the Saadabad complex (مجموعه سعدآباد – Majmue ye Sa’dābād), a 180 hectares wide property with palaces and gardens that belonged to the shahs. We arrived too late that day to visit it unfortunately, but all people we met said that’s really great to visit.
Ok guys, if there is one thing you must see in Teheran it would be the Golestan palace (کاخ گلستان – Kāx e Golestān)! Entrance fee is not cheap (around 700 000 IRR), but seriously, it is worth the cost! This old palace from the Qajar period is a jewel of persian art and a peaceful haven compared to the frenzy ambiance of the city. Birds sing while water runs in little canals all around the blooming gardens. The tickets include the entrance to several sumptuous buildings, where every details count. In one of them we discovered one of the cleverest inventionss of iranian folk: the badghirs. Those « wind catching towers » linked to an underground water tank are the oldest AC system in the world! And more than naturally cooling the air inside, they keep water fresh during summer! Pretty cool, isn’t it?
Visiting Tehran is an exciting activity, but it can be also really exhausting. Iranians love to stop regularly in tea shops or cafés to rest a bit and enjoy a nice piece of cake. So we warmly recommend you to do the same, for your own sake, if you don’t want to end your trip in Iran more tired than when you arrived. Iranians are really friendly and have that passion for picnics shared with family or friends. So they basically unroll their carpets everywhere, as long as their is shadow over them! Some say iranian hospitably is the best in the world. Truly, it might be right! You’ll soon discover that they will invite you to share their meal or a cup of tea more often than your stomach can handle! So don’t be shy, go on, that’s always amazing meeting iranian people, but be warned: you’ll get your belly so full that you’ll not be able to eat very soon after that. So either you want to join or not, here begins the game of taarof, or the art to decline the propositions with kindness and respect.
If you still have some room for food, and you’re around you can try the amazing kebab of Bahar کبابی بهار (at Bahar e Shiraz St and Bahar St crossroad). A good address only known by locals! Another cool thing to do is to enjoy a coffee in café Naderi كافه نادري (on Jomhouri Ave), one of the oldest café of the capital displaying a delightful ambiance from the 60’s.
Didn’t this overview of fascinating Tehran make you want to spend some time there? As we told you earlier Tehran is a multi-faced city and if you are not yet totally convinced that Tehran is worth a stay, jump to our next article: there you will discover the city’s nightlife, its trendy cafés, its lively parks and gardens… All that makes Tehran an exciting and surprising capital!