Iran City Guides - Tehran
- Iran's vibrant, chaotic capital
- city has clear north-south divide
- more prosperous north; poorer south
- more than 14m inhabitants
- some of the country's most important museums and palaces
- shop for bargains in Tehran's bazaars
- home to the unmissable National Museum of Tehran
For better or for worse, Tehran is the political, economic and cultural capital of Iran. Clogged with traffic and choked with smog, it's not the most immediately inviting of Iran's cities - no spellbinding mosques, rose gardens or ancient ruins - but visitors will find more on offer the closer they look.
Panorama of Tehran with the Milad Tower, Iran
From ancient artefacts to modern art, Qurans to carpets, Tehran is home to the best of Iran's museums and galleries. And though it doesn't have the long, illustrious history of Isfahan or Shiraz, Tehran is where to discover more about Iran's 20th century upheavals, from the tarnished grandeur of the Pahlavi palaces to the countless fading murals in praise of Khomeini and the Iraq War martyrs.
But history also demands that life goes on. As Tehran's wealthy increasingly look west for cultural leads, ever-widening cultural divisions make walking the city streets a study in social distinctions.
Western brands stamp their mark on the wealthy north of the city with increasing swagger, while, in the south, the impressive, labyrinthine Bazar-e Bozorg (Big Bazaar) continues to heave in and dish out vast quantities of gold, silver, spices, carpets, textiles and Chinese-made consumer goods of dubious quality. Uptown girls let their headscarves drift back over boutique hairdos - a petty but pertinent sign that Islamic restrictions are not to everyone's taste. At the same time chador-wearing women make their own unmistakable statement.
Be sure though to take a Friday walk in Tehran's northern suburbs, where paths leading into the mountains are trod by one and all. In Darakeh, the sense of relief is tangible as Tehranis kick off their shoes to cool hiked-out feet in the cold mountain stream. At Tochal the cable car takes skiers to pistes no more than 30 minutes away from the centre of town.
The Golestan Palace (Rose Garden Palace) in Tehran
Azadi Monument, Tehran, Iran
This distinctively shaped arch is situated in the western part of Tehran near Mehrabat International Airport.
The word Azadi means national independence and it was completed in 1971 for the celebrations given by Mohammad Reza Shah to commemorate 2,500 years of Iranian Kings.
The 3 floor, 45m high monument is constructed from large 25,000 granite blocks from Hamedan province. Almost 15,000 differently shaped blocks were used to create its unique shape.
Though modern in style, the design incorporates both pre and post-Islamic architectural styles. The 21m high archway is representative of the pre-Islamic Sassanid period while it is also pointed to represent hands raised in prayer.
Four elevators and two staircases (286 stairs) take you to the top of the tower from where you can see extensive views of Tehran. In the basement is a museum divided into two rooms.
The first contains pottery and glassware from prehistoric through to Islamic Iran as well as bronze artefacts dating back to the 1st and 2nd centuries BC excavated from Lurestan. The second room contains photographs and models depicted traditional life from different parts of Iran.
Newspapers on sale in Tehran, Iran
Bakery selling fresh bread in Tehran, Iran
National Jewels Museum
Located in the basement of the National Bank of Iran on Ferdosi Avenue, in front of the embassies of Germany and Turkey, this is one of the best known museums in Iran. On display is an impressive collection of some of the most famous and spectacular jewels in the world including many priceless pieces.
Many pieces have disappeared over the years but the remaining collection of gemstones, jewellery, royal emblems, ornamental guns and jewel-encrusted furniture is still impressive. The majority of the items on display were given to Safavid kings as gifts but many pieces taken by Nader Shah on his conquest of India are also exhibited. These include the Darya-e Nur diamond, The Peacock Throne and the Jeweled Globe. Other pieces include the crowns of the Qajar and Pahlavi Kings.
The National Museum of Iran (Museum of Ancient Iran)
Opened in 1937, the National Museum was Irans very first museum. To this day it houses Irans foremost collection of archaeological and cultural treasures. The main entrance is on Tir Street but it can also be entered from Shahid ra Jai Street.
The museum was designed (and until 1960, also curated) by the French archaeologist and architect Andre Godard. The two-floor building was built to resemble the palace of Ardeshir I in Firuzabad and the red brick entranceway and dome are reminiscent of the Sassanid and Arsakid styles.
The main building houses a collection of artefacts from prehistoric Iran to the end of the Sassanid period, including pottery dating from before 1000BC, Elamite artefacts discovered at Susa and Chogha Zambil and a wealth of Achaemenid period decorations from Persepolis. A copy of the stela carved with Hammurabis Laws serves as a reminder that the original, now in the Louvre, was discovered in Iran.
An extension built in 1997 houses treasures from the early years of the Islamic era to the present. At the heart of the collection are handwritten copies of the Holy Quran displayed in an atmosphere of quiet reverence and spirituality along with other complementary elements of a mosque, such as an altar prayer chamber.
