To this date, Iran is still the country that solicits the most response (whether positive or negative) when I tell people I’ve been there. Despite what a lot of us see in the media, I felt safe as a solo female traveler, and I came across the friendliest people I had ever met. While it’s definitely not a tourist-heavy destination with infrastructure to match, traveling around Iran was pretty easy.
Arriving into Tehran means being propelled into a huge, polluted and extremely busy metropole. A lot of travellers choose to only spend the day of their arrival into Tehran, or skip it all together and head directly to Kashan. Understandable, but there are so many things to do in Tehran, and it has much more to offer than heart stopping street crossings and kebabs!
Now, one would say it would be super easy to find a palace in the middle of the city. Not me. I couldn’t find it for the life of me and after my second lap around the concrete walls, someone pointed me in the right direction knowing what I was looking for. Turns out, I had been circling it. This is probably the most expensive entrance fee (approx. USD28) you will pay in the whole of Iran, but worth it.
Once inside, you are treated to lavishly decorated rooms and buildings, gardens and museums. The palaces have mirrored walls, intricate tiling, chandeliers and beautiful paintings. It’s not hard to imagine life at court here with a cup of tea at the cafe in the garden. The complex itself is a UNESCO Heritage site, and dates back to the 16th century. Today, the Golestan Palace is a fantastic display of Qajar artistry and architecture.
Tehran’s Grand Bazaar might be the most intimidating of bazaars and markets you will ever come across. Aside from the fact that it is absolutely ridiculously busy, it is also humongous. It’s not just a bazaar, it houses mosques, cafe’s, restaurants and guest houses. The sheer size of it is hard to wrap your mind around; the corridors span a collective length of almost 7 miles. (10.5km). From food to fabrics to kitchen appliances and antiques; if you won’t find it there it doesn’t exist.
Enter from the main entrance at Sabze-Meydan, and let yourself get carried away. Mornings are relatively quiet, it gets busier and busier after lunch when dinner shopping must be done. Don’t worry about getting lost, you will. My hostel owner, who is a born Tehrani, said she still doesn’t know it completely. Any stall owner can direct you back out. If you love markets, you’re gonna have a field day at this one!
A bridge might not sound so exciting, but hear me out. Apart from the fact that this was designed by a 26 year old female architecture student, it is not a straight, lets’s-cross-this-highway bridge. It connects 2 parks on either side of the road, and was made wanting people to stay a bit and linger to enjoy the view. If it is a clear day, you might catch a glimpse of the Alborz mountains. The above picture was taken in January on a cold day, and pollution was okay-ish. The park on the south side of the bridge is quite nice. We even had an open fire bbq in the middle of it!
Holy Defense Museum
Since you had to cross the bridge anyway, the Holy Defense Museum lays just on the other side of it. An impressive display of military vehicles is set up outside and on the grounds, on the inside it focuses heavily on the war with Iraq that lasted 8 years and known as the ‘Holy Defense’. It will take you through a timeline of Iranian history with surprisingly state of the art digitalisation.
I wasn’t sure what I had expected from a ‘war museum’, but probably not what I encountered. It was modern, contemporary and easily matches any other museum standard. Everything was done tastefully and I learned a great deal about a part of Iranian history that is tragic and in the not-so-distant past still. I’m not a great museum buff, but I count this one as one of the few must-see museums in the world.
Shrine of Emamzadeh Saleh (Tajrish Shrine)
The shrine at Tajrish Square is a mosque and Shia shrine. It is the final resting place of quite a number of politicians and Saleh, son of Musa al-Khadhim, the 7th Shia imam. The shrine is located next to the Tajrish bazaar and like so many others, displays exquisite mosaics and architecture. However, I found this place to be tranquil and spiritual. It is less crowded and not many tourists visited at the time. I was told welcome more than once (though that happens all over Iran) and people were pleased to show me around.
Women will be asked to wear a chador, freely available at the entrance.
U.S. Den Of Espionage
It’s hard not to include this one in anything that relates to Tehran! If you have seen ‘Argo’, you will know exactly what this is about. Once you exit the subway, the anti-American murals (that do not represent the feeling of Iranians towards America) will make it easy figuring out where to go. After the hostage crisis in 1979, it has been turned into a museum that as of 2017, is open to Iranians and tourists.
Inside, where you can take as many pictures as you want, guides will take you through. And yes, this is anti-American propaganda. At the same time, it is an interesting (some might say convincing) display of old school CIA equipment, reinforced rooms and shredders. The recomposed documents are particularly interesting.
Tehran definitely deserves your time, even if it is just to wander about, taste kebabs and candy from street side stores, get yelled ‘welcome to Iran!’ at from across the street and indulge yourself in a country and culture that has been closed for a long time.
No idea how to go about planning to trip to Iran? Check this post!