I enjoyed Tehran immensely.
Four words I never thought I’d see myself writing. And neither did I expect to discuss the plays of Kerry writer John B Keane with an Afghan immigrant while I stayed in the city.
Given that Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport (IKA) is the largest airport in the country, Iran’s capital city is where the majority of international travellers start their visit.
As a bustling commercial centre with a population of 8 million, Tehran is often criticised for its lack of beauty in comparison to other Iranian urban centres. But Tehran’s beauty is its inner beauty, more specifically its outgoing residents. So one of the first things to do in Tehran is to engage with the locals. Here’s a list of other options.
6 THINGS TO DO IN TEHRAN
Tehran operates at a frenetic pace so the tranquillity of Golestan Palace and its grounds were a welcome refuge. This UNESCO World Heritage site was the home of Iran’s ruling dynasties for centuries. The complex is divided into gardens and buildings, the latter of which houses some of the most ornate decoration in the world. The basic entrance fee allows for access into the front courtyard with each part of the complex costing extra to access. If you are short on time or energy I recommend visiting the main part of the palace. Metro Station: Pamzdah-e-Khordad
Given its proximity, the Grand Bazaar is the obvious next stop after Golestan Palace. Consisting of miles of labyrinthine alleyways, the bazaar takes Tehran’s frenetic pace to a new level. Several entrances lead to covered walkways although some alleys are open air. Stroll and people-watch if you wish but as for exiting empty-handed? I doubt it! Metro Station: Pamzdah-e Khordad or Khayam
FORMER US EMBASSY/DEN OF ESPIONAGE
This was one of the sites I was keen to see but, at the same time, had reservations about visiting. In early 1979, the Iranian Revolution saw the overthrow of the US-backed Shah of Iran who was later granted medical treatment and asylum in the US. In November 1979, a group of Iranian students stormed the embassy and held 52 of the embassy’s staff hostage for 14 months. 6 staff escaped, the story of which is the subject of the film Argo.
Anti-US murals cover the embassy’s perimeter walls. Locals stopped and chatted to me as I took photographs. Inside the main gate is a kiosk where I paid my entrance fee to a friendly man accompanied by a young boy, more than likely his grandson.
The building is a two-storey building, the façade of which is predominantly red brick. The vertical windows have bars on the outside. The walls of the entrance hall are plastered with newspaper coverage of the hostage crisis and pictures of the hostages. One cannot help but think of what the hostages went through.
Upstairs is a series of rooms, some eerily empty, some with shredding and communications equipment. Non-shredded documents are laid out for visitors to see. Farsi/English bilingual posters explain the why and a little of the how of the hostage crisis.
A handful of tourists were visiting. Guides were on hand to give free tours and answer questions. Information on hostage welfare was scant which in itself is a form of propaganda. I looked for opinion on past and present Iran-US relations and was surprised when my probing questions were met with detailed courteous replies. I was even more surprised to hear that the bulk of Argo’s content was correct from an Iranian perspective.
The embassy has played a major role in US-Iranian relations and I found it to be a fascinating place. It took almost 40 years to re-open the building to the public. However, visiting this site is a personal choice as is visiting the Stars and Stripes mural on adjacent Qarani Street. Metro Station: Taleghani
IRANIAN ARTISTS’ FORUM
At the back of the US Embassy lies the vibrant Artists’ Park where the Iranian Artists’ Forum is located. This multi-media complex consists of art galleries, a cinema, a crafts/book shop, café and restaurant. My visit coincided with the launch of a contemporary artist’s exhibition. Like any launch, the hors d’ouevres and drink were in plentiful supply, the latter of the fruit juice variety. I loved this site and highly recommend a visit to culture enthusiasts. Metro Station: Taleghani
AZADI TOWER (Borj-e Azadi)
Commissioned by the Shah to commemorate the Persian Empire, this impressive monument has been adopted in the post-revolution era as the iconic landmark of Tehran. Azadi means freedom. The gardens surrounding the monument are a meeting point for locals but, as the complex acts as a roundabout, accessing them involves running across lanes of chaotic traffic. Metro Station: Meydan-e Azadi
A place recommended by another independent traveller, Tabiat Bridge was a pleasant surprise. Designed by Leila Araghian, it’s a split-level pedestrian bridge over the Modares motorway in the middle of Taleghani Park. The lower level contains fast-food restaurants while the upper level offers views of the Tehran skyline with a backdrop of the Alborz mountains. The park itself is a great place to see locals socialising and exercising. Metro Station: Shahid Haqqani
TEHRAN TRAVEL ESSENTIALS
Where to stay in Tehran: I stayed in the See You in Iran Hostel which was conveniently located near Artists’ Park and the US Embassy. Tehran is a large city so choosing accommodation near a metro station will be of huge benefit.
Where to change money: Locals directed me to Ferdowsi Square where a number of exchange offices are located at its southern end.
Getting to Tehran: Metro line 1 extends to IKA but was non-operational at the unsociable hour I arrived into IKA from Istanbul Airport. Official airport taxis are available at the first exit after the arrivals hall. Tiredness led me to take the second exit, ending up in an unofficial car. Getting lost was one problem. Trying to rip me off was another. The agreed price was IRR800,000 (which was the normal going rate) but he demanded more at the destination. I threatened to report him to the police, a phrase which had the desired effect. IKA’s website is an excellent source of information and advice.
Getting around Tehran: I cannot recommend the metro highly enough. Safe, clean, efficient and incredibly cheap, it was my main mode of transport. Tickets are bought at the counter and scanned through the turnstiles. The carriages are gender segregated with female carriages at the front and rear of the train. Station platforms are marked to accommodate this gender segregation. I thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle of the mobile traders who traipsed the carriages selling anything from cigarette lighters to lace bras.
Snapp is the Iranian version of Uber. Available through Google Play Store I didn’t use it in Tehran but did in other cities. Learn numbers 1-10 in Farsi so you can recognise your ride’s number plate.
Moving onwards from Tehran: My next stop was Esfahan so I took a VIP bus (IRR450,000 but comfy) from Jonoub Bus Station which is located a couple of minutes’ walk from Terminal-e-Jonoub metro station. The minute I entered the bus station gate I had men touting for business for various destinations. The tout with the best English brought me upstairs and arranged for ticket purchase.
The bus stopped at Qom station and at a retail/dining area in the middle of nowhere. All went well until arrival in Esfahan where the bus assistant from Tehran refused to give me my luggage from the hold until I paid a ’tip’.
Is Tehran safe for female travellers? Other than the taxi ride from IKA where I momentarily suspected something much worse than a financial rip off, I felt safe in Tehran. People seemed busy with the travails of everyday life but many spared a few moments to chat and help. In fact, Tehran was my favourite part of Iran. But that’s the beauty of travel. The most unsuspecting of places can transpire as nice surprises.
Interesting fact: Tehran means hot place. Te (pronounced teh) is the Irish word for hot.
For further Iran travel tips check out my Solo Female Travel in Iran post.