I went to Iran totally unprepared.
Since I didn’t know if I will be let in to the country I didn’t really want to read too much about the place and to get my hopes too high and then maybe be devastated I had to go back home. But after a really smooth visa process at the airport I officially set my foot in Iran. And then it hit my hard I really am there, and I have no clue about the place!
With a minor panic attack I’ve spent way too much time at the airport, trying to quickly set my mind into the new place mode. Finally, with millions of rials in my wallet I got a taxi that took me to the city. And so when I was crossing the desert, getting closer and closer to the capital, I was quickly browsing through my guide book, trying to figure out what are some must things to do in Tehran, those I cannot miss in the 1.5 day I have there.
The more I read, the more I knew it will be a tough introduction to Iran…
Table of contents
My expectations before visiting Tehran
I heard that Tehran can’t be called a beautiful city. But I kind of felt I will like it there, after all I usually enjoy places that are not the prettiest (just look how crazy I am about Yerevan or how much I loved Amman). But in this case I was really too optimistic.
My accommodation (one of the cheap hotels in Tehran I managed to book online) was located more or less in the middle of the city hence I was expecting to see some kind of the center in the neighborhood. Well, as it turned out there is no such thing as downtown Tehran. With the population over 8 millions the city is spread on the huge area where south part of the city is considered dodgy and it gets better and better the further you go north.
And then there’s the mysterious northern Tehran with its cosmopolitan vibe, fancy restaurants and liberal inhabitants, at least behind the gates of their expensive houses (remember the whole buzz about the rich kids of Tehran? That’s exactly how this part of the city is!).
My impressions of Tehran
Most tourists’ first encounter with Iran will be Tehran city. And well, the city doesn’t give the best impression of the country, unfortunately.
It’s crazy busy and getting from one side of the street to another is a huge challenge. Even if there’s a crossing you need to run between cars as they don’t even intend to slow down to let you through (forget about completely stopping). And the typical street in Tehran has at least 4 lanes one way… Every time I had to cross the street I was counting to 3, breathing deeply to calm down and run hoping I will make it – and it didn’t get any better with the number of attempts I did.
Then Tehran is really exhausting.
Even if it’s located on a pretty high altitude and some spectacular mountains are right there, for the asking, the air you breath is really terrible. Being outside makes you super tired, for no reason and spending much time walking around the city is a huge challenge (for the first time ever I really don’t recommend that). Fortunately there’s a really good and cheap metro system which, in the city with that many cars, traffic and pollution, is a real life saver!
As for the mountains: every time I could see a glimpse of it through the smoggy air I was really surprised they are there! There are days when you can see them really well but unfortunately I wasn’t lucky to experience that view.
And then Tehran is just dull. The city is overwhelming, especially for the first moments in Iran, and many of the streets look very similar. There’s nothing really spectacular about the place, the walk around will take you through the rows of small shops and houses with an official building or a mosque here and there. Of course I covered just a small part of Tehran but everywhere I went I got this impression.
Things to do in Tehran
So anyway, what are the most important things to do in Tehran?
The former US embassy known also as Den of Espionage
The murals surrounding the grounds of the embassy – especially the skeleton of the Statue of Liberty – are probably the most known images of the city and the biggest attraction of Tehran tourism. It feels just weird to see such an open antipathy to another state but the history of Iranian-American relations is a really tough one and eventually resulted with 52 US diplomats being hostage for 444 days (04.11.1979-20.01.1981).
You can visit the former embassy on a few very rare occasions (but it is possible, Yomadic and Becki from Borders of Adventure did it) and unfortunately I wasn’t there at the right time… But you can always take a look at the murals, just be careful with taking pictures. I didn’t have any problems but I heard sometimes it happens and even some cameras got broken…
(metro station: Taleghani)
Second most known attraction in Tehran, after Den of Espionage. It takes a while to get there by metro (and is confusing with the station names, don’t go to Azadi but to Meydan-e Azadi), then some crazy streets to cross but it’s worth the effort.
The structure itself shows a great mix of modern architecture of 1960s (I’m a fan of this, to be honest) and a Persian influence. I didn’t go inside and up as I figured it’s not worth the money but still really enjoyed the place and the surrounding oasis of green. That was also one of the places from where I could see mountains.
(metro station: Meydan-e Azadi, entrance 150.000 rials)
The complex of several impressive buildings set around a neat garden are definitely worth a visit if Tehran is your first stop in Iran and not worth bothering with if it’s the last one. The palaces have some incredible tiles and patterns on the outside and those two I visited inside were kind of jaw-dropping too.
Golestan Palace is a perfect preview to what the rest of Iran will be about: amazing architecture with some wonderful patterns. The admission is pretty confusing: the entrance to the garden itself is 150.000 rials and then every single palace is another 50.000 – altogether you can spend 600.000 rials there which is definitely not worth it!
I only went to see interior of two buildings and it was perfect. The good thing is: the tickets to the palaces all look the same so even if at the ticket counter you need to say which one you want to see you can change your mind afterwards.
(metro station: Panzdah-e Khordad)
Just few steps away from Golestan Palace the Bazaar is a quintessence of Iran. The maze of alleys, hustle and bustle of customers and sellers and this exotic, fairy-tale vibe. You can get just about everything here but my absolute favorites were spices and tea, I brought pretty much of these back home with me!
(metro station: Panzdah-e Khirdad)
In the city so busy and with such a bad air like Tehran green oasis are like a bliss. There are numerous parks here and there, strewn around the city and it was always such a pleasure to visit them. Not only it’s a great place to relax after the exhausting sightseeing but also the best way to observe how Iranians like to spend their free time.
The parks are full of the whole families having a picnic together (if you get lucky you might be invited to join them) or young couples on secret dates.
Some parks I’ve visited: Park-e Shahr (metro station: Hassanabad or Immam Khomeini), Park-e Honar Mandan (metro station: Taleqani)
So this may not be the most attractive city you can think of but you should still visit Tehran, even if just for a day or two. It is nothing like the rest of Iran, in almost every possible way. I just wish it was less exhausting and more tourist friendly as then I’m sure I’d have enjoyed it so much more.
Now, from the time perspective I’d really love to visit Tehran again and to give it another chance. There’re so many gems, mostly 20th century architecture, that I’d love to see! And if I manage to go for yet another Tehran travel I’d definitely be more prepared! It is not such a bad city after all!
If you think of visiting Iran or just want to read more about the country take a look what else I wrote about it:
- Solo female travel in Iran
- Visit Iran – practical information
- Yazd, Iran – the most beautiful desert town I’ve seen
- and many more!
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