Other handwritten books include the poetic works of Ferdowsi, Nezami Sadi and Hafez. The uppers floors of the building chart the flourishing of Iranian art in fields such as pottery, glassware, miniature painting, carpets, metal engravings and calligraphy.
The Golestan Palace in Tehran
Located on Khordad Square, the Golestan Palace ("Palace of Flowers") is a collection of buildings set in a walled park veined with canals rushing down from the Tochal mountains. It stands on the site of the historic Arg (citadel) of Tehran which was originally built in the time of Shah Abbas (r. 1588-1629) of the Safavid dynasty.
The Arg became the official royal residence when Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar moved the capital of Iran to Tehran and further palace buildings were constructed during the reign of Karim Khan Zand (r. 1750-1779). Buildings commissioned by Naser Al-din Shah (r. 1848-1896), such as the Shams-ol-Emaneh ("Edifice of the Sun") and the Emarat-e Badgir ("Building of the Wind Towers") show traces of a European architectural style that the modernising king was influenced by on his travels.
The splendour of the interiors of many of the buildings evokes a time when foreign dignitaries were invited to the Qajar court and compared its artistry to the royal buildings of Europe. Both the Eyvan-e Takht-e Marmar ("Terrace of the Marble Throne") and the Talar-e Aineh ("Hall of Mirrors") are famous for the spectacular mirror work that covers their walls.
Elsewhere can be seen fine examples of Iranian stained glass, mosaic tiles and painting. Several buildings house collections of paintings and gifts given to Qajar kings by European dignitaries as well as paintings by Iranian masters.
Though not all of the buildings are open to the public, the park itself is an oasis of calm in the heart of the city.
Jomeh Bazaar (Friday Market)
Tehran's Jomeh Bazaar (Friday Market) has a huge variety of bric-a-brac on display. The Friday Market is held on three floors of a multi-storey car park in central Tehran, on the east side of Joumbouri Avenue. The flea market is open every Friday from around 9am to 4pm.
Other tourist attractions in Tehran
Carpet Museum - Laleh Park
Not far from the Museum of Contemporary Art and also adjacent to Laleh Park, the Carpet Museum of Iran is one of the most rewarding to visit of Tehrans many museums. Most of the more than 100 carpets on display are from the 19th or 20th centuries but there are a handful of older specimens from as far back as the 16th century.
Photography is permitted though use of flash is not. Hunting and wildlife scenes show off the carpet makers art to the greatest extent.
Corner of Fatemi Street and Kargar Avenue; Admission fee
Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art - Laleh Park
On the west side the very lovely Laleh Park is a low-lying dun-brick building functioning as Tehran's most important museum of contemporary art.
In the construction itself you see something of the struggle in all Iranian art to reconcile the traditional with the modern. First notice the skylights raised from the roof. Reminiscent of the "badgirs" of Yazd or Kashan, these allow the harsh sun to softly light the central sunken well of inner space itself a modern interpretation of the cool underground havens of desert city residences.
Labyrinthine corridors spin off the central hall and guide you through the history of modern Iranian art. There are many fine pieces and some deep, absurdly comfortable armchairs from which to view them from.
Kargar Avenue; Admission fee
Reza Abbasi Museum - Shariati street
Saad Abad Palace Complex
Niavaran Palace Museum
Access - Getting To Tehran
Tehran is the main access point for international flights in to Iran and the central transport hub for the whole country. It is possible to get to just about anywhere in Iran by beginning your journey in Tehran. A number of major carriers offer plane tickets to Iran's capital.
There are regular buses to Esfahan (7 hours), Hamadan (5 hours), Kermanshah (9 hours), Rasht (6 hours), Mashhad (14 hours), Tabriz (10 hours) and Yazd (10 hours).
Tehran has four bus stations: the Central Bus Station (Tel: 873 2535), a shared taxi (savari) ride from Mossallah Metro Station, the Eastern Bus Station (Tel: 786 8080) with buses to the Caspian coast and Khorasan Province, the Southern Bus Station (Tel: 559 163) accessible from the Terminal e jonoub Metro Station and the Western Bus Station (Tel: 606 28554), a short walk from Tehran Metro Station, has more buses to the Caspian and international buses to Azerbaijan, Turkey and Syria.
There are regular trains from Tehran's main train station on Rah-Ahan Square in the south of the city. Daily trains depart for Ahvas, Bandar-e Abbas, Esfahan, Kerman, Mashhad, Qom, Tabriz and Yazd.
Getting Around Tehran
The Tehran Metro is clean, cheap and an efficient way to travel around the city. Subway station names are written in both English and Farsi, though announcements are only in Farsi. There are also women-only carriages. The existing subway system will be greatly enlarged but until then visitors will have to rely on more expensive private and shared taxis.
The city's buses services are cheap but there are no signs or bus route maps in English.
Anti-US tile mural in Tehran, Iran
Will Yong and Kazem Vafadari