Things to do in Tehran
What to do in Tehran, Iran
Tehran is intense. Swaths of beige line frantic streets, sweating in the Persian heat. Glamorous women with perfectly coiffed hair beneath loosely laid scarves, wild colours catch your eye from the fruit and the clothes and the spices of the market, and drivers and pedestrians navigate around each other with a rather lenient approach to traffic laws. Warm and dusty, the atmosphere of Tehran hits you immediately. It's also host to some of the world’s most generous, hospitable and charismatic people.
Through the haze of the smog and the heavy heat you can spy the outline of the Alborz. The colossal mountain range has shadowed the city since the first settlers in the land arrived here, thought to be more than 7,000 years ago. Here, deep in the cradle of civilisation, the people have seen the best and the worst that the world has to offer. Tehran itself has seen the power of the towering Persian empire, the first inklings of Islamic conquest as religious fervour first swept through the region, conquerors and emperors and, recently, revolutionaries. Throughout every success and every struggle, the Persians have maintained their culture, their tenacity, and their sense of humour.
Tehran was my first stop in Iran, and an intense introduction to one of my favourite countries in the world.
What to do in Tehran?
The Tehran Grand Bazaar
Any traveller in the Middle East has found themselves lost in the lively chaos of the local bazaar. Tehran’s is no different at its soul, but simply differs in scale. The bazaar in Tehran is enormous. Watching the steady flow of bodies in and out of a secluded entrance, you can’t help but be swept up in the flurry of commerce and conversation, as the locals mingle over piles of spices and halls of luxury clothing.
Bazaars have existed in Iran for 6,000 years, representing an important and intimate part of local life. This particular covered market is though to date to around 1660 AD, having been continually improved and built upon. While it may be an old site, it is a piece of living history and is not preserved as a site, developing considerably over the last 400 years.
The stained glass windows that sit far above shoppers cast shards of multicoloured sunshine across the walls of the bazaar. These shades wash over the beige walls, but pale next to the colours, the sites and the smells that captivate your attention inside.
Buy saffron by the kilo, for the cheapest prices in the world. Buy hijabs and learn the styles customary to each city in Iran. Buy gold and silver and intricate artwork, fresh dates and pomegranates, stacks of Persian rugs, or any other indulgence your heart may desire. Iranians have never strayed too far from the sweet.
The bazaar is quieter and more easily navigable in the morning.
The origin of the word ‘paradise’ derives from the word for Persian gardens. Fountains trickle in the dusty desert air, and the sweet scent of the hanging fruit trees create the sense of oasis in this solitary spot. When we arrived, no other tourists were to be found in the gardens of Golestan Palace, leaving it as tranquil and still as it was designed to be.
Becoming the seat of the Qajar dynasty in the mid 18th century, Tehran then needed a palace sufficiently beautiful and decadent for a royal family. The palace that stands today was completed in 1865, and is the last royal seat in Persia, prior to the Islamic revolution in 1979. The Persia of this palace and the austerity of modern Iranian leadership seem universes apart. When you look over the glittering windows, bejewelled designs in intricate, geometric style, and ornately carved thrones.
While there are a number of relics of the Qajar dynasty to be found in the museum inside the complex, the real heritage is that building itself. Each corner you turn reveals another beautiful part of the palace, all featuring incredibly precise geometric designs, detailed carvings and colourful tiles sporting the centuries-old artistic styles that have come to define the best of Islamic art.
Stroll through the peaceful gardens, and through the palace’s many beautiful rooms. Understand how it came to be an inspiration for poets, and for those that hoped to tear down monarchic decadence and create the Iran that we know today.
One of the most typical images of Tehran is that of the Azadi tower. A spiralling structure that incorporates designs of Persian tradition and 1960s ‘modernity’. It was built by the last Shah of Iran to commemorate the 2,500th year of the foundation of the imperial state of Iran. It has been known as the gate of Cyrus, a commemoration to Persia’s most famous ruler, Cyrus the Great, as well as the gate of Tehran, and the memorial of the Shah. Today it is called the Azadi, ‘Freedom’, Tower, with the name having changed after the Islamic Revolution.
Much of Tehran, and the entirety of Iran, was transformed in 1979. Vitrolic and vicious, the conquest campaign of the Islamic revolutionaries drove many Persians from their homes and many of them into prisons, internment camps and conditions of torture. Regardless of your opinions on Islamic politics, or on the leadership of the Ayatollah, you cannot underestimate the residual effect of the revolution on every modern Iranian life. On both sides of the conflict, the divide and the subsequent changes to life in Iran have played a significant role in the life of every Iranian I have ever met. While it may sometimes be a sensitive issue, especially to those who lost many family members or who were imprisoned themselves, I would encourage you to speak to as many people as possible about the impact that the regime change has had on their lives. Positive or negative, everyone has a story, and these stories will come to shape your understanding of the modern Iranian republic.
While Tehran may seem like a sea of concrete chaos when you first arrive, you’ll come to learn her charms. Once you survive a couple of the manic road crossings or the rapidly weaving traffic, you can become comfortable in the country’s most metropolitan spot. Whether in the cafes of the cosmopolitan north or the decadent palace of Persia past, Iran will always have a story and Iranians will always have an adventure ready at hand.
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